Am I a (Good) Neoliberal?

In a recently published paper in the Journal of Sociology (2018a), I sought to describe how something as abstract as a political rationality is experienced in the everyday lives of scholars. The growth of audit cultures, managerial power and new languages for describing academic work are each a focal point of a broader arena of political changes to higher education and academic research. In another recent paper (2018b), I have also argued that we currently practice scholarship in a culture of authenticity, in which our personal values and identities are often inseparable from how we evaluate our work and careers. I find the intersection of these papers – of political economy and self-identity – an unavoidable part of everyday early-career academic life. After a good half-hour of catching up with friends and describing our small victories, stressful setbacks and unexpected re-routings, an apologetic tone may find its way into our conversation. Like a proper middle-class apology for excessive behaviour, one of us will acknowledge, “aren’t we good neoliberal subjects?”

This trope, of confessing how embedded we are in an individualist, boastful ritual, is representative of an identity tension at the heart of early-career academic life. Peter Bansel and Bronwyn Davies (2010) described the longer, later-career version of this conversational trope in a book chapter, where they interview a highly successful professor who works to make ‘neoliberal’ (managerial) forms of government work because of ‘a love of what neoliberalism puts at risk’. The professor is resigned to working within the system to achieve ends that he claims are beyond them and informed by Christian values and a sense of duty towards his colleagues and students. But the apology trope comes in the form of an admission that there is no freedom from working with management. Freeing oneself from neoliberalism is akin in futility to trying to buying your way out of capitalism: the means are as important as the ends.

It’s very easy to feel very small in comparison to a school, an organisation, a nation-state, and especially a political rationality. Like capitalism, the concept of neoliberalism seems to pursue scholars in moments of vulnerability: in speculating about the future, in career planning, and in justifying self-serving behaviours. But what I want to clarify here is that this political rationality, though wide-spread and deeply embedded in parts of everyday life, is not mysterious nor all-pervasive. Rather, what Philip Mirowski (2013) describes as ‘everyday neoliberalism’ is experienced through specific spaces, technologies and habituated moments in everyday life. Neoliberalism is felt to be so pervasive because of its successful normalisation into the cultural repertoires through which we make sense of, organise and act upon ourselves and others. That is, the methods for thinking about the world encouraged by neoliberalism seem pervasive because they colonise not only our present, but also speculation about myriad future possibilities.

Let’s use the example of academic career planning. In my doctoral study of 29 Australian academics, career planning emerged in conversations as a key practice through which academics felt that they negotiated their values and put strategies into practice. Academic career planning in an exercise premised on uncertainty. Participants often described the ‘luck’ of securing full-time work, ‘resilience’ to downturns in career prospects, and having to cultivate a ‘go-getting’ attitude. Individualised strategies and explanations were the standard for accounting for career planning in the presence of systemic risks, such as limited job opportunities or time-constraints placed on activities by departmental management. To cope with the cognitive dissonance of thinking of the career as both a personal responsibility and a ‘lucky’ (impersonal) process, academics may engage in what Caroline Clarke and David Knight (2015) call ‘careering’ or what Ruth Müller (2014) identifies as the ‘anticipatory acceleration’ of work. However, these strategies are not conceived of and executed in isolation: schemas must be learned through socialisation. Neoliberalism is apparent in both policy frameworks that incentivise competitive behaviours, but also in institutions that socialise strategies for coping with competition. Career planning is a key site for encouraging this socialisation.

If we take the idea that career planning is a site of governmental socialisation seriously, then cultural norms that prescribe career trajectories are themselves part of a governmental apparatus. Career planning connects the conduct of academics with the idea of ‘risk’ as a narrative tool, shaping how academics confront uncertainty in their careers. As Mirowski claims, for the neoliberal subject, risk is a test of virtue: ‘The modern denizen of neoliberal society has not demonstrated real flexibility of personal identity until they have prostrated themselves before the capricious god of risk’ (2013, p. 120). In early-career planning, risk can be experienced as performance of ‘hope labour’ (Kuehn and Corrigan 2013) – that is, labour performed (usually gratis) with the intention of gaining experience or professional kudos. Careering, anticipatory acceleration and hope labour are not only career-management practices, but also entwined with the socialisation of academics into neoliberal policy frameworks.

