Pre-emptive austerity: coping in the pre-revolutionary university
The ascendance of the “knowledge economy” has pushed the university more deeply into the embrace of capital. Increasingly, governments around the world look to universities, not merely to provide future management-level corporate employees, but to generate new products as de facto research and development wings of industry, even to generate profits of their own — or at least not to lean too heavily on public funding (see also Callinicos 2006). In the most egregious examples, public support for university education has been slashed, the cost of tertiary training entirely privatized, research-industry links privileged, and institutions left to find revenue sources to support budgets swollen by costly services designed to attract student “customers.”
In Australia, we have escaped the worst of university neoliberalization just as we have escaped the financial crises gripping many countries, thanks in large part to our proximity to Asia and the minerals under our soil. My employer, for example, has generated an operating surplus in the past two years. (I’ll give you a moment to wrap your head around that one.)
We have done so on the back of strong international student enrollment and real estate holdings (I’m not kidding), but also on the hard work of staff, uncomfortable increases in student numbers, and, at times, tough budget cutting even in the face of surplus. Our budget cutting is often justified as “future-proofing,” pre-emptive austerity in case international student numbers should drop due to the strength of the Australian dollar.
Even here, spared the worst of the current global financial turmoil, talk of crisis crops up, promising revolution, threatening catastrophe, but bringing mostly uncertainty and eroded morale. For academics, we are still a “lucky country”; we have avoided the worst we hear about from overseas and I am glad to have fled the US system. There have been some devastating restructurings, but we still have a strong union, and the Australian federal government sees us a vital export earner. So we have been largely spared. For now.
The case of Australian academic life, however, is instructive, I would argue, precisely because we have not gone as far down the route followed by other national systems; thus, talk of crisis seems so out of step with our reality. With that in mind, I’d like to offer a few scattered thoughts from Australia, by an expatriot American scholar. I know my position is unusual — a secure, happy, mid-career anthropologist at a financially strong and growing university — but I’d like to use that position to think about institutional changes.
Has the revolution already happened?
One danger is that we become persuaded that the university in 2012 is as it always has been. For example, consulting firm Ernst and Young recently made headlines here by releasing a report, “University of the Future,” with the subtitle, “A thousand year old institution on the cusp of profound change” (Ernst & Young 2012). The report is a vague document, filled with “strategic” business language that boldly asserts, “Over the next 10-15 years, the current public university model in Australia will prove unviable in all but a few cases” (ibid.: 2). Sunanda Creagh quotes the report’s lead author, Justin Bokor, Executive Director of the firm’s education practice: “Current university models are living on borrowed time in Australia. Government funding is tight and is going to be tighter still in the next couple of political cycles” (Creagh 2012; YouTube clip of interview with Bokor).
Researchers for Ernst & Young’s education practice interviewed Australian university vice-chancellors — the equivalent here of a university president — and found them in a bit of a panic. One university vice-chancellor reportedly felt that, “Our major competitor in ten years time will be Google… if we’re still alive!” (ibid.: 9). Another suggested that, “The traditional university model is the analogue of the print newspaper… 15 years max, you’ve got the transformation” (ibid.: 12).
The rhetoric is pretty typical for marketing, trying to convince potential clients that they have a problem that they didn’t even realize they had. Ernst and Young, however, isn’t just angling for more consulting business (“Worried about the future? Hire us…”); the firm is also softening up the public for what they believe will be future government action, pinning the blame for future policy choices on market forces. Senator Lee Rhiannon of the Australian Green Party argued as much, that the report intentionally painted “a gloom and doom picture designed to grease the way for the private sector to profit from universities at the expense of a well-resourced and regulated public education system.”
Rhiannon continued: “‘Market contestability’ and ‘competition’ are buzz words designed to paint increased funding cuts to public universities as inevitable and the private sector as the saviour of universities” (from Rhiannon’s weblog). Like the pre-emptive budget cuts, pain now is justified by the expectation of future crisis. (I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve read the expression “perfect storm” while looking at online news to write this piece.) We are told that universities will have to change, but most here have already changed radically in recent decades. In Australia, the transformation is staggering: in 1950, there were six universities catering to approximately 31,000 students total in the whole country. Today, there are 39 universities; the number of domestic students has grown more than 20-fold. My employer, alone, a university not even founded until 1964, caters to more than the entire tertiary student population in 1950 (figures from Ashenden 2012).
As late as the 1980s, few international students were in Australia. Today, international students constitute a $16.2 billion-a-year “export industry” (that figure from the Australian Bureau of Statistics). Again, my employer is a leader in this industry, with a third of our student body coming from overseas.
The “crisis” in the Australian university is the entirely predictable outcome of funding not keeping pace with explosive expansion and the democratization of tertiary education. More and more, universities are being asked to solve at cut rate prices a raft of problems — unemployment, social inequality, new product innovation, even the wholesale creation of entire industries.
