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The neoliberal assault on academia

The neoliberal sacking of the universities runs much deeper than tuition hikes and budget cuts, notes Barkawi.

Last Modified: 25 Apr 2013 08:30
Tarak Barkawi

Tarak Barkawi is Associate Professor in the Department of Politics, New School for Social Research.
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Students are increasingly unwilling to take on massive debt for jobs they have little confidence of getting [EPA]

The New York Times, Slate and Al Jazeera have recently drawn attention to the adjunctification of the professoriate in the US. Only 24 per cent of the academic workforce are now tenured or tenure-track. 

Much of the coverage has focused on the sub-poverty wages of adjunct faculty, their lack of job security and the growing legions of unemployed and under-employed PhDs. Elsewhere, the focus has been on web-based learning and the massive open online courses (MOOCs), with some commentators celebrating and others lamenting their arrival. 

The two developments are not unrelated. Harvard recently asked its alumni to volunteer their time as "online mentors" and "discussion group managers" for an online course. Fewer professors and fewer qualified - or even paid - teaching assistants will be required in higher education's New Order. 

Lost amid the fetishisation of information technology and the pathos of the struggle over proper working conditions for adjunct faculty is the deeper crisis of the academic profession occasioned by neoliberalism. This crisis is connected to the economics of higher education but it is not primarily about that. 

The neoliberal sacking of the universities runs much deeper than tuition fee hikes and budget cuts. 

Thatcherite budget-cutting exercise 

The professions are in part defined by the fact that they are self-governing and self-regulating. For many years now, the professoriate has not only been ceding power to a neoliberal managerial class, but has in many cases been actively collaborating with it. 

As a dose of shock capitalism, the 2008 financial crisis accelerated processes already well underway. In successive waves, the crisis has hit each pillar of the American university system. The initial stock market crash blasted the endowments of the prestige private universities. Before long, neoliberal ideologues and their disastrous austerity policies undermined state and eventually federal funding for universities and their research. 

Tuition soared and students turned even more to debt financing. Now that bubble is bursting and hitting all the institutions of higher education that depend on tuition. Students are increasingly unwilling to take on massive debt for jobs they have little confidence of getting. 

The upshot is to soften the resistance of faculty to change, in part by making people fear for their jobs but mostly by creating a generalised sense of crisis. It becomes all the easier for some academic "leaders" to be drawn up into the recurrent task of "reinventing" the university. 

Here is the intersection with neoliberal management culture. Neoliberal managers thrive not by bringing in new resources - since austerity is always the order of the day - but by constantly rearranging the deck chairs. Each manager seeks to reorganise and restructure in order to leave his or her mark. They depart for the next lucrative job before the ship goes under. 

One consequence is the mania for mergers of departments and faculties in the US and the UK. In both the university and corporate world, mergers are not only demoralising for staff, but they also break up solidarities and destroy traditions and make staff much more amenable to control from above. 

Such projects have little to do with academic excellence or even purposes, and often are self-defeating as the managers and the quislings among the professoriate who assist them have little idea what they are doing. 

One of the only things the University of Birmingham was ever known for in the wider world was its Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies. In 2002, the Centre was shut down by fiat in an act of vandalism described as "restructuring". The justification given for this was yet another neoliberal exercise then known as the Research Assessment Exercise, or RAE.

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positive discrimination

In US terms, post-tenure review is an imperfect analogy for the salutary and depressing tale of the RAE. Invented by Margaret Thatcher's government, the basic idea is to rank all the departments in any one discipline and channel funding to the "best" departments, while cutting funding to the rest. The RAE was an assault on the basic idea of a university - the universe of knowledge - since universities would lose poor performing departments. 

In neoliberal speak, this may sound very sensible. But imagine what happens to, say, physics and biology students, when, as the University of Exeter did, the chemistry department is shut down. Who will teach them chemistry? 

More to the point, how do you judge which is "best"? For this, the RAE needed the willing and active collaboration of the professoriate. 

When I first held a UK academic post in the relatively early days of the RAE in the late 1990s, academics talked about it as if it were just some form they had to fill out, an annoying bureaucratic exercise that would not really affect us. Others, academic "leaders", saw it as an opportunity to do down their colleagues in other universities and channel funds to their own departments. 

Neoliberal assault on the universities 

In this way, the professors themselves helped to administer and legitimate a Thatcherite budget-cutting exercise. Worse, they participated in what they know to be a fiction: that you can rank scholarly research like you can restaurants or hotels so as to determine which departments have the "best" faculty. 

Little more than a decade later - and now known as the Research Excellence Framework (REF) - this five-yearly exercise completely dominates UK academic life. It determines hiring patterns, career progression, and status and duties within departments. It organises the research projects of individual scholars so as to meet arbitrary deadlines. It has created space for a whole class of paid consultants who rank scholarship and assist in putting together REF returns. 

UK academics regularly talk about each other's work in terms of whether this or that book or article is "three star" or "four star". Again, for those attuned to neoliberal ways of thinking, this may appear natural. But remember that the entire point of university research is conversation and contestation over what is true and right. In the natural sciences, as in the social sciences and humanities, one person's truth is another person's tosh, and valid knowledge emerges from the clash of many different perspectives. 

Somehow, UK professors have become intimately bound up in administering and legitimating a government-run exercise that now shapes more of university life than they themselves do. They have actively ceded their power. 

US faculty need to keep this travesty in mind. 

Something as apparently innocuous as an accreditation agency demanding that syllabi be written in a particular format, or majors justified in a particular way, can wind up empowering university management to intimately regulate teaching. A meaningless buzzword in the mouth of a dean, such as "new majority student", might in practice help legitimate the hiring of less qualified faculty. After all, if "teacher ownership of content" is old fashioned, why do you need to hire a professor who can create his or her own course? 

The bottom line of the neoliberal assault on the universities is the increasing power of management and the undermining of faculty self-governance. The real story behind MOOCs may be the ways in which they assist management restructuring efforts of core university practices, under the smiley-faced banner of "open access" and assisted in some cases by their "superstar", camera-ready professors. 

Meanwhile, all those adjunct faculty are far more subject to managerial control and regulation than are tenured professors. Aside from their low cost, that is one of the principal reasons why they are so attractive to university managers. 

Tarak Barkawi is Associate Professor in the Department of Politics, New School for Social Research.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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