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.

Can we afford to be cynical about academic life?

When I began my investigations into what drives academics, I armed myself with the most powerful critical arsenal I knew: ideology critique. Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man was a particularly sharp-looking cutlass which I was sure would puncture the heart of the expropriation, exploitation, and general unfairness that many claimed characterised academic labour relations. The growth of casual and short-term contract labour, the use of PhD students to turn the cogs of teaching and assessment, the growth of ‘voluntary’ redundancies within the sector: stones to sharpen a Marxist blade.

Thankfully, the naivety wore off: I questioned my epistemology, read more broadly, and generally stopped dressing like a war veteran or prophet of the apocalypse. I don’t mean to imply that all cultural critique is a fashion, but when it is, oh, do we look back cringing… With my method challenged and my coat a less depressing shade, I began to ask more interesting and concerning questions: Not ‘why?’, but ‘how?’ Not ‘who?’, but ‘when?’ How do universities seek to regulate the activities of academics? When do academics comply? When do they resist? Michel Foucault and Bruno Latour had been particularly useful in assisting my thinking here. However, despite the near wholesale abandonment of my Marxesque aims, a certain degree of cynicism remained. It emanated from zombie issues of casualisation, labour market issues and the persistent complaints and critiques of colleagues. These zombies are not problematic in themselves, but when the cynical attitudes which surround them become contagious, the infestation is no longer containable. It becomes a template for approaching other academic-university relations. Let’s take the example of Performance Development.

Performance Development is generally a program of audit: a recording device for measuring and storing information about the research, teaching and service outputs produced by academics. These recordings are then able to be used by academics to demonstrate their cases for promotion or pay increases, for applications towards new jobs, or to defend their work contracts if placed under threat of redundancy. Many scholars have complained (perhaps rightly so) that Performance Development is little more than an auditing device for the bureaucracy – a tool which universities use to keep a track of their academics and a source of data which can be used to back up decisions about who to hire, fire or promote. What counts as ‘performance’ is defined by the university, within the Performance Development program. This makes it difficult for unorthodox research to be recognised by universities (especially those that do not consider publishing scholarly journals as a key good of the research process, such as research which aims to engage communities outside of academia). Teaching is often narrowly evaluated in terms of student numbers, student feedback assessments and post-education employability rates. The cynicism that this process generates is not without a few endogenous origins. However, to reduce Performance Development to a bureaucratic device risks overlooking the inventiveness and ingenuity of the individuals and systems that engage it. If overindulged, cynicism can become a straight-jacket for the mind.

Consider a letter I received from a journal editor. This editor was excited to read that I had been considering the role that Performance Development plays in guiding academics in their work. However, they were not impressed with the direction that my argument had taken. They would review a revised version of my article that “more forcefully, directly, and specifically criticized the performance development process” and gave some suggestions about how the system could be configured to allow staff more freedom to define their own terms of ‘success’. My initial reaction was modest embarrassment: How could I have missed this criticism?! Of course this process was a pernicious nuisance! Thankfully, I was prevented from redrafting and submitting a revised article in a timely manner, as my thinking on Performance Development changed radically.

Given some distance from the article I drafted, some reflection on the direction of my project and on the ambitions and goals of academics working in their disciplines (thanks to some PhD field research), I had another idea. Why were academics engaging in these practices (of self-reporting, evaluation and judgement), if it was detrimental to achieving their goals? Ideology could not be the answer: everyone seems well aware of the ‘problems’ associated with Performance Development as a management tool. My focus shifted: Not ‘why do academics engage in Performance Development?’ but ‘how are academics encouraged to engage?’ Some of my answers surprised me. Performance Development is required by many universities as evidence for demonstrating competence for promotion, salary progression or employment, but also perhaps for career planning. Depending on how the Performance Development process is managed, self-accounting and planning can be a useful tool for younger academics to orient their actions and have frank and honest discussions with senior staff about their career planning. More than just a bureaucratic auditing device, a conversation (which extends beyond yearly reviews) is invaluable for the mentorship of younger academic staff, who may often rely on imitating their supervisors and mentors to learn the academic game.

In order to better our present systems of academic governance, imagination is wanting where cynicism blooms. In order to imagine how our present arrangements (such as Performance Development) might be enhanced or modified to produce benefits for both academics and institutions, we must allow space for creative explorations. For speculation. For comparison and conjecture. And also for feedback. We can begin by imagining apparatuses such as Performance Development as conduits through which individuals, data, intentions and action are configured and flow: as points of definition and negotiation (or, to use the STS jargon, as assemblages). The strength of this perspective is in being able to see beyond a binary of agent-object (i.e. management-worker), and towards a more flexible platform where interests are understood as functions of the system in which they operate. Academics engage in Performance Development because that engagement is beneficial in some way; they complain because it can also be a burden. The point is not to advocate the demolition of the whole conduit, but to redirect the flow in a more useful direction. And if the stream cannot be cleaned of the aforementioned cynical contagion, then perhaps regular treatments of imagination will make the water worth swallowing.


