/ 14 September 2018

Universities in the neoliberal age

(Graphic: John McCann/M&G)
(Graphic: John McCann/M&G)


Many of the students I have taught in Britain and South Africa see higher education as a place where they “invest” in themselves in the financial sense of the word. “Going to university,” one student said, was a way of “increasing” his “value” or employability in the labour market.

This perception of the university has not arisen by chance.

Capitalism entered a new phase with the Thatcher and Reagan governments in Britain and the United States during the 1980s. The managerial practices used to run businesses were applied to the public sector, in particular to education and healthcare. This reform of the public sector (called “new public management”) introduced a new way of thinking about the university.

Higher education was being made to conform to the norms of efficiency, value for money, customer service, audit and performance targets. One of the consequences of this was the substitution of the authority of the academic, which is based on his or her professional knowledge of the discipline, for the authority of the line manager.

Since then, everything has come to depend on audits and metric standards of so-called quality assessment (student satisfaction, pass rates, league tables, et cetera). Academics have little, if any, say on whether departments should continue to exist, what degrees and courses should be on offer and even what kind of assessment methods should be used.

I don’t think that there has been a more sinister assault on academic freedom than this colonisation of higher education by neoliberalism. It justifies itself by calling for “transparency” and “accountability” to the taxpayer and the public. But it operates with a perverted sense of these words (since what it really means is “discipline and surveillance” and “value for money”).

Its effect, if not its aim, has been to commodify higher education and produce a new kind of social identity. This is the identity of the self as entrepreneur.

Let me explain. One of the central aspects of neoliberalism is the disappearance of the distinction between the worker and the capitalist. In the neoliberal setting, the worker is not a partner of exchange with the capitalist. She does not sell her labour-power for a wage.

The labourer’s ability to work, her skill, is an income stream. It is an investment on which she receives a return in the form of wages. The worker is capital for herself. She is a source of future earnings. In the neoliberal market, as Michel Foucault remarks, everyone is a capitalist.

Neoliberalism has converted education from a public good to a personal investment in the future, a future conceived in terms of earning capacity.

How did we get to this situation?

The modern university came into existence at the start of the 19th century as an extension of the state. The aim of the state during the colonial and imperial age was to constitute the identity of the national subject.

As a public institution, the university was designed to teach students to see their life in a specific way. They would learn to see that it is only as members of a national community and culture that their individual life has a meaning and worth.

This was the aim of the educational programme that German philosophers such as Wilhelm von Humboldt and Johann Gottlieb Fichte envisaged for the University of Berlin. For them, science was in the service of the moral and intellectual education of the nation.

Established in 1810, the University of Berlin was the first modern university. It was founded on the principles of academic freedom, the unity of research and teaching, and the primacy of research over vocational training.

It functioned as the prototype for universities in both the United States and Europe during the second half of the 19th century.

Once transnational corporations started to control more capital than nation-states in the 1980s, the university ceased to be one of its principal organs. It lost its ideological mission and entered the market as a corporation. It started to encourage students to think of themselves as customers rather than as members of a nation.

This history shows that the university is today the site of two competing social identities.

On the one hand, because of globalisation, the student who enters university sees herself as someone who is there to increase her human capital, as an enterprise to invest in.

It must be remarked that, for the entrepreneur (taken as a social figure) who invests in herself, differences of class, religion, ethnicity or race are phantasms of a bygone age. The differences in the name of which wars were waged and social movements organised in the past have no more meaning in her eyes than cheap advertising.

There is, for her, something improper or inauthentic about them, as Giorgio Agamben says of the new petty bourgeoisie in The Coming Community. Like Britain’s former prime minister, David Cameron, she is sceptical of multiculturalism.

On the other hand, the university has not ceased to draw on its modern role as a producer, protector and inculcator of national identity and culture. Much of what is going on today in South African universities under the name of decolonisation and Africanisation draws on this heritage and understanding of the modern university, even if tacitly. That is why students will politicise themselves by identifying with an ethnicity or nationality.

Nationalism was an emancipatory political project during the anti-colonial struggles of the second half of the 20th century. It was not tribalist or communalist.

According to Eric Hobsbawm in Nations and Nationalism since 1780, its aim was to extend the size of the social, cultural and political group. It was not to restrict it or to separate it from others. Nationalism was a political programme divorced from ethnicity.

Is this political nationalism a viable way of resisting neoliberalism today? Can it gainsay the primacy of economic rationality and the culture of narcissist consumerism, and restore meaning to the political question concerning the common good?

Or has nationalism irreversibly become an ethnic, separatist project?

It is not easy to say. So far, we have witnessed one kind of response to the social insecurities generated by the global spread of neoliberalism. This is a return to ethnicity and religion as havens of safety and security.

When society fails us owing to job insecurity, and, concomitantly, with regard to housing and healthcare, one tends to fall back on one’s ethnicity or religious identity as an ultimate guarantee.

Moreover, nationalism as a political programme depends on the idea of the state. It holds that a group defined as a “nation” has the right to form a territorial state and exercise sovereign power over it. But given the decline of the state, there are reasons to think that political nationalism has withdrawn as a real possibility.

By the “decline of the state” I do not mean that it no longer exists. The state has never been more present in the private life of individuals. It regulates the relations between men and women. It regulates their birth and death, the rearing of children, the health of individuals and so forth. The state is, today, ubiquitous.

What some people mean by the “decline of the state” is that, with the existence of transnational corporations, it is no longer the most important site of the reproduction of capital. The state has become managerial. Its function is to manage obstacles to liberalisation and free trade.

Perhaps that is one of the challenges of the 21st century. How is a “nation” possible, a “national community” that is not defined by ethnicity, on the one hand, and, on the other, that forsakes the desire to exercise sovereign power in general and, in particular, over a territorial state?

The university is perhaps the place where such a community can begin to be thought.

Rafael Winkler is an associate professor in the philosophy department at the University of Johannesburg