The university crumbles under neoliberal contradictions

Until the neoliberal university collapses under its own dead weight, we need to look to free universities to remind ourselves that another world is possible.

by Bran Thoreau via

When I chose to enrol for a PhD, I did so because I thought — first and foremost — that this would be my way to a right livelihood, to a life lived in alignment with my passion. Reading. Writing. Thinking deeply. Engaging in open-ended, endless discussions about fine points. Bringing forth beauty by giving names to the endless qualities of the moving social.

This is still what I expect of that choice, which is why I spend most of my time toiling in anger about the schizophrenic institutional world I have come to inhabit. There are two ways, in particular, in which I feel that life as an academic — and specifically as a PhD student in one of many Wannabe U‘s around the world — dashes that hope: the strain of (and on) teaching, and the lack of pluralism. Mercilessly reminding me that what I thought was an enclave somehow sheltered from the contradictions I was trying to subtract myself from, is in fact just as much part of those broader tensions (how silly of me to think otherwise in the first place!).

I came from the industry, with bright job prospects and a fat check every month. A life many (probably beyond the readership of this magazine) would find a very ‘safe’ option, to be pursued without thinking twice. However, it eventually became clear to me that — from within that professional setting — I would hardly sustain an existence from which I could derive any fulfilment, being led astray from the parameters within which I situate the ‘meaningful’. I left the industry pulled by books, ideas, and the joyous oblivion that is a Master’s degree, when you pay and are left alone to write (almost) whatever you want, and get a piece of paper to mark the achievement at the end.

As soon as I embarked in the first step to an academic career as a PhD student, however, the interest of Wannabe U towards me has shifted significantly. The joyous intellectual freedom of taught postgraduate days has gone. I am now a ‘trainee’ for co-option (by two older members, in keeping with the admission rituals of many elitist organisations around the world) into the world of academia. Well into the process, I can now see that the type of subject that is supposed to come out at the other end is one that can do two things well: contribute to the ‘satisfaction’ of students, entertaining them along the path to a degree along the path to a job, and know that the REF (Research Excellence Framework) is sacred, and that one should try to please it.

If you smile at students and mark them generously, they won’t perhaps feel that the education — which they’re condemning themselves to a life in debt for — is run on a shoestring, with a copious casualisation of labour onto PhD students. Compliant absorbers of the shocks that ripple from the widening divide between the expectations that a neoliberal framework imposes on academic work and what — to many still inside that world – research and education should be about. Vice-Chancellors want students to enjoy a passively happy experience as consumers of educational services. They also want their money.

At the end of the line, the hot potato comes to me, with too many hours and too many students to handle (the time limits set by university regulations breached, in the knowledge that I probably won’t complain), faced with a crowd of people that want from me what I cannot give them. What I do give them is the sense of moving along a syllabus I have not had any input in, and certify their progression to the next stage of this pointless ordeal. On some days I feel like a steward in a low-cost airline, having to smile at customers and feign courtesy and interest for the sake of keeping up appearances, despite having to even pay for the uniform I wear at work. As long as I smile to students, they will never suspect that teaching them is directly antagonistic to the completion of my PhD in the period I have received funding for.

To my institutional condition, they speak as a nuisance that delays research and, in so doing, puts me closer to the point of running out of funding without yet having a PhD (at which point, however, I will be an even hungrier sucker for the systematic outsourcing of teaching onto casual academic labourers!). Despite all that, I still do make an effort to resist this drift towards indifference in the small everyday exchanges with students, trying to remember how passionate I was about university when I was an undergraduate myself. By now, however, it is also clear to me that I am just a cog that will cover a flexible amount of teaching hours, in the sure knowledge that I will not take arms against the tenured staff in the department who decide how much I should teach, and interpret limits in generous ways, probably under similar pressures to balance their own research with a burgeoning teaching load, and offloading undesirable work to the pariahs of this monde a l’envers.

This leads me to my second point. When I signed up for this, I thought academia was a place where ideas could flourish and flurry. And each would stand on the dignity of its nuances and elegance. I thought it did not matter much who you described yourself as, or what the name of the department was. All that mattered is that you motored through the world with a sense of marvel and a curiosity to know more. Here, again, my hopes have been dashed. What I am seeing is a real drive to ‘focus’ research onto the ‘strengths’ of the department, sacrificing every episteme that does not immediately serve the greater cause.

I see this in the fact that new hires increasingly work in the same area of expertise, which means that — when I do have to present my research to them, outside of their narrow focus — there’s increasingly little either of us gets from that exchange. To them, what I do is possibly irrelevant and un-REF-able. To me, their indifference is fascism. I now understand that, as I get out of here (with a PhD, I hope), this will be the expectation I will find elsewhere as well. To please the REF by making my research immediately recognisable to other ‘peers’. So that we can all give each other high marks and then orgasm together in a sterile intellectual bukkake. Forget about looking for the unusual and the subversive in the folds of the world, in conversation with ideas that can make those qualities speak.

While, of course, the disciplining comes to me through colleagues (who either don’t get the irony of preaching revolution and practicing blatant conformity, or are maybe eaten up by frustration just as much as I am), I am aware that there’s little point waging battles against them. It is this model of education that needs to be addressed. The university cannot hold much longer an image of discovery, pluralism and earth-shattering insight when it clings to the empty figures of ‘student satisfaction’ and REF scores. I see universities today as some of the most controversial institutions of our times, where dis-empowered political subjects are churned out, with a piece of paper certifying the success of a disciplinarian process. And where disgruntled academics — for lack of better options — lend their thinking to a system that idiotically ranks epistemes and marginalises dissident views and dissonant experience.

This is why I am becoming increasingly supportive of the free university movement. The neoliberal university pits PhD students against each other, PhDs against tenured academics, younger academics against older ones, academics against students. The potential for infighting is immense and, with it, the increasing sense of despair and that ‘there is no alternative’. Until the behemoth of the neoliberal university collapses under its own dead weight, we need to nurture ourselves — as academics, intellectuals, students — with experiences that remind us that a different world is possible: free universities are the place where we can start doing just that.