So, coming back to the conversation at the beginning of this post: Aren’t we good neoliberal subjects? Perhaps. It would be difficult to build a case for employment or promotion without paying attention to how you measure up. But the question of identity does not fit well with a theory of political reason such as neoliberalism: our identities are only frozen moments with processes of socialisation and self-formation. Perhaps the more valuable question to ask here is: how have we come to learn and accept these practices for self-management? Only once this empirical work has been done can we trace these modes of self-formation back to the rationalities, discourses and technologies of power that enable their operation. So, in place of the question about our subjecthood, I instead ask: How do we make good neoliberal subjects?


Works cited:

Bansel, P. and B. Davies (2010) Through a love of what neoliberalism puts at risk, in J. Blackmore, M. Brennan and L. Zipin (eds.) Re-positioning University Governance and Academic Work, pp. 166-146, Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

Cannizzo, F. (2018a) Tactical evaluations: Everyday neoliberalism in academia, Journal of Sociology 54(1): 77-91.

Cannizzo, F. (2018b) ‘You’ve got to love what you do’: Academic labour in a culture of authenticity, The Sociological Review 66(1): 91-106.

Clarke, C.A. and D. Knight (2015) Careering through academia: Securing identities or engaging ethical subjectivities? Human Relations 68(12): 1865-1888.

Kuehn, K. and T.F. Corrigan (2013) Hope labor: The role of employment prospects in online social production, The Political Economy of Communication 1(1): 9-25. Available at

Mirowski, P. (2013) Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown, London: Verso.

Müller, R. (2014) Racing for what? Anticipation and acceleration in the practices of academic life science postdocs, Forum: Qualitative Social Research / Sozialforschung 15(3): Art. 15. Available at


Challenges for the Future of Australian Sociology

The Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook (MYEFO) announced by the Australian Commonwealth Government has received media attention for the inclusion of cost-cutting to universities to the tune of $2.1 billion. The budget ‘savings’ are expected to accrue from a two-year freeze on the Commonwealth Grants Scheme, a cap on funding for Commonwealth Supported Places, and an adjustment of the repayment conditions of government-issued student loans (through HECS-HELP / FEE-HELP). These cuts are of course economic in nature and consequence, quite probably aimed at maintaining the nation’s AAA credit rating and leading to a greater focus on high-return activities in universities, such as teaching full-fee-paying domestic and (especially) international students, to subsidise the university’s operating costs. It seems that market discipline in the higher education sector begins in the Treasury.

Similarly to other public universities around the world, Australia’s public institutions face ongoing pressure to do more with less. It is within this climate that I propose to re-evaluate the challenges facing the discipline of sociology in Australia. In a recent overview of the history of Australian Sociology, Kirsten Harley and Gary Wickham describe sociology’s place in the university as one of both fragility and resilience. Sociology didn’t fare so well in the early six ‘Sandstone’ institutions, which the authors put down to a combination of moral and epistemic issues: the ‘moral, social reformist goals’ of advocates of sociological teaching were not always welcome and sociology had, and perhaps still has, a tendency to define itself broadly to include the study of nearly everything under the sun, seeming less useful than more coordinated disciplines such as economics.

Sociology’s fortunes began to shift with institutional and cultural developments. Institutionally, universities grew from the 1950s onwards, firstly as part of a decision to expand higher education from an elite sector into ‘mass’ education, and secondly during the late 1980s as part of a strategy to create a Unified National System of higher education under a more centralised budgetary control. This expansion allowed sociology to find allies in sympathetic disciplines, such as philosophy, anthropology and social work, sharing teaching, funding and aims. Culturally, the growth of counter-cultures throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s saw an increase in students seeking ‘experiences’, rather than simply professional training. Sociology was ripe to enrich students’ desires ‘to experience the new political, cultural, and sexual ways of living’ that followed the civil-political revolutions of that era.

Harley and Wickham’s book encourages readers to see the history of sociology’s passing fortunes and failures as tied to the university and the state. However, the discipline’s ultimate survival has been more centred in the reproduction of labour markets for self-identified ‘sociologists’. Drawing on Stephen Turner’s chapter, ‘What are Disciplines?’, Harley and Wickham (p. 72) endorse the view that disciplines are ‘shotgun marriages’ of different specialities, often conflicting and ‘held together by the imperatives of the academic labour market’. Sociology does not need a title for its teachings to be practiced or its methods to perpetuate the values of truth, justice and beauty. However, sociologists are not abstract practices like disciplines; they have families, obligations, perhaps sizeable government-issued debts, and exist outside the value-sphere of the academy.

