By Richard House (The Critical Institute)
…the mind does not require filling like a bottle, but rather, like wood, it only requires kindling to create in it an impulse to think independently and an ardent desire for the truth – Plutarch
The University is a critical institution or it is nothing – Stuart Hall (1932–2014)
…higher education may be one of the few public spheres left where knowledge, values, and learning offer a glimpse of the promise of education for nurturing public values, critical hope, and what… Paulo Freire called, ‘the practice of freedom’ – Henry A. Giroux (2013)
…the university is nothing if it is not a public trust and social good; that is a critical institution infused with the promise of cultivating intellectual insight, the imagination, inquisitiveness, risk-taking, social responsibility and the struggle for justice… Missing from neoliberal market societies are those public spheres – from public and higher education to the mainstream media and digital screen culture – where people can develop what might be called the civic imagination – Henry A. Giroux (2013)
Allowing universities to be run by bean counters and bureaucrats is detrimental to academics’ ingenuity and productivity – Amanda Goodall
…the discourse of higher education now resembles what you might hear at a board meeting at a No. 2 pencil-factory, [with its emphasis on]: productivity, efficiency, metrics, data-driven value, [all of] which places utter, near-religious faith in this highly technical, market-based view of education [which] like all human enterprises, can (and must) be quantified and evaluated numerically, to identify the ‘one best way’, which can then be ‘scaled up’, or mass-produced across the nation, be it No. 2 pencils, appendectomies, or military drones – Adam Bessie (2013)
Since the 1980s, neoliberalism has been expressing itself in university syllabi, … abandoning previous values of critical-thinking and challenging basic assumptions… – Holly Brentnall (2013)
The term ‘Neoliberalism’… resonates as a convenient label for describing how and why so many things seem to suck in Academia. Neoliberal universities primarily serve the needs of commerce. They need to churn out technically skilled human resources (made desperate for any work by high loads of debt) and easily monetized technical advancements – Eric Kansa, LSE Impact blog
In the UK…the capitalist state increasingly uses formal education merely as a vehicle to promote capitalism – Mike Cole, University of East London
In a period when we increasingly hear talk of ‘the new global economy’, ‘information and services economies’, and ‘post-capitalist society’…, we do well to remember that the organization of productive life in societies like our own remains, implacably, capitalist: albeit in new, restless, complex and profoundly re-invented ways – Colin Lankshear (1997)
Academics may not like it, but teaching has had to be transformed from a pre-Fordist artisan craft into a Fordist organized mass production operation –John Dearlove
…some colleges and universities are increasingly opening their classrooms to corporate interests, standardizing the curriculum, instituting top-down governing structures, and generating courses that promote entrepreneurial values unfettered by social concerns or ethical consequences – Henry A. Giroux
In this article I will examine ways in which the modern, ‘neo-liberal’ university (or ‘academy’) is systematically betraying the notion of the university as a creative space where free thinking and non-mainstream innovation are possible and, indeed, welcomed. The collection of epigraphic quotations introducing this article is intended to paint a powerful background canvas to these urgent cultural concerns. In what follows I will also be describing in some detail recent counter-cultural initiatives in higher education which give us hope that something exciting and transformative is eminently possible to achieve.
Today, the academy is being increasingly fashioned in the image of the neo-liberal capitalist economy, and the economic imperatives and ideological practices that accompany it. This can only ever generate what post-modern theorist David Harvey has called ‘status-quo theory’1 – that is, theory and research which merely serve to reinforce the distributional, structural and materialist status quo, rather than generating theory and research that can help us to transcend our current fetters and limitations through a truly transformative education.
‘Calculative’, instrumental thinking (cf. Foucault, Steiner, Heidegger and Einstein), the ubiquitous ‘audit culture’ (see Michael Power’s seminal work) with its catastrophic impact upon public services and education, and the imperatives of global capital accumulation which ‘annihilates space by time’ (Marx) together constitute a noxious combination of forces and influences that cannot but severely compromise, if not almost eradicate, the freedom that is an essential prerequisite for innovative and culturally progressive thinking and research to flourish. Critique is all very well, and is arguably a necessary condition of productive change; but how can we move into concerted action in order to counter these formidable enemies of freedom in the educational sphere?
Thankfully, a whole range of exciting counter-cultural initiatives is beginning to challenge these anti-learning trends, just two of which are the Ruskin Mill model of learning and human development (weaving together the revolutionary work of Rudolf Steiner, John Ruskin and William Morris);2 and the new non-profit Critical Institute (TCI),3 founded and run by academics and activist practitioners who are proactively questioning and confronting inequalities and oppression. I will be referring to other initiatives later, in the context of the University of Gloucestershire conference on ‘Re-imagining the University’, held in Cheltenham in October 2014, and in which I participated.
A BRIEF FORAY INTO THE ‘AUDIT CULTURE’ AND MANAGERIALISM
Audit culture is a product of this drive toward marketization, but it is also itself an important vehicle for marketization and commodification –Charles Thorpe
[T]he ‘administrative’ and ‘technological’ have penetrated the very lifeblood of our existence – Max van Manen
Concern about the so-called ‘audit culture’( see the bibliographic resource, below) has received growing attention since the 1990s, and has now even reached the psychotherapy literature (my own professional field) itself. As newspaper editor Peter Preston once wrote, ‘We now live in a relentlessly superintended world, a quangoed regime of commissioners, inspectors, and regulators…. Fundamental principles about freedom, autonomy, and citizenship are threatened by this state of affairs…. Obsessional activity… is essentially about control rather than creativity’. And if ‘standards’ are to be a legitimate concern, then more disturbingly still, such systems may well be contributing to a deterioration of standards, whilst maintaining the pretence that they are achieving the opposite.
