The myth of the neoliberal university

13 Jun

We have heard a lot about the neoliberal university of late, especially in the UK where universities are increasingly pressured to compete with one another for students, to attract funding, and to ‘productize’ their outputs. Yet, the more I experience life in UK universities the more I wonder if they are truly neoliberal. They are so incredibly bureaucratic and stuffed with a fast-growing layer of managers that they cannot be considered truly neoliberal.

Certainly universities give the impression of being market-orientated. Indeed, quite a few vice chancellors and other senior ‘managers’ seem convinced that the only strategy is one of growth of all things at all times: student numbers, income … and debt. It was reported this week that University College London is £1.2bn in debt in the midst of a growth strategy. £1.2bn! Such a figure would be fine if we were talking about a private corporation, but we are talking about a complex public sector organisation whose main role (one would think) is the education of students and advances in research. In most universities it goes without saying that vice chancellors and their ‘senior management team’ are academics by training and usually have minimal business experience. Yet, somehow, a good portion of vice chancellors have convinced themselves that they are equipped with the skills to launch bonds and take out incredibly complex long-term loans. This isn’t neoliberalism, or indeed good old-fashioned business, it is maxing out credit card.

One of the striking features of UK universities in recent years has been the growth of managers: teaching and learning managers, business managers, impact managers. I was at meeting on teaching recently in which I counted seven people with the term ‘manager’ in their job title. Needless to say none of them had ever helped me deliver a lecture, put together a reading list, or help a student with a problem. The number of managers in UK universities is about to grow again as the government rolls out its ‘Teaching Excellence Framework’ – yet another administrative behemoth camouflaged by the language of new public management.

The sheer number of managers and other bureaucrats means that UK universities cannot be considered truly neoliberal. If neoliberalism is about being market-orientated, lowering costs, and transfering public sector functions to the private sector then the maintenance of superfluous bureaucracy does not fit the term neoliberalism.


One Response to “The myth of the neoliberal university”

  1. Kris 14/06/2016 at 8:41 pm #

    Bang on. Been saying it for years. Modern universities are public bodies rendered top heavy by a self replicating nomenklatura that resembles the worst failings of state socialism, and which has been ineptly hybridised with the simplistic public choice theory ‘strategies’ beloved of the new right. In truth, the latter merely exist as jargon, justification for the nomenklatura, and complicated ‘targets’ largely divorced from reality.

    Our universities have managed to keep the top bureaucracy of the welfare state era, while ditching its social ethos, and to have grafted on it the technical processes of ‘marketisation’, which usually parody the functions of a true market. The result is neither nimble or social. Its like Brezhnev and Mrs Thatch spliced the worst of their genes into people who dont really like teaching or research and told them to run a university.

    The target fetish of the market does however give the nomenklatura further means of control and resource allocation, legitimised by a language of value free efficiency.

    The canary in the coal mine is refering to students as ‘customers’ – but my critique is not what you think…its that no one who really understood markets and consumer motivation would devalue their ‘product’ by reducing its value in such a manner -Pret a Manger has customers – Universities have students and scholars. You don’t get £££££ in debt to be a customer.

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