Universities, nationalism and neoliberalism

I’ve begun a little reading group with Zach SW and Eli M. We’re trying to get a more comparative, more historical sense of what “neoliberalism” means and does in universities. We started out reading four articles: Andrés Bernasconi on the endangered Latin American university model; Robert Rhoads and Liliana Mina on a major student strike in 1999 at Mexico’s National Autonomous University; Piet Konings on ethnic violence and student politics in 1990s Cameroon, and Wendy Larner and Richard Le Heron on neo-liberal subjectivities in New Zealand universities.

Let me pause for a moment and say that this topic is somewhat new for me, since for years I’ve felt somewhat skeptical about ‘neoliberalism’ as a concept. I remember when I had no idea what it referred to and felt that it was some kind of meaningless sign that signified primarily that someone (probably someone academic) really didn’t like something. Then, later on as I did classroom ethnography, I began to feel that neoliberalism was part of broader metanarratives about universities that were abstract and often irrelevant to ordinary academic life. Now, though, as I slowly get a better comparative sense of national university histories, I’ve changed my mind about neoliberalism, because it seems that the term, in the context of university reforms, really does designate a historical process that’s happening worldwide. As far as I can see, ‘university neoliberalism’ designates the process that brings together many of the following phenomena (not necessarily all at once, but as a set of loosely linked processes with clear common themes):

  • Newly hierarchical, bottom-line, market-oriented academic management. Universities look more like corporations in their organizational and behavioral structure. Corresponding decline in faculty governance, pedagogical and disciplinary autonomy.
  • Withdrawal of public (i.e., state or governmental) money and a turn towards private sector funding.
  • Casualization (sometimes also taylorization) of academic labor.
  • Decline of the idea that education is a public good or a right; and a corresponding rise of ideologies of education as a commodity, and universities as an investment.
  • Privatization and branding of universities. Increasing provision of consumer services to students.
  • Development of systems of competition, ranking, evaluation and audit within and across academic institutions.
  • A shift from universities as small, elite institutions to mass institutions deeply involved in vocational reproduction and “economically useful” knowledge (one could take this as a particular ideology about what role universities should play in mass social reproduction). New ideas about the relation between education and job-related skill-building.
  • Increased organizational intimacy between universities and business enterprises – business-funded research, corporate partnerships, and the like.
  • Rise of the international and global context as the relevant context in which universities should be evaluated.

These things are global: I’ve read about neoliberalisms of this ilk in, for instance, the U.S., Canada, Britain, France, Austria, Mexico, Chile, Brazil, Argentina, Sweden, New Zealand, Australia and Cameroon — just to take the list that spontaneously comes to my head.

However, the first thing to learn from this week’s set of readings, as Zach points out, is that “such convergences [in what we call neoliberalism] are always historically and geographically specific, [and] that ‘neoliberalization’ can have wildly different effects and discursive articulations.” To give a thumbnail summary of this variation: in New Zealand, neoliberal reforms since the 1980s have introduced new forms of auditing, benchmarking, consumerization, and generally quantitative forms of management; according to Larner and Le Heron, this was partly embraced by academics themselves, and at any rate does not seem to have generated large opposition. There was a general consensus among academics that reform was needed, they say.

In Mexico, on the other hand, neoliberalism provoked violent reactions. An effort to charge tuition (at the relatively low rate, to US eyes, of $90/semester) provoked a student strike that shut down the National Autonomous University from April 20, 1999 to February 6, 2000. Ultimately, the strike foundered on internal differences between its “radical left wing” and more “moderate” students, and was shut down in the end by a raid of 2,400 police, without having achieved its political goals. Political discourse centered on a conflict between populist, social-justice-motivated students, who claimed the constitutional right to free higher education for all, and “market-driven philosophies,” related to the Mexican government’s desire to better integrate the country into the global economy.

This conflict was, of course, framed differently by different sides. Some conservatives claimed that “politics had no place in an academic institution” (quoting Imanol Ordorika, p.352) — a political move in the guise of an antipolitical move. Among the leftist students, on the other hand, an interesting variety of nationalist universalism surfaced.

“This is not only a national problem but an international problem,” one student commented; “The imperialist politics that have been planted in Mexico and abroad have driven privatization not only in education but in all public sectors. For the most part, and in the near future, all that is the common people or nation will no longer be. We will be in foreign hands, the hands of the United States” (343-4).

As if the international were the locus of capital and imperial force, while the national remains the locus of the people and the common. As Rhoads and Mina put it, “antiglobalization and proautonomy rhetoric characterized the student strikers” (336). And indeed, a specific national role for the university was invoked by students, who said things like: “The university is the cradle of culture for the country.” I call it a nationalist universalism because it associates the nation, Mexico in this case, with seemingly universal goods like culture, justice, and democracy. Recall that in Bill Readings’ influential 1996 book, The University in Ruins, he argued that the university as bearer of national culture was dead. We can see here that this conclusion, drawn half a decade before the UNAM strike, was premature. (My guess is that Readings over-generalized from the North American case he knew.)