Certainly, many commentators believe there to have been a catastrophic culture of targets, testing and surveillance swamping both the British educational system since the mid-1990s and the wider public-services realm. And whilst one might charitably presume that the conscious intention of apologists for the audit and accountability culture is that of improving the quality of public services, quite other agendas are likely operating at individual and collective-unconscious levels – a suspicion bolstered by the commonplace observation that such a system does seem to routinely bring about the very opposite of its professed intention, via often perverse, countervailing unintended consequences.
A radical incommensurability can also be posited between, on the one hand, the state’s drive for standardisation and common, universal standards of service provision, and on the other, responsiveness (or lack thereof) to the specificities and particularities of local conditions. In my own field of counselling and psychotherapy, a new hegemonic discourse and its associated Foucauldian ‘regime of truth’ have recently come to saturate the field – a discourse that practitioners are increasingly having to use (or at least go through the motions of ‘playing the game’), if they are to be taken seriously in the modern super-audited National Health Service. These developments also represent a critical shift in the locus of power away from the professional autonomy of practitioners themselves, and towards managerialist imperatives and administrative bureaucratic interests (a story that can no doubt be re-told many times throughout the public services). And the axioms of the audit-driven paradigm routinely influence, or even construct, the way in which practitioners and professionals conceive of, and think about, their work and their very identities within such regimes of truth.
Such an audit-driven, calculation-obsessed worldview is quite unable to embrace ambiguity, not-knowing, the intuitive and the mysterious; and the first casualty will be any approach to practice or research that consistently embraces ambiguity and both/and dialectical thinking, which does not conform to any linear, predictable and controllable process or monolithic logic.
There is no doubt a telling, if complex and overdetermined psychoanalytic story to be told about the audit culture, and the economic, cultural and individual dynamics underpinning and driving it. Such crucial engagements, and the theoretical labour they require, lie beyond the scope and intention of this article. But theoretical insight also needs to be balanced with a committed praxis, engaging fully with the particular political and strategic challenges to which audit culture mentalities and practices give rise in our daily lives.
There are a number of interrelated reasons why the audit culture perpetrates such damage to human services in which quintessentially relational considerations, qualities and sensibilities should be at the core of professional praxis. First, in a competitive short-termist polity, Government targets will necessarily be manipulatively and expediently politicized – and ipso facto, they will be ideological rather than scientific in nature. A targeting fixation is also intrinsically distorting, not merely because quantitative indicators can never capture the complexities and subtleties of true service quality, but because the indicators themselves become more important than the qualities they are purported to measure (particularly when punitive ‘name and shame’ is the threatened result of ‘statistical ‘failure’) – with public service workers and politicians alike focusing all their energies on meeting the crude targets, while the far more subtle and complex issues of true quality are ignored.
Distortions are then further exacerbated when those subjected to this low-trust ‘surveillance culture’ can ‘cook’ the indicators not by genuine improvements, but by wasting resources outmanoeuvring the assessment system. Next, the very mentality which has been imposed upon the system in order to ‘deliver’ the targets (narrow, utilitarian…) will tend systematically to have compromised and denuded much that was of real value in the pre-targeting era. Finally, the testing and/or targeting regime – as with all technocratic intrusions into human systems – leads to quite unpredictable side-effects which commonly do more net harm than do the improvements they are supposed to effect. Just a few examples within education are: overall curriculum distortion, rampant teacher de-professionalisation, and anxiety and stress cascading through the system from ‘top’ (politicians) to ‘bottom’ (children and students).
One visible symptom of such a systemic cascading of audit-culture praxis is observable within higher education. The phrase the ‘commodification of knowledge’ is now used more and more frequently, with students increasingly being referred to as ‘consumers’. This shift into the linguistic register and discourse of the free market denotes a systematic ‘marketization’ of HE which many believe to be doing severe damage to the original idea(l) of the free university. Those working in British HE will have noticed that the attitude with which students are now coming to their university studies has also undergone a substantial and concomitant change in recent years. Whereas in previous times, students would come with a thirst for learning and for a general widening of their educational horizons, today it is routinely very difficult to get students to attend any kind of learning experience that is not directly related to the narrow confines of their courses of study and about which they will not be formally assessed.
It seems clear that there is at least some kind of causal relationship between this new student attitude, on the one hand, and the schooling experiences and auditing technologies into which pupils and students have literally been ‘schooled’ in a system that is preoccupied with and dominated by examinations, ‘high-stakes’ tests, and an associated and all- pervasive culture of ‘teaching to the test’. Thus, a school’s informal and formal structures will impact upon students’ learning and the way in which they absorb values, which students will then unconsciously draw upon as they grow into adults.
We urgently need research into what the effect might be of this pernicious regime of learning upon the innovation and creativity that should be the very lifeblood of the free university. This is also another example of Harvey’s ‘status quo theory’, whereby ‘the system’ and its organisation yield outcomes which reinforce the prevailing ideological hegemony, rather than opening up ‘transitional spaces’ in which genuine transformation and change can occur, and in which quite new thoughts are able to come to one. Worst of all, the damage being done by this auditing regime to the free spirit and love of learning – and with all the attendant and quite unpredictable long-term consequences that are likely to ensue – is quite incalculable.
