Neo-liberal and future universities

Written for “We are the University” zine, published to accompany Nationwide Day of Student Action, University of Auckland, 26th September 2011.

What is a university for? For the German tradition of research and specialist knowledge that underpins the U.S.-descended graduate school, it would be the production of Bildung, “to develop all possible capacities and to represent the universal in each individual” through the integration of research and learning toward a national culture (Ricken 489). For the French-English college model that underpins undergraduate education, the university is the cultivation of the intellect through Cardinal Newman’s liberal education, where the development of a life of the mind is “not useful in any low, mechanical, mercantile sense”, but in a “true and high sense as a blessing, or a gift, or power, or treasure that will be shared with the world (88).” Both Humboldt and Newman’s ideas of the university appear naive and romantic as we approach the 50th anniversary of the publication of a third canonical statement on the modern university, University of California president Clark Kerr’s The Uses of the University, which defined the contemporary higher educational institution as a “multiversity.” Rather than defending a single ideal and seeking social allies for its institutional expression; the multiple-mission multiversity would serve the many needs of techno-capitalist democracy, though they would not be served in the same way. For the historical “idea” of a university, Kerr substituted a “model” that reflected neo-liberal rationality. As Ashby describes it, where once the university was cultivated as a garden flower, of no more significance to the prince or bishop than the court musician; the modern university is expected to be a yield-bearing crop (8). For Readings, this productivity requires that the university no longer conforms to an idea of culture, but to an idea of excellence: “There is no ‘common reader’ in a regime of excellence, since everyone can be excellent in their own way (104).” The university is “dereferentialised” and contentless€”the key principle for Kerr was “internal differentiation” by sector, campus, department, programme, institute, laboratory, “in sum, a bewilderingly complex organization (Rothblatt 184).” Viewed through a political-economic lens, what is striking about the transformations of the last half-century is their conformance with the tenets of neo-liberal economic agendas.

Flew notes the unfortunate tendency for neo-liberalism to be used as a catch-all term for capitalism; and most critiques of neo-liberalism concentrate on globalisation, privatisation, trade, and international monetary policy (locally see e.g. Jane Kelsey). However, as important as such issues are in a university system that is increasingly integrated into international trade under the GATS agenda, Foucault’s historical analysis of neo-liberalism is perhaps more useful in analysing the subjective experience of university life on two levels, that McNay summarises as i) “regulatory or massification techniques” to manage populations, and ii) co-constituting “individualising, disciplinary mechanisms” that regulate behaviour (57). Foucault’s late 1970s lectures at the Collège de France situate the specific philosophy of the individual in 20th century German and U.S. neo-liberalism in relation to liberal European thought.

Classical European liberalism of the 18th century underpinning the development of the modern university conceived freedom as embodied in a civil society which sought to trade outside the control of the state. A Protestant logic of secularisation moves the structure of civic values from the public/religious into the private sphere, reflected in Adam Smith’s famous figure of the “invisible hand” of the market. For economic liberalism in Smith’s tradition, the idea that the state can or should attempt to achieve particular market outcomes would be as counter-productive as trying to understand God’s natural design. Instead, government should maintain a blindness and neutrality to the actual objectives of economic governing, and remove the roadblocks to the market economy that will “inevitably” lead to the most efficient distribution of resources. Ironically, such inevitability must be taken on faith (Foucault 16, 32). However, we see in neo-liberal theory the development of an entirely new rationale for government management of the economy and its goals for the post-1960s university. If the modern “liberal” version of the university brought about the “professional” academic who inhabited the university bureaucracy with expertise; neo-liberal ideology has shifted to what Olssen and Peters call a “consumer-managerial” model of accountability, based on quantifiable output measures for the university’s new task of human capital development (328).

For the German ordoliberals of the 1930s-50s and the neo-liberal theorists of the United States, liberalism left too much to chance. The experiences of the German state under National Socialism had shown that merely letting capitalism do its work would not necessarily result in an increasingly free market: the market game of exchange could come to wither under state control. Therefore, to these thinkers, the principles of competition underpinning effective markets should be advanced in a “positive” way, markets must be produced through active policy, rather than simply being allowed or facilitated. It would become the responsibility of government to produce the truth of the market, and at the same time the market will constitute “the general index in which one must place the rule for defining all governmental action (Foucault 121).” The formal rigour of competition should be supported by an appropriate regulatory framework: one which does not act on any direct economic facts or toward social outcomes (particularly not “equality”), but instead to support the “environmental factors” that allow competition to flourish. In neo-liberal doctrine, market logic itself must not be directly altered, but must be taken on faith in light of the many documented failings of state intervention (meanwhile, the documented failings of capitalism are merely opportunities for improvement). Most of all, interventions should work to “keep players in the market game,” a sentiment vividly reflected in the recent government bailouts of financial enterprises internationally. Neo-liberal interventions no longer see the economic world as a distinct zone of activity separate from social or religious activities: economics comes to be defined in the 1930s as “the science of human behaviour as a relationship between ends and scarce means which have mutually exclusive uses (Foucault 222).” Foucault notes that economics is no longer the logic of these processes that are taken as given, but analysis of the “strategic programming of individuals’ activity” within this world-view.

