Competing with Neo-liberalism

The future of higher education within Australia and across borders has been subjected to critique for at least as long as universities have been public institutions. Critique is the duty of a citizenship that entrusts representatives to develop and distribute public goods. Representatives must be made aware of the desires of their polity: you may govern us to these ends, but not these ones; by these means, but not these ones. Public universities in Australia and overseas are at least in part the preserve of the public good – of the education of citizens at least as much as employees. But as Willem Halffman and Hans Radder have commented in their ‘Academic Manifesto’, there lurks a great Wolf within academe: the ferocious and jealous beast of management. The Wolf shepherds academic sheep into line through the logics of competition, assessment, evaluation and the ever-present rhetoric of ‘quality control’.

In the Wolf’s den, the public good of the education of citizenship is redefined as a private good. Education becomes described within education policy as a means to train a work-ready labour force, budget shortages are filled by increased demands for commercialisation of research, the sale of degrees to international (full-fee-paying) students and the re-orientation of academic values in response to changing demands.

ABC’s Four Corners program recently exposed to the public via broadcast what many academics have known for quite some time: the current system of marketising education forces academic standards and financial imperatives into direct competition. Plagiarism, dishonest conduct and the emergence of ‘black markets’ for the sales of essays, English language competency certification and (ultimately) degrees are only one rotting corpse revealed from within the Wolf’s dark lair.

Although Halffman and Radder attempt to recommend some interesting means of resisting the Wolf’s campaign of complacency through terror, collective resistance requires an academic culture which supports solidarity. One academic may make a mess through sabotage or leaving her post, but the lair is deep. One strategy which Halffman and Radder touch upon but do not explore may perhaps prove a useful starting point: acting upon the ethical socialisation of academic staff.

For the moment, forget the Wolf. As threatening as it is, it’s also a puppy dog chasing its own tail. Performance metrics are here. Budgetary goals are mandated. What impact globalisation has in store for us is beyond our individualised, immediate control. Now what? I propose a rethink in tactics.

Rather than seeking to ‘compete’ with the neoliberal managerial metricated commoditised underpaying and outsourced beast (while also competing with our colleagues, other departments and universities, KPIs and H-Indices too), we might consider a new question: How might we compete ‘with’ one another? In other words, how might we restructure our work patterns to share our successes with colleagues? Are there means of directly contradicting the logic of competition through which academics are individualised and pitted against one another in selection panels, performance evaluations and league tables? Halffman and Radder suggest that we might muddy the metrics as a means of resistance: why not muddy reality beyond the grasp of metrics?

Obviously, this is not a simple solution, but it is a call to ethical reflection. The transformation of academic ethics (from elitism to individualisation) has developed over a century of political and economic reforms to higher education systems across the globe. Further ethical transformation is bound to be just as multifaceted and perhaps a little unpredictable. But we can certainly begin to experiment and share our visions of what an academic ethic might look like beyond popular disdain for the Wolf.

One ethic which I advocate I describe as “careful advantage”: to engage with colleagues in the pursuit of mutual gain. This ethic manifests already in practices such as mentoring, peer-review groups, taking an interest in the work of those around you. Through this ethic, perhaps we can further bolster reciprocated, practiced and felt trust between academic staff – the building blocks of collective agency. Careful advantage perpetuates the ‘gift economy’ (see Slaughter and Rhodes, chapter 3) of open sharing of knowledge and social capital, making the divide and conquer tactics of management less practical options.

Critique is inherently a political act. It must be enacted. It must be practiced and make alternatives seem less practical to have a lasting effect. The pernicious effects generated by our current higher education system will require some large policy interventions to redress. But perhaps while our leaders and reprogrammers are working on the bugs in that system, we might continue to experiment with the routines and practices through which we establish our security and seek to take careful advantage with those around us.


