Neoliberalism emerged in the late 1970s, capitalising on the failure of what since the end of the Great Depression had been a social democratic consensus. In less than a generation, neoliberalism had assumed a position of dominance throughout the world representing an astonishing transformation “from a marginalised and little known set of ideas into the central guiding principle of economic thought and management” (Doherty, 2007: 273). The power of neoliberalism came in part from the simple (some would say simplistic) formulae it provided for policy reformers. Central to this was its reorganisation of public services along corporate lines and its introduction of market forces in ways that were designed to radically shape the beliefs, aspirations and behaviours of the actors within these sectors. The process of marketization involved the creation of markets through what Johnson describes as “the forcible subordination of non-market practices” (2008: 281).
This paper discusses some of the origins, impacts and implications of these reforms within the university sector. Specifically, it examines the logic underlying the marketization of universities and highlights the often-concealed political impacts of this transformation of university education. It argues that the historical social mission of the university as a site of critical thought capable of challenging the established social order has been severely eroded by the impact of having the teaching work of corporate universities shaped by choices of fee-paying students. This is being exacerbated by the increasing emphasis on accountability measures such as generating and making publicly available data that purports to compare the rates at which universities “add value” to their students. The contribution these forces have to, for example, undermining the study of the arts humanities and social sciences evidence the failure of the market models that underpin the neoliberal university and call for a reassertion of a more progressive social role for the university.
The politics of neoliberalism are often concealed. Neoliberalism hides behind a clear but contestable philosophical assumption about human nature; the notion of the rational, competitive, self-maximizing individual (Roberts, 2013). It treats economics and management as though they are exact sciences, the truths of which are revealed exclusively through a neoliberal lens. Neoliberalism is presented as neutral, rational and scientific. Its advocates contrast this with those who would resist it, whom they portray as ideologically motivated and engaged in special pleading. By doing this, neoliberalism positions itself as the only sensible response to what Bauman refers to as “the implacable and irreversible logic of social reality” (1999: 127).
As part of this maneuver, neoliberalism has sought to delegitimize the fundamental social democratic ideal of maximizing social equality. Given that one of the inevitable consequences of neoliberalism is to widen social inequalities, there was no room for the compassionate notion that the worth of a society can be measured by how it treats its weakest members. Therefore, neoliberal theorists called into question the widely accepted view that social equality was desirable, and they also challenged the notion that inequality was undesirable (see, for example, Tooley, 1996).
Neoliberals not only questioned the social democratic emphasis on equality, they also sought to replace it. Neoliberalism’s preferred concept was freedom which was closely allied and given effect to by an emphasis on choice. The contrast between the social democratic commitment to equality and the neoliberal promotion of freedom could be presented as the difference between individuals being allowed to decide important matters for themselves or being required by the collectivist orientation of social democracy to go along with decisions made on their behalf by other people.
The neoliberal project sought to remove, reduce or redefine the role of the state in virtually every aspect of society. State agencies which had been created with the purpose of acting in the common good to promote the well-being of society were branded as not only inefficient but also subject to the whims and ideological preferences of meddlesome politicians. The idea that accountability could be achieved by vesting power in politicians whose performance would be publicly judged through elections became discredited by being branded as interventions the “nanny state”. Neoliberalism systematically removed principles of democracy from its models of management and governance, which were redefined as specialized technical functions within a corporate framework. There was a push to ensure that governance bodies of organisations with public functions would become less “representative” and more “competent”. The process by which neoliberalism was removing structures of democracy and public accountability was itself presented as one of liberating people from the clutches of the state. No longer subject to politics and the whims and preferences of politicians, people would be set free by neoliberalism to make their own decisions about the things that mattered in their own lives.
Neoliberalism saw the abandonment of the concept of the common good being promoted by public institutions designed for that purpose. It was replaced by what was presented as a more direct form of accountability that enhanced individual freedoms. All service provision would be organized in the form of transactions between sellers and buyers. Sellers would be corporate entities. Buyers would be consumers. They would interact with each other in a market. The services provided by the sellers and the prices they charge would be determined not by what some external authority deemed appropriate but by what the people themselves were actually prepared to pay. This process of marketization became the prime mechanism for the public to hold service providers directly accountable and led to the emergence of the notion of “democracy” as consumer choice, exercised by “citizen-consumers” (Peters, 2004).
Neoliberalism replaced the heavy hand of state involvement with the magical touch of the invisible hand of the market. By disciplining competing corporate providers to attend to the wishes of purchasers, the market is said to be an inherently efficient, responsive, high-performing model that is driven and steered by the purchasing choices of the people it exists to serve. Once this corporatized market logic is established, discussions over the important issues of public policy such as the desirability of privatization are reduced to technical questions such as whether public corporations can be operated as efficiently as their private counterparts.
