The Means and Ends of Higher Education

Things I Learnt With Colleagues Last Week

Week 4, and it looks like the combined stupidity of the UUK and lack of preparedness and care by individual University senior leaderships before the current UCU strike action started means that lots of University staff in the UK are still out on strike, not teaching students, not librarian-ing, not providing professional support to researchers, not, public-engaging, and not doing lots of other things they’d rather be doing. That does mean more “learnable moments” for those of us on strike, whether through talking to our colleagues on the picket line (or meeting new ones) or through tweets and re-tweets and blogs. I’ve decided to not have any shame about only now discovering things about my pension, or how the University I work at (NOT for) is run, and instead take my ongoing journey of discovery as an indictment of the very system we are all realising we are part of. After all, none of what we are learning about how the USS pension system has been undermined, or how this is related to the systematic financialization of University funding, or how University governance has been rendered obscure and unaccountable, is actually a secret. Some of it people have known about, and lots of this is actually a focus of robust research. But who has the time to keep up with all this? And who imagined that those representatives of the institutions that one might think were meant to act in the best interests of those who work for Universities would turn out to be, well, less than honest and trustworthy and competent, if not deliberately misleading?

A few things have caught my eye in the last few days, precisely because the focus of my attention has been directed by my colleagues at better understanding the economics of pensions systems and the business models of Universities and because I have had the time to pursue in more depth these issues (there’s a lesson here, surely, concerning what it says about the Efficient Market Hypothesis that it is only when employees are on strike that they have enough time to actually begin to even imagine being able to access all of the information they are supposed by adherents to that abstract principle to have at their disposal in order to function as rational fools).

The first was a great, succinct blog post by Ewan McGaughey explaining the relationship between the planned gutting of the USS pension scheme and shifts in the nature of University governance. As he puts it, the plan to shift risk away from Universities by rendering all ‘pension’ support into ‘Defined Contribution’ schemes in the name of flexibility and choice amounts to recommending a ‘Die Quickly’ Plan. Now, one thing we’ve all learned is that this whole programme of de-risking is related to a broader shift in the strategizing of UK Universities, whereby the urge to reduce pension support as liabilities is intrinsically linked to the imperative to diversify sources of funding in a context of reductions in direct government support. Now, the logics of financialization in higher education are perhaps longer established, and subject to research scrutiny, in a North American context than in the UK, but it is worth remembering that that’s a different context. Thomas Hale provides a short summary of ‘allure of the capital markets’ for Universities at the FT’s Alphaville site (you have to register, but it’s free after that, and totally worth it – he’s been writing about higher education for a while now). It’s good to keep in view the degree to which these transformations in the strategies of Universities are structured by a firm commitment by government since 2010 to restructure the economics of higher education in fundamental ways. The relationship between the pensions dispute and this trend towards financialization is captured in what now, two weeks later, reads like a very old statement from the Vice Chancellor of Exeter, according to which the costs of continuing to support the existing pension system would involve “a reduction to our resources, and would limit our ability to deliver our key missions around research and education as well as our ability to invest in, and improve, the facilities we provide.” This zero-sum representation of what is at stake in this dispute – between investing in uniformly high quality pay and conditions for staff versus a rather obscure sense of education and research ‘missions’ that centre on ‘facilities’ – is, in fact, simply a talking point proffered by the UUK for widespread use. That’s just one of the things we’ve all learnt because of the work of Gail Davies and Felicity Callard and others in reconstructing the explicit efforts of ‘The Voice of Universities’ to legitimise the shift from collective pension support to individualised “Die Quickly” savings plans. (And Exeter’s VC has more recently reiterated the same argument).  

The implicit view that supporting pensions is a liability that gets in the way of delivering key missions rests on a broadly shared imperative for Universities to be able to demonstrate that they are enhancing “student experience” – where this means access to high quality work spaces, to fantastic sports facilities, accommodation, high-tech teaching spaces, and the like. All of those things are crucial to making a University the space that it is meant to, no doubt. The interesting question is how it is that we have arrived at a situation in which all those material things are rendered affordable only by drastically restructuring academic labour markets in increasingly bifurcated ways while also streamlining ‘academic support’ professions.

The trelationship between the substantive issues behind the current pension dispute and the shift towards capital investment strategies amongst Universities is neatly captured by Philip Roscoe, discussing the origins of the strike in decisions made by UUK in 2017: “In the summer of last year USS asked employers – via Universities UK – whether they wanted more or less risk. It might seem a silly question, for out of context everyone wants less risk. But universities have a particular agenda. USS is what is known as a ‘last man standing’ scheme, meaning that should institutions start to fail, risk would pile up on those still operating. And university managers, now thoroughly versed in the language, practices and salaries of business, are obsessed with avoiding risk. Risk has practical implications, for under current accounting rules employers must carry full pension liabilities on their balance sheet. This affects administrators who, seeing themselves primarily as curators of rankings in a market-driven system, are diverting all the funds they can into an arms race of building and infrastructure investment. Universities can borrow very cheaply – often at less than the cost of inflation, and almost free money is too good a ticket to be passed up. But lenders are not going to offer such preferential terms to borrowers with huge pension liabilities; for a university, the covenant of USS begins to loom as an enormous blot on an otherwise shiny credit rating.”

