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.

This historical contingency of NPM is much further explored in Alexander Mitterle’s stimulating article, ‘An academic socialism?’, which examines university policy in socialist East Germany. GDR universities, though initially organs of Marxist-Leninist philosophy, acquired an increasingly prominent role in research and industrial production during the 1960s and 1970s, as science was officially reclassified as a ‘productive force’ rather than a mere element of society’s ‘superstructure’ (p. 562). The policy instruments of this period, as Mitterle shows, are deeply familiar to analysts of today‘s neoliberalism. GDR research was largely funded by contracts that insisted on direct industrial applications; researchers were incentivised to compete for performance bonuses and symbolic rewards, subject to ‘comparative performance evaluation’ (p. 573), and expected to show individual initiative (while simultaneously being good interdisciplinary teamworkers). The system as a whole was oriented towards regional economic development, pushed towards ‘efficiency’, and perpetually reformed ‘against mediocrity and self-satisfaction’ (p. 565).

As Mitterle acknowledges, his research is based almost exclusively on GDR policy documents, and it would be useful to see further archival or interview research on the way these policies played out in day-to-day academic life. But the article remains a significant contribution to our understanding of the historical portability and ideological promiscuity of these practices: as Mitterle concludes, many of today’s neoliberal policy instruments are in fact ‘not specific to capitalist higher education policy’ (p. 577). This argument, one notices, is directed against a seeming assumption, among critics of academic neoliberalism, that neoliberalism is both fairly homogeneous and particular to contemporary capitalism. ‘It could be’, he remarks, ‘that the “apocalyptic tone” … adopted in critical analyses of current reforms has led to a certain blindness towards prior evolutions’ (p. 560) [my emphasis]. Yet it strikes me that Mitterle does not describe this tone or these critical analyses in any detail. Paradoxically, his analysis of ‘neoliberal’ policies is much more subtle than his depiction of their critics. And indeed, this collection lacks a serious analysis of the critics of neoliberalism, no doubt in part because the authors are themselves part of this critical community. One hopes that future research will offer a more reflexive sociology and intellectual history of these critical voices.

But while the opposition to neoliberalism is never adequately accounted for, the collection does provide a different complement to our analysis of NPM: it offers a set of accounts of how neoliberal university policy comes to appear totalising and naturalised. These accounts appear most clearly in Isabelle Bruno‘s Foucauldian analysis of EU research policy and Alan Scott’s comparison of Austrian and British university reforms. Scott, drawing on a theory of different modes of institutional change, shows how similar reform projects were dramatically successful in Britain but relatively ineffective in Austria. In Britain, he argues, neoliberal projects like the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) were successful through institutional logics of ‘displacement’ and ‘conversion’, while in Austria, market-oriented reforms ran up against internal conflict and traditional national ideologies of Bildung, producing processes of ‘layering’, ‘placation’ and ‘reverse effects’. (It would be instructive to see this analysis expanded to a broader set of cases.) The British case affords Scott the occasion to advance an intriguing analysis of the ‘dramaturgy’ of the reforms: ‘Through repetition,’ he argues, ‘the RAE … acquired its sense of inevitability and the power of facticity’. (I quote Scott’s English manuscript here rather than translating from the published French, as the translation is imprecise on this point.) RAE results, for instance, were published months before their ‘financial consequences’ were released, leaving universities ‘in a state of suspense’ that had massive material stakes. Scott thus implicitly advocates a sort of phenomenological theory of naturalisation, wherein neoliberal policy comes to seem real through a process of repetitive stress and tribulation imposed on local actors.

For Bruno, on the other hand, naturalisation is less a matter of reiterated imposition than a feature of neoliberal policy’s own self-confirming logic. Her argument traces various steps in the development of the EU’s Lisbon Strategy, from 1990s discourses on the economic importance of knowledge to later policy imperatives of competition, new protocols of benchmarking, and increased integration of research with the corporate sector. The general picture is of a deeply business-oriented EU policy world, whose gestures towards culture and humanism are basically ornamental. Bruno, herself a prominent French faculty activist, ends by gesturing towards resistance, but to my ear, her analysis of power is more striking than her advocacy of counterpower. Implicitly chiding those social scientists who overestimate reflexivity’s emancipatory virtues, Bruno bases her theory of naturalisation on a form of dominating reflexivity. The Lisbon Process, she argues, is constituted through a ‘reflexive prism’: a governing discourse that organises how things are ‘reasoned … perceived, thought and coded’ (p. 541), refracting actors’ perceptions through its own patterns. The ‘reflexive prism’ in this case centres around the effort to install permanent competition in every sphere of social life, such that infinitely recursive competition becomes an unreachable horizon, ‘an unceasing tension towards an inaccessible goal’ (p. 536). Along with this project comes a self-verifying, hence self-naturalising interpretive schema. As Bruno notes, policy makers refused to interpret the Lisbon Strategy’s empirical failures as stemming from the project itself. Rather, they perceived all failures as contingencies, as ‘a lack of political will’ (p. 546). Though more ethnographic detail would be helpful, the image is one of policy makers fully entranced by the circular logic of their own discourse.