And to make matters still more complicated, it isn’t only the opponents of neoliberalism who lay claim to national values. The proponents of neoliberal reforms themselves are nationalists, of a sort: nationalists who (claim to) believe that the nation’s best interests lie in an embrace of the global economy, in a new merger between education and market, in the embrace of international standards and institutional forms. The New Zealand case illustrates this well: as Larner and Le Heron say themselves,

“[The] role of the university [has changed] from that of an institution premised on, and constitutive of, a national economy and a national society, to that focused on a particular understanding of international competitiveness in which the aspiration is to identify points of difference and areas of strength through which national institutions can be linked into global flows and networks.” (845-6)

Is neoliberalism therefore a new sort of national strategy? Or is the nation slowly being restructured by transnational neoliberalism? Paradoxically, it would seem to be both at once. (I’m dimly aware that scholars have quarreled about this for decades, but it’s not my field.) And as we examine the clash in Mexico between neoliberal reforms and social justice protesters, we can observe universities becoming the scene of a clash of different kinds of universalisms: a universalism of the market, of economic exigency, opposed to a universalism of transcendental values and of political emancipation. This is too abstract and schematic to be worth much, I realize, but it reminds me of a pair of opposed political slogans from May 1968 in France.

  1. “Soyons réalistes, demandons l’impossible.” (Be realists, demand the impossible.) It’s a slogan which makes a famous appeal to a radical and transcendental political role for academic protest.
  2. “Soyons réalistes : pour bouffer, il faut de l’argent.” (Be realists: to eat, you need some money.) This slogan, a parody of the first, makes a bluntly practical appeal to the economic necessities of survival.

Anyway, I wish I had more time to develop this peculiar ongoing link between university and national, political and economic logics… and I also wanted to write more about sub-national identifications with universities. In Cameroon, there were years of violent ethnic clashes over the universities, based in part on an ethnic and linguistic identification between the Beti and “their” university. Konings says: “The self-styled Direct Action group… openly declared that the University of Yaounde was on Beti land and thus should fall under Beti control. It often declared that the Anglo-Bami students should either recognize Beti control or ‘go home’ ” (188). This should remind us that there are very common, quite deep identifications between peoples, places, and universities, often at scales other than national — state universities in the U.S., for instance, are located in their state, named for their state, and intended to educate the people of that state, for instance. But this species of university totemism, for lack of a better word, will have to wait for further elaboration.

Next week we’ll be reading from a special issue of Inter-Asia Cultural Studies on neoliberal knowledge in Asian universities. Stay tuned.

6 thoughts on “Universities, nationalism and neoliberalism

  1. Eli,

    I was so happy to come across your blog and website. Well done!

    As you know, I think this question of neoliberalism in academic production is extremely important… I actually began to compose some thoughts as a response to your post here when I realized I was going on longer than the decorum of “a reply”.

    So instead I’ve crafted a post over at my own blog (http://kevinkarpiak.wordpress.com) and linked to this post (hopefully the trackback will work).

    In any case, exciting stuff!

  2. Hi Eli,

    This is an important and interesting contemporary problem and I am glad you are starting a discussion on it. I have quite a bit to say, but for the moment only had two quick reactions.

    First, although I agree with you that it is massively misused and often misunderstood, I still find neoliberalism useful as an analytic simply because there were (and are) a significant and influential group of people who self-identified under that rubric, including Friedrich von Hayek and Milton Friedman. In his lectures on the the “Birth of Biopolitics” which recently came out in English, Michel Foucault does a nice genealogy of neoliberalism in which he not only shows how it is similar to (but different from liberalism), but also distinguishes German, French, and American variants. (The final one he somewhat clumsily, but probably accurately calls “anarcho-capitalism”!)

    Second, in addition to the authors that you cited, you might want to check out work by Marilyn Strathern, Cris Shore, and Susan Wright on “Audit Cultures.” They do an extremely skillful job in illustrating how neoliberal techniques were implemented in academic settings and elsewhere in parts of western Europe.


    1. Hi Daromir,

      Nice to hear from you. I would love to hear more of your thoughts on this. I was just reading some stuff by Aihwa Ong you may be familiar with — she said, predictably enough, that neoliberalism is a portable technology of governance that translates itself differently in different contexts, but she still seemed attached to using the name “neoliberalism” to name a global phenomenon, which I think is what really should be in question. If neoliberalism is everywhere different, why categorize it with this global catch-all term?

      On the other hand, I wasn’t aware that Hayek and Friedman were self-labeled “neoliberals” — I’ll try to check out the Foucault at some point. It’s interesting if ‘neoliberal’ has been a self-categorization and not only a pejorative categorization of the political Other (for lack of a better and less jargony way of putting it). I do know Strathern and Shore’s stuff — Shore in particular has a huge, decade-long research project that I am keeping up on. I saw from your website you do indonesia and went to berkeley/uchicago — what are you working on these days?

      stay in touch, eli

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