Against the Neoliberal University

Against the Neoliberal University
Richard Hill

6 April 2016

A recent conference makes the arguments and plans for change.

 University managers might be forgiven for thinking that the sector has become something of a political football. The Gillard government hacked into university funding to cross-subsidise other areas of government, while the Abbott administration was intent on fee deregulation partly as a means of plugging the revenue hole. Despite such differences,both major political parties agree that universities are vital to the nation’s economic interests and that, as a leading export industry, the sector has enormous growth potential.

Much has been written about the role of universities in the neoliberal economy, and the fact that they now exhibit all the hallmarks of ‘free-market’ ideology. The adoption of the socalled ‘business model’, with academics viewed as service providers and students as consumers, reflects a system fashioned to fit the market-driven agendas of the Australian economy. Two areas remain to complete this process: fee deregulation and fully commercialised research. The latter has been talked up by the Turnbull government under the banner of ‘innovation’, which in effect blurs any remaining distinction between university research and commercial interests. Turnbull has gone further than his predecessors in deriding the academic culture of publishing (apparently read by a precious few) in favour of a research agenda that privileges the needs of industry over everything else.

The innovation ecosystem

Turnbull’s policy has been endorsed by the University of Melbourne’s vice-chancellor, Professor Glyn Davis, who effused over the government’s innovation statement, asserting: ‘In an ideal world, the precincts around Australian universities would already resemble those of Silicon Valley or Cambridge. In time they might. More likely, we will develop distinctive local patterns that reflect the broader realities of the Australian economy—a predominance of small to medium firms, clustered around universities and public agencies, all contributing to the local innovation ecosystem’.

This ‘ecosystem’, based on a cosy alliance  between business and higher education, reveals the extent of thecommercialisation of the university sector, and its integration into the neoliberal economy. Yet despite the rhetoric occasionally found in university mission statements—‘social justice’, ‘excellence’, ‘free and rational inquiry’, ‘global community’, ‘improvement of the human condition’ and so forth—there is little or no mention of how the commercial imperative fits with aspirations for the public good. If the latter idea is entertained, it is with the assumption that the role of universities is to collaborate directly with industry and to become an ‘incubator’ and ‘innovator’ of research ideas linked to commercial outcomes. What this means in terms of the supposed independence of universities is, of course, open to question. Few vice-chancellors seem concerned about the practical and ethical implications of corporate donations, or of having research agendas framed by commercial interests.

Even fewer seem worried about the privatisation of research or whether universities are in league with questionable industries, say in the areas of pharmaceuticals, mining, or food and weapons production. Yet such issues do concern a growing number of academics, especially those who see in the innovation era a further blurring of boundaries between universities and business. They are all too familiar with the gulf between the market-driven rhetoric of universities and the oppressive realities of having to dance to the commercial-research tune, protect the corporate brand and prepare job-ready graduates. If the role of universities is to educate students for active citizenship, to pursue knowledge and truth, and to privilege the public good over private interest, then these academics are right to worry about the current trajectory of highereducation policy. Although often fearful of airing such ideas, some nonetheless have felt obliged to raise their concerns in public forums.

Challenging the privatised university

One such gathering took place recently at the University of Queensland. Organised by academics in the university’s School of Social Science, and Friends of the Earth, and supported by the National Tertiary Education Union, the National Alliance for Public Universities and the Ngara Institute, the conference, entitled ‘Challenging the Privatised University’, reflected many of the above concerns.

The intention was to share critical reflections on today’s university system, including the incursion of corporations into the tertiary sector. Participants agreed that there is already a substantial body of critical literature on the‘neoliberal/corporate university’, but what is needed is a meaningful public conversation on alternatives to this system and, especially, what might constitute the ‘good university’.

Over two days, conference participants discussed the impact of the ‘corporatisation of the modern university’. Plenary sessions dealt with ‘the effects of corporate investment on universities, including research’, ‘the role and significance of universities in commercialising emerging technologies’, and ‘censorship, self-censorship, intellectual integrity and the health of dissent in Australian universities’. Participants were also asked to consider whether ‘universities were still fulfilling an important public role’. Additionally, discussion focussed on ‘the effects of privatisation and corporate money on students and staff—collegiality, cooperation, transparency’ and ‘the integrity of science and scientists in the privatised university’. Particular attention during these sessions was drawn to the development of new technologies—nanotechnol ogy, synthetic biology and geoengineering— and the role that universities play in supporting and enhancing commercial interests in these areas (concerns that have been addressed by the Friends of the Earth Emerging Tech Project).

The opening presentations set the tone for the conference, with attendees largely comprising academics, students and activists. Eminent scientists such as geneticist Jack Heinemann from New Zealand spoke about the incursions of cor porations into research activities, including the privatisation of knowledge through copyrights, patents and various licensing arrangements. Other speakers observed how commercial arrangements compromised the independence of universities and placed private interests ahead of the public good.

