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Con-Dem-Nation and the attack on academic cultures

Con-Dem-Nation and the attack on academic cultures

Liz Morrish

Earlier this year, I gave a talk at a cultural studies symposium at my home university. The symposium of around twenty-five people took place in a purpose-built, comfortable seminar room. No doubt it qualifies as an under-utilised room after a recent on-going survey. Last week, we received this on email from a Pro Vice Chancellor:

“Work to support enhanced student experience includes changes in timetabling processes and finer consideration of the relationship between curriculum design and timetabling requirements and constraints. One of the major constraints on achieving high levels of consistency and coherence in students’ timetables is the availability of estate at key times”. (PVC email 2/2/11)

Notice the appeal to enhancing the student experience. It is nothing of the sort, of course. This is merely what Laud Humphries called ‘the breastplate of righteousness’, disingenuously masking its real purpose. It is actually about some management obsession with auditing the use of what they call ‘the estate’ and what we call ‘teaching rooms’. There is no problem with the estate – in actuality there was a whole building sitting empty 50 meters from us. I felt like replying with an email saying “my house is under-utilised for 10 hours each day. Would anyone care to co-occupy on a consortium basis in order to protect the cost base of the business?” The email went on to specify that all teaching ‘events’ must take only one hour. This, we are told, will prevent the over-booking of rooms. Mind you, just a couple of years ago, we were given precisely the opposite directive. To enhance the student experience, we were to consider teaching events of 30 minutes, or 90 minutes. This could be, perhaps, a short lecture delivery, followed by break out groups doing practical tasks. Teaching and Learning experts were frowning on the over-reliance on traditional lecture delivery. In this context, the Pro VC’s email was interpreted by most colleagues as an inappropriate denial of academic judgement about how to best teach our modules and programs. Instead, a pedagogical decision was being manipulated by a remote auditor, unaffiliated with academic culture, and unfamiliar with our curricular needs. This fits entirely within a wider attack on academic culture and values, where the aim is to ensure that the traditional autonomy of academics within the university is subdued in the interests, however temporary, erratic and self-defeating, of managerial behests.

Anyone working within these structures must feel as if they are like those schools of tropical fish – all swimming along together, and then a sudden volte-face all in synchronisation. Academics are being asked to sustain a contradiction between the set of values embodied by neoliberalism (discussed below) and traditional intellectual values more widely held by frontline academics.

It is important to emphasise that the examples I draw on reflect the experience of many academics in the marketized, financialized universities found in the UK, US and Australia. The aim of this paper is to explore how management and employees have developed this mutually destructive dynamic and assess the possibilities for resistance under the current government’s hostility to Higher Education.


Over the past two years I have been examining the language of the neoliberal academy and implications for power and equality. Colleagues were noticing and complaining about the penetration of an alien and alienating language which seemed to belong to corporate culture. This led on to a wider project on neoliberal discourse, and the limits it imposes on gender and sexuality equality in the academy. I have also been writing about the pretensions, contradictions and exclusions in university public documents such as mission statements and diversity statements (Sauntson and Morrish 2010; Morrish and O’Mara 2010).

Using the term neoliberalism needs some explanation as critics have levelled a charge of a promiscuous application of the term (Clarke 2008: 136). Firstly, it is important to be explicit about the connection between neoliberalism and managerialism. We may notice that the discourse of managers lies fully within the domain of corporate culture; for example, they almost choke on the word ‘university’, whereas 20 years ago we staked so much regard on attainment of that status.  For them we are a ‘business’ and staff must be managed entirely within this discourse. It only makes sense when we understand neoliberalism, not just as an ideology, or even a set of policies -it is primarily a governmentality – certain modes of governance based on particular premises, logics and power relations (Steger and Roy 2010:12). Foucault emphasises that it “structures the possible fields of action of others” (Foucault 1994: 34), and that power is linked to the processes of subject formation (Danaher et al, 2000: 83). My argument will be that this neoliberal governmentality does its work via a set of discourses, assumptions and practices which have shouldered their way into the academy in the last 20 years or so. For example, many of us will have felt mildly rebuked by the email about estate usage, as if we should apologise for taking up space. We have learned to respond within the paradigm imposed by our managers.

