Between Crisis and New Public Management

A while ago I wrote a book review in LATISS of an interesting 2010 essay collection that appeared in France, Higher Education between New Public Management and Systemic Crisis (L’enseignement supérieur entre nouvelle gestion publique et crise systémique), edited by Annie Vinokur and Carole Sigman. I thought I’d post the text of my review here in case anyone’s interested in a little glimpse of some of the French critical literature on university reforms. I rather like writing book reviews, as a genre, and it’s sort of the traditional way for people finishing their dissertations to dip their toes in the publishing water, as it were.

So without any further ado…

As the neoliberal university reforms associated with the Bologna Process have come to France over the last decade, a Francophone wave of critical social research has emerged to analyse and resist them. It tends to be a hybrid genre, mixing traditional social science styles with explicit and implicit political engagements; this particular collection originates in the work of an interdisciplinary, multinational research network called FOREDUC, run by Annie Vinokur and Carole Sigman at the University of Paris-10. The general intellectual orientation here could be termed critical policy studies, with many of the authors coming from political science; the focus is less on neoliberalism as a doctrine than on New Public Management (NPM) as a mode of contract- and incentive-oriented state policy mechanisms. The volume’s underlying analytical problem is to explain how neoliberal university reforms at once converge and diverge across national contexts; as the editors put it, ‘contrasting our experiences shows that, while management principles in higher education and research strongly tend to converge, the doctrine works out differently on the ground depending on the local balance of power between the actors involved, and depending on the intensity of the stakes of international competitiveness in the education industry’ (p. 484). This general process of homogenisation and differentiation, one familiar to anthropologists of globalisation in other spheres (Mazzarella 2004: 349–352), admits of multiple theoretical explanations; and the great merit of this volume is to constitute a virtual laboratory in which the authors’ differing intellectual approaches can be compared and synthesised.

Vinokur’s article takes the most macro perspective here, working in a tradition of critical political economy that seems influenced by Marxism. She gives a historical genealogy of the contemporary ‘knowledge economy’, beginning with medieval guilds’ monopoly on their professional expertise, and proceeding to trace a series of attempts to break the autonomy of labour and appropriate workers’ ‘tacit knowledge’. Higher education today, in her view, has become a key boundary zone between the reproduction of capital and the reproduction of labour; she asserts provocatively that the function of post-war university massification has been to afford ‘not the mythical adequation of education to employment, but the production of a surplus of qualified workers on a global scale, necessary – though not sufficient – to put pressure on salaries and working conditions’ (pp. 495–496). And NPM becomes functional within this logic of capital, she argues, when firms find themselves needing a ‘strong political relay to deconstruct the social State’ (p. 497), whose twentieth-century social-welfare institutions could otherwise obstruct the push for a cheap qualified workforce, for newly commodifiable research and for new business opportunities within the higher-education sector.

Now, the difficulty with this functionalist analysis of NPM is that it tends to obscure the institutional and cultural autonomies that universities do retain in the face of economic imperatives. It would be helpful for Vinokur to elaborate how she sees the relationship between the global and the local. But the project remains, in my view, a very useful step towards a general analysis of higher education in terms of labour-capital relations. And at times her functionalism is more tempered: in an interesting historical aside, she remarks that NPM’s use of incentives was inspired by a ‘parental technology for managing recalcitrant children’, and hence has a sort of contingent historical origin. One learns from reading Vinokur’s article that while NPM is indeed functional, its (historical) origin and its (structural) function are quite separate things.

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