Is There Life after Neoliberalism?

By Terrell Carver

Knowledge Matters: The Public Mission of the Research University. Diana Rhoten and Craig Calhoun, eds. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011.

Knowledge Matters
by Diana Rhoten and Craig Calhoun

This edited volume surveys—perhaps as usefully as one can—the current university scene worldwide, setting up general definitions and assembling chapters that contribute local (sometimes continent-wide) detail and critical perspectives. The opening three chapters address the broad issues of globalization, traditional academic values, and neoliberal projects; the remaining chapters touch down in places such as Russia, Latin America, East Asia, sub-Saharan Africa (twice), Germany, the United Kingdom (Cambridge, in particular), and the United States (especially Michigan) and take up common concerns related to quality assurance, intellectual property, and the academic workplace. The contributors, who write from a social-scientific perspective, provide extensive economic data and historical background, and the book is particularly impressive in its coverage of pure and applied science, technology and commercial research, and entrepreneurship and foreign student recruitment. Even those readers who have considerable experience with international education and knowledge transfer, varying political systems and intellectual cultures, and professional and ethical causes célèbres will find the book eye-opening.

A number of themes stand out—some that the editors and contributors make apparent and some that I draw out myself. It is a tribute to the book that its messages go beyond what the authors intended; as academics, we can hardly do better than to stimulate critical thought. The overarching anxiety in the volume, though, is whether the activities and values commonly described as academic—such as free inquiry, public benefit, and civic improvement—are reaching their sell-by date, despite heroic efforts to keep them refreshed. The contributors are unambiguously on the side of a universal, distinctive academic culture, but they are clearly worried as they explain what less sympathetic forces—inside as well as outside universities—are up to, sometimes deliberately, more often unknowingly, and, as is demonstrated here, nearly everywhere.

While the editors and authors chart the course of long-term postwar trends, the focus of the discussions is on the still-unfolding financial crisis that began in 2008. Contributors agree that universities in established industrial economies have been pushed by neoliberal ideologies and political pressures to a crisis point. External funding through taxpayer support has been drastically reduced as the state has been rolled back, and internal management and institutional priorities have been rejiggered to cut costs and “grow” revenue streams. Postsecondary education is now commonly conceptualized as a private good, selfishly chosen and selfishly consumed, making a mockery of the rhetoric that says that selfless citizens should develop their talents for the common good. Moreover, universities in the world’s emerging industrial powerhouses are not necessarily modeling themselves on the traditional academic values that “we” in the West are now abandoning; in some cases, they have embraced the neoliberal model much more enthusiastically than Western countries have. Instead of serving the state, they serve the corporate industries through which the state maintains an economic, rather than a social, compact with the citizenry. “I think therefore I shop” perhaps sums this up, and university campuses are merely a mall-like stage that prepares students for entering the high-end zones of actual shopping malls as citizen-consumers.

Virtually all of the traditional concepts and distinctions through which we categorize universities and understand their “proper” activities are tired and tired sounding. The contributors to this volume struggle to understand what a university now is and is not and what sense (if any) the common binary distinctions used to categorize and explain institutions of higher education—public and private, market and nonmarket, and state and private enterprise—actually make, given the economic policies that have been increasingly blurring such distinctions since the 1980s.

I came away thinking that there are as many family resemblances and faux amis lurking here as in the typical, even academic, discussion of “democracy.” A number of contributors point out, for example, that so-called private universities in the United States are not simply public bodies in the way that a not-for-profit or charitable foundation is but also in their receipt of government funding and tax breaks and, conversely, that so-called public universities are in many cases required to reduce their dependence on taxpayer funding and increase their income through fees, commercial arrangements, sports events, and other privately funded media outreach activities. The old rhetoric of land-grant universities, of community service and public benefit, comes from another world, it seems. Is the local community the town, the American state, the national population, the region, or the entire world? What determines the “local” net benefit of research—whether Shakespeare scholarship or an antimalaria vaccine developed in a noninfested area?