The neoliberal blend of philosophical orientation and strategic formula proved a powerful almost irresistible force in part by virtue of its versatility; it was deemed the ideal framework for virtually every public function. When it comes to education, none have expressed neoliberalism’s corporate approach more starkly than Friedman  who described education as:
“… a form of investment in human capital analogous to investment in machinery, buildings, or other forms of non-human capital. Its function is to raise the economic productivity of the human being. If it does so, the individual is rewarded in a free enterprise society by receiving a higher return for his services” (1955).
The Power of Funding
The drive to incorporate the university into the neoliberal project began with changes to models of funding. Central to this was the neoliberal aim to make the financial viability of a university increasingly dependent on student fees. This initiated the marketizing of university education; turning it into a commercial transaction between a purchaser and a vendor of a service. This was championed by neoliberals as a break with the old model of what they called “provider capture”, one in which the service offered by universities was said to be shaped too much by the needs of those institutions themselves. Robert Jackson, Britain’s Minister for Higher Education, described university resistance to neoliberal reforms as the behaviour of a “cartel of producer interests” (cited in Collini, 2011). Neoliberals portrayed their reforms as correcting the relationship between providers and consumers by privileging the needs of the consumer ahead of those of the provider. By tying university funding to student enrolments and by making students pay handsomely for their university education, neoliberal reforms introduced a market discipline into the sector. Along with other changes to structures of governance and management, this move was said to ensure that university teaching would be improved. The deciding factor in universities determining what courses and programmes to offer would be their attractiveness to students.
The fundamental ethos of university course offerings would change. Administrative structures became more managerialist and oriented towards achieving corporate aims. This generally involved morphing into a corporate model similar to what Kerr referred to as far back as 1963 as a “multiversity”, a federation of specialized semi-autonomous corporate entities. University departments would become cost centres to which all university costs and revenues would be attributed. Each would have its own corporate manager with its own key performance indicators, and would often comprise a collection of further layers of sub-entities (Radice 2013). Any of these cost centres that were deemed to be underperforming financially were targeted for restructuring. Courses and programmes that may once have been considered to be important parts of a university’s overall offering were viewed in the new multiversity model as unsustainable. They were said to be reliant on cross-subsidization, an arrangement that would not be continued under the new management model. Every component of the neoliberal university would be required to stand or fall on its ability to remain commercially viable, which for academic courses came down to their ability to attract and retain students.
The other key aspect of this enrolment model of university funding was to steadily replace state funding with increased amounts of student funding. One illustration of this can be seen in the University of California where tuition and fees now account for 46.3% of the budget, up from just 18.9% in 1989 (Hiltzik 2016). The neoliberal project eschewed universal provision of any service in favour of user-pays models. University education, long considered a “public good”, was no exception. The rationale for user-pays is the claim that the benefits of a university education accrue overwhelmingly to the individuals who receive that education. Therefore, the argument goes, those individuals should pay. This approach was designed to and certainly did achieve the effect of altering the way students made decisions about what they would study at university. Neoliberal reformers claimed that increasing private contributions to the costs of tertiary study would promote better quality student decisions. What they meant was that the requirement for students to pay fees would lead them to adopt more entrepreneurial approaches to their university education; to view their studies as a financial investment and, therefore, to seek to maximize their return on that investment. Hotson has argued that the account of human nature upon which this, and indeed the entire neoliberal project in education, is based is “demonstrably inadequate” as it involves propagating the view “that ordinary people are just like corporations: single-mindedly devoted to maximizing their profit” (Reisz 2016).
This user-pays model is not unproblematically placing student choice at the heart of the university system. Neither is it simply accepting students for who they are and responding to their needs. It is actively creating a new kind of student and a new kind of academic. As Giroux has remarked: “As the boundaries between public values and commercial interests become blurred, many academics appear less as disinterested truth-seekers than as operatives for business interests” (2002: 433). It is also altering the relationships between staff, students and the university. In doing so, it is an essential part of what Dardot and Laval (2014) refer to as a process of “manufacturing the neoliberal subject”.
This market relationship that was created in order to have the course offerings of universities more closely determined by the choices of students is claimed to be markedly superior to the centrally planned, provider-driven models of the past. The neoliberal university is presented as hard-wired to be efficient, flexible, directly accountable by way of a consumer model of “democracy”, and responsible for improving the educational performance of universities. As David Willets, former UK Minister for Universities and Science said in 2013, “unleashing the forces of consumerism is the single best way we’ve got of restoring high academic standards” (Cited in Coman, 2014).