The email and its assumptions are consistent with the characteristics of neoliberalism: audit and accountability (Thorpe 2007: 107), personal rather than collective responsibility (Ong 2006:14), competition and entrepreneurship (Harvey 2005: 65), the upward redistribution and concentration of capital (Duggan 2003: ix). Harvey (2005: 162) identifies another characteristic of neoliberal institutions and regimes – the management and manipulation of crises. Anyone who has worked in U.K. universities since 1981 will recognise that their careers have unfolded in an era of constant crisis, accompanied by urgent calls for ‘change’, ‘efficiency’ and ‘modernisation’ to forestall further crisis. To now claim, in 2010-11, that the current economic situation has brought about an exceptional funding emergency in universities is to stretch academics’ tolerance for such accounts, and to make a mockery of previous claims that crisis is averted when employees are flexible, responsive and efficient, as many of us have been for several decades. For example, universities have learned to deal with mass education and a huge rise in student numbers. We have abandoned small group teaching, in the hope that this will be recognised in the terms of ‘economic efficiency’.

Audit culture and surveillance

Universities have been encouraged to reposition themselves as simulacra of business and to adopt practices traditionally associated with profit-making organizations such as: annual appraisals, audits of teaching hours, transparency reviews of work practices, peer teaching evaluation, teaching quality and research audits. 

In order to make sure that notions of efficiency take centre stage for academics, structures of neoliberal govermentality have been implemented to control access to resources. Just as one example in my institution, we have all noticed a huge number of hurdles have been erected just to get £500 to go to a conference.

But primarily, audit is a tool for used for purposes of disorienting the prisoners – keeping them too busy to notice – and for dismantling their culture. “Audit provides a means for imposing governmentalities and transforming culture by unsettling established practice…..Audit institutionalizes permanent anxiety” (Thorpe 208: 107).

Secondly, it functions to make the university intelligible to the corporate world which becomes its new dimension for comparison. And at the same time, it constructs its employees within that paradigm. Literally, There Is No Alternative.

The enterprising academic

As administrators have mastered these discourses, they demand to be spoken to in their own language by academics who are required to justify their working practices on a frequent basis. A characteristic of neoliberal discourse is that it disguises its own negative impact and so forestalls resistance (Davies and Bendix Petersen 2005: 85). As long as our Performance Development and Contribution review objectives are met, any critique is blunted.

There is no discussion of whether there might be an alternative to a strategic reorienting of universities and academics towards the market, consumers and their supposed economic value. Most often, managers attempt to dismantle any democratic structures within universities. Democracy is, after all, as Harvey claims, an unaffordable luxury (2005: 66) in neoliberal institutions; instead, neoliberal policies are presented as neutral, managerial precepts for good government and business. Clarke (2008): 142) calls this “a dishonourable strategy of depoliticization”.

Here’s how it works. You construct the ideal academic – the self-serving, entrepreneurial academic capitalist. Academic capitalism, defined by Slaughter and Leslie as the imposition of markets and market-like behaviours on universities (Slaughter and Leslie 2007), is both metaphor and reality. Academics must disavow the altruistic sharing of knowledge. Instead, we are directed to be alert to possibilities of commercial outlets for our endeavours. We must be personally responsible for making the right choices to ensure our advancement within a framework of academic Darwinism. A frequently-cited example would be the way work overload is individualised as ‘unable to manage workload’. The academic is positioned as culpable, and failure to cope is attributed to failure of the individual to make the right ‘choices’. Just make the choice to ‘work smarter’.

And so we learn to evaluate ourselves in the totalizing terms of the calculable. Each of us in the research group has been invited to an REF preparation interview. The interview was to be preceded by submission to the Deputy School Research Coordinators of a form listing all publications, and an outline of a research plan for the next four years. We were instructed to “indicate which journals will be ‘targeted’”, and at the top of the form was the directive: “include a monograph”. Aside from the implicit coercion, I was fascinated by what else this reveals. Firstly, it assumes the incontestable superiority of individual work over collaborative work; secondly, it defies any analysis of how agency is attenuated by structure; and thirdly, it implies that if you don’t have a monograph then you are a slacker. We are left to reconcile our sense of inadequacy, in Bourdieu’s terms, by “internalising the external” into a new and intensified academic habitus.

Once we have been schooled in the habits of audit, we are ready to construct our own professional esteem around acquiescence to its demands. The subject is totally formed by the discourse which they are compelled to cite. Gaye Tuchman (2010) writes that we learn self-surveillance much as a diabetic pricks her finger to test her blood sugar.

I had an instructive experience 18 months ago while visiting a university in Australia, notorious as an ‘early adopter’ of neoliberal policies (with catastrophic results for arts and humanities). Through a local contact, I managed to secure a place on a staff development workshop, designed to groom mid-career academics in the image of the ideal university ‘corporate citizen’.