And how exactly does the public good arise from goods chosen and consumed individually, by anyone, anywhere? This issue arises in nation-building projects, whether in Germany, China, or Uganda. Is “economic growth” a public good? Agencies in the United Kingdom assume so, though government strategies to achieve such growth are notoriously political and, arguably, not demonstrably successful and perhaps even counterproductive. Any public good has winners and losers, not only in terms of economic beneficiaries and net losers, but also in terms of who wins and loses arguments about what constitutes a public good. The UK treasury may have decided that universities and research institutes are crucial to, and importantly constitutive of, economic growth as the highest public good for the nation, but how this decision translates into financial support is a matter of controversy and individual judgment. “Security” and “defense” seem to compete quite successfully for funding. In this context, UK and US universities have been co-opted, with more or (usually) less say in large-scale public expenditure, and academic opinion is divided, to say the least, on whether and to what extent the imperatives to pursue security and defense are consistent with the academic “enterprise.”

The editors and authors in this volume expose difficulties like this one, which is very useful and, for many academics throughout the world, very worrisome. However, I felt the need to stand back and ask what constitutes a university in the first place. Some of the contributors were clearly dubious about for-profit, online degree providers, but no one in the volume asks just how different a university is from a supermarket, and indeed whether it should be different. Or, of course, the reverse—the UK government has already instituted commercially sponsored degree programs in research universities that are apparently no different in style and status from traditional ones. Perhaps academics are unduly upset at any crossing of the sacred boundary lines of the literae humaniores, as the classical liberal arts are still called at certain places.

Any academic can rattle off the local snobberies concerning business, media, sports, and various other vocational studies, and it is not particularly clear why some professional training takes place in universities or is at degree level. In my lifetime, law, nursing, social work, education, and other professional training credentials have become increasingly degree (and even higher-degree) specific. While Christine Musselin’s chapter on “The Academic Workplace” shows some knowledge of organizational studies in commercial settings, the contributors have focused primarily on what they know best and avoided what they might be well advised to find out about. McDonald’s Hamburger University, strictly speaking, is a “corporate university,” but then, strictly speaking, there is no definition of the term university on which to base legally valid objections to this designation in the United States (or apparently in Shanghai, where there is a branch campus). The closest most authors come to addressing this issue—exactly how to maintain a boundary between corporate commercialism and university independence—is to sketch out the neoliberal project. Ka Ho Mok’s chapter, “When Neoliberalism Colonizes Higher Education in Asia,” does this particularly well. Indeed, Mok identifies an “authoritarian mode of liberalism,” a nettle that the US-based contributors haven’t addressed so directly in their local setting but that may be just as applicable.

The editors begin their survey with a factual yet critical account of US hegemony in nearly every aspect of higher education—research, teaching, funding models, endowments, impact factors, Nobel prizes, commercial patents and profits, and so on. They are right to identify this hegemony as simply factual, because there doesn’t seem to be any basis on which it could be seriously challenged at present or in the future. They are also right in identifying it as circular and self-fulfilling, not least because of the overwhelming economic dominance of the US economy in international trade and finance.

Simon Marginson and Imanol Ordorika’s chapter (titled “El Central Volumen de la Fuerza,” after a line from the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda) makes the further point that this hegemony has a distinct downside for the US academy. Critical perspectives on ideas developed anywhere else are not treated seriously there; indeed, academics outside the United States often emigrate to the country and take their ideas, skills, and projects with them. More controversially, the authors claim that for many US academics, the outside world simply doesn’t exist at all. It is already presumed to be of no importance—few works in foreign languages (even Spanish) are translated, and immigrating academics are inducted into US learning cultures. From this perspective, Marginson and Ordorika note that the “local” in the United States becomes the presumed “universal,” and they tag neoliberalism as an American project benefiting American universities—winding down state support for education elsewhere, after all, reduces competition for US-based “knowledge economies.”

I was most intrigued by the clarity of this argument, and further intrigued by an explanatory note wherein Marginson and Ordorika observe that a number of reviewers objected to this line of thinking and would have preferred more emphasis on international similarity, presumably at the expense of the authors’ evocation of difference. Credit is due to the editors, then, for letting both text and note stand in the published version of this provocative and important volume.

Terrell Carver is professor of political theory at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom. He has been involved for many years in facilitating international student and faculty exchanges and has had recent sabbatical posts in the United States. His published work is in the history of political thought and in gender, sexuality, and feminist and masculinity studies.