Higher education and the neoliberal threat: place, fast time, and identity.

Author:Bullough, Robert V., Jr.


Over the past few decades, a new model of the research university has emerged, the Emerging Global Model (EGM). These institutions,

represent the leading edge of higher education's embrace of the forces of globalism. [They] are characterized by an intensity of research that far exceeds past experience. They are engaged in worldwide competition for students, faculty, staff, and funding; they operate in an environment in which traditional political, linguistic, and access boundaries are increasingly porous. These top universities look beyond the boundaries of the countries in which they are located to define their scope as trans-national in nature. Their peers span the globe. (Mohrman, Ma, & Baker, 2008, p. 6)

These few institutions "head virtually every list of leading universities worldwide" (p. 6). Market driven, and profoundly entrepreneurial, EGM universities prize scientific and technological knowledge including within the social sciences. The EGM university functions as a "knowledge conglomerate ... that puts primacy on the production of new knowledge and the training of expert personnel to carry on this production into the future" (p. 8). Other traditional aims, teaching and service, find a place "to a large extent in the new [university] via their role in making the university into a knowledge conglomerate" (p. 9).

While mostly celebrated, concern has been expressed that given its priorities, the financially driven free-market EGM has altered the "fundamental conception of the purpose of the university ... transforming a college degree into career investment or individual indulgence rather than a public good" (p. 17). The quest for market survival, except for within the very richest of institutions, mostly private, "can pit international research prestige against mass education demands" (p. 19). "[impossible situations [arise] as nations and universities want it all--to play in the international knowledge game while at the same time providing tertiary education for as many people as want and can benefit from a college degree" (p. 19). Despite these concerns, world-wide the EGM has come to be understood as the model of quality higher education and in whose hands the future of higher education seems to rest.

The purpose of this article is to explore some of the wider social and economic trends of the past few decades that have supported creation of EGMs and to consider these developments from the perspective of their human and social costs. As Mohrman and her colleagues argue, the "EGM fosters winners and losers" (p. 25). At a macro level, knowing who the likely winners and losers are is crucially important for policy makers, but also such knowledge has micro level importance. The actions of those who live and work within the university are not inconsequential. The decisions they make and how they choose to live their lives open or close opportunities for reimagining the givenness of the world and to make this world more rather than less life affirming.

Part I

The Middle Class and the Attack on Higher Education

Behind the rise of EGMs, Christopher Newfield argues that public higher education in the U.S. is in serious trouble. He makes his case in two books, Ivy and Industry: Business and the Making of the American University, 1880-1980 (2003) and Unmaking the Public University: The Forty-Year Assault on the Middle Class (2008), both written prior to the economic meltdown of the past few years. The Great Recession exacerbated the severity of the issues and trends discussed, including severe underfunding by state governments of colleges and universities and a dramatic shift in funding toward private and corporate sources. Newfield argues that the "professional middle class," was created by the university (2003, p. 31); publicly funded higher education and the middle class are inextricably linked. As the university goes, he argues, so goes the middle class, and ultimately democracy.

The argument is jarring, raising fundamental questions about the purposes of higher education in America. The story told is a disturbing tale of how "conservative elites who have been threatened by the postwar rise of the college-educated economic majority have put that majority back into its place" (2008, p. 5). Newfield writes: "The American middle class is always politically sacrosanct, so downgrading it could not be announced as the goal; nonetheless this goal has been gradually achieved, as in part indexed by stagnating economic fortunes. A roundabout way was found to downsize the new middle class, and that was to discredit its cultural foundations" (2008, p. 268), including the public university but also public education.

