Instrumentalised teaching and research in higher education

This last week or so hasn’t been much fun. I dreamt I got the sack and then, a couple of days later, I had an article knocked back by a journal. Though the dream came before the rejection, there seemed to be a link between the two. And a link, too, between those two events and a dawning realization (I am a slow learner) that my experience in higher education is shaped not only by whether I teach and research well, but by a neoliberal imperative which drives an agenda based on values quite different from my own.

Professor Raewyn Connell

This was made particularly clear to me reading an article by Connell, which traces the origins of the neoliberal influence on education, lists its main features, and then describes the conditions which are causing me and many of my colleagues a good deal of heartache.

An important, though little discussed, change is toward ‘fractal’ organization where subunits are themselves treated as competitive firms (down to the level of the individual employee). (2)

Universities were redefined as competitive firms, rather than branches of a shared higher education enterprise. Deliberative planning was quickly replaced by struggle for advantage, and a scramble for amalgamations produced our current odd collection of universities. (3)

The expansion of student numbers has been handled with rising class sizes and a cheaper labour force. Though universities do not care to publicize the issue, and the data are opaque, it seems that about 50% of Australian undergraduate teaching is now done by casual labour (euphemized as ‘sessional’). (4)

Competitive markets require visible metrics of success and failure. (4)

A first-order effect of the neoliberal turn is to instrumentalise research and teaching (5)

Showing auditable output within the logic of the system and its measures becomes the requirement; no-one is simply trusted to be doing valuable work. We have proliferated within the university, sometimes with and sometimes without external pressure, many mechanisms of surveillance and reporting under the rubric of accountability [which] institutionalize distrust of staff, while adding to the time pressure in academic jobs. (5)

Neoliberal policymaking, once brutal, now prefers to govern indirectly, through regimes of incentives and disincentives.

It seems to me that one of the effects of this neoliberal climate is to create over-worked, under-appreciated academics (leaders whose explicit job is to bring faculties up to speed to that they actually survive in a competitive environment; middle managers stuck between neo-liberal drivers and staff welfare; and academic soldiers seeing their teaching and research conditions narrowed and eroded).

And one flow-on effect is that collaborations – the bedrock of good research and teaching –  are put at risk.


3 thoughts on “Instrumentalised teaching and research in higher education

  1. As does Connell. But I am keen to find another word besides “neoliberal”. I sometimes feel like it has become the catch-all word for what is wrong with the economy, real politik, life philosophy and the state of the world. I’ve enjoyed calling “neoliberals” the “hobgoblins of small minds” but it’s time for some new terms, I think (abusive and otherwise).

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