So-called ‘managerialism’ also goes hand in hand with the audit culture. Thus, there is a common tendency under neoliberalism to define social, economic and political issues as problems that can best be resolved through management, and with managerialism, or the New Public Management’ constituting a new mode of governance in Western countries’ restructured public sectors. Tellingly, such managerialism draws theoretically on corporate and private sector management styles, and also on public choice theory and new institutional economics (e.g. agency theory and transaction cost analysis). Within education, managerialism has taken the form of a move away from administration and policy, and towards a new emphasis on management, with educational bureaucracies, educational institutions and the public policy-making process itself being subject to fundamental change. In the bibliographic resource below, there are many citations which directly address this crucial modern phenomenon of the neoliberal state.
ENTER (STAGE RIGHT) THE IMPERATIVES OF GLOBAL CAPITAL ACCUMULATION
There is arguably an urgent need to update the political-economic and cultural critique (by the likes of Althusser, and Bowles and Gintis) of the way in which the imperatives of an increasingly globalised capitalism, with its accompanying rampant materialism, are increasingly impinging upon what are, increasingly, less than ‘relatively autonomous’ cultural activities like education, as those forces seek to cast these cultural activities in their own image. More specifically, a central concern must be to examine the ways in which governments are increasingly seeking to gear the functioning and values of a ‘hyper-modernised’ education system to ‘the needs of the globalized economy’.
In the case of the modern university, whilst in the early nineteenth century, universities were ‘relatively autonomous’ cultural institutions whose role was to provide social critique, independent of the State, and with knowledge substantially being pursued for its own sake, what we now see – in what is variously referred to as the New Public Management or the New Managerialism with their ‘rationalised performance criteria’ – is knowledge being ‘commodified so as to make it a useful product of pre-ordained and pre-conceived… directives and scientific outcomes not necessarily for the sake of science, truth or knowledge’.4 Far from supporting and encouraging a free climate of relatively unconstrained creativity, diversity, and learning, such a regime has the effect of reversing the conditions under which an innovative milieu of education and learning flourishes.
The university cast in the image of Late Modernity is therefore moving away from its formerly more progressive vision, with ever-more infiltration of ‘neo-liberal’ driven, control-oriented State influence, and a stultifying and anxiety-inculcating culture of surveillance, audit, and bureaucratic control. What we are witnessing, in short, is an economy-driven neo-liberal, even quasi-authoritarian colonisation of secondary and tertiary education across the globe, far removed indeed from the progressive idea of an education system that arises purely from cultural and spiritual (as opposed to narrowly economic) needs. In Britain (which I know best), such economistic values and practices are now infiltrating right down into early-years education, so that even our youngest children are increasingly being exposed to a hyperactively modernizing utilitarian creed.
Thus, there is a relentless trend toward ever-earlier formal schooling, and the pressures on children to become early learners, pressures which have recently grown considerably across the Western world. Political leaders and policy-makers are routinely assuming that if they want their countries to compete successfully in the globalized economy, then they must have a better educated workforce – and they have then assumed (albeit erroneously) that the earlier children start intellectual-cognitive education, the better. Such narrowly utilitarian policies seem to be founded partly in political expediency, partly in lack of imagination – and partly in sheer ignorance of the subtleties and complexities of child development.
At a psychosocial level, it can also be argued that modern Western culture is teetering under the weight of unprecedented levels of unacknowledged and unprocessed anxiety, which in turn is toxically infecting our education systems and public institutions. As a result, it can be argued that policy-makers are in some sense ‘acting out’ in all manner of highly dysfunctional and inappropriate ways, in the process exposing our hapless children and students to the full force of a soullessly utilitarian educational regime that has little to do with student’s developmentally informed learning needs, and everything to do with the Zeitgeist of Late Modernity, the hyper-competitive globalised economy, and politicians’ ‘learned helplessness’ in the face of these global forces.
The ‘politicization’ of education has therefore become a cultural norm in Late Modernity, yet it has occurred by surreptitious stealth over a number of years, and without any informed public debate. The psycho(social) dynamics that are underpinning and driving these cultural developments need to be fully theorised and articulated – a task, surely, for critical scholars and activists across the globe in the coming years.
There is a tradition in the Academy that academics should never venture into the area of political controversy and critique, as (it is claimed) this necessarily compromises their alleged neutrality and detached ‘objectivity’ – or worse, is a manifestation of a kind of immature ‘acting out’ of unresolved juvenile ‘rebel material’. The reader will probably have gathered by now that this is a picture of academic production which I reject as being epistemologically incoherent and quite unsustainable. David Harvey’s notion of ‘status quo theory’ (see note 1) is especially relevant here, denoting as it does academic work which, by its very nature and philosophical assumptions about what constitutes ‘valid’ knowledge, necessarily and self-fulfillingly yields academic work which is reinforcing of the status quo. In common with Harvey, I believe that it is quite possible to retain the best aspects of rationality and coherence of argumentation, whilst taking up a committed, often political position in relation to real-world cultural and political realities.
