Neoliberalism vs. Academia

Neoliberalism vs. Academia

Reading the news today, it’s clear that academics have been put forward as having the answers to many of today’s problems: a few economists in particular have become household names. And in times of crises, as at more mundane moments, we call upon these ‘experts’ to propose concrete solutions to the complex problems that arise within our ever-changing, globalized societies. In effect, contemporary society has pushed the academic expert out of his/her intellectual “ivory tower” and into a world where markets are king – an important evolution not without repercussions.

ESSEC Management Professor Marie-Laure Djelic, as part of her ongoing analysis of the history of capitalism, has looked into the history of the key modern institution for the production of knowledge – the University.

Underlining the historic context, the role of the university as a producer of knowledge has indeed undergone a substantial evolution over the past few hundred years: The medieval university aimed to serve God and Church. The Westphalian university served science and the nation. In the modern university, which grew with the rise of Humanism the 18th and 19th centuries, the role of knowledge was to shape “man” as an empowered individual thinker and citizen. Today –coming to fruition over the past 30 or 40 years and mirroring the advance of neoliberalism – universities have been reinvented as servants of the market.

The University as Servant of the Market

Professor Djelic argues that universities exist today within a neoliberal logic where economic growth is the basis for everything and the market the dominant organizing mechanism for achieving growth. Following this logic, academics and the knowledge they produce have become means to economic growth and hence servants of the market. Within this evolution, Professor Djelic has found key points for concern.

“What I find most worrying, is our new way of analysing the usefulness and relevance of research,” she explains. “Some of the knowledge that was traditionally being produced in universities doesn’t have a direct way of serving the market – like some languages or medieval history for example. Often times, these programs are having trouble finding the funding that they need, and as departments close, we’re starting to loose this kind of knowledge.”

This is compounded by the fact that neo-liberalism calls for less state intervention and a reduction of public funding for different areas of social life – like health or education. As a consequence, the university is in many ways “being called upon to act as a private firm, seeking financing from other private firms based on the perceived economic value behind a program or area of research.” Many universities, and particularly in the United States, are run like private organizations, using New Public Management techniques to set targets and ensure growth. In the most extreme cases, private institutions for higher education are fully commercialized; they compete for “consumers and look to make profits. Even state run schools are now under pressure to account for the ways in which they use funds.”

The Academic in the Audit Society

In many cases, this evolution is impacting the careers of faculty: while professors may have the same diploma, there is wider range of salaries where professors are paid according to their perceived market value. Where traditionally the humanities Faculties would have tended to be the most highly regarded within an institution, today it’s the economists and the “commercial” sciences that take the upper hand.

“Even in the context of the tenure system,” she adds, “professors are increasingly being measured through numbered values – the number of student they teach in a given year, the amount of research they produce, and their famous h and g indexes – to determine how much ‘value’ they create for the school.”

What’s worrying here, explains Professor Djelic, is that too much focus on number value has taken important attention away from content. If a number determines your ‘value’, why bother reading the research and publications that it represents. You can’t count substance!

“More troubling still is that some professors are learning how to manipulate the system so that they get more citations and thus higher index numbers. Younger faculty may find themselves in a situation where they have to be smart about generating high indexes, because these are the number on which their career will be based – more than just ‘publish or perish’ it’s about securing your future with a number value.”

The Student “Consumer”

Students too are impacted heavily by this neoliberal evolution and have been narrowly redefined as future market actors, or ‘consumers’. Not only has the number of students increased steadily over the past century, so has the cost of studying.

“In North America and England in particular, students have been pushed to take on huge amounts of debt in order to study, yet rates of unemployment may eventually impact enrolment rates. And in this event, we may be looking at a situation similar to the sub-prime loan crisis of 2009.”

Professor Djelic describes the current situation like an academic ‘iron cage’ – and one that will be difficult from which to break free. She argues that the only way things are going to change is when the underlying ideology changes – when we move away from this notion that economic growth is the only way to measure value creation and generation. Hopefully, we will be moving towards this change under the watchful eye of younger generations, who might realize that this paradigm is not a sustainable one. 

Further Reading:

Scholars in Action : Past, Present and Future and the chapterScholars in the Audit Society: Understanding our Contemporary Iron Cage by Marie-Laure Djelic, presented at Upsala University. 

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