Publication Reflection: Life for the Academic in the Neoliberal University

Alpesh Maisuria, our BESA Research Funding Lead and Associate Professor of Education Policy in Critical Education at UWE, has provided the following personal summary and reflection on co-authoring Life for the Academic in the Neoliberal University. The book has been co-authored with Svenja Helmes and provides an insightful investigation on the impact of neoliberalism in the Higher Education sector. Further information can be found via the publisher’s website.

Higher education has endured a horrendous time. As an academic, over the course of less than two decades, I have experienced an exponential diminution of working conditions, to the point of burn-out, anxiety, sleep problems, and alienation, all of which is now normalised for many others. I have witnessed four friends in the academy suffer breakdowns and one was convinced that her cancer was exacerbated because of the weight of stress she was put under at work, it eventually killed her. UCU research finds that depression is rife and many academics experience suicidal thoughts (and in some high-profile cases even worse).

Over recent years, I have increasingly wanted to write a book about the changes to academic labour that I had experienced and observed. It wasn’t only anger towards what neoliberalism was doing to my profession and my colleagues, but also my longing was to write a book engaging the spirit of Gramsci’s optimism, specifically about the remedy that the National Education Service (a proposal in the last two Labour manifestos) could offer (see chapter 4).


Video Introduction to Life for the Academic in the Neoliberal University

The opportunity arose in 2016, when I was immensely proud to witness my former undergrad students flourishing with excellent presentations at the International Conference on Critical Education (ICCE). One was Svenja Helmes, who by then was a doctoral student at another university. Svenja was finding her way into Marxism, and her MA had significantly developed some of the ideas we had previously explored and learnt about together in my undergrad classes. I knew her to be an outstanding researcher, and she harboured ambitions to be an academic.

In my case, the door into academia was opened by former tutor Prof. Dave Hill, who initiated collaboration with me, I know how much this helped me and I wanted to extend this practice with Svenja. Actually, doing this was, at first, quite daunting for me, because as an established academic and writer, I was reflectively anxious about the power relations at play. However, despite this, I emailed Svenja tentatively asking whether she would be interested in co-authoring a book about universities, academic labour, and neoliberalism. In our first correspondences, I was keen to strongly stress that this was to be a genuinely co-constructed project, and while I would deal with the publisher (bargaining for better royalties etc) with whom I have an existing love/hate relationship, every decision was to be made together for the writing project to be successful. While Svenja’s dissertation work was foundational and repurposed for the first chapters of the book, we produced work organically by bringing together many years of my own publications with her fresh ideas and emerging specialism.

As I said earlier, this was a book that had been in my mind for a long time. I had two well established aims for the book. This was to explicate:

Exploitation as part of the neoliberalisation of higher education, and this is something that we all experience, irrespective of stage of career and university type. ALL academics are embodiments and living beings of neoliberalism and its exploitation in their own work. Put in more theoretical terms, our labour power is exploited in an increasingly more-for-less culture that allows neoliberalism to flourish, while we are mentally and physically exhausted.

Alienation – we internalise our problems, this is the dominant culture that has been purposefully crafted. Pitching us against each other in high stakes scenarios, i.e. competing for research funds and high impact publishing metrics, is one of the greatest tricks of neoliberalism because it creates a survival of the fittest mentality. If we show weakness, we are labelled as snowflakes and lacking strength. In academia snowflakes need ‘resilience’ training to be hardened, which become a target to achieve in a sea of metrics that we need to produce to pass next year’s performance meeting with a line manager, who is him/herself is also alienated and exploited! This is all part of a discourse that tells us that it’s not the system that is toxic, it is an individual’s inability to cope with the high standards and excellence that the system demands. This is the same discourse that promotes the idea that, the detached feeling from one’s own fruits of labour is an individual’s choice not a systemic problem (for me marking was a particular mechanism of alienation from my work – [less than] 20 day marking turnaround for 170 scripts was nothing less than the stuff of sausage-factories).

These aims to expose the exploitation and alienation that pervades the system as a result of neoliberalism will hopefully:

  • contribute to solidarity building. Organisation to struggle against the further neoliberalisation of education
  • collectively puts us in the saddle to be simultaneously In and Against the neoliberal system in our consciousness and practices

Afterword 

Neoliberalism makes fools of us all. It coerces us to think and act in ways that make us ethically and politically compromised. The book production has elements that are examples and here is my atheist’s confession:

We have published with Routledge. They are the most prestigious and largest publisher within the humanities and social sciences. They are a mega-corporation and they disproportionately benefit and profit from the sale of our book – we knew this when we signed the contract with them. (I’ve discovered that it’s little known that, in most cases, a standard £30 book would need to sell around a hundred copies before the author get royalties, and that would be less than £2 per £30 sale, the profit margins are astronomical – this is exploitation). Despite our book attacking commercialisation and commodification of academic work, we still published with Routledge. This is not accidental. Big publishers have monopolised the publishing industry and the readership base. The issue is no longer just ‘publish or perish’, it is now ‘publish’ or ‘publish with a big name’. Yet another instance of coercion with the neoliberalisation of higher education.

Furthermore, having high-profile matters in the neoliberal world of academia. I used my friendships with four very eminent scholars to endorse this book. I did this partly to help get the book circulated – I want our argument in the book to have engagement – but also knowing that sales will help us get future publishing contracts and positively contribute to our employment stability.

Neoliberalism makes us play a game that we don’t want to play.

Am I pleased with the result? I’ll let you decide, but a friend who is a Professor evaluating the book for the REF said to me on the phone: “every academic should read this book”! There I go again, playing the game that I don’t want to.

Writing the book was mentally hard. Occasionally I feel really down about the system and it induces existential question, such as what I am doing in it?

The guilt for being part of a system that will saddle the next generation with £50k debt that they won’t be able to pay back because of poor employment prospects and almost zero social mobility.

And the new generation of academics looking for jobs in a jobs market that doesn’t exist for most of them (see chapter 3 of the book), it’s a dreadful scenario.

Also, I am forced to fearfully wonder what the system will be like for my two children.

Writing this book, and learning about others who have been moved to quit academia and even attempt suicide (chapter 3) was a particular low.

However, one thing I’ve always had and needed is hope and optimism through struggle and in solidarity. It’s the fuel to keep fighting for a better university. As BESA members, we need to responsibility to take this struggle on, and build solidarity for that struggle.

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