Battleground university: Neoliberalism is silencing education

Progressive thought and scholarship are under assault on campuses as the idea of the university is hollowed out.

Supporters of the Rhodes Must Fall group, participate in a protest calling for the removal of a statue of Cecil Rhodes, a Victorian imperialist in southern Africa who made a fortune from mines and endowed the university's Rhodes scholarships, beneath the statue which stands on the facade, seen top centre, of Oriel College, in Oxford, England, Tuesday, June 9, 2020. More statues of imperialist figures could be removed from Britain's streets, following the toppling of a monument to slave trader Edward Colston in the city of Bristol, the mayor of London said Tuesday. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)
Supporters of the Rhodes Must Fall campaign call for the removal of a statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College in Oxford, England, in June 2020. Despite the protests, the statue stands [File: Matt Dunham/AP]

In early January, news broke that Kenneth Roth, the former boss of Human Rights Watch, had been denied a fellowship by Harvard University’s John F Kennedy School of Government due to the organisation’s criticism of Israel under his leadership. Douglas Elmendorf, dean of the Kennedy school, had vetoed his fellowship, expressing concern over Roth’s “anti-Israel bias” as well as his tweets criticising Israel.

While Roth’s case made headlines around the world, it is just one example of how the weaponisation of the charge of anti-Semitism has been used to censure Israel’s critics at universities across the West.

But the treatment of Roth illustrates an even deeper malaise in the way higher education institutions are increasingly defining their mandate. It is part of a wider attack on progressive thought and scholarship on campuses across the world.

From being places of knowledge generation for the betterment of society, universities have been refashioned into service providers of skills and qualifications for the labour market. In such a model of higher education, morally and ethically grounded issues such as Palestinian rights do not seem to have a place.

They are not profitable, you see.

A wider attack

Critical race theory, for instance, has been in the eye of the storm in the United States. During his presidency, Donald Trump instructed all federal agencies to “cease and desist” anti-bias training focused on racism and white privilege. “It was a radical revolution that was taking place in our military, in our schools, all over the place,” Trump said at the time.

Institutions like the University of Iowa and John A Logan College in Illinois put diversity-focused initiatives and events on hold. But while President Joe Biden’s administration overturned the directive, the so-called culture wars have continued.

There have been legislative efforts in a majority of US states to effectively ban conversations on racism and white privilege from the classroom. Florida, Texas, Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee are among those that have already imposed bans and restrictions.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s office has celebrated his state’s anti-critical race theory legislation as a rejection of “the progressivist higher education indoctrination agenda”. DeSantis has committed to “removing all woke positions and ideologies” from the curriculum.

Meanwhile, many institutions have now adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of anti-Semitism, which it equates with criticism of Israel and its policies.

Alliance-related censuring of Palestinian academics has been rampant in the United Kingdom as well. Equally, efforts to decolonize the university have made national news and found critics at the highest level of government. For instance, in 2021, Minister of State for Universities Michelle Donelan called the decolonising of the curriculum a “censoring of history”.

When the South African Rhodes Must Fall movement reached the UK and many called for the removal of Cecil Rhodes’s statue from Oriel College at Oxford University, South African apartheid-era President Frederik Willem de Klerk defended the white supremacist’s legacy. Rhodes had made a positive “impact on history”, which included the Rhodes Scholarship, according to de Klerk.

While a former apartheid leader defending the legacy of one of history’s most notorious colonial plunderers might not be surprising, former Australian Prime Minister and Rhodes Scholar Tony Abbott also criticised the movement. Abbott said the removal of the statue would “substitute moral vanity for fair-minded enquiry”. The statue still stands – though with a plaque calling him a “committed British colonialist”.

The neoliberal university 

These attacks on progressive thought and scholarship are often carried out under the guise of keeping excessive activism out of the classroom. The argument is that woke ideologies and an activist approach to teaching and learning rooted in issues such as racism, colonialism and gender undermines the sanctity of scientific knowledge production and dissemination.

Of course, such claims ignore the ample evidence that shows that scientific progress has been anything but apolitical. We could, for instance, look to the Tuskegee syphilis study from 1932 to 1972, in which 400 African American men were infected with syphilis without their knowledge and left untreated to see the development of the disease.

American gynaecology is similarly intertwined with the institutions and practices of slavery in the US. Pioneering gynaecologists like James Marion Sims carried out their intrusive experiments on enslaved Black women. And fields such as anthropologyMiddle East studies and international relations have been beneficiaries of colonial conquests.

But claims of excessive activism in academia also rest on the neoliberal rethinking of the university and its purpose. Today’s neoliberal universities are no longer concerned with widening intellectual horizons and inspiring future generations to build a better tomorrow. Higher education is seen as a financial investment made by students.

The university is then expected to supply students (its clients) with skills and qualifications that promise to boost their employability and earning potential in the labour market – at the least, enough to ensure that students receive a sizeable return on their investment.

This commodification of higher education has also gone hand in hand with expansive cuts in national higher education budgets, increases in tuition fees, precarious working conditions and gender pay gaps. The writing is on the wall, especially as social sciences and humanities faculties feel the crunch of austerity.

This was the case in 2015 when the Japanese government ordered all 86 of the country’s universities to take “steps to abolish [social science and humanities] organisations or to convert them to serve areas that better meet society’s needs”. While the leadership at some of the most prestigious universities pushed back, 26 universities confirmed that they would either “close or scale back” social science and humanities faculties.

The arts, humanities and social science faculties are now facing a similar attack in the UK, where public funding is being redirected towards STEM and the health sciences. The government has justified the latest round of cuts as necessary to meet the needs and realities of a post-pandemic world.

To be sure, these efforts have drawn opposition. When Roehampton University announced cuts to its humanities department, classicist Mary Beard tweeted that the announcement was “worse than sad. It is about a wider erosion of the humanities in the new unis”. Similarly, when Sheffield Halam University announced cuts to its English programmes, the general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU), Jo Grady, said: “It is depressing but seems a part of a wider agenda being forced on the universities by governments against the arts and humanities.”

But this utilitarian approach to liberal arts and humanities education is only spreading. In the US too, as institutions like Western Connecticut State University move towards entirely dismantling their social science departments, educating citizens to be engaged and informed no longer seems to be a priority at the university

The future?

After global outrage, Roth was reinstated. However, the fundamentals of the neoliberal university remain strong.

In the UK, UCU-led strikes have sought to disrupt the commodification of higher education. They are demanding better pay and working conditions; a closing of gender, ethnic and disability pay gaps; and an end to precarious employment.

Such actions need to succeed. The trend of the neo-liberalisation of universities needs to be checked.

This isn’t about any one discipline or field of study. It is a fight over what universities should represent. Should they be crucibles of creativity and critical thinking – or mere cogs in a market-driven machine designed to perpetuate economic and political injustice?

It is a battle that must not be lost.

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