SOME PERSONAL EXPERIENCE OF THE ACADEMY
I now move on to set my own experience as a university lecturer within the foregoing context. In my own university experience (notably between 1973 and 1984, and then from 2005 till mid-2014), while there was always some discernible tension between inculcating known knowledge, on the one hand, and critically challenging received knowledge on the other, there did used to be a tangible sense of the university being a space where critical thinking that challenged conventional ‘regimes of truth’ (to use Michel Foucault’s celebrated term) was positively encouraged and welcomed. Certainly, in my final BA Hons exams in Geography at Oxford in 1976, I ‘critically deconstructed’ virtually the whole corpus of the conventional Geography discipline. In this process I drew on contemporary critical Marxist thinking and also the philosophy of science literature to challenge virtually every foundational assumption of the discipline, and this ‘scorched-earth policy’, which ended up with me questioning whether there even existed a viable and legitimate academic discipline that we could call ‘Geography’, didn’t stop me gaining a first-class degree.
I wonder whether such an approach would meet with a similar result in today’s university. My more recent university experience (this time as a teacher) suggests that there has been a progressive (or perhaps I mean regressive!) moving away from, or even abandoning of, previously existing values of critical thinking and the challenging of basic assumptions, and towards a vocationally driven utilitarianism that privileges often quite ill-defined skills such as teamwork, communication, leadership and so on – arguably the kinds of abilities that are demanded by the drive for competitive success in the neo-liberal globalised economy. After all, posing fundamental critical questions about the foundational assumptions of our materialistic worldview aren’t likely to yield significant bottom-line dividends in the global competitive economy.
Relatedly, assuming that the emphases that universities now routinely place on ‘future career prospects’ are accurately reflecting (rather than creating) students’ actual concerns, then the dominating priority for today’s students is almost exclusively vocational, with their future career-path being the prime driver underpinning all of their decisions in relation to their studies. Of course there is an economic reality to this, unlike in previous times, with most English university graduates now having to pay off £40,000+ of debt accrued, as students now have to pay far closer to the economic price for their own higher education via borrowing and debt, with the resulting ‘degree package’ now becoming just one more commodity to be purchased in ‘the knowledge economy’. Note the tell-tale moving away from the idea of university education as a ‘public good’, being public expenditure from which the whole of society benefits; and towards a thorough-goingly individualised commodity which is conceived as providing an individual, private benefit only, and for which the individual therefore needs to pay an economic price. In such a system, we see students themselves increasingly treated as commodities, and education transformed into a big business, with the idea of education for its own sake a notable casualty.
So this new ‘student-as-customer/consumer’ phenomenon, and the associated commodification of higher learning, is clearly, at one level, an instrumental artifact of neo-liberalism, with its desire to secure national success in the hyper-competitive international economic system. But something crucial is arguably being lost in all this. It is surely no coincidence that back in the 1970s, university students were far less concerned with career paths, and far more likely to be coming to university for learning for its own sake. In the latter environment, it becomes far more possible to question all the assumptions, think outside of conventional boxes, and question the status quo (which is certainly what I did in my own university studies in the early 1970s).
In stark contrast, today we have the preponderance of ‘status quo theory’ (Harvey) – theory that can only by definition support and reinforce the existing system, rather than question it; for if my very future economic survival depends upon pursuing a ‘successful career’ and earning a considerable salary, then this is far more likely to be achieved by fitting into the existing system, rather than challenging it or going against its grain. In short, this is a recipe for cultural stasis and the further entrenchment of the materialist worldview, rather than one of cultural evolution and the transcending of the limits of the materialistic status quo.
I have been quite shocked and dismayed this past year to be visiting a number of university open days with my daughter, and to experience at first hand their relentless ‘hard sell’ around career prospects, and the concomitant down-playing of the importance of critical thinking and learning for its own sake. The idea of the latter is seemingly in rapid if not terminal decline, then, in the Brave New neo-liberal world: witness whole university philosophy and humanities departments being closed down, and the intellectual vandalism that such institutional changes represent. Voices like those of Professor Martha Nussbaum,5 who argues compellingly for the crucial place of the humanities in higher learning, are sadly in a small minority, and are comprehensively drowned out by the corporate voices of instrumentalism, managerialism and ‘the market’.
THE PHENOMENON OF ‘NEO-LIBERALISM’
Some background regarding neo-liberalism is in order at this juncture. In the New York Times, Stanley Fish6 writes that: ‘Neoliberalism is a pejorative way of referring to a set of economic/political policies based on a strong faith in the beneficent effects of free markets’. An oft-cited definition is that of Paul Treanor:7 ‘Neoliberalism is a philosophy in which the existence and operation of a market are valued in themselves, separately from any previous relationship with the production of goods and services… and where the operation of a market or market-like structure is seen as an ethic in itself, capable of acting as a guide for all human action, and substituting for all previously existing ethical beliefs.’
Postmodern theorist and Marxist academic David Harvey8 and other critics argue that once neo-liberal goals and priorities become embedded in a culture’s way of thinking, institutions that don’t regard themselves as neo-liberal will nevertheless engage in practices that mime and extend neo-liberal principles – privatisation, untrammelled competition, the proliferation of markets…. And these are precisely the principles and practices that these critics find in the 21st century university, where, according to another critical theorist and foremost critic of the neo-liberal university, Henry Giroux, the ‘historical legacy’ of the university conceived ‘as a crucial public sphere’ has given way to a university ‘that now narrates itself in terms that are more instrumental, commercial and practical’.9 And here is Giroux again: ‘many institutions of higher education are now committed almost exclusively to economic goals, such as preparing students for the workforce – all done as part of an appeal to rationality, one that eschews matters of inequality, power and the ethical grammars of suffering’.
