The market university and knowledge

On 23 May this year, the Academic Board of the University of Sydney held a discussion of the impact of neoliberalism on universities.  This was triggered by the Australian federal government’s MyUniversity website, following on from their MySchool website, a classic example of neoliberal market-making through the creation of “league tables” in education.  I was asked to open the discussion, and wrote for the occasion a paper on neoliberalism, universities and knowledge.  You can find the full text of the paper here.  What follows is the final page of the paper.

I don’t doubt the Dawkins-era intention to make university education available to more people; that indeed happened.  But it happened through neoliberal mechanisms that undermined the democratic potential of social investment in higher education.  Rather than opening out the knowledge system in participatory ways, our power-holders have systematically fenced and stratified the republic of knowledge to the point where there is no popular ownership of science or humane knowledge.  It’s a speculation, but I think the dangerous success of the climate-change deniers is partly due to this.

Third, and perhaps most serious, is the impact of market logic on our relation with truth.  A university’s responsibility is, ultimately, to be a practitioner of reason and bearer of truth.  Research workers in all our fields know how hard it actually is to establish truth.  This is not a responsibility one can take lightly, and it is contradicted by the public presentation of a fantasy university.  When I walk down Eastern Avenue and see my university hanging up vainglorious banners saying how wonderful we are, my heart sinks.  Marketing logic has pushed Australian universities (like others) to invent selling points and halo effects, an imaginary world of breakthroughs and great minds and blue-sky payoffs.  To be blunt, it pushes universities into a realm of calculated misrepresentation that is hard to distinguish from lying.

And in conclusion...

The purpose of this paper is to invite a discussion of issues that are fundamental to the future of the university.  I don’t have an immediate solution to propose, except discussion itself.  To invite this, of course, is to assume that there are alternatives worth talking about. 

Neoliberalism is the dominant policy logic in our world.  One can of course embrace it, as the Vice-Chancellor at Melbourne has recently done with evident joy.  But it is not the only possible logic, and there is more than one way to respond to the neoliberal pressures that exist.  Neoliberal policymaking, once brutal, now prefers to govern indirectly, through regimes of incentives and disincentives.  The rewards and costs are real, and reckoning with those regimes is inevitable.  But in doing so we are not obliged to treat staff ruthlessly, we do not have to construct fantasies about ourselves, we need not defer to Harvard, and we need not pretend to be BHP.

It seems to me that a viable alternative to MyUniversity will have to grow from an understanding of knowledge production and higher education as a distinctive form of work – in my discipline’s jargon, from the intellectual labour process itself.  Modern intellectual labour involves complex forms of cooperation requiring trust and reciprocity; it involves both a critical and affirmative relationship with existing knowledge, so the process is cumulative and educative; and it is inherently unpredictable and open-ended, therefore in an important sense ungovernable.  Shaping institutions to foster and support such labour (by students as well as staff) is not easy, but it is a task worth our intelligence and commitment.  It will require some nerve, it will have costs, and it will require confidence in ourselves as a university.
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