What does the term ‘neoliberal university’ mean to you? I understand it as an accusation that ‘the market’ is now at the heart of many institutions, with no regard for other values that have been displaced or ruled out. So all around us we see less public funding for higher education, more precarious working conditions for early career academics, less attention paid to student development than to income generation, an emphasis on measurable targets and less kindness and collegiality amongst us all.
Two very different forms of communication have recently helped me to think about the neoliberal university: one was an academic symposium; the other was an old song.
Last Friday I attended a symposium at the University of Edinburgh entitled Critical Pedagogies: Equality and Diversity in a Changing Institution. There were some impressive speakers. Heidi Sofia Mirza reminded us that, immense and immoveable as the neoliberal university may seem to be, it’s not impregnable. She asked us to think about how we can navigate the cracks in the monolith. She warned of the insidiousness of Equality and Diversity discourses with their bureaucratisation, targets, audits and documentation that seem to ‘remove Equality and Diversity from struggle.’ She offered hope of escape through ways of being that ‘decolonise the mind’ – reconnecting with sensory and emotional experience and memory. Joyce Canaan’s starting point was that those of us who teach in universities have a role in challenging neoliberal values. She reminded us that there is no such thing as a neutral education and that to deny this is in itself a political statement.
And then there’s my song. For some time, now, I’ve found myself humming (and, embarrassingly, sometimes singing out loud) a song from the 60s: ‘Twenty-mile zone.’ Dory Previn sings about a woman who is stopped by a policeman and is accused of ‘screaming, all alone, in her car, in a twenty-mile zone.’ I think this hilarious, sad and ultimately life-affirming song is about a human being expressing her fears and refusing to submit to meaningless restrictions. It’s also about the person who tries to enforce those restrictions, unaware that he’s afraid and screaming too – at his sports games, in his wars, with his police siren. Both within and outside the dominant discourse, they are ‘screaming together alone.’ Is it too fanciful to suggest that this is what happens in the neoliberal university? Some of us enforcing the rules, some of us trying to break out, all of us feeling like screaming?
The symposium got me thinking. But it’s the song that I keep coming back to, wondering what it means for me, my colleagues and our students.
Do you have something to contribute to this conversation? If so, you are invited to an upcoming conference. The 4th Academic Identities Conference will take place at Durham University on July 8th – 9th, 2014, and a call has gone out for Individual papers, Pecha kucha, performance pieces, posters, symposia and workshops on the following themes that all have a bearing on who we are and what our universities are for:
- Power and powerlessness in individual identity-making
- The role of emotion or affect in university learning or academic life
- The discourse(s) of impact and effectiveness
- Critical engagement with the instrumentalism of market discourses
- Graduate futures and the responsibilities of universities
- Policy and/or the process of shaping institutional missions and rhetoric
The deadline for abstracts (500 words in length, excluding references) is 15 December 2013, to be sent to Dr Jan Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org
I’m planning to submit a paper. Or maybe I’ll sing a song.