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.