In the surplus-centred budget climate suggested by the MYEFO, a key challenge for sociology-as-discipline is not in scooping up a share of the public R&D pie or huddle additional full-fee-paying students into classrooms (these are challenges for higher education corporations and specific research programs), but rather to foster clearer communication between the applied study of ‘the social’ and other research and education programs that benefit from its presence. This doesn’t necessarily imply ‘Mode 2’ knowledge creation, as social theory (an inter-disciplinary field) has done exceptionally well to work its way into allied disciplines, as Harley and Wickham have noted. Sociology – a productively fractured discipline – expands as it collaborates in interdisciplinary environments, justifying the need for diverting resources to sociological training and disciplinary development.

There is also an economic rationale behind embedding sociologists more solidly among other disciplines and within fields. The Australian university sector, much like universities in the global ‘north’ generally, are struck by what Rob Watts has termed ‘market crazed governance’ (p. 183):

This is a style of state-sponsored policy that starts with some imaginary narrative about higher education as a market, while also and simultaneously actually supporting the production and juxtaposition of contradictory government policy objectives. At the same time, inside the universities, that policy frame, sponsors and encourages a new kind of management culture of practice informed by the ethos of new public management.

This mode of governance assumes that education can be conceptualised as a private good in a marketplace, which Watts claims only becomes possible ‘by some process that involves something like reification’ (p. 164). Because education is an ‘experiential good’ (the contents of which are only apparent after exposure to the good – i.e. though the eyes of an attentive student), ‘consumers’ cannot be fully aware of what they are purchasing, making education unable to be honestly sold in a marketplace. Now, for sociology, the opaque nature of educational goods for consumers means that the value of sociological inquiry can only become apparent after education. A marketing student may not necessarily see the value in attending a course on gender and sex representations in the media or a specialist unit on global consumption chains, but in both instances marketing students who happened upon such classes (“for fun”) have found them thought-provoking for their future careers. The systemic thinking of sociology should hence be spread far and wide to encourage the development of complex social reasoning beyond the core of Sociology majors.

The future of Australian sociology has many challenges ahead to retain the resilience and ‘survival’ skills described by Harley and Wickham. This discipline is a great source of what Steve Fuller describes as ‘undiscovered public knowledge’ (p. 82), and may enrich both itself, students and other scholars through strategic dissemination into less ‘traditional’ arenas.

Towards Effective Resistance: Governmental vs. Deliberative Ethics

Resistance and Power

Perhaps the most prominent question surrounding accounts of changes to universities in “neoliberal times” has been an ethical one: whence resistance? In her study of “younger” UK academic staff (under age 35), Louise Archer (2008) describes a range of common strategies through which academic staff attempt to cope with what is often described as neoliberal or managerial modes of governance. Gaming research agendas, speaking out against unfair practices, creating professional support networks, and emotional and spatial self-management were all strategies engaged by younger academics to cope with the perceived increasing work hours and decreasing time for meaningful academic work. Against such a greedy institution, resistance seems to be a fitting description of academics’ desired relation to the university. However, as Archer (p. 280) warns,

[the participants’ resistance also opened them up to other pressures, as resisting subjects can only remain intelligible within the neoliberal context to the extent that they manage to continue to produce the (‘right’) products within the precarious contemporary context.

Consequently, it is those who are likely to be highly motivated to succeed in academia who are attracted to the competitive environment against which they have been forewarned. The desire to “survive” in academia (in a professional sense) complicates the narrative of resistance. There are no clear friends and foes, no villains to smite nor heroes to champion. By contributing, we are conspiring. Perhaps this goes some way to explaining why strategies of resistance are often localised, individualistic and moralistic in character.

To assume that universities are holding all the cards, so to speak, is a fallacious attribution of power. Indeed, to conceive of resistance as kind of act which shifts power concpetualises power as a reified substance – a kind of capital held by some and restricted from the grasp of others. Power, as Foucault commented, is a means for describing a quality of relations between individuals whereby some actions are made easier or more difficult by virtue of the actions of others. Understood as a relational property, power implies that individuals are imminently entangled in generating power relations, which are experienced as subjectivity. Or, as Dan Butin (2003: 168) claims:

such a process of subjectification is not simply inscribed upon the individual. The individual does this to herself, one might say under duress, one might argue unwittingly, one might confess with scant choice, but it is not something done to her; it is something done with her.

Once we come to understand how we are subjected within power relations, we may choose to accept or attempt to resist. Either way, these power relations require our cooperation to operate whatsoever. Rather than decry the perverse influence of some (reified) form of power upon a “pure” domain (i.e. Mode 1 knowledge), it is more productive to identify what actions are made easier or harder within power relations, and how this easiness or hardness is able to be reproduced in relations between actors.

