To sum up the week’s arguments:
- Neoliberalism is about markets. There are actually very few genuine markets in higher education and where there are they can be quite beneficial especially with respect to access.
- Neoliberalism is about competition. There is competition in higher education, especially status competition but it mostly predates actual neoliberalism.
- Some people claim neoliberalism is about managerialism and performance metrics but this is a genuinely terrible and ahistorical argument.
However, I think there are two additional arguments around competition and markets which I may have skated over a little too easily and which I should address before ending this series.
The first is that while engaging in competition for students and student dollars is not inherently neoliberal (this was happening long before neoliberalism or even capitalism was a term), the effect of government cut-backs, which increase institutional reliance on tuition as a revenue stream, is a neoliberal one. By pushing institutions closer to the market, this pushes institutions to have values which are more like those of a profit-seeking entity. The second, essentially, is the same argument applied to research. As public funding falls, research needs to pay its way, and this changes the financial calculus in the way institutions invest in science – i.e. with a view for a “profit”.
There is obviously a measure of truth here. North American institutions do operate with a sharper business eye than they used to, and to the extent that sharp = corporate = neoliberal, then you can make a case for neoliberalism on this basis. But two objections can sensibly be raised here.
The first has to do with agency. In this telling, universities do not voluntarily become neoliberal, they have neoliberalness (neoliberality?) thrust upon them by penny-pinching governments. This veers towards to what I think is the maximally-vacuous position that universities are neoliberal because they exist within neoliberal society. By rendering the neoliberalness of institutions independent of any of their own behaviour, it deprives the term of much of its explanatory power.
The second is that presumably if the degree of the removal of government funding is an explanatory variable, then it would be possible to test the hypothesis by looking at changes in institutional behaviour based on either the extent of funding or the extent of the withdrawal of funding.
For instance, within Canada, universities in Ontario are substantially more tuition dependent than those in Quebec or Newfoundland or Alberta. Does this make Western act in a more neoliberal way than Calgary? Dalhousie more than Memorial? There is room for reasonable disagreement here, but I think one would have a difficult time sustaining that argument.
Or, for instance, are universities in Canada substantially more neoliberal than institutions in Sweden or Germany, where government funding is greater as a percentage of total funding? Perhaps yes if you think about their competition for student dollars, but I don’t get the sense there are vast differences with respect to the way they deal with industry.
Or, to take examples from the United States: have private universities always been neoliberal? Probably not; it would be a serious historical stretch to describe antebellum Yale or Harvard as neoliberal. But then if one considers them neoliberal now, something other than a change in public funding must have caused the change in behaviour. Or take another experiment: as public funding has been withdrawn from public institutions, have public universities started acting more like private universities? In the case of flagship publics I think it’s undeniable. Community colleges? That’s a tougher call.
All of which is to say: I don’t think it’s wrong to say that changing public funding changes institutional behaviour. It’s just that the degree of change depends on factors other than money, and it’s debatable how many of these new behaviours are actually neoliberal.
Anyways, that’s enough on this subject. Long story short: there’s something to the idea of neoliberal universities, but that something is a lot less substantial than those who throw this term around seem to believe.
Thanks for putting up with me on this topic all week. Have a good weekend.