5 thoughts on “Competing with Neo-liberalism

  1. Great post! I’ve been thinking a lot about the ravages of neoliberalism the last few days – in both the context of our tertiary system and also criminal justice system. Both are suffering from privatizing public goods that cannot be run ethically within business paradigms. Both are seeing horrible outcomes: universities – casualization, corruption and qualifications becoming worthless; and criminal justice system; little rehabilitation as jail culture essentially ‘schools’ the offenders who were sentenced to our expanding private prison system. I could even add hospitals as another institution suffering from years of neoliberal policies. To use economics goobedly-gook, neoliberals are all about quick gains in the short run and cannot see how their actions effect the long run. It is a very poor business paradigm if one intends to either stay in a company long term or; in this case, live in the nation with neoliberal policy long term!
    I can sense growing unease with neoliberalism and conversations starting with groups who usually don’t cooperate – religious, business, govt, NGOs etc. Yesterday I went to a forum ran by the Anglican church which involved all groups to discuss our worsening sexual violence problem in Australia – and all agreed neoliberal funding models were at the root of why sexual violence is dramatically escalating in 2015. Where do we go from here?? I guess big-mouths like me keep badgering decision-makers and as social researchers, we keep researching and sharing our outputs. Public intellectualism centred on critique is indeed a political act :)

    • Hi Anoushka,

      I’d love to hear some more about that conference. I must admit that I’ve neglected research in the criminal justice system until recently. I think our first duty (as policy and social analysts) is to question the assumptions within reform initiatives and test their implications. But we must also offer viable alternatives – if now full policies then at some technologies or techniques for better policy development. As you mentioned: this is the hard part! Social scientists haven’t always made the best technicians. This is why my suggestion here is not grandiose or system-smashing. I think we need to start constructing (and testing) practical tools for transforming our workplaces.

      • Absolutely agree! I must confess I am looking at working outside academia because I feel my concerns don’t really fit – I’m very much a product of working on the frontline of social work/community casework, but with a mix of my media/jjournalism background. What that amounts to, I don’t know – but I am exploring my options! I think there are a lot of interesting mold-breaking opportunities for sociologists outside academe…non-govt though…the idea of being a branch in our bureaucratic forest scares me silly! And I love writing so much that it saddens me what this ‘publish/perish’ norm has reduced it to. It is apparent a lot of books/journal articles are pure panic publishing…terrible quality writing, studies and a fear of innovation. There are some outliers – like my wonderful colleagues Yolande Strengers and Cecily Maller, who have solid work and undertake fascinating ARC funded research…and Paul Ramcharan and also, my primary, Kim – but I don’t want to bet on getting a research-only academic role, even though it seems that I am successfully headed that way. Guess we’ll see!!!
        Debating whether to keep up with TASA & it’s conferences – very academe focused. Great to see people and discuss ideas but funding is so competitive for PhDs at RMIT. Might keep my funding for an international visitation or editing my thesis! This choosing seems unreasonable but I guess, in current climes, we drive our careers….
        The Melbourne Anglican Diocese does lots of wonderful seminars – I mean to attend more:

  2. Ashlin says:

    Another top post Fabian.

    I’ll leave the comment I usually leave in these debates (with the caveat that I’m in PhD writing land right now, so desperation and depression are a strong feature in my world view at the moment….)

    While I appreciate the suggestion of critical thinkers like yourself on this, I fundamentally don’t see how such acts of “careful advantage” are at all helpful or practical here. I don’t see them being a source of power, in which we as academics can combat the plague of the neo-liberalism and managerialism . They strike me as at best rearguard actions of a lost cause. This is especially true given we know that the tactics of mangers and other bullshit job holders (to use David Graeber’s term) are so powerful and successful in practice, and that they continue to grow.

    I’m not trying to rain on your parade here. This is your area, so I would always defer to you on this, and you know I’m as against this is as you, but I guess I’m just yet to see a solution that really rises to the challenge here. I feel like we (to draw upon Sean Connery in The Untouchables) are discussing what knives are best brought to a gunfight. I just hope I’m wrong.

    • Hi Ashlin,

      In a comparison of my makeshift ethic versus the institutionalized juggernaut of neoliberal education reforms, I think a more apt metaphor would be bringing a pen to an arms race. These two things aren’t fit for the same purpose. My point is not to emerge as an enemy of education reforms, but rather to recognise that the trenches are not the same as the war. Politicians (and hopefully social scientists!) will draft policies and representative bodies will contest reforms. But I don’t we can allow ourselves to become complacent in the ideology which these reforms suggest. Perhaps we (personally) can’t change organisation of the sector on a daily basis (or even in our lifetimes), but we can experiment. I know this won’t reduce the anxiety experienced by ECRs in the face of the “about your future plans…” sort of questions, but perhaps we can begin to redress interpersonal norms which silently allow academics and students on the edges to fall off the map.

      Ideally, I would advocate for collective action. At the moment, I’m wondering if there isn’t more that can be done: in smaller, more local and direct ways.

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