(On a side note, I am genuinely curious how early-career academics get a feel for the academic game. Do you seek out advice from colleagues? Do you test out strategies used by your supervisor? Are you panicking that you might be forgetting something? Feel free to comment.)

What possessed you to become an academic?!

As an undergraduate I must have lost a few marbles. I’m now almost certain that I left them somewhere between my Qualitative Research Methods and Buddhist and Hindu Philosophy classes during my second year. But that seems like lifetimes ago and in all likelihood they’re gone for good. Now, when I manage to get back into the real world, and an unprepared bystander inquires, “What do you do?” I reply, after a few moments of habitual thought: “Well, I’m an academic. Don’t ask me why.”

It’s not that I’m a cynic, or that I don’t enjoy myself. I love my research. I have become quite fond of teaching (after spending nearly a year conquering a rather paralyzing case of what some friends have described as ‘social phobia’). I should probably mention that I’m only in the second year of my PhD degree, and a few milestones away from laying even a bare claim to any sort of authority. I spend most of my day pawing through fascinating ideas or attempting to establish contact with those that I admire. It’s the subject-matter of my study that I fret to divulge to those bystanders I mentioned earlier. What do I do? I study academics. Their joys and perils. Their fears and hopes. But mostly, I spend a large quantity of time deciphering sophisticated complaints and critiques of universities: how academics are overworked; overburdened by administration; disadvantaged by career expectations; uncertain about their futures; upset by the ‘state’ of higher education. So why would I be attracted to a career in academia? Well, I’m an academic. It’s a difficult complex to diagnose upon request. I told you not to ask me why.

Whenever I ask a practicing academic why they hold to their posts, their replies resonate in my mind like the distinguished soloist of a larger choir: for the love of their work. They are good at what they do. They love knowledge. They are all Philo-sophers, lovers of knowing. Most of them have a strong degree of institutional and emotional support from colleagues or mentors. But I’m painting a rather too romantic picture here. There are inter-office feuds, tribes and counter-offensives. A garden of desires and fears that is latticed through human habitats. It’s part of our cultural architecture and for the most part it’s business-as-usual. What strikes many as quite unusual is the nature of institutional demands upon academics, especially (in the Australian context) since the institution of a series of higher education reforms proposed by John Dawkins during the mid-1980’s. These “Dawkins Reforms” were to transform the landscape of higher education and how academics go about loving their knowledge.

The Dawkins reforms are infamous within higher education scholarship for encouraging universities to become increasingly more like corporations, who have to pay even closer attention to their balance books. However, another important change that has occurred has been the flow-on effect that this has had on what it means to be an academic. Within this new policy arena, universities encourage academics to think of themselves as economic units. Academics are expected to cultivate their skills and connections within academia and with outside stakeholders – including other academics, students and potential investors – to increase their marketable value. The academic is primarily a producer of value within the university, but may also enact their value as a consumable object for the university to purchase. As an academic accrues more ‘academic capital’ (any qualities which the university can then use to ensure profit) they attain a higher level of value to universities and are more able to ‘sell their selves’ to institutions or bargain for more favourable employment contracts.

However, academic capital is a contentious topic amongst academics, because it is not just an institutional expression of traditional academic values (such as quality scholarship, teaching and research), but also market-based, non-academic qualities which may allow universities to accumulate capital, such as fame, industry experience (but not necessarily theoretical training), and connections with investment groups and institutions. Although possessing these qualities may seem quite rational and desirable from the standpoint of universities, they do not ensure the integrity or quality of academic disciplines which require training in their histories, methods and disciplinary discussions. These forms of academic capital are – admittedly – still attractive to many academics. However, forms of value which depend on the universities’ monetary objectives may perhaps be misplaced.

Building academic capital may appear to offer academics more job security, bargaining power and stability to counterbalance institutions’ power over the academic labour market, but this market advantage is potentially unstable. Firstly, market advantage is a relative quality, which may afford its subject security within a relatively closed marketplace, but offer near no security at all in a larger, more internationalised and open system. Unless you are an international superstar, fame is always relative to where you are. Secondly, this market advantage is dependent upon current institutional arrangements, including the policies of funding bodies, national government priorities and the missions and objectives of universities. As a form of institutional capital, academic capital enables academics to engage the market logic of a post-Dawkins era, while offering temporary forms of work stability which are open to adjustment where institutions require it. If I wanted to be famous, I would have practiced playing guitar more diligently.

For now, it is necessary to market ourselves: institutionalised by the desire for an academic life.