Through a Glass Darkly : The Social Sciences Look at the Neoliberal University
Thornton, Margaret, ed.
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This collection of essays, representing a range of social science perspectives, arose from a concern about the way Australian universities are being affected by a single-minded focus on economic rationality. This has involved the transformation of higher education from a predominantly public to a predominantly private good, which has profound ramifications not only for the future of the public university, but also for the working of democracy. While numerous studies have focused on the deleterious impact of the neoliberal turn on the humanities (e.g. Small 2013; Nussbaum 2010; Donoghue 2008), the social sciences have attracted comparatively little attention, although the effect may be no less harmful. It is not only that social science departments are being closed down – although redundancies are an everyday occurrence – but that the social sciences are being constrained in the exercise of their critical role. State disinvestment in higher education has caused the university’s primary role to become more overtly instrumental, for it is now deployed by the state specifically to serve the new knowledge economy. This is not to deny the ideological role played by the university in the service of the state in the past, such as the inculcation of nationalism or the transmission of culture. However, such a role did not entail the wholesale targeting, recruiting and training of students that is in evidence today. The pressure on public universities is now directed towards producing large numbers of job-ready graduates cheaply in minimum time to serve the needs of industry. The private benefits of higher education are also invariably conceived in economic terms, emphasising vocationalism and wealth accumulation in order to justify a userpays regime. The privatising aspect of the new regime, together with the dramatic increase in the number of students, or so-called ‘massification’, has induced a pronounced shift in terms of both what is taught and how it is taught. In particular, theory and critique are likely to be downplayed, if not discarded altogether, in favour of applied knowledge, which better suits the instrumental aims now in vogue prestige and compete on the world stage. At the same time, academics are required to teach more and more students, while collegiality and academic freedom have been eroded in the face of increasing managerialism, a highly gendered phenomenon on which several contributors elaborate. I set the scene for the collection by overviewing the trajectory of change in higher education policy in Australia over the last quarter of a century that has led to this state of affairs and by briefly addressing its significance for the social sciences. But, first, a word about the neoliberal turn.