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The neo-liberal knowledge regime, inequality and social critique

The argument about students holds that there should not be a direct public subsidy of a private beneficiary. But on the impact agenda the situation is reversed. Here the Government’s view is that there should not be public funding unless there is a private beneficiary and that that beneficiary should not pay.


Coffee shop in the academic block, 2013. Wikimedia Commons/Chu86happychu. Some rights reserved.

In common with many other countries, higher education in the UK has been subject to various measures designed to increase transparency and replace collegial decision-making with managerial hierarchies and market-based performance indicators. However, recent changes in England have drawn together the disparate components of this emerging neo-liberal knowledge regime and have made it much more systematic and far-reaching in its operation than elsewhere.

Until the publication of the Browne Review in 2010 (and the subsequent White Paper for England which enacted its core philosophy, if not all its recommendations) higher education policy had expressed an inclusive public interest in higher education and a broad range of values. These placed emphasis on the contribution of higher education to democratic citizenship and wider culture.

To be sure, there was also an emphasis on meeting labour market demands and a recognition of the important contribution of scientific research to product innovation and economic growth. The knowledge economy was regarded as important, but it was embedded within the wider idea of a knowledge society.

This was reflected in a common understanding that mass higher education would be associated with the ‘adaptive upgrading’ of all jobs and a secular decline in socio-economic inequalities. In addition, the expansion of higher education would facilitate wider inclusion and participation in common culture and public debate.

These broader commitments no longer remain for England. Higher education is now represented solely in terms of a private interest in the investment in human capital. Indeed, the removal of direct public funding and its replacement by student fees is justified by the argument that the beneficiary should pay, and that that beneficiary is the private individual, albeit one who will have access to publicly supported loans.

The removal of direct public funding has also been designed to create a ‘level playing field’ for the entry of (multinational) for-profit providers into a market made up of student applicants with access to publicly-supported loans. Although the terms on which the latter are offered are unsustainable, from the perspective of the future cost to the Treasury and future taxpayers, they are, for the present, off the balance sheet. In this way, the leveraging of students into debt (by the combined interests of Government and vice chancellors at self-defined ‘top’ universities) can be represented as a saving against the deficit reduction targets associated with the present politics of austerity.

Meanwhile, the Government also floats the idea of the privatisation of the student loan book, while Russell Group vice-chancellors lobby for the lifting of the £9000 fee cap in order to equalize home and international fees, as implied by the idea of a global higher education market, which is, in turn, a key component of the idea of a neo-liberal knowledge economy.

Open Access under CC BY

For-profit providers have no obligations other than the satisfaction of consumers and the creation of profit for their shareholders. Indeed, they are likely to be further advantaged by new policies for open access to academic publications. The latter have been rapidly introduced following the Finch Report.  The report recommends measures to ensure the widest access to publicly funded research, but also that it should be published in a form that allows commercial access through the use of CC BY licence (allowing republication in whole or part, and in any combination, with the sole proviso of author attribution).

Compliance with these requirements are mandated for Research Council funded research with effect from April 2013, with a similar requirement for research submitted to the REF coming later.

Many academics support open access as the creation of a commons, but it is to be a commons open to private appropriation. The costs of investment in library and other curriculum resources are immediately reduced for new entrants. The playing field, then, is not levelled, but is heavily tilted towards for-profit providers.

At the same time as the costs of education are raised significantly for a new generation of students (in most cases by a near trebling of fees with the consequence of a very substantial debt burden), universities are also enjoined to increase value for money for students through efficiency savings. Here the model is one of the ‘unbundling’ of different activities, to identify those which can be taken to market by ‘outsourcing’ and made subject to the proper rigours of the profit-motive. What is evident is that these efficiencies are at the cost of the working conditions and wages of those in outsourced jobs (while the salaries and benefits of senior management increase in line with their ‘performance’ in achieving savings).

In this respect, the University becomes a microcosm of the wider, neo-liberal knowledge economy it serves. The latter has been responsible for widening inequalities, such that the UK is now one of the most unequal countries in the world. In turn, this has involved the creation of a polarisation of ‘bad’ and ‘good’ jobs. The university is now positioned as a driver of increased inequality. Neither higher education, nor the economic growth that it is tasked to deliver, are defined as serving an inclusive public interest.

The Prime Minister describes the nation as being involved in a 'tough global race to succeed'.  At the same time, its own citizens are divided into ‘deserving’ winners and ‘undeserving’ losers according to their access to, and passage through, an education system, where success is correlated with pre-existing social advantages (including the status division between state and private secondary education, with its attendant wide differential in resources).

The policies are addressed not only at teaching, but also at research. The neo-liberal knowledge regime reinforces the idea that the purpose of knowledge is to serve the market. The ‘impact agenda’ which determines public funding of research through Research Councils and the REF, is directed to shortening the time from ‘idea to income’.

But here we confront a paradox. Where the argument about students involves the notion that there should not be a direct public subsidy of a private beneficiary, the situation with regard to the impact agenda is reversed. Here it seems that the Government’s view is that there should not be public funding, unless there is a private beneficiary and that beneficiary should not pay.

