The Multiple Strands of Neoliberalism in Higher Education's Transformation.

AuthorNewson, Janice

Most commentators, whether academics, policy analysts, journalists, or activists, agree that neoliberalism has been the visible hand guiding the development of public higher education across the globe since at least the early 1980s. (1) Advocates of this development promise extensive benefits and payoffs to taxpayers, legislators, university and college administrators, as well as those who receive higher education services--increased cost efficiency and productivity, predictable and controlled outcomes, flexible and customized content and delivery, improved accountability and responsibility to societal needs, and cuttingedge scientific innovation that will stimulate economic growth and wealth creation for the benefit of everyone.

On the other hand, critics argue that a litany of problematic conditions prevail in public institutions and systems where neoliberal policies have been applied. These conditions include substantially increased tuition levels and student debt, the replacement of collegial governance with managerialism and privatized services, the development of tiered academic labor with casualized and poorly remunerated workers, the intensification of work pressure and regulation for academic workers, the implementation of performance-based budgeting, the reliance on market discipline for determining curricular and research objectives, and the transfer of publicly funded intellectual property to private ownership.

The contrast between promised payoffs and benefits on the one hand and problematic conditions on the other is a recurring theme in debates about neoliberalism's effect on public higher education. Advocates at tribute whatever they can claim as improvements in higher education to the neoliberal policies they have helped to implement, and critics attribute whatever is lacking or deteriorating in higher education to the neoliberal policies they oppose (Giroux 2014, Hall 2011). In spite of their differences, advocates and critics alike tend to treat neoliberalism as a coherent agenda for transforming public higher education regionally, nationally, and globally.

Political analyst Paul Treanor (2005) distinguishes neoliberalism from liberalism and market liberalism by the way it values markets in and of themselves, not just as means to other ends. According to Treanor, neoliberalism's paramount value is individual freedom, which it seeks to manifest through freeing markets and liberalizing trade. The ultimate, though never reached, goal of neoliberalism is "a universe where every action of every being is a market transaction, conducted in competition with every other being and influencing every other transaction ..." (Treanor 2005).

Treanor's depiction of neoliberalism's project as reducing all actions to market transactions is, I think, the reason that many academics are critical of neoliberal policies, even academics who may not associate these policies with a particular political philosophy: they convert teaching, research, and public service into measurable, commoditized transactions. In the process, many academics believe they distort and damage the true essence and value of these activities, thus undermining the public service role of universities and colleges.

While I share these concerns about the destructive influence that neoliberal policies have had, and continue to have, on the public serving role of universities and colleges, I resist depicting neoliberalism as a totalizing force or as a single defining influence in recent developments in public higher education.

My reasons for resisting this depiction are empirical, theoretical, and strategic. Empirically, the individual systems and institutions to which neoliberal policies have been applied differ significantly from each other. State actors and institutional administrators have rolled these policies out at different paces and in different sequences. In some cases, policies have been mandatory; in others, they have been applied voluntarily, selectively, haphazardly, or as part of a comprehensive program of reform. These variations surely call for nuanced, case-by-case analyses of the range of configurations through which neoliberal influences manifest themselves, rather than an approach that treats them as uniform.

A number of social theorists (Peck 2013, Tretjak & Abrell 2011) share this concern. (2) For example, in his recent assessment of whether or not neo liberalism continues to have relevance as an explanatory construct, Jamie Peck (2013,140) argues that

if and how particular events, actions or movements are connected to the contradictory reproduction of neoliberal hegemony must always be an empirical and political question. The establishment of straightline connections to a singular global Neoliberalism represent more than analytical shortcuts, in this context; they also misrepresent the constructed and contradictory nature of neoliberalization as a transformative process. Theoretically, it is only in hindsight that neoliberalism presents itself as a relatively comprehensive and transformative political and economic project moving through various regions, social institutions, and systems across the globe. What may now be analyzed as the coordinated steps of a coherent change trajectory appeared at earlier stages to be a pragmatic response to particular problems or as a one-off way of negotiating salient pressures. This suggests that neoliberalism, as a transformative project, has taken shape over time. Moreover, when examined closely, the changes that have taken place in higher education reveal that multiple processes have been at work, sometimes overlapping each other and sometimes not, sometimes reinforcing each other and sometimes not, sometimes reshaping each other and sometimes not, and sometimes coalescing with each other and sometimes not. In other words, these processes are contingent and often contradictory.

Strategically, it is important to resist casting neoliberalism as the singular, inexorable force shaping institutions and systems in higher education because doing so encourages both individual and institutional actors to accommodate and adjust to neoliberal policies, as if they are inevitable. Understanding neoliberalism as instead many processes in motion that are never completed and never totally in charge opens up possibilities for political engagement--for interrupting, diverting, and even reversing those processes. Moreover,empirically, theoretically, and strategically, the responses to neoliberal policies matter as much as the policies themselves, insofar as the responses are part of, rather than outside of, the transformational process. (3)

Taking responses into account is especially significant in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, wherein neoliberalism's contributions to the crisis became more visible to a wider public. Moreover, as we move toward a much hoped for recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, focusing on responses to neoliberal policies is even more critical, since across the globe, the pandemic has exposed calamitous fissures in the social, political, and economic structures that these policies have produced.

For these reasons, this paper treats neoliberalism as a political-economic context rather than a blueprint or policy program that leads necessarily to a long fist of predetermined effects. As a context, neoliberalism creates political and economic conditions that open up certain opportunities and encourage certain courses of action while closing down or discouraging others. In this sense, neoliberalized higher education is best understood as a work in progress rather than a fait accompli. And therein lies hope for those who wish to reverse or mitigate the effects of neoliberalism on public higher education.

Four Threads Woven through the Neoliberal Context

Building on this understanding of neoliberalism, this article will focus on four threads of the neoliberal context. To be sure, there are more than four threads, (4) and readers may challenge the way in which I distinguish these four from each other. I am focusing on these four threads because they have been cited variously as causes of the transformation of higher education. My aim is to clarify the language used to critique neoliberalism and thereby to fine-tune collective efforts to challenge it.

The four threads--corporatization, commercialization, financialization, and valorization--did not originate when changes taking place in higher education associated with neoliberalism began to draw critical attention. Moreover, they are not presented here as interchangeable or alternative understandings of how public higher education has been, and continues to be, (5) transformed under the governing impulses of neoliberalism. Rather, they represent distinct aspects of that transformation that were already present to a greater or lesser degree, but that, in the early 1980s, began to overlap, intertwine, and reinforce each other. In presenting them separately, I hope to draw attention to the specific policies and practices that set these processes into motion, not only to refine scholarly analysis but also to expose openings that could be pursued to disrupt, if not reverse, their effects.

Thread One: Corporatization

Corporatization is a term often used by critics to encompass the entire process of transformation in public higher education during the period of neoliberalism's ascendancy. In previous writing, I also have used it this way. Here, I conceive of corporatization more narrowly as one thread of this transformation, but also more broadly to emphasize that it is a two-way rather than one-way process. A focus on the one-way dynamic of corporatization emphasizes how corporate sector interests exercise an increasingly disproportionate influence over the teaching and research functions of higher education. (6) However, corporatization as a two-way process reveals not only how influence flows from the private...

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