To date, we have looked at market mechanisms and competition in universities and shown that a) they aren’t in fact all that neo-liberal and b) particularly with respect to expanding access, there are some upsides. Today I want to look at two other facets of modern universities that often get described as neo-liberal: performance data and management.
There is some variety in the way this topic is approached – see this blog from the London School of Economics (h/t to Marc Spooner for pointing me to this piece) for one of the more reasoned ones – but basically they all comes down to the same argument, which goes as follows:
- Corporations are by definition neoliberal
- Corporations manage by objectives
- Universities seem, increasingly, to be managed by objectives (this same claim works for pretty much any public or quasi-public entity, but our focus here is higher ed)
- Objectives, by definition, need to be measured
- Therefore, by transitive property, both management and measurement are neoliberal, or at least tools in service of neoliberalism
(Some provocateurs actually extend this argument a bit further and claim that because measurement requires extra staff, the proliferation of “bureaucrats” – read: non-academic staff – is in fact a neoliberal outcome. I personally find this argument hilarious because if staff unions ever caught on to that it would be BRING ON THE NEOLIBERALISM! but so as not to caricature the larger argument I will stick to the basic five points above).
Now, without much elaboration, you can use those five points to come up with a pretty damning indictment of many aspects of modern higher education. Many objectives are difficult to measure and institutions/government sometimes box themselves into measuring some pretty ludicrous things as proxies. With only a little spin, such maladroitness can be painted as being part of a vast neo-liberal plot, of a one with the overthrow of Allende, etc. Those with a bent for self-righteousness can really go to town using those five points.
But, here’s the thing. Not all of those five points are equally true. And therein lies the problem.
Point five is true, more or less, if all of the previous points are true. Points 3 and 4 are mainly true. Point 1 depends a bit on your definition of neoliberal, but let’s posit for the moment that it is true.
The problem is point 2. Yes, corporations get managed by objectives but so do have pretty much all organizations from time immemorial. When Eisenhower was managing the invasion of Normandy, no one said to him “hey, you know what, I worry that the 82nd Airborne is looking too neoliberal, maybe we shouldn’t hold anyone accountable if they don’t take those two bridges over the Merderet River on Day 1”. Similarly, when Ignatius of Loyola founded the Jesuits and commanded his followers to set up missions in distant lands, it did not occur to Francis Xavier or any of the others to suggest that maybe put less emphasis on actually counting the number of people converted on because this might appear overly neoliberal.
Or, to take a more nakedly non-capitalist example, when Stalin set up a five-year plan filled with useless unit-level metrics, no one said, “Koba, dude, neoliberalism”. And that wasn’t just because the word hadn’t been invented yet or because anyone who questioned five-year plan targets tended to end up as wolf fodder on the taiga, but because the idea that Stalin was neoliberal is pure batshit crazy.
It’s not that some types of management and metrics in universities are not pernicious (some are, some aren’t – horses for courses, etc). Rather it is that identifying these things as neoliberal requires a massive and wilful ignorance of history. If it were just kids arguing this, you could shrug it off. But it isn’t: many people with PhDs – some even in history – seriously argue try to argue this point. And I think it is this more than anything which reveals much of the unseriousness of the talk about neoliberal universities.
That doesn’t of course mean that there is nothing to the idea of neoliberal universities – territory I’ll cover in tomorrow’s blog. It just means that there is a lot less of it than casual ideological poseurs would have you believe.