The integral link between the pensions dispute and the financialization of University expansion plans involves a search for new sources of revenue, in a context of declining direct funding from government and uncertainty over the reliability of student fee income, the real value of which is declining year on year anyway. (Let’s not forget, in the midst of realising just how badly managed British Universities have been, that the changing political economy of higher education has its source in the determination of Tory-led governments since 2010 to try to make higher education conform to ridiculous models of markets and competition. Universities’ turn to capital investment programmes as a way of seeking enhance ‘student experience’ is an index of a motivated effort to enforce a competitive spirit on higher education institutions, and the move to ‘de-risk’ pensions liabilities is a central element of the resulting and still emergent business model in which getting better loan rates is the driving imperative.)

The transformation of the economics of higher education represents an opportunity for growth for certain fields of private investment, and that’s why there is so much consultancy by the likes of Barclays and KPMG flying around – it serves as a way of introducing potential investors to potential borrowers. Here is pwc summarising the new landscape of higher education funding:  “In an increasingly competitive market where all Universities are striving to offer their students, staff and visitors the most positive and rewarding experience possible, the quality of the built environment, the accommodation offering, and the delivery of estates services are playing a more critical role than ever before. In response to this, Universities are developing exciting and ambitious estates plans that propose significant investment in new facilities, and innovative ways of delivering services.” Now, the key thing about this emergent field is that buildings and facilities require long-term financing, and traditional lenders – banks – “are unable to write loans with the same duration and pricing levels of the past”. All of this is a source of some excitement:  “New sources of finance, as well as new commercial modes for securing this finance, are therefore needed and are being employed across a variety of projects in the sector”. As NatWest nicely put it, capital debt markets “have capitalised on the lack of bank liquidity for longer-duration financing”.

The most publicly visible example of Universities turning to debt capital markets takes the form of individual institutions – ones as very different as De Montfort and Cambridge – issuing their own bonds (an instrument of indebtedness sold by the issuer to the holder, e.g. what governments do). This trend serves as a way of securing long-term finance that bank lenders are not prepared to extend. But the logics of financialization are not only evident amongst institutions who have leveraged credit in this way. For example, the University of Exeter’s financial strategy is quite prudent – the University is “relatively highly geared”, that is, it’s focussed on paying down relatively high levels of debt accrued from past investments. This is one reason, of course, why pension commitments show up as a risk (not just a liability) for this type of institution.  For Exeter, “Pensions” are listed ahead of “Impact of the EU Referendum June 2016” when it comes to discussing financial risks: “The settlement of the USS 2017 actuarial valuation is a key risk, both financially and in terms of industrial relations, with the national trade unions agitating to protect current pension benefits. Current expectation is that the valuation will be settled within the current funding envelope, without increasing costs to the employer or employee but the likelihood that future pension benefits will have to be curtailed is high.” That was written a year or so ago I guess.

Of course the idea that pensions are ‘a material liability’ is just technical vocabulary, it’s not necessarily ripe for deconstruction. But when financial balance-sheets become ‘enveloped’, shall we say, in a wider process of actuarial de-riskification then the idea of pensions as liabilities gets translated into the idea of pensions as a risk, and helps to generate the search for securing the ‘resilience‘ in higher education financing.

Now, you might think that if you are already busy paying down lots of debt, you’d calm down about taking on a lot more. Well… the University of Exeter actually has an ambitious future capital investment strategy (‘Iconic Buildings on what used to be a Car Park’, for short). Exeter’s Capital Strategy proclaims “The next ten years will see us invest £428.5M in our campuses, estate and infrastructure. We are building the estate we need to deliver world-class research and an internationally excellent education, accommodating our students and our world leading academics in exceptional teaching, learning and research spaces.” As I said, there’ll be less car parking space as a result. And it’s not quite clear, from the outside (that is, for those working at this University) where this money is meant to come from. This investment strategy also sits alongside the University’s “People Strategy’, which has the sub-heading of ‘Attract, Perform, Retain’ – I’m not sure how any of those aims is meant to be enhanced by undermining University employees’ pension provision which, as UCU members have helpfully reconstructed over the last week or so, has been systematically pursued by British University senior management for a while now. 