At the coffee break I was introduced to a couple of the younger mid-career participants, and I asked them what they were working on. I received a breakdown of the number of books they had authored and co-authored; grants they had won or applied for and the impact factors of journals they hoped to publish in. What I did not learn was the content of their research. I could not be sure what discipline they were working in. I came away with the impression that I had never met such anxious, status obsessed academics, but I feel as if I am increasingly doing so in the UK.

We learn very clearly that there is a danger if we fail to render ourselves auditable. If you are not self-governing and competitive, you may be excluded from the neoliberal largesse. The last email we had from our ‘Academic Team Leader’ included this coda to instructions on how to access the ever-diminishing research fund: “Applications will not be considered from those colleagues who have not participated in a REF preparation interview with one of the Deputy School Research Coordinators”. And so, only if you submit yourself to audit within this paradigm can your identity as researcher legitimately be claimed. Our professional lives are dominated by the need to provide discursive evidence that we are compliant with the regime.

In many ways we see in these snapshots of academic life, the society of control outlined by Deleuze (1990).  Foucauldian  (sequential) disciplinary regimes give way to societies of control where citizens find that they are never finished with any process. These are societies where control is exercised on a continuous basis, and the individual never quite arrives at the promised reward. Gatekeeping measures such as the imposition of perpetual training, or needless applications for research leave must be endured, even to participate. It is the society of obligatory continuous improvement and salary according to individual ‘contribution’. Even those who now attain professorial rank are subject to this regime of never quite ‘becoming’. The intrusive gaze of Human Resources has recently fallen on ‘under-performing professors’. In any sane university, this would be recognised as pure incongruity; since Human Resources decide the ever-ascending criteria for promotion to this level, they might be trusted to not betray their own judgement. What this reveals then, is an over-riding determination to lend their own slur to the assault on academic culture.  

Library capitalism?

In the neoliberal academy, nowhere is exempt from the incursion of commercial values. Even library provision is increasingly under threat. Technology and innovation are presented as the friend of academic values – easy access to a vast array of teaching and learning materials. However, if you have ever wondered why, despite culling your subject’s journal holdings, your requested substitute journal is never purchased – it may just be that it is not part of the bundle sold to libraries by such contracted vendors as Informaworld or ScienceDirect. In a revealing article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Daniel Goldstein (2010: B12-13) warns that book provision may also be diminished because of the increase in purchase of e-books which come in similar pre-set packages. If ever we needed an example of how ‘customer service’ fails when universities sell out to corporations, this is it. As Goldstein points out, they have merged user services into a perverse notion of customer services as dictated by corporate interests. But what happens to our information retrieval skills, and what happens to inter-library loans in a world where books cannot be lent? The integrity and value of a book is diminishing rapidly. But, as Clarke (2008): 142) states, a neoliberal govermentality presents these issues as non-political and legitimately addressed by technical solutions.

The Neoliberal Student as Consumer

There has been a concomitant impact on the student experience in that students have been constructed both materially (through a regime of tuition fees) and discursively as consumers, with choices and entitlements. As Molesworth, Nixon and Scullion (2010) have documented, students who pay fees imagine themselves in different ways from their grant-bearing predecessors, and expect a good level of ‘customer service’. Johnson (2008: 285) writes that ‘The teacher-student relation is redefined in terms of producer-consumer relations with major effects on how pedagogies are conceptualized, evaluated and practised’.

This context has justified the launch of the student satisfaction survey, which Johnson recognises as “a consumerist and quantifiable category, easily administered, but whose actual content is never questioned” (Johnson, 2008: 292). There are a growing number of instruments which examine calculable entities, such as entry scores, employment rates of graduates, and claim them as proxies for the incalculable value of higher education. In absorbing students into such an activity, they are also being transformed into good “neoliberal subjects who are at once more governable and yet believe themselves to be both autonomous and free” (Davies and Bendix-Peterson , 2007: 254).


And so here we are under a Conservative –Neoliberal and not at all democratic government. Yes, the creeping neoliberal takeover has been going on for some time under a Labour government, and under Conservative governments before that. What has now been delivered, though, is the almost completed process. Universities have been recast to the wider public as justifiable only in economic terms – both their sustaining of the research base in science and technology, and their equipping of graduates with purely marketable skills and knowledge. Any other consideration is pure self-indulgence and unaffordable.  It is a situation where the Arts and Humanities struggle to justify their continued existence.

