The Society for Research into Higher Education

Paul Temple

Be careful what you wish for

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By Paul Temple

At an SRHE conference session not long ago, I remarked on the hostility shown at any mention of neoliberalism. As I recall, the neoliberal charge-sheet included the commodification of higher education, cuts in funding, the proletarianisation of academic staff, an obsession with metrics and targets replacing a culture of standards and quality … the list went on. My response was that while these were all no doubt bad things, neoliberalism was merely a bystander at the crime scene, not the perpetrator. Politicians and their agencies, wishing to exert ever-tighter control over higher education through half-baked ideas about markets and business methods, were the ones wielding the blunt instruments. A proper neoliberal would no more have a view on the size, shape and methods of higher education than they would want to determine the types and quantities of cars produced by the motor industry.

Neoliberals would instead want to reduce government controls on universities (or car makers) to allow them to meet the needs of students (or car buyers) in the ways they judged best. They would want governments to concentrate on what only the state can do, such as providing infrastructure, regulation and consumer protection. Neoliberals would object to the notion that (inevitably politicised) central planning should determine provision, and so, in higher education, would have no time for the REF (or now) the TEF.

The European Single Market is the most ambitious – and successful – transnational neoliberal project ever undertaken. Because it has taken large chunks of economic decision-making out of the hands of national governments, it has been unpopular with both the left and the right in many countries, for oddly similar reasons – as we have just seen in Britain. Created amid the ruins of the Second World War, a neoliberal (as it wasn’t then called) framework administered transnationally and with independent judicial oversight was seen as a means of removing the basis of European conflict: it would be tricky organising a decent invasion if some jobsworth bureaucrat first had to sign off on your armaments programme. Later, the wider economic and social benefits of a very big single market became apparent – as any first-year economics textbook would have predicted, even without the worked example of the United States. Europe became rich and therefore increasingly influential, as well as peaceful. Even Britain’s chronically uncompetitive industries benefitted. What was not to like?

As it turned out, plenty, apparently. The centre of any federal-type organisation comes to be seen as the cause of everyone’s grievance – ask anyone who has worked at the centre of a multi-campus university.

Now, with Britain on the verge of pulling out of the European Single Market, and with the Trump Presidency apparently prepared to junk the free-trade agreements which have underpinned global economic growth for the past half-century, it feels as if the neoliberal moment is passing. Putin’s Russia – the antithesis of a neoliberal state – is said to be delighted. Neoliberalism was always twinned with internationalism, and the loss of one – we are starting to see – seems certain to lead to the loss of the other. Climate change agreements look set to be early victims. Universities, international organisations par excellence, will also be losers – as we all feared they would. The various forms of narrow political and economic nationalism, last seen in action in Europe in the 1930s, seem likely to fill the vacuum. Theresa May’s chilling line in her Party conference speech in October – “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere” – showed what we can expect. Does anyone now think that higher education, anywhere, will be better off in a post-neoliberal world? Be careful what you wish for.

SRHE member Paul Temple, Centre for Higher Education Studies, UCL Institute of Education, University College London.

Author: SRHE News Blog

An international learned society, concerned with supporting research and researchers into Higher Education

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