Exeter is certainly a good an example of the recent spending spree on new buildings that characterises British higher education, a phenomenon that is rooted in a widely shared understanding that this is the secret to attracting students. And if building buildings is crucial to recruiting students, then in turn servicing the debt that finances that building depends on being able to guarantee future student income (an aside: one of the things that working through the logics of this dispute does underscore is just how important teaching students remains to the changing meaning of ‘the University’, including ‘research intensive’ ones). In his discussion, Hale helpfully identifies just how important rankings are to this process of financialization, playing two related roles in mediating demand of “student-consumers” and in “the overall marketing process of debt issuance” (i.e. in reassuring investors that Universities looking for credit are actually any good). Rankings are, of course, just one part of the ‘avalanche of numbers’ that has swamped HE – loads of ‘data’ is used to manage Universities internally so that universities can act in certain ways externally, as it were, for accountability and justification purposes for sure, but also to establish and maintain institutional credit worthiness (remember that next time you are congratulated for achieving a better position in a methodologically dodgy league table). But more precisely, rankings and league tables are now built into systems for finessing the calculation of the risks of different sorts of assets, liabilities, and both estate investments and human capital.

Needless to say, this sort of estate-led expansion of HE is not without its controversies.

It should be said that developing expansive capital investment strategies does not only involve individual Universities directly raising capital through bond issues. Again, pwc is helpful here: “We are, however, seeing significant interest from certain large investors to increase their exposure to the higher education sector through property-related income that is backed by a strong covenant”. What is being referred to here is the turn to using “lease based structures” that allow Universities to access capital with long maturities indirectly (and therefore not messing up the balance-sheet). That line about large investors ‘exposing’ themselves to the HE sector is, of course, meant to be ironic: it’s not really the investors that are exposed in these deals, which actually depend on the assumption that investing in University estate is a safe bet. This second form of ‘innovative’ higher education financing through the credit markets involves Universities partnering up with specialist financial companies, of which University Partnership Programme (UPP) is the most visible in the UK. UPP is a University accommodation developer, that provides to Universities  ‘special purpose vehicles’. Basically, they raise the capital for Universities and build and run student accommodation, and ownership of the buildings only passes on to Universities when the original debt is paid back (that might sound familiar). UPP describe what they do in the following way: “Our vision is to deliver the very best student experiences, in partnership with great universities. Our mission is to create exceptional academic infrastructure and support services in partnership. We design and develop high quality, affordable, student accommodation, academic infrastructure and support services. Our unique partnerships enable universities to make best use of their assets, freeing up university resources and improving services to students.” That last bit about ‘freeing-up’ resources is important, because this way of financing building projects allows Universities to keep the costs of investment off their balance sheets – thereby enhancing their on-going borrowing strategies. Nothing to worry about there then. 

It’s worth slowing down a moment, and recognizing that the emergence of this debt-fuelled model of higher education is rapidly evolving – until very recently Universities were able to raise capital on favourable terms because of an implicit assumption that they were in the last resort guaranteed against failure by government. That’s no longer such a wise assumption. Government now not only seeks to facilitate new entrants into HE but says out loud it will not automatically prop-up a financially failing University. This effort to enforce marketisation is one reason why it is important to differentiate between arguments that HE is currently an imperfectly functioning market that could be made more perfect, and an argument about why it might not be a good idea to imagine that it’s sensible to imagine it should or could be in the first place. Of course, Universities remain very heavily dependent on government funding in all sorts of ways, primarily in terms of credit-extended to fund student fees as well as direct grants and research funding. It’s not clear that the model of financialization of higher education upon which the trashing of my pension has been premised is actually even sustainable.

And it’s worth noting, in the middle of all this, just how variable the subject of ‘The Student’ has become. It’s easy to bemoan the idea that students are increasingly treated as consumers, but it in fact students are figured in various ways in contemporary higher education policy and strategy: as future recruits, they serve as security against which Universities can secure loans; they are quite publicly presented, amazingly, as superficial air-heads who are easily dazzled by ‘shiny buildings’ when making life-changing decisions; they are expected to be only ever motivated as utility-maximisers by the promise of future earnings in their choices and expectations and satisfactions (giving rise to a weird sense of what ‘vocational‘ means in education, which is reduced to quite instrumental ideas about value for money; which doesn’t leave much space for the idea of a calling, a passion, a life’s worth of mission); and, rather importantly given the debt-leveraged nature of all this building work, as reliable rent-payers. And this disaggregation of ‘The Student’ into a dispersed range of abstract singularities facilitates in turn the re-aggregation of “student voice” and “student experience”, always and only ever spoken-for by University managers.

It’s Not Neoliberalism!