Open Access under CC BY is one of the measures designed to speed up commercialization, by making scientific innovations more immediately accessible, especially to small and medium-sized enterprises. The intention is that underlying scientific research will be protected by patents and IP claims, which allow individual researchers and universities to accrue rewards. The intention is that by shortening the product cycle, and engaging universities with risk takers – entrepreneurs and venture capitalists – this will increase the economic effectiveness of research and its contribution to growth.

In fact, there is a body of research into science policy – for example, by, Mirowski and Mazzucato – that suggests the opposite. It is publicly-funded ‘blue-skies’ research that has generated the innovations that have been most significant for subsequent product developments. It is the public (through funding) which bears the risk while private interests accrue the rewards. However, the effectiveness of blue-skies research is put under pressure by attempts to shorten the product cycle. Worse, the increase in patents has not been associated with transformative innovations, but with patenting ‘intermediary’ aspects of the research process (diagnostic tools, etc). Venture capital is interested in high returns in the short term and, therefore, is not oriented to the opportunities that might be found in the most innovative research.

Some may suggest that this description of the impact agenda is far too narrow. After all, the utility of the social sciences lies in their provision of an evidence basis for public policy, not their direct commercialization. This was the ambition when the ESRC (initially the SSRC) was set up in 1965, shortly after the Robbins Report. This understanding lies at the heart of the Campaign for the Social Sciences run by the Academy of Social Sciences and various publications of the British Academy.

They fail to appreciate that neo-liberalism is a theory of knowledge and cultural value. Evidence-based policy implies the agency of the state directed toward planning, whereas neo-liberalism suggests that knowledge is dispersed and particular to specific locations. On this view, the market aggregates dispersed knowledge and allows ‘voice’ through individual choices as mediated by the competitive price mechanism. State-directed policies – when directed at anything other than the creation and maintenance of markets – is a form of monopoly that can only be dispersed by the extension of markets (or quasi-markets) and not their regulation.

What Works

Of course, subsumption to the market requires a strong state and this provides a role for knowledge, but it is a knowledge of a very specific kind. Since neo-liberal public reason is based upon a ‘fiction’ of market rationality, various kinds of social actions (especially, collective ones and those based upon weakness of will) appear as distortions that are the obstacle to the rational dispositions that markets facilitate. Thus, the social as ‘residuum’ becomes the object of various kinds of behavioural, ‘anti-social’, sciences (primarily organized through a combination of economics, psychology and cognitive neuro-science), in contrast to the ‘structural’ social sciences.

This is evident in the new ‘What Works’ Centres promoted by the Government. Their remit is ‘what works’, given present inequalities, where the latter are explicitly removed from consideration, despite their evident relevance to the matter at hand – for example, to social mobility and educational attainment. Indeed, the Centres themselves are to be run by organisations that are already heavily implicated in the delivery of Government agendas, such as the Sutton Trust and the Police College.  In this way, evidence-based policy is transformed into policy-based evidence. Of course, the impact agenda is, itself, a form of ‘nudging’ of the behaviours of academics.

But, the development of policy-based evidence goes hand in hand with the marketization of the very function of holding the government to account. Thus, the Cabinet Office Behavioural Change Unit is to be ‘mutualised’ (though the model is in fact one of its members as shareholders with continued government funding and private capital investment), a process that is to be applied to other Government agencies, including the possibility that the Office of National Statistics will share the same fate. Dr Foster, the commercial organization that evaluates NHS performance is an earlier manifestation, but one that operates powerfully to create anxiety about public services as a prelude to their marketization (an interest that is shared among private service providers and market-based research organisations).

This is a step beyond the influence of partisan and privately-funded Think Tanks. The privatization of universities countenances that the university is no longer a distinctive location for the production of knowledge and flattens all differences between different locations. But it also commercializes the evaluation of public policy. This is part of the Open Data/ Big Data agenda and an analogue of the process described by Mazzucato and Moriarty for the commercialization of diagnostic techniques, or forms of data analysis.

In conclusion

The neo-liberal knowledge regime’s hostility to the idea of a public university serving an inclusive public interest is strongly aligned with its hostility to the very idea of a public conceived as anything other than an aggregate of individual consumers or taxpayers. As John Dewey argued, publics are the basis of properly democratic government. A public is brought into being by dialogue among other-oriented selves, whereas a market is non-dialogical and a product of self-regarding individuals. It is, then, no accident that mass higher education should be associated with democratization, or that mass higher education would be served primarily by public universities.

If Occupy was the symbolic representation of the need for spaces for dialogue against its reduction to market choice, the attack upon the public university is equally symbolic. The public university serves as a space for the production and dissemination of knowledge, including the evaluation of expertise and public policies. The marketization of that space is damaging not just for universities and those who work in them, but for democracy and citizenship.

This article is part of an editorial partnership between openDemocracy and the Centre for Modern Studies at the University of York. It was funded by the University of York's Pump Priming Fund, the British Academy, and York's Centre for Modern Studies.

About the author

John Holmwood is Professor of Sociology at the University of Nottingham. He was an expert witness for the defence in cases of professional misconduct brought against senior teachers at Park View Educational Trust by the National College of Teaching and Leadership. He is the author, with Therese O’Toole, of Countering Extremism in British Schools? The Truth about the Birmingham Trojan Horse Affair.

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