WAYS OF TEACHING AND ASSESSMENT
What I am calling the ‘neoliberalisation’ of the academy manifests in a particularly toxic fashion in ways of teaching and approaches to assessment. Practices like posting up lecture notes to students before lectures and compulsory Power Points in lectures are becoming increasingly commonplace, and I used to shock my students when saying in lectures that ‘learning outcomes’ have been possibly the greatest catastrophe in the history of education. The creative space of not-knowing from which new, living thinking can emerge (cf. Heidegger, Steiner and Winnicott) is being increasingly attenuated in the modern university, and to invoke David Harvey again, the specification of what students are going to learn prior to the learning experience itself is in grave danger of yielding little more than learning that can only reinforce and buttress status-quo thinking, with knowledge becoming frozen, rather than open to out-of-the-box innovative insight.
On this theme, here is educational theorist Lynn Fendler:10
Now there is a reversal; the goals and outcomes are being stipulated at the outset, and the procedures are being developed post hoc. The “nature” of the educated subject is stipulated in advance, based on objective criteria, usually statistical analysis. Because the outcome drives the procedure (rather than vice versa), there is no longer the theoretical possibility of unexpected results; there is no longer the theoretical possibility of becoming unique in the process of becoming educated… In this new system, evaluation of educational policy reform is limited to an evaluation of the degree to which any given procedure yields the predetermined results…
Evangelia Karagiannopoulou11 is saying something similar when she writes of ‘an academic environment which is tolerant to paradox and the unexpected, increas[ing] the possibility of deep learning and relativistic reasoning. Such an environment is likely to increase students’ tolerance of situations involving uncertainty and not knowing, enabling them to develop a more integrated self.’ ‘Audit culture’ environments12 where the nature of learning is routinely specified and made explicit in advance are entirely antithetical to such an open learning milieu. There is arguably an urgent need to rediscover and refound humanistic, experiential-phenonemological approaches to learning, Goethean observational science, and educationalist Rudolf Steiner’s pedagogical notion of ‘the concept’ and theory coming last, rather than first, in the learning experience.
Recently, the well-known academic and Professor, Nina Warner, resigned from the University of Essex, and referring to the ‘new brutalism in academia’, she wrote the following:13
A Tariff of Teaching Expectations would be imposed across the university, with 17 targets to be met, and success in doing so assessed twice a year…. [This] model for higher education mimics supermarkets’ competition on the high street; the need for external funding pits one institution against another… Plans for a splendid new building for an ‘international centre for democracy and conflict resolution’ were cancelled last autumn…. So no new human rights building, but a big new business school…. I could go on, about the cases of colleagues and their experience of managers’ ‘instructions’, arrogance and ignorance, and the devices they adopt to impose their will…. What is happening at Essex reflects… the general distortions required to turn a university into a for-profit business – one advantageous to administrators and punitive to teachers and scholars.
Last year, one of my ex Roehampton University colleagues, Alessandra Lopez y Royo, also resigned from her university post as a Reader in visual culture, writing the following in Times Higher Education magazine:14
I feel part of an oppressive and hierarchical structure that demands the compromise of individuality and creativity in order to fit the mould. When I received my doctorate in art and archaeology nearly a quarter of a century ago, I couldn’t imagine ever wanting to leave the academy. But I am about to swap the security of a monthly academic salary for the precariousness of independent scholarship – if that concept even still exists – because I feel I can no longer sacrifice my dignity and integrity within a university.
Alessandra also writes of ‘dread[ing] the start of each academic year’; of ‘a student body… who almost all refused to read beyond lecture notes, ignoring the bibliographies I carefully put together’; of having to ‘bow to the managerial imperative of treating [students] as customers who have to be satisfied, allowing them to show impatience and lack of respect with impunity’; of inflated degrees prevailing; and of staff being undervalued by management. She also speaks movingly of ‘the humanist values that attracted me to academia as a space of free, non-instrumentalist critical thinking. I feel part of an oppressive and hierarchical structure that demands the compromise of individuality and creativity in order to fit the mould.’ And perhaps most tellingly, she continues, ‘Nor is my experience unique. Go to any department in a middle- to low-ranking university and you will hear similarly woeful tales…. Universities, aping the worst businesses’ obsession with their bottom line above all else, are churning out MAs and PhDs with little regard for the future either of students or subjects.’
Nor is this by any means solely a British phenomenon. Here is Associate Professor of Computer Science, Terran Lane, describing his reasons for resigning from his academic post at the University of New Mexico in 2012.15 Described in the report as ‘full of anger and sorrow at the erosion of an institution he loved’, and referring to ‘the tightening grip of administration and the rise of anti-intellectual attacks’, Terran wrote of ‘a taxonomy on the forces that are making it increasingly unpleasant to be an academic in the US right now’ – pointing to the difficulty of making a tangible, positive difference in the world; struggles with workload and life balance; increasing centralisation of power into university administrations and decrease in autonomy for professors; … specialisation, narrowness of vision and risk aversion within academic disciplines; … moves towards the mass production and automation of education; … and the rise of anti-intellectualism and anti-education sentiment in the US.
The response to his resignation was tsunamic, with Terran’s postbag bulging:
Clearly I had struck a nerve…. Many people said that they had left or were going to leave academia, or that they knew someone who had or was, for many of the same reasons. Others said they weren’t leaving, but felt the same pressures and were also deeply unhappy about them…. People were reporting very similar frustrations and battles – erosions of resources, autonomy, flexibility, vision and respect for learning.