Governmental Ethics

A key conceptual tool for understanding widespread patterns of power relations has been as interesting to ancient philosophers as it has to modern sociologists: rationality. In their most “real” form, rationalities are conventions of thought – agreed upon means for transforming ideas or framing reality. When applied to academic governance several, important political rationalities become apparent, the most well-vocalised of which is appropriately termed a neoliberal rationality. When confronted with processes that demand our cooperation, we may develop a number of imaginings about our relationship with those processes. For example, when confronted with the metrics culture of modern academe, we may feel obliged to become stoic system gamers, bounded to our duty to both academe and intellectual cultures; or alternatively we may become protective leaders, assisting others to carve out space for intellectually-demanding work; or we may feel that competition is the necessary reality which we must face as individuals and develop an individualised mode of self-government.

In other words, although neoliberalism (as a political rationality) may seem to prescribe a rational entrepreneur of the self, multiple governmental ethics become possible when filtered through the complexity of human relations and values. Neoliberalism becomes a pervasive political rationality precisely because it can accommodate a nebula of ethical subjectivities while maintaining the integrity of its governmental assemblage. Rather than criticising “who” is able to exist within neoliberal frameworks, or “what” power exists there, the vital question for arriving at an effective mode of resistance is “how” the government of academics proceeds, and “how” we might imagine it otherwise.

For example, one systemic criticism which has developed along these lines is Stephen Ball’s (2003: 216) notion of “performativity” in higher education governance:

What do I mean by performativity? Performativity is a technology, a culture and a mode of regulation that employs judgements, comparisons and displays as means of incentive, control, attrition and change – based on rewards and sanctions (both material and symbolic). The performances (of individual subjects or organizations) serve as measures of productivity or output, or displays of ‘quality’, or ‘moments’ of promotion or inspection. As such they stand for, encapsulate or represent the worth, quality or value of an individual or organization within a field of judgement.

Utilising the technology of performativity, academics and teachers find, Ball claims, their values challenged or displaced by “the terrors of performativity” (p. 216), which are passed down from above. Its efficacy as a technology of government is derived from its hyper-rational and objective appearance, which are sustained so long as the means by which real events become “performances” remain black-boxed.

The risk inherent in performative technologies is that they will become self-referential and self-affirming, or value what Ball (p. 224) describes as “fabrications” of reality over attempts to ensure that truthfulness is maintained.

Truthfulness is not the point – the point is their effectiveness, both in the market or for Inspection or appraisal, and in the ‘work’ they do ‘on’ and ‘in’ the organization – their transformational and disciplinary impact.

If the goals of a university are explicitly to satiate the demands generated through mission compacts with the federal government, evidenced through accountability reporting procedures (as occurs in Australian universities), then these “fabrications” risk further closing the informational feedback loops between society and university management. To attempt to assist universities in remaining open to changing social demands and debates, a discourse of “resistance” is clearly not sufficient. A more systemically-oriented critique is required to address issues surrounding self-referential communication systems.

The paradigm of resistance is insufficient for addressing systemic issues because, when enacted, resistance tends to emerge in a highly individualised form. When early career researchers (or even PhD candidates) say “no” to opportunities, address research topics they see value in (but are perhaps not “sexy”) or aim to reduce work involvement (possibly for health reasons), a common discourse of “risk” is likely to follow. The figure of the self-responsible entrepreneur is invoked by well-meaning colleagues and advisors, for your own sake! The change in perspective required here is the need to see how “resistance” is interpreted within a governmental assemblage.

Though many of us may dream of critical theory sheep, it’s important to recognise that in an era normalised around governmental institutions, government is not only accustomed to failure, it is a “congenitally failing operation” (Miller and Rose, 2008: 190). But this trait is perhaps only a birth defect from one perspective. Governors may be so used to their plans facing insurmountable complexity that failure is both expected and considered business-as-usual. Consider these two examples:

  1. Resistance to metrification. A good portion of university rankings and performance metrics are derived from commercial databases and media corporations, such as Time Higher Education and the publishing house Elsevier. Although there are often public and academic critiques of the methods used to score and rank universities, the outcome of critique is seldom the cessation of measurement. Indeed, the failure to satisfy the critics provides a basis for an “improved” or at least “updated” methodology and renewed performances. These new rankings are then able to be marketed and sold, provided they maintain enough credibility. The overall logic of demonstrating competitive advantage is not overcome by problematising the methodology of rankings.
  2. Resistance to systematisation of research. When academics attempt to carve out space for “basic” research or normatively-driven research programs, these initiatives do not overturn the drive towards commercialisation and accountability embedded in the systemic logic of academic capitalism (Slaughter and Rhoades, 2004). Basic or normative research that relies on the claim that it’s societal impacts may be unexpected comes up against a hard sell: “funding basic research is a calculated investment in serendipity“. In an era of increased focus on accountability for taxpayer funding, impact is required to be not only “intended”, but also perhaps more predictable. The economic argument for funding basic research (that of “the importance of ‘basic research’ to provide the capital on which the next generation of innovations will be based“) is more readily drawn upon than the argument from serendipity. The new problematic for government becomes – how can research be conducted with greater certainty or security? Disinvestment is an obvious risk-management strategy where this question cannot be adequately answered.

Rather than resistance, the paradigm for thinking about how to organise academic labour needs to be framed in terms of a better means to govern. If the problem with our current corporate-style academic practices are that they are becoming performatively self-referential, or serve the interests of the economic over social, environmental and cultural betterment, then what is needed is a form of doing academic work that is more open to the changing demands that emerge from beyond that closing informational loop. This entails active participation in broadening the kinds of normative discussions which enter into university life – a revised mode for governing academic work.

Deliberative Ethics

So, given that, as academics, we are bound to accountability norms and our own desire to “survive” in academia, we – not personally, but systemically – contribute to the production of a governmental ethics. A form of self-government which begins from the desire “to further secure my position as an academic” will only become a negotiation over how we are subjectified as enterprising academic labourers and hence fail as a paradigm of resistance to current modes of government. It seems that one means through which we may fruitfully attempt to disrupt the current governmental assemblage is to influence how it reasons, which requires systemic thinking.

To influence the trajectory of academic labour, it is perhaps important to reflect on our own function as interpreters and scientists, knowledge producers and disciplined analysts. As intellectuals, we are able to contribute to the formation of values that enter into consideration of why academic labour is governed at all. As opposed to academic labour, which is increasingly instrumental to pre-defined governmental strategies, intellectual labour (the passionate labour grounded in cultural and personal senses of morality, rather than rationality) is normatively driven and not easily reconciled with competing ethics, such as that prescribed by an ethic of entrepreneurship. Because intellectual labour is not dominated by an economic rationality, it may form the basis of deliberation; of opening up governmental practices in academe to a deliberative ethics. Deliberation is not serendipitous – it can occur within time-restricted frames that can be evaluated for effectiveness – but it does allow for a wider range of voices from the intellectual groups to contribute to deliberations. To assist in enacting more deliberative modes of ethics in academia, it is necessary to imagine what we are attempting to accomplish through academe, rather than within it. To this effect, there are perhaps a few useful qualities which we might hope to better cultivate:

  1. More open public communication, not merely in disseminating results, but in formulating research programs. A more deliberative ethics will require academics to communicate normative positions to non-specialists and interpret the values and norms of non-specialists.
  2. A substituting of the status of “academic” for something more like “intellectual” – your value as a thinker derives not from your ability to say more than another person, but to bring them into a process of communicative deliberation with you: to enlighten, not to merely be enlightened.
  3. Acceptance that the modern university is part of a capitalist framework – material capitals, cultural capitals, symbolic capitals, embodied capitals – and that present forms of government (i.e. neoliberal political rationality) will not be reasoned with at a symbolic level. They will, however, respond to changes in how they are able to function on a technological level. Informational networks (in and around which academics frequent) are vital to how government interprets and influences reality. It is worth exploring our authoritative role in the organisation of these media by which governors know the objects/subjects of government.

In summary, to influence the government of academic labour, we need to act on a systemic level, aiming to shift the norms through which knowledge labour is enacted. This will not occur through “resisting”, as resistance under governmentality also presents the current governmental assemblages with new problems to propose solutions towards. Rather, we must be active in generating solutions in a publicly deliberative manner, engaging in a form of ethics which connects our behaviour with the knowledge that we, as intellectuals, develop and embody about the needs of our ecologies to sustain a peaceful and prosperous human existence.

And with only a few hours to spare, Buon anno!