There is an anthropology at work here, an identifiably Christian-heritage individualist view of the human that Foucault sees emerging in the behaviourism of psychologists such as Skinner, and which would be later reflected in the extension of economics by Becker to even non-rational or sub-rational activity. Economics would then become the über-social science; the sole means and measure of humanity. Neo-liberal homo œconomicus is not a partner in exchange with another individual when visiting a neutral public market. As Foucault notes, “the stake in all [neo]-liberal analyses is the replacement every time of homo œconomicusas partner of exchange with a homo œconomicus as entrepreneur of himself, being for himself his own capital, being for himself his own producer, being for himself the source of [his] earnings (226).” He (and it is a “he” that is theorised) becomes ceaselessly productive, rather than consumptive: in consumption, according to Becker, he simply “produces his own satisfaction (Foucault 226).” It is a lonely life. With Becker comes the extension of market logic to all spheres of human activity: the market becomes a “grid of intelligibility”, decomposing the traditional governmental concepts of virtue, ethics, morality, or any kind of public benefit or public domain. Instead, the principle of maximum economy will require the development of human capital (biopower) for the “greater good” (Tribe 694). The enterprising self should “naturally” maximise its own production for its own purposes. But because the self responds to the environment, the participation of populations in the market game can and should be stimulated for maximum output. Yet conforming to this version of individuality will involve “adoption of a ‘a lifestyle’, a ‘way of being’, a moral choice, a ‘mode of relating to oneself, to time, to one’s environment, to the future, the group, the family (Lazzarato 121).” To achieve economies of scale, the market-based individual must be created through what Stiegler calls the synchronisation of modes of life (85), rather than these modes being allowed to develop in their own unproductive individualised difference. As Wendy Brown summarises the neo-liberal paradigm, individual freedom is thus produced as a mechanism of government rather than in resistance to it, and the consequences of this freedom are morally valorised.

In the 20th century the rationale for public investment in universities has moved from cultural development; through the redeployment of soldiers and production of an elite managerial class; to enhanced economic production and reduction in youth unemployment (Nybom 75). The social good becomes progressively individualised as access expands – in Perkin’s terms leading European countries upped the participation rate of the student age group dramatically from under 10% in 1960 to 50% or more by 2000 €”in the UK this went from 9% to 60% over the forty year period (192). In the wake of decreased public funding, massively increased participation, and chronic unemployment and underemployment among graduates, we could now describe the investment agenda of higher education as the profitable production of false hope, a cynical form of “credit baiting without infrastructural involvement (Spivak, Critique 220).” The aim is to produce the indebted student who will be inculcated with fear and inducted into “stress, worry and pressure” as the normative mode of life (Williams 96). As Harris describes the scam, “the most indebted generation in history is without the dependable jobs it needs to escape debt.” It should not come as any surprise that the growth in participation of women, people of colour and the working classes in the student body has occurred at a time when that participation has been turned from a publicly-funded asset to a mechanism of enslavement in debt; nor should it be surprising that the white males overwhelmingly in charge of this transformation siphon substantial salaries from this debt, owing to the qualifications they received on the public purse decades ago. No doubt any collapse in the higher education bubble will see the financialised university bailed out without affecting the kinds of executive compensation we witnessed for the financial services industry, and it goes without saying that bail-outs of student debt are unlikely to follow.