The most irksome thing is that the conversations we should be having – such as the symposium I attended– have been displaced by the constant demands of audit. Bendix-Peterson and Davies (2010: 94) note the dissipation of ‘passionate engagement with intellectual work’. The language, concerns and identities produced by neoliberalism effectively subvert the humanistic aims of academics and result in what Richard Johnson calls ‘a grotesque, lying parody of the collegiate principle’ (Johnson 2008: 285).

We largely have a situation where those who manage in the academy do not, in any important sense, share its values. Even more pernicious, is that we have been formed into a compliant, flexible workforce which has internalized managerial values and presents no impediment to its own destruction. All challenge and argument has been evacuated. We have all been forced to drink the neoliberal Kool-aid. The metaphor is perhaps most vivid if we remind ourselves of its original referent. The Kool-Aid refers to the lethally poisoned drink that Reverend Jim Jones forced his followers to drink in the 1978 Jonestown Massacre; the phrase suggests that one has mindlessly adopted the dogma of a group or leader without fully understanding the ramifications or implications (Wikipedia). It is a kind of kettling of the mind. On a daily basis we cite a discourse which is not even consistent with the values of public service, let alone academia.

I don’t offer any apology to anyone who is going to feel uncomfortable with what I have to say. I feel the same way. Nothing has been gained from belief in the corporate mirage. We are all cowards and collaborators to some degree. My colleague Joyce Canaan (2010) asks ‘why do we all just keep going along with it?’ and suggests that the answer is because the carrot of self-actualization is dangled before academics and their compliance is ensured with the stick of regulation. At a micro level it mirrors the coercion that universities should have resisted decades ago. It is a contradiction recognised by Inoue (2007:82):

The concern for critical theory is that neoliberalism as an art of (self) government threatens to align seamlessly with the individual’s ethical practice of self-mastery and self-autonomy within feminist and liberal-democratic thinking, thus evacuating the critical edge of the latter.

Deleuze issues a challenge to trade unionists to find a ways to resist the societies of control. I think the good news is that resistance is possible. As the audit regime never stands still, we are impelled to go through permanent revolution, so that no practices ever fully establish themselves or achieve legitimacy. And so they too can be dismantled. Our work should be to re-politicize issues and work to destabilize managerial values, discourse and regimes of power. We should have more events like this, and give them priority over compliance with audit. ‘Subject meetings’ with their pre-set agendas and redacted minutes, should be replaced by Subject Meetings – remember when we all got together and actually talked about the subject? We should demand accountability from our managers. Do we read their minutes? Do we challenge their decisions? We need to demand democratic structures of university governance.

What we learn is that we don’t transform institutions by assimilating to structures which are alien and repressive. It is time to defend humanistic values from strategic assault. At least we have a critique, and we must sustain it. This critique must take place explicitly, through academic articles and conferences, but also ‘off stage’ in staffrooms, bathrooms and in classrooms.

Another strategy which we all recognise is the kind of resistant humour exemplified by Laurie Taylor:


            We learn that the university mentoring scheme has run short of people to mentor. If you’re the sort of person who would enjoy being systematically patronised by a senior member of staff, do contact us a.s.a.p., marking your letter “Mentee”.

            [26th June 2008]


            Such has been the success of the leadership courses … there are now urgent vacancies on the campus for qualified followers. This three-week course will provide attendees with a range of basic followership skills including unquestioning obedience, general subservience, all-round docility and thoroughgoing conformity.

            [3rd July 2008]

Humour allows the pitiless discursive exiling of an out-group, which is exactly what ‘they’ should be. We reference it in so many ways, from the usage of the exclusionary pronoun ‘they’, to ‘X has gone over to the dark side’. The struggle begins with discourse, because this is the entry point for some kind of control of identity. For those who say resistance is futile, I would point to the seismic impact of the culture wars in the USA in the 1990s which solidified a resistant academic identity, particularly in the Arts and Humanities.  Yes, it creates division and conflict, but I think that has to be the way forward. ‘They’ have dismissed our culture, and in reclaiming it, we should dismiss theirs.


Bendix Peterson, E. and Davies, B. (2010) ‘In/Difference in the neoliberalised university’, Learning and Teaching in the Social Sciences 3, no. 2: 92-109.

Bourdieu, P. (1977) Outline of a Theory of Practice, Cambridge University Press: London.

Canaan, Joyce (2010) ‘Analysing a neoliberal moment’ in English higher education today. Learning and Teaching in the Social Sciences 2, no. 2: 55-72.

Clarke, John. (2008) Living with/in and without neoliberalism. Focaal- European Journal of Anthropology, 51, 135-147.

Danaher, G., Schirato, T. and Webb, J. 2000. Understanding Foucault. London: Sage.