Now, at this point, I want to step sideways and make what might appear to be an arcane theoretical point: I want to say out loud that I think none of this can be helpfully analysed with reference to extant conceptualisations of neoliberalism. My reason for saying this here is because I have made this case on a couple of occasions as contributions to local UCU-related teach-outs in the last week or so, so I thought as a matter of good faith I should reiterate the argument here too. The framing of the wider context for this dispute routinely falls back on the terms of a popularised discourse of ‘the neoliberal University’ set against an idea of Universities as a public good that has come to define a whole space of critical imagination for the academic left and beyond. It’s worth slowing down a moment and considering what difference it makes to think about higher education as a public good or as a means of achieving the public good – and noticing that in neither case are market mechanisms necessarily inimical to desired collective outcomes. I happen to think that the analysis of processes of the marketisation, financialization, and consumerisation of higher education in the UK needs to be freed from the weight of the theoretical edifice of critical discourses of ‘neoliberalism’ (and I think this not just for academic reasons but also because I think it contributes to bad political strategy). I don’t want to rehearse a lengthy academic argument here, so I will try to be quick: leaving aside the complete incoherence of ‘neoliberal’ as either an explanatory or descriptive term, and the fact that all critical theories of neoliberalism tend to suffer from a somewhat unhealthy identification with their putative object of analysis (this is related to the methodological basis of most social science research on neoliberalism, which for all the talk of ‘political-economy’ tends to be based on fairly simplistic forms of discourse analysis (without even admitting it) and interviews with elite actors; or, for those late to the game, it is related to having no regard for the empirical at all, preferring to simply show the normative inadequacies of a set of theoretical propositions that are presented as having already been perfectly realised in the world). To cut a long story short, prevalent theories of ‘actually existing neoliberalism’ – whether the carpet theory of roll-back and roll-out variegated neoliberalization, or those of a more sophisticated poststructuralist variety, turn on stark contrasts between states and markets, or between the political and the economic – or, at a deeper level, between bad individualism and virtuous sociality (there are broader issues here about what kind of social theory is at work in critical analyses of ‘neoliberalism’, which tend to be reliant on functionalist theories of the state and of ‘subjectivity’, and devoid of effective understandings of the rationalities of action) .

There are at least three reasons why this whole framework of analysis doesn’t really help in analysing what we are all learning about the political economy of higher education through our involvement in this dispute. They all deserve more attention than I can muster here, but I’ll mention each in turn:

  • First, it disallows the possibility of any positive knowledge of the economic (at best delegating that knowledge to a tradition of Marxist analysis that is certainly worth taking very seriously). And if there is one thing we’ve all learnt these last couple of weeks, it’s that it’s really useful to be able to know about the economics of finance.
  • Second, as already intimated, risk the central theme linking the use of rankings, pensions as liabilities, and the financing of capital investment (again, that’s what Gail Davies and Felicity Callard  have been excavating). And risk is quite central to modern concepts and practices of public life, in a way often underestimated by critical theories. There really is something called the ‘The new risk agenda‘ that is being embedded in bought-in, consultant-led higher education strategising, management and administration. It’s a world in which future pension liabilities show up as a financial risk while leveraged on- and off- balance indebtedness doesn’t, no-one takes seriously the risk of undermining the professional confidence of University staff in senior leadership, and all those flakey metrics are used to make it appear that future student recruitment is a lock-in. There is certainly a debate to be had about ‘the privatization of risk‘, although that’s not quite what is involved here – it’s more like a process in which privatised models of risk, via actuarial practices and the operations of debt markets, have become integral to the delivery of new understandings of the ‘public benefits’ of HEIs.
  • Third, and picking up on this suggestion, entrenched critical discourses of neoliberalism find it very difficult to acknowledge that the marketisation and financialization of higher education involves the reconfiguration of the relationship between the means and ends of the public dimensions of higher education, rather than the diminution of the public qualities of University life in the face of unrelenting privatisation (the values of efficiency, accountability, freedom and choice that legitimise that reconfiguration are, after all, no less public values than, say, equality or justice). It is presumed that market mechanisms – in this case financialized practices – can only ever undermine properly public values (and it’s never explained why this infectious relation cannot work in the other direction as well).

The example of pension provision, which is what our dispute centres on, should remind us that there is no necessary reason why private means cannot be used to secure public goods (in that respect, Adam Smith remains a rather insightful theorist of modern public life). The history of pension provision in the UK from the early 20th century until the introduction of George Osborne’s “Freedom and Choice’ reforms in 2015 illustrates that it’s perfectly possible to combine private markets for investments with specific tax regimes to deliver welfare outcomes.


Should Universities Calm Down?

I guess my point is simply that higher education isn’t a public good – there are multiple public goods associated with higher education (and they might actually be proliferating even as the means of achieving them is being narrowed). At its most straightforward, as subject to the Charity Commission, Universities in the UK are obliged to demonstrate that their activities deliver Public Benefit to all sorts of constituencies (have a google, you’ll quickly be able to find the annual reporting of how your University’s delivers Public Benefit). It is possible to imagine various configurations of the objects, subjects and mediums of public life rather than holding to a stark contrast between two separate, and opposed realms. The marketisation and financialization of higher education, expressed not least through heavily leveraged capital investment programmes, represents a re-configuration of the means and ends of the public qualities of HE. And it’s not just done in the name of public values (to think that this will do as an analysis requires you to still believe in the concept of ideology, which you just shouldn’t). To illustrate my point, consider the evaluation of the capital investment by the research-intensive Russell Group Universities between 2012 and 2017 produced by the economics consultancy BiGGAR Economics in 2014 (great name). It should be said that most of the increase in capital investment by Universities is driven by a relatively small set of research-intensive institutions. The evaluation found that almost 100,000 jobs would be supported by more than £9 billion of projected investment – spending on “a wide variety of different types of project from new libraries and student accommodation to major urban regeneration projects and world-leading medical facilities” – and that every £1 invested will generate £4.89 ‘gross added value’  – these claims being arrived  at by using a “specially developed economic model”, the details of which are not made publicly accessible. These impacts will be felt over different time-scales – the total added value is divided between short-term impacts (the impacts of building the buildings), longer-term operational impacts (which derive from what goes on in the new buildings once they are built) and long-term ‘catalytic’ impacts: there at least 6 dimensions to this latter category, which anchors the really strong claim involved, namely that capital investment by Universities does not just amount to a redistribution of central government moneys but contributes to the active generation of new wealth. The six dimensions are ‘graduate productivity’, ‘medical research’, ‘commercialisation and innovation’, ‘enhanced research competitiveness’, ‘tourism’ (basically, parents coming to stay in University towns when their kids graduate) and ‘improved learning environment’ (which loops back to securing future student recruitment).