The new university is said to be structurally guaranteed to orient itself primarily towards the interests of the economy. Indebted students tend to take a more instrumental view of their studies and so they are more likely to gravitate towards courses that generate a good return on investment. Their decisions are influenced by their perceptions of potential financial return. Therefore, reforms that make universities increasingly dependent on funding derived from student fees are an effective means of ensuring that universities orient themselves towards serving the short-term requirements of the economy.
To reinforce this further, policies have been designed to “create an incentive and reward structure at universities by distinguishing the universities that are delivering the strongest enterprise ethos and labour market outcomes for their students” (DBIS, 2015). Matrices and reporting requirements are being introduced whereby universities are measured and judged by how much value they add, that is, how well the education they provide succeeds in boosting the earning profiles of their students. McGettigan warns that this coming wave of educational evaluation will make it increasingly difficult to defend forms of education that do not generate private financial returns, and “threatens to supplant traditional understandings of universities as communities advancing public knowledge” (McGettigan, 2015).
A measure of the effectiveness of this approach is that the concentration of university funding in some areas and the simultaneous deprivation of resources from others can be presented not as the outcome of policy makers favouring one area over another but rather as the outcome of the choices made by those seeking and paying for education. The neoliberal policy package can ensure that universities and students act in certain ways and favour certain educational endeavours over others without the need for explicit commands. Again, the politics of what McGettigan calls this “insidious financialized threat” are concealed by the apparently apolitical neutral logic of markets, rationality, choice and consumer democracy.
One serious consequence of the introduction of this model is that it has contributed to a significant decline in the humanities, arts and social sciences in universities, and done so in a quite pernicious way. The decline can be viewed as legitimate and almost desirable if it is presented as the natural consequence of decisions made by students based on the lessening value they attach to the study of humanities and social sciences compared to other university disciplines. However lamentable some people may find this, it can be seen as simply a reflection of the way things are. There are clearly a variety of complex and intersecting reasons for people to enter higher education. However, as Bartram (2016) among others has shown, the more students are required to pay, the more their motivations are likely to be shaped by their assessment of the financial return they can expect from their educational investment.
By interpreting consumer choices as though they are acts of endorsement or support, neoliberalism draws inferences that are not sustainable. When a neoliberal context is created and people are required to function within it, one cannot interpret their ensuing behaviour nor the attitudes and values that underlie them as a conscious and willing embrace of the change. Roger Kerr, a leading neoliberal advocate in New Zealand, mocked neoliberalism’s critics by saying “It is ironic that those who denounce individualism and espouse collectivism nevertheless behave in their own economic lives just like individuals who support markets" (The Press 2 May 1997). Lewis identifies some of the complexity behind such comments with her reference to parental responses to the radical undermining of quality in public schools:
“Even progressive individuals and families were sometimes caught between their political commitments to social responsibility, on the one hand, and the pressures to take personal rather than collective) responsibility for the welfare and interests of their own families, on the other” (2008: 49)
In addition to the dynamics that are created by neoliberal funding models, there are also more overt political forces that are undermining the humanities, arts and social sciences. Sometimes these are as blunt as explicit attacks, and threatened or actual funding cuts. Rick Scott, the Governor of Florida, announced a policy in 2011 to move funding of state universities towards science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects and away from certain liberal arts majors declaring “we don’t need a lot more anthropologists in the state”. The Economist (24 October 2011) responded by naming Gillian Tett and Joris Luydendijk as two top financial analysts with degrees in anthropology; courses of study which, The Economist argued, gave them rare and invaluable insight into how financial markets operate.
In 2014, British Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, launched a campaign to promote STEM subjects by declaring that decisions to study arts and humanities at university could “hold young people back for the rest of their lives”. In 2015, the Japanese Government wrote to all 86 of Japan’s national universities calling on them to take active steps to abolish (social sciences and humanities) organisations or to convert them to serve areas that better meet society’s needs”. This was part of the government’s wider efforts to promote “more practical vocational education that better anticipates the needs of society” (Grove, 2015). In 2017, Donald Trump proposed eliminating two endowments of US$300 million; the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Although the proposal failed to obtain the necessary support of Congress, it was the first time a president had called for the 52 year-old federal endowments to be scrapped.
Posing himself the question ‘of what use are the humanities?’, Stanley Fish (2008) provocatively opined:
“… the only honest answer is none whatsoever. And it is an answer that brings honour to its subject. Justification, after all, confers value on an activity from a perspective outside its performance. An activity that cannot be justified is an activity that refuses to regard itself as instrumental to some larger good. There is nothing more to say, and anything that is said… diminishes the object of its supposed praise”.