Bruno’s and Scott’s articles suggest two theoretical conclusions. First, an adequate analysis of neoliberal policy must explain how it is at once historically contingent and self-naturalising. Second, this naturalisation works differently in different contexts. Bruno’s European policy makers seem to be cognitive or ideological captives to their own reflexive forms. Scott’s British academics, on the other hand, apparently experience naturalisation as an experiential effect of forced enrolment in repetitive rites of evaluation. And in yet a third possibility, Bruno suggests at one point that neoliberal competition need not even be subjectively apparent to local actors, since neoliberal regimes act ‘not on the game’s players but on the game’s rules’ (p. 555, citing Foucault). The most effective form of naturalisation, we are reminded, is the one that bypasses local consciousness altogether, content to set the conditions of possibility for local action.

Three articles in the collection present case studies in state fiscal disengagement. Christopher Newfield writes in a more polemical style about the inequalities and irrationalities introduced by private funding and loans in the United States, as if trying to persuade fellow Americans that public funding remains urgent. Carole Sigman gives an institutional analysis of Russian university autonomisation, tracing a story of state entrepreneurialism, new rankings and international legibility pressures, new competition and differentiation in funding, and an effacement of the distinction between public and private sectors. The resulting governance regime seems to her unstable: perhaps, she suggests, the Russian state will ‘lose its grip’ (p. 600) on the newly autonomous universities. A yet more drastic university defunding case, that of the U.K., is sketched by Anne West, Eleanor Barham and Anthony West, who emphasise the instabilities introduced by dependence on uncertain private funds. Theirs is the only article in this collection to analyse seriously the effects of global economic crisis on universities, but their analysis unfortunately did not anticipate the 2010 defeat of the British Labour Party and the installation of a Conservative-led government, which has cut funding far beyond anything foreseen by these authors.

The last two articles here, by Sylvie Didou Aupetit and Tupac Soulas, explore the dynamics of international mobility. Didou calls attention to the class politics of student mobility in the Mexican case, showing that as government funding for study abroad falls, the elite tends to benefit at the expense of the underprivileged (p. 647). Soulas looks at universities’ foreign adventures, beginning with the additional revenue available from foreign students (13 per cent of U.K. university revenues in 2008), and moving to foreign university outposts that have opened up in places like Qatar, Singapore or Kuala Lumpur. He argues that since these ‘foreign implantations’ are essentially driven by economic opportunity (shutting down, in some cases, for lack of profitability), the balance of power is likely to shift from the exporting countries, or the sponsoring universities, to the host countries which supply the resources for these foreign adventures. There is a useful theoretical reminder here. While articles like Bruno’s chart neoliberal discourse, these latter articles remind us that institutional action is not simply a product of policy ideologies: it is also, and often quite directly, sensitive to immediate variations in material and financial circumstance. A certain basic materialism (call it ‘resource dependency theory’) is still vitally necessary in this field. Indeed, it is probably the folk theory of many policy makers.

The collection ends without reaching final conclusions about the nature of NPM or academic neoliberalism. As in many edited collections, the connections between the articles are largely left for the reader to untangle. And a polemicist might point out that Vinokur’s political economy and Scott’s comparative institutional analysis, for instance, are ultimately at odds with each other on conceptual questions about social theory. But as a matter of improving our substantive understanding of contemporary university systems, the different approaches and levels of analysis tend to complement each other. One does wonder, nonetheless, if there is more to say about the role of theory in this field of research. Is the collective analysis of university neoliberalism, now well underway, bound to become a research paradigm with its own forms of ‘normal science’? What is the sociology of this subfield? The contributors, billed as ‘international’, are in fact mostly a mix of Francophones and Anglophones. And what is the relation between analysis and political intervention in this field? Implicit answers to these questions could be drawn out of this set of texts, but a more explicit discussion remains for the future.



Mazzarella, W. (2004) ‘Culture, globalization, mediation’, Annual Review of Anthropology 33: 345–367.