The report has a lovely conclusion, in which it is asserted that “Investing in a high quality learning and research environment” allows Universities “to attract and maintain the best students and researchers”. In this vision, capital investment projects are integral to the building of the ‘human capital’ that is central to both teaching and education. What a lovely idea. Unfortunately, no-one told the authors of this report that the specific business model upon which these programmes of capital investment depend actually requires that academic labour markets are increasingly bifurcated and students increasingly treated as assets – so that the ‘human capital’ part of that equation is actually sacrificed to the ‘capital-capital’ part.

The BiGGAR report illustrates that even when the impacts of higher education are, as they increasingly are, presented as accruing to individuals (the future salaries of students) or private entities (‘industry’) then this is understood as being a means through which wider public benefits can be generated. It’s just one example of how far the reconfiguration of higher education has involved a trend by Universities to claim to ‘doing everything‘ for everyone (social mobility, productivity increases, technological innovation, instilling civic spirit, solving climate change, etc., etc.); and the associated adoption of management models that are shaped by the imperative to provide evidence of that capacity to deliver for both instrumental reasons and accountability reasons.

So, again by way of example, the University of Exeter makes regular use of economic consultants to help it publicly demonstrate the benefit of increasing number of international students that it has bought to the city and region, part of a broader imperative to demonstrate the economic impacts of the University locally and regionally. And in case that sounds a little too economistic, then the University also makes strong claims about acting as an anchor institution the generates all sorts of social and cultural benefits alongside economic ones. The “anchor institution” idea has taken off in government and other public agencies around HE, and it’s an interesting example of travelling theory, whereby the original sense of the potential of certain public institutions driving regeneration in deprived and ‘vulnerable‘ localities and regions has been turned into a generalised narrative about Universities driving innovation and growth anywhere and everywhere. The specific combination of justificatory logics behind these sorts of claims about local impact is not peculiar to Russell Group institutions, it’s common across the whole HE sector. And one of the key roles of the not-so-loved UUK is to scale up these sorts of claims to the national level.

Now, to return to my theoretical hobby-horse, I don’t think neoliberalism or ‘privatisation’ or counterposing ‘people versus profit’ actually captures what is going on here (And I realise that “It’s complicated and contradictory and complex” doesn’t make a great slogan. It’s much worse even than Rectify the Anomaly, although I am personally increasingly drawn to the idea that University staff should campaign around the slogan “We Have a Right to be Well Managed”). Those slogans (and that’s what ‘neoliberalism’ really is remember) ask us to buy into a moralistic contrast between bad privatised, competitive, marketised, individualised practices versus good, virtuous, sharing ones. As I said, I think the ‘neoliberal’ frame leads us to misrecognize the degree to which what is at stake is a dispute between different understandings of the public responsibilities of higher education, and especially between different understandings of the best means by which to achieve the public purposes of higher education. I happen to think a better place to start is to take seriously  Rowan Williams’ characterisation of the current trends in higher education restructuring as being shaped by a “half-baked utilitarianism“. It’s a suggestion that has more purchase in analysing the dynamics of the changing world of higher education, and it is neatly illustrated by the line parroted by VCs that I mentioned at the start, in which the costs of sustaining decent pensions systems is set against the sacrosanct requirement to continue to invest in expansion: that zero-sum line exposes how the calculation of the value of the public benefits of higher education – in terms of social mobility and productivity improvements and that innovation and economic growth that is meant to follow from a credit-led expansion strategy – is totted up and then the ‘sufferings’ resulting from gutting staff pensions are simply subtracted from the total: what you get is a projected  overall increase in an aggregated utility function.