Davies, B. and Bendix Peterson, E. (2005) ‘Neo-liberal discourse in the academy: The forestalling of (collective) resistance’, Learning and Teaching in the Social Sciences 2, no. 2: 77-98.

Davies, B. and Bendix Peterson, E. (2007) ‘Neoliberalism and education’.  International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education. 20 (3), 247-259.

Deleuze, Gilles, “Postscript on the Societies of Control”, OCTOBER 59, Winter 1992, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, pp. 3-7.

Duggan, L. (2003) The Twilight of Equality: Neoliberalism, Cultural politics and the Attack on Democracy, Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Foucault, M. (1994) ‘The subject and power’, in J. Faubion (Ed) Michel Foucault: power. New York: New Press.

Goldstein, Daniel. (2010). Library Inc. The Chronicle Review: The making of Corporate U. Chronicle of Higher Education, October 22nd B12-13.

Harvey, D. (2005) A Brief History of Neoliberalism, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Johnson, R. (2008) ‘Afterword: University challenge: Neoliberal abstraction and being more concrete’, in Canaan, J. and Shumar, W. (eds) Structure and Agency in the Neoliberal University, London: Routledge: 278 – 297.

Morrish, Liz and. O’Mara, Kathleen. 2010. ‘Glass Half Full or Half Empty’?: A Comparison of Diversity Statements among Russell group UK vs US Research Universities International Journal of Diversity in Organisations, Communities and Nations, Volume 10, Issue 3, pp.243-260.

Ong, A. (2006) Neoliberalism as Exception, Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Sauntson, H. and Morrish, L. (2010) ‘Vision, values and international excellence: The ‘products’ that university mission statements sell to students’, in M. Molesworth et al (eds) The Marketisation of Higher Education: The Student as Consumer, London: Routledge: 73-85.

Slaughter, S. and Leslie, L. (1997) Academic Capitalism: Politics, Policies, and the Entrepreneurial University. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Thorpe, Charles. (2008) Capitalism, audit and the demise of the humanistic academy. Workplace, 15, 103-125.

Tuchman, Gaye. (2010) The Future of Wannabe U. The Chronicle Review: The making of Corporate U. Chronicle of Higher Education, October 22nd B7-8.

Liz Morrish is Principal Lecturer in Linguistics at Nottingham Trent University, UK. Earlier in her career she studied experimental phonetics and disordered speech, leading to the award of a PhD from Leeds University.  Her primary research and teaching interests are language gender and sexual identity. She is the author (with Helen Sauntson) of New Perspectives on Language and Sexual Identity (Palgrave, 2007). More recently, Liz has been writing on the effects of neoliberal discourse in university management, with a focus on the discourse of university mission statements and diversity statements. She has edited, with Helen Sauntson, a 2010 special issue of Learning and Teaching: The International Journal of Higher Education in the Social Sciences on Gender and Sexuality: The Discursive Limits of ‘Equality’ in Higher Education.  

MCS Symposium 18th February 2011

  1. david bower says:

    Excellent article. I found it enlightening.

  2. This article/study is brilliant. I would venture to say that the university setting is only a model of the rest of the language capture, and it requires a systemic rooting out. The political and market arena, and even the prison system (both polarities of it)produces a lexicon of loaded language that directs our attention towards autonomic behaviorism.

    After over a century of behaviorism and (class textured) conditioned responses in business management, it is not surprising that the economics lexicon of systems capture has become systemic to the very process that reproduces it into social order and coordinates of the market mentality. But while this scale production in the administrative processing of abstract space and intellectual real estate is so obvious in the contradictions presented in the University, it is less obvious in the reductions and corruptions of individuated space and obligations in the “global” village. Corporate “culture” is anathematic and the “climate” in an employee demographic is not ecological, yet these reductionist constructs are embedded in the business teachings of our Universities without qualification. The human landscape and the jargon of hero/patriotism is a mapping and contracting program where words produce loaded intentionality or code frames for enterprising engineering / legitimation / justification / authorization / or simply Obey and Comply while we robotically respond in kind to the commands in the language as if second nature demands it.

    The socio-linguistic structuring or programing examined in the University setting is a generative setting for the output into the rest of our socially nested intellectual sectors. Yet is just the tip of an iceberg broken off from a Polar Cap that threatens our future. It is generally left entirely below the surface of our comprehension and understanding of ourselves and the human condition that envelopes our driven decisions and our path dependent(potential)futures.

  3. Martin Smith says:

    Excellent! -I agreed with every single word of this -articulates what I’m sure so many people have been thinking.


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