The heat of this bubble is why the contemporary university is described as being in crisis. The cynical managerialism of government is matched by a certain deligitimation of the university in the eyes of the public, augmented by the dissipation in the market value of university qualifications. While the useless nature of humanities scholarship has been critiqued for as long as the university has existed, the last two decades have seen substantial and widespread revolt against both the value of university teaching (Arum and Roksa being merely the latest in a long line) but also scientific knowledge, perhaps most remarkably on the issue of climate change. The specialist expertise of the scientist is no longer seen as the authoritative source of the inexorable advancement of knowledge; or perhaps it might be more truthful to say that once scientific enquiry no longer functioned with the rhetorical promise of limitless economic and technological advancement, many no longer sought its authority. Of course, there are many for whom it was never a convincing saviour in the first place. The circulation of information in the postcolonial era makes visible cracks in the inevitable telos of Western university knowledge’s superiority over “less advanced” others; and where such neocolonial dynamics are still in play they appear to be secured less by discursive moral force generated by experimental resolution of the secrets of the universe; rather, they are secured through the brute force of financialisation and capital accumulation, backed up with military and ideological support where necessary. While the European model of the university continues to spread, few new institutions outside Europe would give the ideals of a Cardinal Newman or Kant or Humboldt precedence over the development of human capital and intellectual property promised by neo-liberal technoscience. However, Mary Poovey points out that this entire logic can be subverted, and this logic appears to be the target of many global occupations of the university:

The means/ends logic of the market is tautological because, by measuring means solely by their ability to achieve the end the market defines in advance, it undermines the credibility of any alternative definition of value. The only argument that is theoretically robust enough to counter the self-confirming logic of this tautology is an argument that is also tautological. Instead of accepting the idea that the market defines value, we have to suspend the market model entirely in favor of an alternative system that defines value differently.(11)
The opening of this alternative value system may ironically be found in the heart of the university itself.


The university should thus also be the place in which nothing is beyond question, not even the current and determined figure of democracy, not even the traditional idea of critique, meaning theoretical critique, and not even the authority of the “question” form, of thinking as “questioning.” That is why I spoke without delay and without disguise of deconstruction.

€” Jacques Derrida, “The University without Condition”

Discussing Marx’s concept of crisis, Hay notes that “[C]risis is derived from the Greek, KrìnoKrìsis (to decide) and refers to a moment of decisive intervention, a moment of transformation, a moment of rupture, [… of] objective contradiction yet subjective intervention (Spivak, Critique 323).”  In light of the itinerary traced above it is no surprise that one of the most historically informed recent accounts of “the idea of the university” is also the most utopian. In 1998 Derrida delivered a lecture at Stanford eventually published asThe University Without Condition, an essay which reflects on what the University should be, and also makes suggestive asides on the role the visual arts may take. Derrida’s characteristic approach is to head straight to the central defining concepts of the university: the university as the space of universal freedom; the professor; the function of academic work and academic works. Under critical pressure, these central concepts prove themselves to provide openings to a future: rather than seeking adaptation to the various challenges to the university from without, Derrida seeks the future within, in a kind of “intellectual occupation.” He notes that if the university is to have a role in the questions of human truth, it must firstly be through “unconditional discussion”, in a space where research and re-elaboration can take place “without presupposition.” This is not in order for such discussion to “enclose itself” there, but “on the contrary, so as to find the best access to a new public space transformed by new techniques of communication, information, archivization, and knowledge production (Derrida “The University without Condition”, hereafter UC, 203).”  This thorough yet provisional embrace of utopia perhaps is perhaps reminiscent of Spivak’s well-known use of the term “strategic essentialism.” Derrida is not nostalgic for any actual university past, noting that “this unconditionality… the invincible force of the university… has never been in effect (206).” In another talk, Mochlos, Derrida establishes Kant as an architect of this space of freedom in the modern university, but notes that Kant’s price is high€”Kant achieves the space of freedom intellectually by removing the university from the corrupting public domain of the political. Such a non-politicised “public” space of “immunity” inside the university, Derrida is quick to note, has never existed or been tenable “in fact or by law (UC 219).” And in the transformation and permeation of institutional and disciplinary boundaries being brought about in a globalising academic economy, such a space seems “more archaic and imaginary than ever”, while also seeming to fail to engage the political as we might hope. “Hence the necessity to rethink the concepts of the possible and the impossible (210).”

Nevertheless, Derrida claims that “the idea of this space of the academic type has to be symbolically protected by a kind of absolute immunity, as if its interior were inviolable […] even if and especially if it must not prevent us from addressing ourselves to the university’s out­side without any utopic neutrality (219).” Derrida, the philosopher whose convoluted style is routinely mocked by Anglo-Saxon critics, becomes disarmingly direct and clear here, as he often does when discussing institutional imperatives:

 This freedom or immunity of the university and par excellence of its Humanities is something to which we must lay claim, while committing ourselves to it with all our might. Not only in a verbal and declarative fashion, but in work, in act, and in what we make happen with events (219).

