One of the key accusations about universities and neoliberalism is that the system is too obsessed with competition. On the face of it, this looks like the easiest argument to make about neoliberal universities: neoliberal thought does put a lot of emphasis on competition, and institutions do talk a lot about “competing” for students and staff and governments like the notion that institutions “compete” against one another. Among faculty members, institutions “compete” for research funding; in some countries, they literally compete tournament-style for academic professorships as well (see Christine Musselin’s excellent – if now slightly dated – The Market for Academics). And even outside the formal system of hiring, tenure and promotion there is a lot of individual self-promoting behaviour which gets tagged as “competitive” or “neoliberal” because effective practitioners are seen as gaining access to scarce academic status goods (from named chairs down to better conference speaking opportunities).
But the problem is that while all of this is competitive and some of it could be described as destructive, describing this behaviour as “neoliberal” isn’t just unhelpful, it’s wrong.
Let’s start with the issue of competing for students. Institutions have been doing this for centuries – much longer than modern capitalism has existed. Granted, in many cases what these (largely religious) institutions were doing was competing for souls rather than income, per se – but even in the early part of the twentieth century you find American private colleges competing pretty heavily for private student dollars. Institutions need money to survive, and money is related to the number of students you have. But this isn’t neoliberalism, this is just math. Enterprises ceasing operations because of insufficient client demand has been happening since Sumerian times, and a motivated search for clients is the result, even in education. If such behaviour is neoliberal, then the sophists of ancient Athens were neoliberal, and if sophists are included in the ambit of neoliberalism then frankly the word has no meaning.
More real is the notion of institutions “competing” for staff, which they do by bidding up wages for top talent. If anyone wants to claim that bidding up wages is a leading form of neo-liberalism, be my guest.
What about competitions for things like research funding? Certainly this exists, but I think there are two reasons to contest that this can be described as “neoliberal”. The first is that, like competition for students, these kinds of competitions pre-date actual neoliberalism by several centuries (they have their roots in prizes for scientific accomplishment like the “longitude rewards” of the early 18th century). Second, this is a supremely non-market form of competition (offhand, I can’t think of any research competition which awards projects to the lowest bidder). This is tough to reconcile with the whole “neoliberalism = markets” analysis.
The basic problem here is one of distribution scarce resources. Not everybody can have a research grant (or a named chair, or whatever). So there needs to be a rationing system. In socialist systems, this tended to be done by government fiat, and those professors with the right mix of connections and prestige were the ones who got the money from the local academy of sciences (Loren Graham’s What Have We Learned About Science and Technology from the Russian Experience is a good primer on this from the Soviet point of view – it’s also still an issue in China). In the capitalist west, by the 1970s peer-reviewed competitions were pretty much the universal preferred instead.
Why? Because – here’s a dirty little secret – the values of academia are deeply entwined with those of competition evaluation, and have been for far longer than neoliberalism has been around. Academia has always been a prestige economy, and prestige economies tend to be highly unequal in outcomes. Academia consists of a never-ending series of stringent tests and only those who overcome these challenges, preferably via Stakhanovite approaches to workload, receive the plaudits and the praise and the monetary and non-monetary status benefits that the prestige economy provides.
This may resemble neoliberalism to some. But it’s absolutely not a case of neoliberalism infecting the academy; it’s a case of academia’s values running along these neoliberal(ish) lines long before neoliberalism was invented.