One might disagree with Newfield's centering his argument on the cultural wars rather than the effects of economic globalism in remaking the American public university (see Shrum, 2012, p. 48; Newfield 2008, p. 267) or his failure to consider the role of unions following World War II in the creation of the middle class. However, there is no question that these wars are tightly linked to the economic manifestations of globalism, and not necessarily some of its cultural manifestations such as the spread of human rights (Eriksen, 2007). Moreover, there is no question that these wars have dramatically narrowed the vision, purposes, and function of public higher education. This narrowing has come as many nations have embraced elements of the American model of higher education including its competitiveness and presumed "organizational efficiency" (Majcher, 2008, p. 346).

Neoliberalism: Collateral Damage

Rooted in neo-classical economics and a "thorough-going individualism" (Fredman & Doughney, 2012, p. 44), neoliberalism means many things. Most especially it represents a form of "economic rationalism [that] reduces all human dimensions, social relations, and activities into consumer exchange" (Mullen, Samier, Brindley, English, & Carr, 2013, p. 188). Its educational manifestations are far reaching, resulting in a shift of education from primarily a cultural to an economic concern: "Managerialism, audit cultures, values of commodification, efficiency, and effectiveness from a wholly alien sector--the industrial economy--reduce education to an export-import trade" (ibid, p. 222). Socially, neoliberalism justifies the weakening of the welfare state, radical deregulation and privatization of many traditional government functions, and, generally, the extension of markets into ever wider areas of social life. In consequence we have witnessed aggressive and rapid shifts in wealth and its accumulation and concentration in a very few hands, the wholesale movement of family-sustaining jobs to low-cost labor markets around the world, the intensification of labor (Fedan & Doughney, 2012), and the weakening of all things public, including public education. As events surrounding the Great Recession reveal, deregulation and privatization have rendered a body blow to the American middle class and to the children of the middle class who, in having internalized the promise of America, attended or aspired to attend college. As corporate profits boomed and executive salaries of even unsuccessful companies soared, the middle class, facing stagnating or falling wages and job loss weakened and hollowed out.

The specter of a hegemonic neoliberalism looms over the land, an uncritical worship of free markets falsely promising universal prosperity coupled with a cultivated and aggressively marketed cynicism about the ability of public institutions to efficiently serve public interests, including schools and universities. "Culture warriors," as Newfield describes them, helped make the fallout more or less palatable by championing visions of what he calls "meritocracy I," an ideology at home in social systems characterized by severe scarcity of resources and opportunities and embracing an aggressive individualism. Meritocracy I, Newfield writes, "reinstalled a conservative bedrock beneath the diversity talk, restoring test scores, rank-hierarchy, the scarcity of high-quality resources, and the aura of a small, elite group of talent at the top" (Newfield 2008, p. 105). Lacking robust institutions and social networks, as the sociologist Zymunt Bauman writes (2011b), people are left alone to devise "solutions to socially generated problems, and to do it individually, using their individual skills and individually possessed assets. Such an expectation sets individuals in mutual competition, and renders communal solidarity...to be perceived as by and large irrelevant, if not downright counterproductive" (p. 17).

As ideology, the power of neoliberalism seems boundless, having crept into virtually every aspect of social life. Benefits are privatized, while negative consequences are socialized, disproportionately placed on the backs of the most vulnerable of citizens and nations. Whatever the outcomes, the consequences are assumed to be inevitable, results of the natural movement of the invisible hand of the marketplace and of persons exercising the now most fundamental of human rights, the right to choose. Eviscerated, democracy has come to be understood as nothing more than one of its "doubles" (Woodruff, 2005), voting, the right to choose between two candidates. A vibrant democracy pleads a contrary view: "the consumer is an enemy of the citizen" (Bauman, 2008, p. 190). As Bauman suggests, competitive individualism divides people rather than brings them together around common public interests.

"Inevitability" proves to be a key term, one that justifies selfishness as virtue and sustains the loss of any sense of there being a public, while encouraging feelings of shame and disconnection among the economically dispossessed. Inevitability also sustains a deep and widespread ethical insensitivity to the plight of others born of presumed self-merit and deserved privilege on the one hand, an effect of Meritocracy I, and...

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