The Value of Academic Freedom

A little while ago, a paper emerged from the interwebs titled, “Overflow in science and its implications for trust“. As its parsimonious title suggests, the paper concerns itself with the over-production of scientific research publications (“overflow”) and the implications of this speed of productivity for trust between scientists. The ever growing demand for academic productivity has produced new challenges for scholarly research, as information becomes more readily accessible, voluminous and specialized. The high speed of production of scientific publications (and also academic publications more generally) produces a Matthew Effect within the academic attention economy, whereby well-known scholars become valuable anchors for guiding the broader field and thereby increase in value and esteem. Meanwhile, lesser-known scholars find it increasingly difficult to accrue similar degrees of peer esteem. Essentially – the academically rich get richer and the poor get “I regret to inform you…” Overall, the fields affected by overflow may be experiencing a growing lack of trust, as the push to be ‘visible’ (and hence valuable) provides incentive for researchers to make bolder claims about their findings, to stand out, while journals find it harder to secure reviewers competent in the assessment of the volumes of articles being submitted to them (see Seibert et al.’s paper for an account from USA’s medical sciences).

The pressure to be popular produces distortions in a range of domains associated with academic and scientific work. Alongside the growing important of gaining fame in the scholarly attention economy, managerial pressure to produce ever more research publications also has the potential to transform values fundamental to both academic and scientific enterprises. The illustrative example that I will focus on in the remainder of this post is the valued idea of “academic freedom”.

Academic freedom is a value that has attained a high degree of normative integrity across the academic profession. Even in a post-modern era where the values of ‘truth’, ‘beauty’ and the ‘good’ face not only epistemic but ontological fracturing, academic freedom is still held a primary norm through which these values are explored and contested. The absence of this freedom is also the condition under which truth, beauty and goodness are warped by ‘external’ interests. The academic pursuit entails a kind of free speech, which Foucault may have perhaps described as necessarily “fearless” (the first lecture here is pretty neat). But free speech itself is not enough to fire the engines of an academic freedom. Free speech must be paired with free inquiry – the ability to pursue truth, beauty or the good. Robert Merton perhaps most clearly outlined the values and norms required to pursue truth in modern science. Merton’s values/norms of Communism, Universalism, Disinterestedness, and Organized Scepticism (CUDOS) highlight the necessarily social and organizational nature of modern science. For science, as for the academic profession more generally, the freedoms of the individual cannot be ensured apart from institutions. The university has a vital role to play here.

In an era in which universities are facing large organizational restructuring, the power relations that had once encouraged the maintenance of (an admittedly masculine, European and restrictive) vision of academic freedom have mutated and no longer aspire to the separation of the academic, and the profane world of everyday life and economy. The “impure” world of economics and the broader social are now regularly invoked to argue that academics should be more open and responsive to “the rapidly changing world in which we live“. The challenge is to remain open to social needs whilst avoiding outsourcing ethics to poorly suited proxies such as economic gains or governmental policy agendas. It is within these milieu – the ‘disorganized’, the ‘runaway’, the ‘postmodern’ – that academic professional norms and universities have mutually-constitutive responsibilities towards their enterprise.

Academic freedom is insufficient when conceptualised as negative freedoms (i.e. the freedom from interference, censorship, etc.) because this view presupposes that academics have access to the means to conduct their pursuits. In a corporatising university, subjected to every more restrictions on the resources available to research and teaching staff, access to the means to conduct academic duties are not ensured. The “ivory tower” vision of academic freedom as a negative freedom is also a privileged view of academia – of a wealthy and self-sustaining endeavour. In a scenario of resource abundance, negative freedoms may be enough to ensure that worthy research projects commence and that valuable lessons are conducted. It is not commodificaiton per se that threatens academic freedom, but rather the failure to recognise that in an era of resource scarcity, academic freedom must be conceptualised as a positive freedom. This would entail, among other things, the freedom to conduct worthy research, the freedom to disseminate research, the freedom to have that research acknowledged by the broader academic community – for what value is a message sent that is never received?

Academic freedom is not the freedom of any individual, but the freedom of truth, beauty and the good to exist with some degree of consistency among human beings. Merton’s norms and values of modern science are concerned with the enactment of the scientific enterprise, not the benefice of any individuals. Merton’s CUDOS are the norms through which the pursuit of truth is to be realised in a modern society. They are the integrity of science in human minds. Both academics (as the actuators of these values) and universities (as institutions with any sense of self-integrity) have an inherent interest in sustaining academic (alongside scientific) norms and values. Academic freedom, as the broadest of these values, is hence paramount to distinguishing the academic from other (non-professional) modes of communication and action. Conceived in the negative mode, academic freedom is divisive, as academics may compete against one another for (for example) less interference or less censorship through economic means. The tenured professor wealthy in both grant funding and prestige can purchase the time and attention of lesser academic commodities, more easily dictate the terms of research, to a degree. Conceived in the positive mode, academic freedom must be pursued in cooperation. Competition over scarce resources produces appeals to the private interests of funding bodies, incentive for academics to engage in “boasting” research findings and generally self-interested conduct. (Mark Carrigan aptly describes the competitive self-interest produced by the recent digital metrification of academic work, claiming that “The depressing thought is that I struggle to imagine not being interested in them [publication and citation metrics]“.)