In the UK, a shared sense of hubris continues to drive higher education policy (by government) and strategy (by Universities), around which the contradictions and conflicts between these actors revolve. It also lies behind the increasingly toxic mess of top-down, vicious, paternalist, patronising management systems that has come to characterise University life. A significant proportion of University staff have decided to call BS on the whole complex of funding, financing, and management over the last few weeks. As this dispute moves towards its fourth week, what is becoming increasingly clear is that it is not just that the governance of collective University decision-making is in crisis – that much is clear enough when the constituent members of UUK are themselves complaining that this organisation can’t be trusted – but that the whole model of individual University governance is itself in need of urgent reassessment. It’s easy to fixate on the responsibilities of VCs in all of this, but McGaughey is surely right to suggest that it is the whole edifice of upper-level University governance that needs to be democratised: “in every university, staff, the University and College Union, and students should demand every governing body has a majority elected by staff and students.” The reason why ‘democracy’ is the answer to the crisis of British higher education exposed by this dispute is not so much because ‘neoliberalism’ is opposed to democracy (the two are rather closely entangled), but because what everyone keeps calling ‘neoliberalism’ is really a specific assemblage, shall we say, of practices and meanings of accountability, freedom, and public value. At least that’s my argument, and I’m sticking to it.



Marketing practices and public action

segmentNick Mahony and I have a new paper published in Policy and Politics, on their ‘fast track’ page, entitled Marketing practices and the reconfiguration of public action. The paper draws on a project for the NCCPE and ESRC that Nick and I worked on a while back when were both at the OU, on the use of segmentation methods in the public sector, charities, and campaign sectors. This paper seeks to open up some interpretative space for exploring what is going on when marketing practices get used in non-commercial sectors, without presuming in advance that what is going on is something to be called ‘neoliberalism’. It is a light-touch elaboration of some ideas about problematization developed in different ways in my piece on that topic at as well as a forthcoming Article Forum on ‘security’ in Dialogues in Human Geography.

Here is the abstract of the Policy and Politics piece:

“Market segmentation methodologies are increasingly used in public policy, arts and culture management and third sector campaigning. Rather than presume that this is an index of creeping neoliberalisation, we track the shared and contested understandings of the public benefits of using segmentation methods. Segmentation methods are used to generate stable images of individual and group attitudes and motivations, and these images are used to inform strategies that seek to either change these dispositions or to mobilise them in new directions. Different segments of the population are identified as bearing particular responsibilities for public action on different issues.”

What are the humanities good for?

SMAGThere is, apparently, a ‘war against the humanities‘ going on in British higher education, according to a piece in The Observer this weekend. The piece cites as its primary evidence for this ‘war’ the perspectives of scholars from the humanities, of course, lamenting the effects of changes to funding regimes but also the culture of management in British Universities on the proper pursuit of scholarship.

I always worry when ‘the humanities’ is used as a catch-all to encompass the social sciences as well as more ‘arts’-type fields. It is true, of course, that both arts and social sciences disciplines have suffered from the same funding changes since 2010, but I’m not quite sure that the standard ‘whither the humanities?’ style of criticism of higher education policy over this period necessarily sheds much light on what is really going on, or on how best to evaluate it. The piece in The Observer shares various features of a broader genre of criticism of higher education transformation in the name of ‘the humanities’:

First, as already noted, it conflates a range of different disciplines, but presents next to no insight from anyone who looks or sounds like a social scientist. No doubt we could argue about whether the social sciences counts as ‘humanities’ or not, but in this sort of piece, it turns out that ‘the humanities’ really means literary and arts-based fields and forms of analysis. Therein lay the values most under threat from funding changes and top-down management styles and impact agendas. Amongst other things, one effect of this elision of social science is a tendency to present ‘the sciences’ as the more or less unwitting bad guys in the story. Two cultures, all over again, one of which is always a bit too uncultured.

Second, the lament about the squeezing of ‘humanities’ is often enough made in the name of the values of criticism and critique, but I do wonder whether we should really look for our models of these practices from ‘the humanities’ anymore? To be fair, there is a ‘social science’ version of the same lament. John Holmwood, for example, has written in much the same vein recently about the apparent marginalisation of the critical voice of social sciences in British public debate. Holmwood worries that social science is being shaped too pragmatically, in such a way as to displace attention to social structures. I dare say that an appeal to the value of social science as lying in access to knowledge of structures and possibilities of change bears some structural similarity to the form of discerning insight that ‘the humanities’ are meant to have. In both cases, ‘critique’ is the magical practice that is best able to articulate with public worlds by maintaining a certain sort of distance from them.

The genre is remarkably resilient, it seems, even resurgent. Unhappily, it turns on quite conventional oppositions between (bad) instrumental knowledge and (good) critical knowledge. Somewhere in between, the scope for thinking about different versions of instrumentality gets lost, and the critical voice gets snared in its own contradictions, being forced to disavow various public entanglements (the impact agenda, most obviously, or treating students as adults, rather more implicitly), in the name of a weakly expressed ideal of the worldly force of ‘really useless knowledge’.