He adds further that ‘we were all suffering in silence’. with ‘individuals… continuing to pursue a calling that they love in the face of growing obstacles, with no clear way to give voice to their frustrations’, and with these issues being ‘often far larger and more diffuse than a single administration or even a single government’, with a generation of scholars beginning to be forced out of the field. Terran ends with a desperate call to all academics: ‘Only by speaking with a concerted voice will we have any hope of achieving the changes that are so plainly needed.’
In my view, these are by no means the isolated expressions of disgruntled misfits or ‘rebel’ individualists, but rather, they represent a deep cultural malaise lying at the heart of the contemporary neo-liberal university – one which needs our urgent and concerted attention.
RE-IMAGINING THE UNIVERSITY?
Enter, ‘stage left’, the recent conference entitled ‘Reimagining the University’, held in Cheltenham on the 17 and 18 October 2014, and jointly sponsored by the University of Gloucestershire (who hosted the event), Alanus University in Germany, and the Crossfields Institute, and at which I had the good fortune to offer a presentation along with my colleague Dr Aksel Hugo from the Ruskin Mill Field Centre, Nailsworth (Gloucestershire). As soon as I arrived, it became clear immediately that this was not to be your conventional money-making university conference that privileges quantity and size over quality (i.e. maximising ‘bums on seats’). Thus, there were a maximum of just 60 seats in the main conference room, and it rapidly became clear that this event was far more concerned with deep reflection on the nature of learning and education and imagining the not-yet-thought, than it was about showcasing the latest (‘status quo’) research of ambitious university careerists climbing up the slippery career-pole.
The conference was opened by Stephen Marston, Vice Chancellor of the University of Gloucestershire, Charlotte von Bülow, Founder of Crossfields Institute and Professor Marcelo da Veiga, Rector of Alanus University, with an early keynote presentations by
Ken Gibson (of the Crossfields Institute). Professor Marston spoke tellingly of the university being ‘a place of relationships’ where the love of learning needs to be paramount. Charlotte von Bülow then emphasised the importance of thinking ‘out of the box’ and challenging one another; and Professor da Veiga spoke of Alanus as ‘a university of the arts and social science’ which challenges conventional worldviews. This conference was also to challenge tired old conventional formats, with its world café and engaged conversations with one’s partner after every talk or presentation.
In his panoramic address, ‘Remembering the University: The Origins and Original Intentions of the University’, Ken Gibson spoke with great erudition on 4,000 years of the university – in just 20 minutes! – starting with the six arts that were at the heart of higher learning in Ancient China, and with interesting reference to the seven liberal arts; Dorothy L. Sayers’ ‘The Lost Tools of Learning’ (presented in Oxford in 1947); Wilhelm von Humboldt’s liberal memorandum of 1810, which highlighted freedom in teaching and learning, and academic self-governance free of state influence; John Henry Newman’s 1854 perspective on educating the whole human being; H.E.L. Fisher’s Wisconsin idea of the university being embedded in the local community (Fisher, a Minister of Education, actually introduced Rudolf Steiner’s Oxford education lectures in 1923); Jose Ortegay Gassett on ‘The Barbarism of Specialisation’ (1930); and most recently, Professor Marina Warner’s forensic diatribe against the neo-liberal university (referred to earlier).
Keynote presenter Zoe Robinson (Keele University) spoke of the need for a paradigm shift when she spoke of the mismatch between the chimerical certainty of the ‘audit culture’ that now so dominates the Academy, and the nature of an intrinsically uncertain world. Her core theme was the re-examining of how we teach in a time of ecological crisis.
Arran Stibbe (University of Gloucestershire) then introduced the World Café on the theme of re-imagining the university, considering the question, ‘What are our visions for a re-imagined university?’. Each table considered different aspects of this question, such as identity, embodiment, and environment.
On Saturday morning, Professor Shelley Saguaro (Head of the School of Humanities, University of Gloucestershire) spoke tellingly of the challenges of commercialisation and employability; but for me, the morning was captured by Joss Winn from the University of Lincoln, who spoke on ‘Cooperative Higher Education’. Joss didn’t mince words: for him, the conventional university is ‘bankrupt’, and he and radical colleagues are in the game of resistance, dissolution and transformation. He referred to the great cultural critic Walter Benjamin, who in 1915 wrote ‘The life of students’, and in 1934 ‘The author as producer’, where Benjamin decried the state of the modern university. In Lincoln’s Social Science Centre (or SSC – with the telling strapline ‘Free Cooperative Higher Education’),16 there is a strong culture of the students as producers, with a collaborative relationship between teachers and students rather than one of hierarchical expertise, and ‘grounded in social theory against what the university has become’ (Winn). The SSC is therefore about dissolving the conventional university, and re-imagining a new social form for a new cooperative university. An important conference on the theme of ‘Learning Together’ at Manchester’s Cooperative College (9 December 2014), chaired by Ed Mayo, is also part of this groundswell.17
Joss also highlighted Andrew McGettigan’s work on what the latter calls ‘The Process of Financialisation in Higher Education’,18 precipitated when Middlesex University announced plans to close its highest rated, and internationally respected, research centre in philosophy, the Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy (CRMEP) – which led McGettigan to look closely into the funding of higher education, and how certain universities are increasingly aping the strategies of private corporations. Joss himself has also produced a useful bibliography on the cooperative university.19
Marcelo da Veiga of Alanus University then spoke to ‘The Role of Philosophy and Art in Higher Education’ For him, Alanus is a living attempt to re-imagine the modern university, which explicitly recognises and honours the role of philosophy and art in higher education. For Marcelo, there is a need ‘to rescue philosophical thinking’, and to cultivate ‘tentative reflective thinking’, which is artistic and process-orientated, and does not seek measurable answers. This is a direct challenge, then, to the ‘calculative’ thinking that Michel Foucault, Martin Heidegger and Rudolf Steiner challenged, in their different ways.