Although academic freedom is not a freedom for the benefit of individuals, it does entail an ethics of the individual – a mode of relating to oneself as an academic. That is, academic freedom is normative. When taken for a negative freedom, the maximisation of academic freedom might entail the maximisation of discretionary effort – that is, the effort one expends above the threshold required to avoid “getting in trouble”. Maximising academic freedom in this manner is fraught with deleterious consequences for both academic work cultures and perhaps even the academic profession in general. Individuals encourage each other to overwork via positively reinforcing workaholism and the broader academic profession becomes obsessed with proxies of academic value, such as publication formulae, citation counts and grant dollars.

A positive conception of academic freedom – as a freedom of the academic profession, not the individual – is a useful conceptual tool to re-frame what is at stake in the corporatised/managerial university. Individual academics are encouraged within metric assemblages to become self-interested actors, seeking to maximise their personal freedoms often in competition with other academic actors. While this survival-of-the-fittest model of academe may indeed assist universities in adapting to changing funding environments, producing leaner and meaner bureaucracies, it does not ensure that academe will remain a distinct realm in which truth, beauty and the good are openly sought, spoken and heard. This would require a bureaucracy that recognises that academic freedom and integrity are systemic. The danger is not individual dishonesty (which is rare and readily sanctioned), but the systemic normalization of self-interest over scientific interest.

Does Career Building Produce Neoliberal Subjects in Academe?

Career building is a fundamentally imaginative activity. In envisioning how our lives and working circumstances might be projected into the future, career-seeking individuals engage in conceptual mapping. Our career imaginations are influenced by personal values, perceptions of ourselves and environments, our relationships both in the workplace and beyond, and any number of discourses and practices of institutionalized career development.

Career building activities in academia have been critically discussed in relation to the instrumental place of universities within our global knowledge economies. Simon Marginson, among others, have been prolific in describing the impact which globalization is having on universities around the world. Universities are broadly described as being corporatized, privatized, metricized, managerialized, economized, audited – amidst any other number of verbs implying the disempowerment of collegiate governance. Far less attention has been paid to the impact which these broad processes are having on the cultural imagination of academic career planning itself. In an industry characterized by precarious labour arrangements, tribe-like professional groups, status games and portfolio development, career planning becomes weaponized in the struggle for professional survival.

Firstly, a brief overview of the battlefield: Academic careers are often both protean (Hall) and boundaryless (Arthur and Rousseau) endeavours. Although university human resource departments go to lengths to formally distinguish each level of the formal academic hierarchy apart from one another, practicing staff are under no illusion that each step of this career ladder is gated and monitored by financial management as much as peer assessors. Unable to rely upon their seniority to assure promotion, academics are charged with the duty of creating their own case for formal advancement, through building portfolios, self-marketing to future employers and roles, and gathering allies (“networking”) to boost the presentation of one’s peer-esteem. Career progression is in a sense self-created or protean. As D.T. Hall has described, the successful protean career is determined by “internal” (i.e. psychological) criteria, rather than one’s place on a formal career ladder.

It is not uncommon for academic staff to trade off opportunities for formal ladder climbing for the opportunity to engage in work which is perceived to be fulfilling and worthwhile. Consequently, there may be, theoretically, a high degree of inter-organizational mobility  which contributes positively to an academic’s sense of career advancement (sometimes described as a “boundaryless” career orientation). The commonality of protean and boundaryless characteristics within academic employment implies a high degree of flexibility in how academic might imagine their ideal careers. The “tenure track” towards professorship might be a hegemonic ideal, but it is by no means a totalizing ideal.

Academic Careers in Knowledge Economies

Although scholars may strive to fulfill personal aspirations, the economic and political reality of managerialism in universities, neoliberal education policy reforms and increasingly legitimacy of student choice, qua education consumer, shape the possible roads ahead. Departmental amalgamations and closures seldom occur on grounds of scholarly merit. For the neoliberalising university, some career aspirations are more ‘efficient’ than others; some achievements are more ‘effective’.