In her introduction, Associate Professor in the School of Social Science Kristen Lyons spoke of the ‘critical spaces’ and ‘edge conversations’ that had led to a radical rethinking of higher education. Lyons called for an ‘action-oriented agenda’ aimed at itemising the core elements of a progressive public university. President of the National Tertiary Education Union Jeannie Rea argued that education was ‘too important to be left to the market’ and that federal funding, academic autonomy and more secure employment were vital components of a public system of higher education. Rea noted how upfront fees accruing from international students (who pay up to three times more than domestic students) had been used as a ‘cash cow’ to prop up universities. For Rea, tertiary education had become a ‘functional’ process that produced job-ready graduates to serve the needs of industry and the economy. In many instances students had been misled by university marketing, ending up in unrelated, dead-end jobs following graduation. Rea spoke of the exposure of universities to corporate influence at the same time that the institutions were distancing themselves from local communities, illustrating the extent to which today’s universities have been ‘privatised’.

Sociologist Raewyn Connell took a similar line, arguing that since the Dawkins reforms of the late 1980s universities had been subject to ‘managerial takeover’, competition had replaced cooperation and collegiality, and academics had been ‘de-profession alised: subjected to excessive top-down, performance-related regulation’. Arguing that universities operated more like private firms than public institutions, with an onus on income generation, Connell cautioned against looking to the past for exemplars of a better university, instead advocating for a ‘practical’program of change based on three core principles. The first principle is the development of intellectual spaces that embrace multiple sources of knowledge in the pursuit of truth, along with ‘multiple expertises’ in the context of ‘highly participatory’, ‘bottom-up’ approaches to intellectual engagement and critical pedagogy. The second is a system of ‘industrial democracy’ guaranteeing employment conditions and academic autonomy, and an environment that enables ‘learning from below’. The final principle is that knowledge should be considered a ‘public asset’ and that academic ‘service’ should not be reduced to a simple commercial activity.

Amy McMahon, PhD candidate and union environ mental officer at the University of Queensland, observed how a sizeable portion of student enrolment fees subsidises university advertising and campus-beautification projects. She argued that the decline of student activism could partly be attributed to univer sity fee hikes and government attacks on student unions. However, McMahon noted that the proposal to deregulate fees had galvanised thousands into protesting against privatisation to insist that fee deregulation would further diminish the capacity of students to engage meaningfully in the educational process.

Beyond merely criticising the current situation, participants considered ways of building an ‘academic activist culture’. Suggestions included re-engaging with colleagues across disciplines, joining the national union and the National Alliance for Public Universities, and undertaking research for the public interest rather than private gain. But the clearest statement of what might constitute the foundations of the ‘good university’ was contained in the following draft declaration, which began:

Given the role of multinational corporations in contributing to the looming global environmental, social and financial crises, and their increasing influence on all forms of education, including university education, there has never been a more important time to rethink the meaning of a good university.

The declaration itemised the essential features of the good university:

Good universities:

• Are communities not corporations;

• Are democratic public institutions for the social good;

• Are fully funded by government;

• Are independent of corporate funding and influence;

• Are dedicated to offering free, high-quality education;

• Are transparent and accountable;

• Embrace multiple ways of knowing;

• Are transformational not merely transactional;

• Nurture public intellectuals;

• Promote the free exchange of ideas in the quest for truth;

• Actively value collegiality and collaboration;

• Uphold and support the role of student unions;

• Uphold diversity in the production of knowledge;

• Foster and develop mutual respect;

• Participate in the development of a just democratic and sustainable society which privileges ecologies over the economy;

• Are democratically accountable to society as a whole;

• Empower students to become active citizens and not just job-ready graduates;

• Explicitly incorporate an understanding of Indigenous culture and history;

• Recognise and integrate bodies of knowledge from the global south;

• Recognise academic freedom as a core value;

• Produce open, available and accessible knowledge;

• Include all academic staff and students as active participants in decision-making processes and culture;

• Invite alternative, non-hierarchical and respectful forms of performance review;

• Are committed to an ethical and knowledge-driven curriculum that fosters critical reflection and creativity.

This statement is ‘intended to spark a national conversationabout the nature, role and purpose of university education in atruly socially just, democratic society’. But it is a conver sationthat needs to be led by academics who know what it is like to work in the corporate university. Such deliberation should, however, be more than a critique of what is now a quintessential neoliberal institution; it must forcefully and clearly articulate what sort of higher education we want for current and future generations. The fact is that interlocking social, economic and environmental crises are reshaping the world in which we live and we need to consider how our educational institutions might engage with this new, unfold ing reality and not simply reproduce its worst aspects.

Richard Hil

Courtesy: New Matilda magazine

Ngara Institute