While there is an undeniable logic in rejecting instrumentalist defences of an activity that seeks to transcend instrumentalism, Fish’s remark is unlikely to convince many new students to sign up for a Bachelor of Arts degree. Furthermore, as Canaan and Shumar have noted, students now in higher education have gone through a commodified, marketised and stratified education system prior to their entry to higher education which has inculcated this consumerist position and an instrumentalist approach to learning more generally” (2008: 7) Neither will Fish’s pronouncement win favour with managers of the university “costs centres” who are seeking to recruit those students.
In fact, considerable research, scholarship and marketing has been devoted to documenting the demonstrable value of the study of arts, humanities and social sciences. Whitehead points to recent neuroscience research that shows “the real empirical value of students studying the arts and humanities” and claims that it clearly shows “a real correlation between a serious pursuit of the arts and humanities and an individual who (is) more intellectual, more empathetic, more thoughtful, more critical and experiencing a greater sense of life satisfaction” (Whitehead 2017: 219-220)
The British Academy for the Humanities and Social Sciences (BAHSS) conducted a project to document skills that are acquired in the study of arts, humanities and social sciences. The project (BAHSS 2017) highlighted three sets of core skills that characterise work in this area. The first was the ability to communicate with different audiences, for different purposes, using different methods and to work collaboratively to ensure effective teamwork. The second was to be able to conduct research and critically analyze complex and diverse material. The third was for people to have the capacity to display independence in the way that they worked and in the original and distinctive ways that they assessed evidence, as well as possessing the adaptability and creativity to deal with subject matter that is often complex, ambiguous and uncertain.
Hay has developed many similar themes in a compelling response to recent assaults on the value and significance of studying humanities and liberal arts subjects. He argues that one of the main challenges to those who would defend the arts is that the merits of such study is not self-evident and identifies a manifest “disjuncture between the intangible and practical values of the humanities and the perceptions of that value” (2016: 621).
McMillan (2016) takes the argument a step further. He notes the common practice in recent years for universities to publish sets of graduate attributes of their various degrees. These attributes constitute a measure of the added value that graduates possess and they express this in terms that transcend the specific disciplinary context from which the degrees were obtained. McMillan acknowledges that critical thinking, one of the aspects of university education said to be most at risk in the neoliberal university, features prominently in the graduate attributes of most universities, including Imperial College which claims that its graduates ‘are able to retrieve, analyse and assimilate complex information’, ‘are able to manage complexity and ambiguity’, are ‘independent learners and critical thinkers’ and ‘have critical judgement’ (Imperial College 2015).
However, this packaging of critical thinking into the form of an employable skill reduces the radical edge previously inherent in the concept. It is in danger of deradicalizing, depoliticizing and individualizing an important political space with the university. The significance of this space is recognized in New Zealand law with the Education Act defining an essential element of a university being its acceptance of a role to act as “critic and conscience of society”.
At a time when the space for critical analysis amongst journalists is being seriously eroded by the third estate’s loss of advertising revenue to Google, Facebook and Youtube, the need for universities to assume their social responsibility as social critic has never been greater. Programmes in the arts, humanities and social sciences are the natural habitat of the social critic and they are being not only curtailed but redefined in more neoliberal-friendly ways. As McMillan (2016) has said:
“This overt positioning of universities as training grounds for human capital to suit the demands of employers has confined the critical impulse evident in both student activism and academia at large: employment graduates might be critical graduates, but this doesn’t mean that they will have the capacity or the desire for critical engagement with knowledge beyond university assessments and the demands of employers.”
The neoliberalisation of universities is presented by its advocates as having broken an inefficient, elitist, protected space and replaced it with new levels of accountability and responsiveness. Students wishing to acquire knowledge and other attributes that they can use to advance their social and economic standing are presented with courses that give them what they want taught by academic staff who are oriented through incentives towards serving those needs. The more efficiently a university can facilitate this process, the better it is at its primary teaching mission of adding value to its students. The ideal of this market model is neutral, efficient, democratic and untainted by ideology or vested interests.
However, because it is designed to serve the perceived needs of students schooled in neoliberalism, it is a model that squeezes out the social critic. By privileging the neoliberal instrumentalist student, it removes unpatrolled space for radical flights of fancy. Its apparent apolitical form disguises a deeply conservative political reality. It appears to accommodate the notion that universities along with individual academics within them might define their mission in ways that challenge the dominant power structures within society and the beliefs and ideologies that sustain them. But it also creates incentives and dynamics that make such challenges unlikely. People studying at university see it less and less as a place to learn and develop a radical critique of society. And the few who do view their university experience in this way would tend find academic staff wholly ill-equipped to respond to them.