There is much to lament about the state of British higher education. And there is, of course, a ‘campaign for social science‘, which has recently managed to produce a deeply embarrassing representation of the value of social science that might well confirm all one’s suspicions about the selling-out of social scientists to ‘neoliberal agendas’ (we are in ‘the business of people‘, apparently). Social science is, of course, a divided field, as Holmwood implies. So too, one might suspect, are ‘the humanities’. The resilience of the ‘two cultures’ genre has been evident since 2010, at least, when arguments in the defence of the ‘public university’ took off in response to Coalition policy changes. It was evident, for example, in the controversy around the AHRC’s alignment with ‘the big society’ agenda (remember that?). That episode illustrated the division within the humanities I just mentioned, rather than an impure imposition of pernicious instrumentalism from the outside. It turns out, of course, that the humanities are really good at being instrumentally useful, at knowing how to ‘sell-out’; not least, humanities fields have been at the forefront of legitimizing the impact agenda both in principle and in practice (as evidenced by evaluations of impact submissions and indicators in the 2014 REF exercise).

The ‘two cultures’ genre is always a trap, not least in the current conjuncture when the defence of ‘the value of the humanities’ is made alongside sweeping references to neoliberalization of higher education. Like it or not, the restructuring of higher education in Britain, and elsewhere, is explicitly made in the name of public values like accountability and social mobility; as a result, the defence of ‘the humanities’ always already suffers from a populist deficit when articulated from within the confines of the two cultures genre, however refined that has become in the hands of Stefan Collini or Martha Nussbaum. ‘Neoliberalism’ is, of course, a social science concept, but not a very good one, especially in this context, because in its most sophisticated varieties, it doesn’t allow you to recognise that contemporary political-economic processes involve the reconfiguration of the means and ends of public life, rather than just a straightforward diminution of public life (here represented by ‘the humanities’) in the face of privatisation, individualism, and competition.

Herein lies the real problem with the elision of social science into a precious view of ‘the humanities’ as the repository of irreducibly qualitative values: the defence of the humanities is generally made via a simplistic conceptual vocabulary of ‘the market’, ‘the state’, ‘bureaucracy’, and other hoary old figures of the forces of philistinism. There is a critique, certainly, to be made of trends in higher education in the UK, but it probably requires better social science, better social theory, than the prevalent defence of ‘the humanities’ seems able or willing to muster. It would require, amongst other things, giving up on the idea that critique is a special preserve of ‘the humanities’, or indeed that it requires discerning access to structural analysis.

On the underdetermination of ‘neoliberalism’ by evidence

stopDialogues in Human Geography has a debate forum discussing the relevance of the concept of neoliberalism, revolving around a piece by Sally Weller and Phil O’Neill titled ‘An argument with neoliberalism: Australia’s place in a global imaginary‘. They call into question attempts to refine the concept of neoliberalism/ization in terms of ‘variegation’ and related notions, suggesting that it might just be better to think with different concepts entirely. In the course of the debate, I discovered that I have apparently invented a new genre, called ‘neoliberalism in denial‘. Who knew! Does this make me the Bob Dylan of neoliberal studies? (and if so, does it mean that Noel Castree, who apparently followed my lead, is the Donovan of neoliberal studies?). I wonder if social science theories are the sorts of knowledge-formations that you can actually properly be ‘in denial‘ about – they aren’t quite of the same order as explanations of climate change or the etiology of AIDS, are they?

Anyway, the Weller and O’Neill piece is well worth the read, here is the abstract:

“This article argues that the uncritical application of the lens of neoliberalism closes off opportunities for more rigorous analysis of actually existing socio-economic change. We ask whether Australia’s developmental trajectory over the last three decades can be described as neoliberalization and whether the outcome is a variety of neoliberalism. Instead of stitching together a story about variegated neoliberalism, we find an alternative narrative based around the notion of a developmental project more compelling. We document the spatial and political realities that have inhibited the roll-out of neoliberal ideas and practices in the Australian context. We think that instead of expanding the varieties of variegated neoliberalism to accommodate all manner of events and processes in all sorts of places, our task should be to recognize those instances where social, political, cultural or economic changes settle capitalism’s contradictions in ways that diverge from neoliberal frameworks and expectations. Our central point is that the role of academic research is to explain the lived world and to develop abstractions to aid that explanation, rather than to design an abstraction (neoliberalism) and then fit the lived world to its contours.”




Cutting neoliberalism down to size


There has been a flurry of reviews of new books on the history of neoliberalism recently – including books by geographers Jamie Peck and Jason Hackworth, as well as Daniel Stedman Jones’ Masters of the Universe. One the peculiarities of much of the debate about neoliberalism that this publishing burst reminds me of is the persistent tendency to focus on neoliberal ideas, and then to conjure up more or less elaborate accounts of how ideas have ended up shaping the world. Concepts of hegemony, discourse, the ideational, materialisation, governmentality, and the like have to do an awful lot of heavy-lifting in these stories. Excavating the histories of neoliberalism and neoliberalisation continues, it seems, to be an occasion for the circulation of some very weak social theory (for example, governmentality has come to be used as a name for a very specific form of power, more or less synonymous with neoliberalism; this may or may not be how it emerges from Foucault’s writings, but seems much less interesting than using this notion as a kind of analytical frame for asking questions about how power is exercised, rather than presuming in advance that it will conform to one of three or four archetypes identified in scattered pieces by Foucault).

