These days, the word ‘neoliberal’ is usually used as a term of abuse. It is code for ‘right wing’, i.e. a belief in a lightly-regulated, laissez-faire approach to not only business and the economy but also to education. ‘Right wing’ is seen as inherently bad; selfish and focused on the individual, while ‘left wing’ is seen as caring and considerate and focused on the greater good. ( Jonathan Haidt is excellent on all of this.)
In the context of education, a neoliberal institution is one that is said to behave like a business, driven by the profit motive. It is one that sees students as customers, no more than a stream of revenue. And in the neoliberal world, the institution must meet the customers’ needs and desires because the customer is always right.
Given that in the neoliberal world, educational institutions must model themselves as a business, then they must be run like a business. Targets are needed, not only for the institutions themselves but also for departments and schools, and, crucially, for individual academics. Their performance must be monitored and evaluated and the most productive should be rewarded. And academic output should be almost like a cash flow – it should be constant and it should have impact. None of this long term investment stuff.
The claim of many is that Irish universities are in the grip of neoliberalism.
But let’s stand back from all of this and see things from the point of view of the people who really matter, i.e., the students. So what is 2016 like in comparison with the early 1980s when I went to university? The main change in my view is that universities have become highly regulated and almost obsessively student-centred. ‘Lecturing’ has become ‘teaching’ and ‘students’ have become ‘learners’. The laissez-faire approach of the 1980s is long gone. The days when you, even as a young lecturer, were given a course title and expected to run with it, with little or no oversight, are but a distant memory. Now we have module descriptors, annual programme reviews, periodic programme reviews, professional reviews, quality reviews, student surveys of teaching and national surveys of student engagement. Third level education has become highly controlled and monitored, the antithesis of laissez-faire neoliberalism. Much of this has been driven not by bureaucrats or by any ideology (‘managerialism’) but by academics themselves because higher education has, through a process driven mainly by academics, become more and more student-centred. For example, many if not most academics buy in to the ‘learning outcomes’ philosophy even though it places a significant administrative burden on academics themselves.
At the same time as the shift towards student-centred education has been occurring, participation rates in third level education have rocketed and governments throughout much of the West have taken the view that they cannot keep increasing funding to cope with the increased demand. This may reflect a neoliberal philosophy but it is more likely a result of pragmatism. Funding higher education is not a vote-grabber. The result is that institutions have had to take a much more pragmatic approach to funding. They can’t afford to take to the (apparently) high moral ground because the people who would suffer as a result would be the students. They have to ‘market’ themselves to attract students and they have to constantly increase their student intake. This creates challenges but does it pose any moral dilemmas? Perhaps it does if students are admitted who have a high probability of dropping out. But that’s largely an issue for the IoTs.
Universities and IoTs also have to work with profit-making companies – horror of horrors. But what is objectively ‘wrong’ with an institution collaborating with industrial or other business partners? Many academic disciplines exist precisely because they serve a function within certain types of businesses and industries. Chemical engineering is a ‘thing’ only because chemical engineers are needed to make all sorts of chemical and biochemical products on a large scale – for the good of society. It makes perfect sense for a university to encourage collaboration between its chemical engineering department and chemical or biopharma companies. If the institution can make some money out of the collaboration, that’s even better.
But isn’t all of the ‘monitoring and control’ of academics a bad thing? Personally, I haven’t witnessed any of this sinister-sounding stuff, but there is no doubt that the academic career has changed over the years. In an age when you can check someone’s Google Scholar citations in an instant, we all feel, and are, a lot more accountable and open to scrutiny. Expectations are a lot higher now and surely that is how it should be. We’re all highly qualified and those of us with permanent contracts still enjoy a degree of flexibility and freedom that would be the envy of private sector employees – so we should expect to be accountable. But, if we want equity in our system, then we have to know, pretty accurately, how everyone is spending their time, and what they are producing. We especially need some sort of workload model. That doesn’t seem like neoliberalism to me and I don’t know how anyone can argue with the idea that we all need to be open and transparent about what it is that we do with our non-teaching time. Sure, we can take offense and claim that this reflects a lack of trust on the part of ‘management’, but really, isn’t it time to get a grip and realise what a fantastic job this is even if it gets a bit stressful at times. Of course, if you work in an institution in which ‘management’ somehow infringes on your ability to teach to your best ability, then that’s another matter and it would be a worrying one. Likewise, if ‘management’ makes judgements about the value of your research, then that’s probably something that you just have to live with because making judgements about your research is not entirely unreasonable.
Most of the criticisms of modern university culture come from the arts and humanities. This is not surprising because the humanities are where you find academia in its ‘purest’ form. The arts and humanities is a place where, in general, scholarship dominates over research. And scholarship is something that doesn’t fit all that well with the modern emphasis on research impact. I have some sympathy for colleagues in the humanities but their demonising of those who hold different views as ‘neoliberals’ is not going to get them anywhere. Times have changed and university education has to be both transformational in the traditional sense but also vocational. With so many school-leavers pursuing higher education, the job of university teaching has become harder than ever. It has to inspire but it also has to give youngsters the best possible start in a world where higher education is taken for granted. And as I’ve said before, one of the best predictors of poor mental health is unemployment and if your programme is producing graduates who are struggling to find employment, then that should bother you.
We need to ditch the labels.