In this sense, the market model of universities is failing society. Society needs universities to if not threaten, then make uncomfortable the established social order, whatever form that may take. It is a historic mission that is an essential part of what it means to be a university. The marketization of universities is generating a social deficit rendering the students, the staff, and the management of the neoliberal university incapable of fulfilling that mission.
Bartram, B. (2016). ‘Career and Money Aside, What's the Point of University?’ A Comparison of Students’ Non‐economic Entry Motives in Three European Countries. Higher Education Quarterly, 70(3), 281-300.
Bauman, Z. (1999). In search of politics. Stanford University Press.
British Academy for the Humanities and Social Sciences. (2017). The Right Skills: Celebrating Skills in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (AHSS).
Canaan, J. E., & Shumar, W. (Eds.). (2008). Structure and agency in the neoliberal university. Routledge.
Collini, S. (2011). From Robbins to McKinsey. London Review of Books, 33(16), 9-14.
Coman, J. (2014). Have England's universities been privatised by stealth. The observer. https://www.theguardian.com/education/2014/oct/12/have-universities-been-privatised-by-stealth
Dardot, P., & Laval, C. (2014). The new way of the world: On neoliberal society. Verso Books.
Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (DBIS) UK. (2015). Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Act 2015, Available at: http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2015/26/part/6/enacted
Doherty, R. A. (2007). Education, neoliberalism and the consumer citizen: After the golden age of egalitarian reform. Critical Studies in Education, 48(2), 269-288.
Fish, S. (2008). Will the humanities save us?. New York Times, 6.
Friedman, M. (1955). The role of government in education. Available from: https://www.edchoice.org/who-we-are/our-founders/the-friedmans-on-school-choice/article/the-role-of-government-in-education/
Giroux, H. (2002). Neoliberalism, corporate culture, and the promise of higher education: The university as a democratic public sphere. Harvard educational review, 72(4), 425-464.
Grove, J. (2015). “Social sciences and humanities faculties 'to close' in Japan after ministerial intervention. Universities to scale back liberal arts and social science courses” Times Higher Education Supplement. 14 September.
Grove, J. (2015). Social sciences and humanities faculties ‘to close’ in Japan after ministerial intervention. Times Higher Education, 14, 2015.
Hay, I. (2016). Defending letters: a pragmatic response to assaults on the humanities. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 38(6), 610-624.
Hiltzik, M. (2016). “When universities try to behave like businesses, education suffers”, Los Angeles Times, 3 June, available at: www.latimes.com/business/hiltzik/la-fi-hiltzik-university-business-20160602-snap-story.html
Imperial College London. 2015. “Graduate Attributes.” Graduate Attributes. https://www.imperial.ac.uk/students/academic-support/graduate-attributes/.
Johnson, R. (2008). University challenge: neoliberal abstraction and being more concrete, in Canaan, J. E., & Shumar, W. (Eds.) Structure and agency in the neoliberal university. Routledge.
Kerr, C. (1963). The idea of a multiversity. The uses of the university, 5, 1-45.
Lewis, M. (2008). Public good or private value: A critique of the commodification of knowledge in higher education—A Canadian perspective. Structure and agency in the neoliberal university, 45-66.
McGettigan, A. 2015. The Treasury View of HE: Variable Human Capital Investment. http://www.perc.org.uk/project_posts/perc-paper-the-treasury-view-of-higher-education-by-andrew-mcgettigan/
McMillan, C. (2016). ‘I’ve Learned to Question Everything’: Critical Thinking, or, the Pedagogical Logic of Late Capitalism. Retrieved from https://chrismcmillan.wordpress.com/author/londonsociology/
Peters, M. A. (2004). Citizen-consumers, social markets and the reform of public services. Policy futures in education, 2(3-4), 621-632.
Radice, H. (2013). How we got here: UK higher education under neoliberalism. ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies, 12(2), 407-418.
Reisz, M. (2016). “Howard Hotson: University Reforms Reflect Materialism.” Times Higher Education. https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/howard-hotson-university-reforms-reflect-materialism.
Roberts, P. (2013). Academic dystopia: Knowledge, performativity, and tertiary education. Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies, 35(1), 27-43.
The Economist. 24 October 2011.
Tooley, J. (1996, August). Education without the State. London: IEA
Whitehead, P. M. (2017). Education in a Postfactual World: From Knowing to Understanding. BrownWalker Press.