Meanwhile, via Foucault News, here is a discussion by Terry Flew of the range of meanings of ‘neoliberalism’ – he identifies 6 different senses in which the term is used in contemporary critical theory. And he also discusses the degree to which invocations of ‘Foucault’, in the wake of the translation of his late 1970s lectures on biopolitics and neoliberalism, really support any of the rather expansive meanings that circulate. Colin Gordon raises a similar warning in his response to the interesting discussion between Gary Becker and Francois Ewald: “It is of course always helpful to be clear what one means by a term such as neoliberalism, if indeed it is not being used simply as a floating signifier of evil, a new signifier of the inveterately evil nature of capitalism, catering to the moral comfort of those no longer sure of their faith in the historico-economic victory of capitalism’s foe. For many Left commentators, neoliberalism seems nowadays to primarily denote the combined phenomena of deregulation, privatisation and globalisation – often perceived as developments dating essentially from the 1980s. None of these themes happen to be central to Foucault’s discussion: even Foucault was not prescient enough to cater for all our later concerns, or to leave us a full genealogy of the decades since his death”. The emphasis of both Flew and Gordon, like that of Stephen Collier, is on using the term neoliberal in a much more specified way, understood as a much narrower phenomenon, and a much less determinant one in turn.

Anyway, the Gordon and Flew pieces have got me thinking that one day it would be fun to undertake a genealogy not of neoliberalism, but of ‘neoliberalism’: a genealogy of the ways in which left-thinking in various contexts and across various traditions has been shaped by this notion, and of the methodological, conceptual, and strategic closures that have been determined by the taken-for-granted force of this preconstructed entity.

Neoliberalism as radical political economy

118In the intellectual world I grew up in and to a large extent still inhabit, the phrase ‘political economy’ is often just another way of saying ‘Marxism’. I’m not sure if it’s ‘ironic’ that this tradition of work has come to be so focussed on the conceptual object ‘dubbed’ neoliberalism, which is theorised as the real world realization of ideas emanating from the post-WW2 revival of ‘political economy’ of a different sort. The status of neoliberal ideas as variants of political economy is often overlooked, primarily because of the investments in simple state/market dualisms that shape critical conceptualizations of neoliberalization.

One of the founding figures of contemporary political economy is James Buchanan, who died last week. Buchanan is one of the unsung heroes/villains of neoliberalism, if there is such a thing – above all through helping to invent public choice theory, a framework for applying certain sorts of economic ideas to the analysis of state actors, bureaucracies, and other organisations. More broadly, Buchanan illustrates the degree to which ideas about the rule of law, constitutionalism, rule-following, and the like provide a positive theory of the state and the public realm rather than simply a straightforward preference for the market over the state (like other thinkers associated with the canon of neoliberal ideas, perhaps with the exception of Richard Posner, Buchanan took the financial crisis of the last five years as largely confirming his own views). Buchanan is as good a place as any to start the task of understanding how states and markets have been reconfigured around new models of public value, rather than by a straightforward shift simply from good public values to bad private ones. Stephen Collier has elaborated on Buchanan’s importance as a ‘minor’ figure in the genealogy of neoliberal practice, in ways which suggest a need to rethink the conventional framework for the critical analysis of neoliberalism more generally.

Buchanan is famous for the line about thinking about ‘politics without romance‘, which rapidly devolved into a deeply cynical view of public actors as rent-seeking parasites. It’s interesting to read the appreciations of Buchanan in places like the FT, The Economist, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Bloomberg News, The Daily Telegraph over the last week – you can glean a sense of how public choice theory supports a certain sort of right-wing insurgent self-image, speaking in the name of democratic choice (as revealed preference) against the usurping inclinations of elites. It reminded me of the argument made by John Dryzek some time ago now, in which he argued that public choice theory did indeed share some important affinities with Frankfurt School-style critical theory.

Appreciating Buchanan’s work is important not least because, whisper it, belonging as it does to a tradition of thought that is embedded in particular understandings of democracy, it does address difficult issues of collective action, institutional design, and accountability that conventional left social theory struggles with, oscillating as it does between proto-anarchistic suspicion of ‘the state’ and nostalgia for stale social democratic settlements of the public good. Disentangling and differentiating accounts of ‘rationality’ might be an imperative to rethinking the democratic potentials of emergent forms of contemporary public action – and being able to tell the different in the political valence between Buchanan, say, and Mancur Olson, or Kenneth Arrow, or Amartya Sen, or Jon Elster, or Elinor Ostrom, seems an important task along this road (the differences turn on the degree to which theories are able to account for the rationalities of co-operation as something more than merely aggregation or secondary). Not all styles of rational choice theory are equally pathological, perhaps.