The term “neoliberal university” gets bandied around a lot. But what does it mean?
Neoliberalism is hard to write about sensibly because there’s a lack of basic agreement about what the term means. This isn’t just about yahoos using “neoliberal” as a synonym for “The Man” or “something I happen to dislike” (though that does happen a lot); even those who want to write about the subject are faced with some real problems in defining it.
The definition of any –ism is bound to be the subject of some disagreement, but there is usually a core set of texts which can be examined and from which central defining principles can be derived. The interpretation of Marxism is still a live issue but there isn’t much doubt about its core principles. Reagan and Thatcher didn’t write much, but they had a list of concrete actions in government which could define their “isms” pretty clearly. Lenin, Stalin and Mao had both writings and track records in government.
Abstract -isms are tougher. The definition of socialism is still under debate after two centuries, but at least there are people who call themselves socialist, and who organize on behalf of socialism. Neoliberalism is a lot tougher to define because – apart from a couple of fairly non-specific paragraphs in a 1951 Milton Friedman essay, which mostly just called for competition and monetary stability – no one has ever written a neoliberal program from a positive standpoint the way Marx did with communism (though as Dani Rodrik recently noted there was a 1982 WaPo piece called “A Neo-Liberal’s Manifesto” by Charles Peters of the left-ish Washington Monthly, but the concepts he was describing bears only a passing resemblance to what most people who use the term “neoliberal” as an epithet have in mind when they use the term). Rather, “neoliberalism” is a term used by the left to describe a fairly wide variety of economic policies which – in their eyes – all share an origin in classic liberal laissez-faire economic policy. But because neoliberalism is in effect in the eye of the beholder, the list of specific policies which can earn the moniker “neoliberal” can vary substantial from one analyst to another. That doesn’t mean it’s an invalid concept, but it does mean it can be maddeningly imprecise one, and that’s before we deal with the fact that the term neoliberal is used as a term of abuse more often than as one of serious analysis.
Among the multiplicity of definitions of neoliberalism, what people can agree on is that it is about markets and introducing greater market logic into the organization of societal affairs. And there’s no doubt, for instance, that society nowadays broadly entrusts the market to manage things more than it did 50 years ago (though perhaps not more than it did 100 years ago). Where things get trickier, because the definition of neoliberal is so imprecise, is trying to expand the definition of neoliberalism into territory beyond this.
For instance, some will claim that under neoliberalism the notion of markets are inextricably entwined with ideas about competition and therefore anything involving competition is ipso facto neoliberal as well. Or, because in a world like higher education where competition involves quasi-markets as well as actual ones (think competitions for CFREF, or use of funding formulas), that anything that facilitates the functioning of quasi-markets, such as collecting performance data is thus inherently neoliberal. In fact, management itself is sometimes seen as neoliberal, since its techniques were honed and developed in the corporate world and since corporations exist in the market sphere, anything that emanates from them must be compromised by notions of markets and competition and hence neo-liberalism.
The most trivial definition of a “neoliberal university” is that which includes any university existing within a larger neoliberal system. This is not particularly helpful, methodologically speaking, since it means that all universities are neoliberal universities and there is no model outside neoliberalism to which one can assess universities. You might as well just call them “modern” universities or “twenty-first century universities”.
A more sophisticated analysis of the “neoliberal university” would focus on the four things I mentioned above: the role of markets, the role of competitions (in higher education at least, a broader notion than markets), the role of performance data and the role of management. And with respect to each, the analysis would ask: have universities changed very much over time, or have they always been this way? Are there now or have there ever been models of universities which operate in a different way? And to what extent are the effects of these four things beneficial or detrimental?
Over the next few days, I’ll be doing exactly that.