‘Living thinking’ (Steiner) stimulates thinking as a movement, exploring possibilities, posing and living with questions, and not immediately seeking answers. In this approach, the process itself is relished, rather than being results-driven. Moreover, aesthetic experience, and the knowing that comes from it, are privileged – knowing which ‘positivistic’ approaches to knowledge-generation cannot reach. The spontaneous ground of thinking is also central here, with its poetic and aesthetic dimension taking us beyond one-sided materialistic caricature; and there is an explicit re-connection here with the humanistic dimension in higher education, which is increasingly under siege in the aggressive neo-liberalisation of the modern academy (referred to earlier).
Marcelo also spoke of theorising and ‘Theoria’, and the metaphorical ‘Journey of Theoros’, which is about a journey to identity (in passing, noting Aristotle’s contention that poetry is closer to reality than is history).
There were then various themed parallel presentations, with a variety of options for participants. I was particularly interested in the presentation by Drs Iain McKenzie and Stefan Rossbach of the University of Kent’s School of Politics, on ‘Resistance and experiential learning in politics and international relations’. They began with the questions, ‘Can one teach resistance?’, and what forms can ‘disciplines of resistance’ take in an institutional, university milieu?
Iain and Stefan use Michel Foucault’s insights to see the modern university as an institutional expression of a ‘disciplinary’ society, which challenges head on what they see as the false distinction between the university and the ‘real world’. On their ‘subversive’ module, ‘Resistance in Theory’ (PO 937, Kent),20 it is their students who fill in the module content, with the module asking for ‘a documented practice of resistance’. Fascinatingly, the students on this module very soon ceased worrying about their grades, and produced richly diverse, high-quality work.
Iain and Steffan went on to cite Gilles Deleuze in questioning whether we are moving away from a disciplinary society towards a ‘control society’, and how we might tell the difference.
I also attended the workshop ‘Transforming universities for participatory learning and co-inquiry’, by Michel Pimbert, Julia Wright, Colin Anderson and Tom Wakeford of Coventry’s new Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience (CAWR) – a centre which explicitly eschews neo-liberal economics, narrowly-based research metrics and the ‘scientism’ that continues to dominate UK academic research. We explored ways in which participatory research and holistic thinking can bring about social and ecological justice. We also touched on the relationship between structure, agency and organisational change in a new university model, transgressive scholarship, and the use of anti-colonial non-scientistic approaches to generate new myths for more useful knowledge. This led to a group discussion on the transformation of universities for participatory learning and co-inquiry.
Other interesting presentations were those of Dr Aksel Hugo of the Ruskin Mill Field Centre (‘The Free University Then and Now: The Argument of Freedom in Historical and Current HE Discourse’); Peter Simpson and Hugo Gaggiotti of the University of the West of England, on ‘Ethical Leadership: Learning to Theorize as well as to Apply Theory’; Shelley Saguaro and Rowan Middleton (University of Gloucestershire) on Goethe’s ‘The Metamorphosis of Plants’; Isis Brooke (Crossfields Instutute, Writtle College) on ‘Ways of Knowing, Ways of Being, and Ways of Knowing About Ways of Being’; Jonathan Code (Crossfields Institute) on ‘Lighting Fires in the University’; Flora Gathorne-Hardy and Miche Fabre-Lewin (Touchstone Collaborations) on ‘Farm as Power Place: Listening with and Learning from Nature’; and Nadine Andrews (Lancaster University) on ‘Mindfulness and Leadership’. Rich fare, indeed!…
For Jonathan Code, higher learning takes its starting-point in substances and processes derived from the natural world. In processes that involve natural materials and their transformation, it becomes possible to undertake an enquiry that touches on core subjects like the history of ideas and the evolution of human consciousness, dynamics in the learning process, collaborative enquiry and action research. And Nadine Andrews’ workshop explored how mindful awareness of inner and outer experience enhances the ability to respond more skilfully and appropriately to situations as they arise, as we embrace complex, uncertain times.
This was also a conference of networking opportunities, and I was delighted to meet Dr Markus Molz from Luxembourg, who has pioneered the relatively new ‘University for the Future Initiative’.21
The UftF website showcases UNESCO’s vision of the university, when they wrote: ‘Ultimately, higher education should aim at the creation of a new society – non-violent and non-exploitative – consisting of highly cultivated, motivated and integrated individuals, inspired by love for humanity and guided by wisdom’ (taken from UNESCO’s World Declaration on Higher Education for the 21st Century,1998, para. 6d). The UftF is working towards a new, open-system model of higher education which fosters innovation, strives to ‘catalyse futures that we really want’, and ‘facilitates consciousness development, social innovation and sustainable living’
BEYOND THE NEO-LIBERAL UNIVERSITY
So where does all this leave us? I submit that the modern university system is rapidly degenerating into what is a neo-liberal apology for progressive, holistic learning – in short, a university which is becoming a slave to the tyranny of international capital and its toxic ideological trappings. Almost a century ago, Rudolf Steiner once again showed himself to be decades ahead of the game, when he memorably said:
The State will tell us how to teach and what results to aim for, and what the State prescribes will be bad. Its targets are the worst ones imaginable, yet it expects to get the best possible results. Today’s politics work in the direction of regimentation, and it will go even further than this in its attempts to make people conform. Human beings will be treated like puppets on strings, and this will be treated as progress in the extreme. Institutions like schools will be organised in the most arrogant and unsuitable manner. (Rudolf Steiner, from an address given on 20/8/1919)
I am sure, finally, that Rudolf Steiner would agree whole-heatedly with the excellent Henry Giroux, who recently wrote thus of teaching in the academy: ‘Teaching needs to be rigorous, self-reflective, and committed not to the dead zone of instrumental rationality but to the practice of freedom, to a critical sensibility capable of advancing the parameters of knowledge, addressing crucial social issues, and connecting private troubles and public issues’.22 Amen to that.
