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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.

Walking with students

12 Oct

I have been experimenting this semester by holding “walking meetings” with students rather than meetings in my office. I was inspired by listening to a talk given by John Paul Lederach – albeit he has the advantage of the beautiful Notre Dame campus for his perambulations with students. But I also like walking and find it a useful antidote to the sedentary academic work-style.

The “walking meetings” are one-to-one start of year meeting with MA in Peace and Conflict students. It is an opportunity for me to get to know the student a little bit, and an opportunity for them to share any questions or concerns they may have.

So why do it? Well, the primary reason is because I like it. I would rather walk around campus than sit in my office. But there are other reasons too. I want to break down – as far as possible – the student/teacher distinction and to engage in a mutual activity. Many of the students are coming to the UK for the first time, or are studying at a UK institution for the first time. Many come from educational environments where there is a very hierarchical relationship between student and teacher. Some students might find the office environment intimidating: it is “my turf”, a desk sits between us and it is full of books which they might think I have read. I certainly haven’t read them all or anything like them all!

The dynamic of walking with someone is very different to a desk-bound meeting. For a start, we are side-by-side rather than face-to-face. We are both engaged in a shared task – navigating our way through a busy campus and its surrounding streets. We can talk about the weather, squirrels, the campus deck chairs, and other ice-breaking non-academic issues. And there is a park next to the campus which is often filled with weird public art that induces mutual wonderment.

Obviously there are a few pre-conditions. I ask the students if they are comfortable with this approach and it may not work with some students with disabilities. And it depends on Manchester’s weather. But so far, I have only had to have one office-bound meeting because of the rain. The start of term weather has been surprisingly clement.

There is a great literature on walking and its relationship with social, political and religious movements. Whether it is Robert MacFarlane’s work on “old ways” and the folk and social history of walking routes, the persistence of pilgrimage routes, the historical importance of the Ramblers’ Association in challenging the privatisation of the countryside, or political marches by Gandhi or Mao, it is clear that walking is not just putting one foot in front of the other.

But mostly I do it because I like it.