The pains of neocapitalist inconsistency
J. K. Gibson-Graham, the pen name of feminist geographers Katherine Gibson and the late Julie Graham, warn us of the intellectual and political dangers of assuming greater coherence to late capitalism than it actually possesses. I worry that anthropologists, so good at perceiving social pattern, may over-ascribe order to a chaotic situation. In their second work, A Postcapitalist Politics (2006: 56), Gibson-Graham write:
A capitalocentric discourse condenses economic difference, fusing the variety of noncapitalist economic activities into a unity in which meaning is anchored to capitalist identity. Our language politics is aimed at fostering conditions under which images and enactments of economic diversity . . . might stop circulating around capitalism, stop being evaluated with respect to capitalism, and stop being seen as deviant or exotic or eccentric—departures from the norm.
I would argue, drawing inspiration from Gibson-Graham, that we need to recognize just how shallow the market transformation of university life is across the whole institution. We might even be able to use market rationale to hold the institution accountable; after all, the numbers for Australia don’t tell the story of entrenched crisis but of staggering success. That is, one of the most frustrating things about the neoliberal university can be the incompleteness of institutional change, the blatant inconsistency and opportunism of so much of the supposed “market” discourse. For example, when has an increase in student numbers been reliably and proportionally linked to an increase in salaries, departmental budgets, or staffing? When I was a door-to-door salesman (again, I’m not kidding), I expected to make more if I sold more.
If we are marketized, it seems to be on the downside, and only for the purposes of selling pre-emptive austerity. At times, I wish we were more market-based just to punctuate unrelenting talk of belt-tightening with a few sunny announcements (“Philosophy wins a trip to Bali due to high sales in their department! And our employee of the month is Albert from Human Geography!”).
We are told that reform, restructuring, or removal of courses is justified because of “student preference,” whether or not there is actual evidence that market forces are pushing the change. In an unrelenting bad economic climate, the disjuncture may not be so obvious; here, it can be jarring. If the budget is actually in surplus, it takes serious goalpost movement to manufacture an appropriate sense of institutional anxiety.
In fact, many of the changes seem to stem, not from market considerations, but instead from impulses toward bureaucratization, desire for greater central control, old fashioned battles for prestige or turf, and even new, trendy management discourses and literature in “learning and teaching.” By my count, marketization is only one trend among many which vie to make life frustrating in the contemporary university: bureaucratization, centralization, casualization, entrenched feudalism in some parts, periodic waves of faddish managerial lingo or “learning and teaching” ideas, and “administrativism” (the imposition of administrative change for the sake of being able to claim that administrators have effected change). And yet there are also still strong streams of collegiality, collectivism, democracy, and meritocracy (the real thing) alive and well.
The language is “market,” but the mechanisms are a diverse collection, many of them highly centralized and command driven. What really makes me pull my hair out at work is not that my department budget is linked to student enrollment. That actually kind of makes sense.
Rather, I feel like I’m losing my mind when doing my job seems to be intentionally thwarted by absurd bureaucratization, when academic wisdom must defer constantly to external authority (even in academic matters), and when immense amounts of time and effort are tossed down deep holes, such as “research quality assessment” exercises (don’t even get me started on that one). At times, it feels more like being stuck in a Stalinist bureaucracy than a market-driven firm. The institution of management concepts like “key performance indicators” were supposed to allow greater autonomy to departments to pursue these goals, not lead to micromanagement, increased red tape, and the massaging of internal report mechanisms.
As I recently worked my way through an application for promotion (still pending), I was struck by how little the university had actually changed, when viewed from this perspective; parts of it still seem positively feudal. And that’s not such a bad thing at all. The key to surviving and maintaining one’s piece of mind in the university, at times, seems to be to figure out which rules are at play, sizing up which threats are real, and recognizing when crisis is manufactured. In fact, Australian universities are in for big changes in the coming decades, just as they have been over the last half century.
Recently, online debate sparked by Erin Taylor at the Open Anthropology Collective about whether or not universities were a good place to produce scholarly work have made me realize how difficult some anthropologists find it to distance themselves from their own institutions, how claustrophobic their professional positions must feel. I had almost forgotten how terrible it felt in the US, how I went through a bottle of antacid tablets every single semester while on the tenure track. Motivation from anxiety? I still don’t understand what psychological theory can make that one sound like good management…
Callinicos, Alex. 2006. Universities in a Neoliberal World. London: Bookmarks Publications.
Creagh, Sunanda. 2012. “Universities must adopt or perish: Report.” The Conversation (24 October, 2012). Accessed at https://theconversation.edu.au/universities-must-adapt-or-perish-report-10293. Accessed on 11 January 2013.
Ernst & Young, Australia. 2012. “University of the Future: A thousand year old institution on the cusp of change.” Available at: http://www.ey.com/AU/en/Industries/Government---Public-Sector/UOF_University-of-the-future.
Gibson-Graham, J. K. 2006. A Postcapitalist Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006