However, and as the great French social theorist Michel Foucault so powerfully showed us, we are by no means helpless victims in the face of these trends, for where there is the abuse of power relations, there also will be sites of resistance, and even transformation – and I hope the latter part of this article has illustrated just some of the more promising of these initiatives. What will perhaps be important for the future is that these many and disparate initiatives can join up, share experiences and perspectives, and generate a counter-cultural momentum that, in due course, can challenge and ultimately displace the neo-liberal university, and the aggressive assault it is perpetrating on holistic, humanistic approaches to learning and pedagogy.
The UNESCO quotation given earlier mentioned wisdom. Albert Einstein once famously said, ‘Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.’ It seems that the neo-liberal academy is increasingly dominated by instrumental knowledge in its narrow sense, whereas the kind of counter-cultural initiatives described above are far more to do with wisdom, and the artistic and creative imagination. For as Cardinal John Henry Newman put it in his seminal 19th century treatise The Idea of the University,23 ‘Wisdom is certainly a more comprehensive word than any other because it has a direct relation to conduct, and to human life’.
Notes and References
1 See David Harvey, Social Justice and the City, Arnold, London, 1973; and his The Condition of Postmodernity, Wiley-Blackwell, 1991.
2 See http://rmt.org/ and http://rmt.org/ruskin#.VH3oUNKsXSk
3 See www.criticalinstitute.org
4 P.P. Trifonas, ‘Auditing education: deconstruction and the archiving of knowledge as curriculum’, Parallax, Issue 31, 10 (2), 2004, pp. 37–49 (quotation, p. ).
5 See Martha Nussbaum, Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, Princeton University Press, 2012
6 Stanley Fish, ‘Neoliberalism and Higher Education’, New York Times, 8 March 2009; available at http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/03/08/neoliberalism-and-higher-education/?_r=0
7 See P. Treanor, ‘Neoliberalism: Origins, Theory, Definition’, 2005; available at http://web.inter.nl.net/users/Paul.Treanor/neoliberalism.htmls
8 See David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, Oxford University Press, 2007
9 See Henry A. Giroux, ‘Academic unfreedom in America: rethinking the university as a democratic public sphere’, Works and Days, 51/52, 53/54: vols 26 and 27, 2008–9, pp. 45–71; available at http://worksanddays.net/2008-9/File04_Giroux_011309_FINAL.pdf
10 Lynn Fendler, ‘What is it impossible to think? A genealogy of the educated subject’, in T.S. Popkewitz and M. Brennan (eds), Foucault’s Challenge: Discourse, Knowledge and Power in Education, Teachers College Press, Columbia University, New York, 1998, p. 57.
11 Evangelia Karagiannopoulou, ‘Revisiting learning and teaching in higher education: a psychodynamic perspective’, Psychodynamic Practice, 17 (1), 2011, pp. 5–21.
12 See, for example, M. Power, The Audit Society: Rituals of Verification, Oxford University Press, 1997; and Trifonas, note 4.
13 Marina Warner, ‘Diary: Why I quit’, London Review of Books, 36 (17), 11 September 2014, pp. 42–3.
14 Alessandra Lopez y Royo, ‘Why I’m quitting the academy’, Times Higher Education, 22 August 2013; available at http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/comment/opinion/why-im-quitting-the-academy/2006622.article
15 Terran Lane, ‘I’d have to be mad to leave here, they said – and they were right’, Times Higher Education, 23 August 2012; available at http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=26&storycode=420932
16 See http://socialsciencecentre.org.uk/
17 See http://www.co-op.ac.uk/learningtogether/#.VH2-ItKsXSk
18 See http://scepsi.eu/kafca/the-process-of-financialisation-in-higher-education
19 See http://josswinn.org/2013/11/co-operative-universities-a-bibliography/
20 See http://www.kent.ac.uk/courses/modulecatalogue/modules/PO937
21 See http://u4future.net/
22 See footnote 8.
23 John Henry Newman, The Idea of the University, Forgotten Books, 2012 (orig. 1854).
Richard House (MA [Oxon], Ph.D.) is a Stroud-based chartered psychologist (BPS) and a freelance educational campaigner. Formerly a senior university lecturer at Roehampton and Winchester (UK), he co-edits the Humanistic Psychology journal Self and Society, and is a founding Fellow with the new Critical Institute. A trained Steiner Kindergarten and class teacher, Richard contributes regularly to the professional education and academic psychotherapy literatures. He is Education and Early Years Editor for Hawthorn Press. Correspondence: firstname.lastname@example.org
[i] An earlier version of this article appears in New View magazine, 74 (Jan–March), 2015, pp. 49–56