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Alongside the metricization of academic value, so too have the conditions of professional ‘survival’ become enmeshed in short-hand indicators of teaching and research excellence. Publication counts, journal rankings, h-indicies, Altmetrics and numerous other metrics which signify academic value allow for potential academic employees to be sorted, graded and compared against one another – a short-hand useful to academic management in an age of trans-national knowledge labour. Staff are not blind to the competitive advantage offered by demonstrating an ability to score highly on these measures. Although successful academic careers might be built around achieving personally meaningful outcomes, the need to survive professionally within universities creates additional career demands. Not only must academics construct viable career narratives around their duties, but this narrative must form a recognizably valuable commodity. To imagine a ‘career’ in academe is to aspire to professional survival through the commoditization of one’s self as a ready-made product for input into the university’s production processes.

The eerie image of an academic career described on this battlefield is (evidently, I hope) a characterization – or perhaps an ‘ideal type’ – intended to sensitize us to the negotiations facing academics in corporatizing universities. Of course, real academics may engage in other modes of career building and planning – i.e. career building as skills development, as networking, as quest for social justice – and a real academic may use any number of these schemata in practice. Although I have not yet found an empirical study addressing the issue, I suspect that early career academics and others in precarious employment conditions may be more inclined to adopt a model of career-building-as-self-commoditization to the degree that self-commoditization promises greater employment security. The isolation of individuals in precarious employment conditions are a primary driver towards a the neoliberal subjectivity of the self-responsible labourer.

Career-building in a precarious environment becomes a mechanism of control, encouraging academics to engage in self-surveillance and evaluate their conduct against the criteria signaled by performance metrics. Professional ‘survival’ is a practice which encourages academics to approximate the self-responsible, rational self-producer – a kind of labourer central to advanced liberal modes of governance. More than just subject of capitalism (i.e. academic-as-commodity), career ‘survival’ introduces academics to a field of competition where their energies are not simply exchanged for goods in an academic capitalist marketplace, but they must also compete to have the value of their labour recognized alongside other – perhaps equally qualified – academics. Neoliberal modes of governance do not only encourage competition, they increasingly define the criteria by which value is judged.

Although academics may travel between universities and over continents, the metricization of ‘value’ in universities creates new boundaries for career development. I describe the importation of managerial accounting tools (i.e. the audit culture) and digital techniques for approximating ‘esteem’, ‘reach’ and ‘impact’ of academic activities (i.e. citation counting, ranking) as neoliberal in that the function they perform is to marketize academic labour and also act as a “site of veridiction” (Foucault 2008, p. 32). Though procedures and tools of metricization are contested and often critiqued in academic discourse communities, their outputs are often taken up as evidence of academic merit and achievements, thereby – to a large degree – legitimating managerial and scholarly decisions alike.

Do we have to Measure Up?

There are perhaps good reasons for suspecting that career building encourages the neoliberalization of universities in our present culture of audit and managerialism. Management is as political as it is technological. An anonymous professor (and former associate dean) recently wrote to The Guardian that academics not only “need to be managed”, but must also themselves become involved in their institutional management through taking up managerial roles.

Resources are stretched. Students, funders and the government all make demands, and the university must weigh these up against other interests and requirements. I’ve often found myself conflicted: on one hand I see the need to manage and on the other I also see the value of academic autonomy. The trick universities have to pull off is balancing these different forces.

The concern which this professor expresses for “the need to manage” is symptomatic of a political subjectivity predisposed to an allegiance with capital through academe. Although few academic staff would contest the claim that academic autonomy is valuable, the values of university management are often, as above, seen to be legitimate in and of themselves – as needed to be “balanced” against scholarly needs, rather than reconfigured or protested.

In a highly individualized work culture, academics often find themselves negotiating their ‘survival’ through competition, under threat, precariously and by reaching out for signifiers of legitimacy – metrics, peer esteem and tokens of validation. To engage in career building individually through appealing to these metrics, or to collectively contest which numbers best reflect our intentions is to fail to address the fundamental question of government: Why measure at all? Measurement fulfills several layers of truth-making (or “veridiction”, for academics, universities, governments, etc.), but what sort of truth are we constructing? For academics to be intellectual leaders who are more than highly paid public servants, these basic questions must be objects of discussion, demolition and – vitally – delegitimization. Metricization eases the squeaky wheels and tightens the assembly line belts. It is our duty to see the factory for the cogs and rearrange the mechanisms to produce not only good ‘outputs’, but also good reasons.

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.