The neoliberal university and resistance in the current crisis

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Matthew Evans

This post is by Dr Matthew Evans (Lecturer in Law, Politics and Sociology at the University of Sussex and Visiting Researcher in Political Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand). It draws upon and discusses the recent article: Matthew Evans (2020) ‘Navigating the neoliberal university: reflecting on teaching practice as a teacher-researcher-trade unionist’, British Journal of Sociology of Education 41(4), 574-590.

Introduction

Recently I published an article in the British Journal of Sociology of Education (BJSE), entitled ‘Navigating the neoliberal university: reflecting on teaching practice as a teacher-researcher-trade unionist’. The article ‘reflects upon the neoliberalisation of higher education and its effects on teaching practice’ and ‘on the interrelationship of different scholarly identities and practices—as a researcher, teacher and trade unionist’.

In the article I ask ‘whether critical, emancipatory praxis is possible or if complicity in, and co-option by, neoliberalism is inevitable’ in universities. In response, I set out four approaches to navigating disciplinary power in the neoliberal university:

  1. ‘instrumental compliance’;
  2. ‘participation in and pedagogic reflection upon mobilisations such as strikes when they emerge’;
  3. ‘incorporation of critical and emancipatory themes and approaches into teaching’;
  4. ‘reflection upon the ways scholarly identities overlap and inform one another’, and (drawing on Agnes Bosanquet) ‘small targeted acts of resistance’.

Since its publication, I have been struck by how the article is both more relevant than ever and already out of date. I explore these tendencies here. First, I discuss some of the specific reflections which have been superseded, followed by a discussion of ways that the issues identified in the article are increasingly relevant. I then conclude with thoughts on possible future developments.

Specific reflections: already out of date

I wrote the first version of what became the article in mid-2018. Already, several of my specific reflections have been superseded or become out of date.

For instance, in the article, I wonder whether the ‘instrumental compliance’ of ‘submitting works for consideration for the Research Excellence Framework (REF) (even whilst on a teaching-only contract)… might lead to promotion—or contractual recognition of research’. Since writing this, I have been promoted and moved onto a contract that recognises research – so it seems there were indeed instrumental, personal, benefits of compliance in this case. Nevertheless, much as this has personal benefits, such compliance also serves to reinforce the neoliberalisation of higher education which I argue against in the article.

There have, however, also been developments in the more collective (and arguably more hopeful) modes of navigating – and resisting – the neoliberal university such as ‘participation in and pedagogic reflection upon mobilisations such as strikes when they emerge’. The BJSE article included reflection upon participation in the 2018 strike by the University and College Union (UCU) over proposed changes to pensions. At the time of writing this was very recent. By the time the article appeared in print, however, there had been further rounds of strike action in 2019 and early 2020. These build upon and go beyond the activities I reflected upon in the article through, for instance, not only being over changes to pensions but also over pay, workloads, casualisation and equalities.

Furthermore, I wrote the article long before the COVID-19 pandemic. By the time the article was published, however, the pandemic was very much underway and ongoing. The reflections I put forward in the article are of the pre-pandemic era. Nevertheless, many of the issues and trends I identify have continued and intensified.  Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought issues highlighted in the article to the forefront, which I discuss next.

The neoliberal university: more relevant than ever

Since the onset of the global COVID-19 pandemic, the neoliberal university is perhaps more visible that it was. The scrabble for students (and therefore fees) in the wake of the exam results fiasco, alongside universities’ performance of ‘hygiene theatre’ in a bid to persuade student-consumers of the safety of campuses, highlights the ways in which universities are encouraged (even compelled) to compete with one another, engaging in and promoting neoliberal ideals rather than critical or emancipatory aims.

In the BJSE article I note that ‘meeting the neoliberal university’s expectations is linked, not only to employment, but also to health, wellbeing and—in extremis—survival’. This dynamic is clearer than ever. Staff (and students) contend with:

Implicit and explicit pressures exist to deliver face to face teaching or student support as universities continue ‘selling students the lie that they can have a full university experience in the current crisis’ (as UCU general secretary Dr Jo Grady puts it).

Furthermore, universities have announced cuts, promotions freezes, job losses, and other ‘cost savings’. Along with concerns over the safety and wellbeing of staff and students, all of this has led to responses from trade unions, student unions and their allies. Some of these are grassroots, local and somewhat informal (such as the Crisis Justice at Sussex campaign), whereas others are more formalised and legalistic (such as UCU’s legal action challenging the Westminster government’s decision to ignore advice from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies to move teaching online in English colleges and universities). These point to possible directions for future developments in resistance to the neoliberal university during (and perhaps beyond) the present crisis.

Conclusion

Responding to, and resisting, the effects of the neoliberalisation of higher education can take various forms. In the BJSE article, I focus upon two forms of resistance which are more individual (‘incorporation of critical and emancipatory themes and approaches into teaching’ and ‘reflection upon the ways scholarly identities overlap and inform one another, and small targeted acts of resistance’) and one which is more collective (‘participation in and pedagogic reflection upon mobilisations such as strikes’). I conclude that whilst for individuals ‘[s]ome scope exists to resist neoliberalism in teaching practice’, this is ‘structurally limited’. Therefore, ‘for an emancipatory, critical vision of education to be pursued most fully and most effectively, a broad collective struggle is necessary’.

The COVID-19 pandemic and universities’ responses to it reinforce this conclusion. What happens next is uncertain. However, one lesson I take from the environment that led to my article simultaneously increasing in relevance and becoming outdated between being written and published, is that circumstances are fast-shifting, and it is possible for things to get better as well as worse. To end on a more hopeful note, it is worth emphasising that mobilisations of unions and others in the current crisis suggest that the broad and collective struggles necessary for emancipatory and critical education may yet emerge.

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