The Neoliberal Assault on Academia
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The New York Times, Slate and Al Jazeera have recently drawn attention to the adjunctification of the professoriate in the US. Only 24 per cent of university and college faculty are now tenured or tenure-track.
Much of the coverage has focused on the sub-poverty wages of adjunct faculty, their lack of job security and the growing legions of unemployed and under-employed PhDs. Elsewhere, the focus has been on web-based learning and the massive open online courses ( MOOCs), with some commentators celebrating and others lamenting their arrival.
The two developments are not unrelated. Harvard recently asked its alumni to volunteer their time as "online mentors" and "discussion group managers" for an online course. Fewer professors and fewer qualified - or even paid - teaching assistants will be required in higher education's New Order.
Lost amid the fetishisation of information technology and the pathos of the struggle over proper working conditions for adjunct faculty is the deeper crisis of the academic profession occasioned by neoliberalism. This crisis is connected to the economics of higher education but it is not primarily about that.
The neoliberal sacking of the universities runs much deeper than tuition fee hikes and budget cuts.
Thatcherite budget-cutting exercise
The professions are in part defined by the fact that they are self-governing and self-regulating. For many years now, the professoriate has not only been ceding power to a neoliberal managerial class, but has in many cases been actively collaborating with it.
As a dose of shock capitalism, the 2008 financial crisis accelerated processes already well underway. In successive waves, the crisis has hit each pillar of the American university system. The initial stock market crash blasted the endowments of the prestige private universities. Before long, neoliberal ideologues and their disastrous austerity policies undermined state and eventually federal funding for universities and their research.
Tuition soared and students turned even more to debt financing. Now that bubble is bursting and hitting all the institutions of higher education that depend on tuition. Students are increasingly unwilling to take on massive debt for jobs they have little confidence of getting.
The upshot is to soften the resistance of faculty to change, in part by making people fear for their jobs but mostly by creating a generalised sense of crisis. It becomes all the easier for some academic "leaders" to be drawn up into the recurrent task of "reinventing" the university.
Here is the intersection with neoliberal management culture. Neoliberal managers thrive not by bringing in new resources - since austerity is always the order of the day - but by constantly rearranging the deck chairs. Each manager seeks to reorganise and restructure in order to leave his or her mark. They depart for the next lucrative job before the ship goes under.
One consequence is the mania for mergers of departments and faculties in the US and the UK. In both the university and corporate world, mergers are not only demoralising for staff, but they also break up solidarities and destroy traditions and make staff much more amenable to control from above.
Such projects have little to do with academic excellence or even purposes, and often are self-defeating as the managers and the quislings among the professoriate who assist them have little idea what they are doing.
One of the only things the University of Birmingham was ever known for in the wider world was its Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies. In 2002, the Centre was shut down by fiat in an act of vandalism described as "restructuring". The justification given for this was yet another neoliberal exercise then known as the Research Assessment Exercise, or RAE.