For Derrida, this freedom is not dispensed by a benevolent state bureaucracy as Humboldt sought in the nineteenth century, but is instead claimed through acts that are and should be the hallmark of the professor. Derrida notes that the word “professor”, of Latin origin, had only a religious sense in English before the establishment of the university in the 13th and 14th centuries. [He also notes that the word “fable” also comes from this root, thus fiction is tied to the term]. To “profess” was to take public vows of a religious order. Derrida turns to Austin’s distinction between constative (“saying what is”) and performative (“making things happen”) speech acts, noting that to profess is not simply to commit to the craft of holding constative scientific-technical knowledge; but prior to taking up this craft to make a pledge, to commit one’s responsibility, even to fight for something in the future. “What matters here is this promise, this pledge of responsibility, which is reducible to neither theory nor practice (214).” If the professor has power in a world of generalised archivisation techniques and knowledge circulation, it is in this commitment: “Beyond and in addition to knowledge, know-how, and competence, a testimonial commitment, a freedom, a responsibility under oath, a sworn faith obligates [the professor] to render accounts to some tribunal yet to be defined (222).”  One must work for the university not in response to the contingencies of practical management, but in light of the judgement of those to come in the future.

Derrida then moves on to the question of the kind of work that is implied in this commitment. It is not simply work as labour, for “we know better than ever today that a gain in production can correspond to a diminishing of work (221).” Instead the professor must engage in the production of works (oeuvres) that carry this signature mark of responsibility in their profession, and which “remain after and beyond the time of the operation (216).” If such a work is to be critical in the performative sense, rather than merely talkingabout the critical, it cannot remain bound by traditional genres of critique, but must take up an “unconditional right to ask critical questions not only about the history of the concept of man, but about the history even of the notion of critique, about the form and the authority of the question, about the interrogative form of thought (204).” In short, in order for the professoriat to fully carry out their responsibility to the future of the profession, they must create works that allow new modes of thinking in that profession to become possible, just as innovative works of the past have allowed us to think today. Needless to say, in humanities disciplines where the student is initiated into the academy on arrival, this “professing” role is also available for the student, in the mode of humanities learning that Spivak calls the “uncoercive rearrangement of desire (“Ethics” 615).” In this sense Derrida introduces the modality of the “as if” in fiction, in fabulation, that is appropriate to all oeuvres,

not only singularly oeuvres d’art, the fine arts (painting, sculpture, cinema, music, poetry, literature, and so forth), but also… all the dis­cursive idealities, all the symbolic or cultural productions that define, in the general field of the university, the disciplines said to be in the Humanities€”and even the juridical disciplines and the production of laws, and even a certain structure of scientific objects in general (212).

Speaking of academic outputs, he claims that he will “not hasten for the moment to reduce these “objects” (of professorial activity) to fictions, simulacra, or works of art, while acting as if we already had at our disposal reliable concepts of fiction, of art, or of the work (212).” Even without such definitions, for Derrida the work of the professor ultimately cannot be simply the “competent exercise of some knowledge” in a constative or techno-scientific sense, but must be an imaginative exploration of the limits of the very field in a way which cannot be undertaken with pre-existing conditions.

Derrida’s account of the unconditional university speaks directly to the goals of many student-led occupations of universities in recent times. It addresses the autonomous and unlimited demands which have and should be made of the university, as the university can only be truly “universal” if it is a space without limit. From this perspective, the neo-liberal quantification of university inputs and outputs, indexed to credit hours, rankings, productivity, and€”most of all€”debt, becomes a regime that aims to bond students’ personal aspirations and growth to the demands of the market. But other types of value are possible, and they will not be available at some distant point of freedom granted to those with an excellent GPA or ranking in a research assessment exercise. They must instead be enacted immediately, in our relations with each other, so that new forms of collective value can be discovered outside the coercive principles of competition and productivity. As Judith Butler explains, the autonomy we seek as individuals can only be found together:

In this sense, we must be undone in order to do ourselves: we must be part of a larger social fabric of existence in order to create who we are. This is surely the paradox of autonomy […]  If the social world… must change in order for autonomy to become possible, then individual choice will prove to be dependent from the start on conditions that none of us author at will, and no individual will be able to choose outside the context of a radically altered social world. That alteration comes from an increment of acts, collective and diffuse, belonging to no single subject, and yet one effect of these alterations is to make acting like a subject possible(100).

Danny Butt [] teaches in the Critical Studies programme at Elam School of Fine Arts, University of Auckland. He is currently writing a book on the future of the art school within the research university.


Works Cited

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