The paradoxes of neo-liberalism in UK higher education

The latest argument that we should be worried about a crisis in the university system comes, via The Guardian, from the US consultant Karen Kelsky. Her key concerns are student debt and casualization of the academic labour-market. The UK, she claims, is barrelling down a road familiar from the US.

Student debt? Well, yes: absolutely, and let’s not forget it. But I want to reflect here on the arguments about casualization and the fears for early-career academics, because it seems to me there are some curious paradoxes here. For Kelsky, the ‘neo-liberal’ structures of UK higher education, such as the Research Excellence Framework, are all part of the problem. But as I see things, they are also having contrary effects, helping to hold at bay some of the economic logic that has driven things in the US.

So let’s consider some effects of two of those neo-liberal monitoring structures, both unique to the UK: the REF and the National Student Survey.


The REF and the academic job market

Casualization of academic labour makes good economic sense. Why pay someone a full-time professional salary when you can hire in perfectly well qualified temporary lecturers and pay them only for the teaching they do? That logic has taken root in many US universities; it will most likely drive the growth of private universities in the UK. So there definitely are reasons to be concerned.

But the REF posits a contrary logic, along the lines: why appoint temporary and part-time teaching staff, when you could appoint someone who will contribute to the REF? And that appointment – not always, but more often than not – will be permanent. Certainly that’s my experience. We always have temporary lecturers – to cover for people on funded leave, or maternity leave, and so forth – but we appoint to permanent, research-active posts whenever we can.

And it seems to me that the REF is also a friend to early-career academics. There’s a strong, REF-guided logic to appoint younger people, publishing high-quality work often straight from their doctoral research. It’s not about quantity: four decent pieces in 6-7 years is not unreasonable, and ECRs will typically require fewer than four. The principle of peer-review, meanwhile, remains strong, underpinning the commitment to rewarding quality.

And this all means that universities will generally gain more benefit, for relatively low cost, appointing junior lecturers, as opposed to appointing senior people. This does stimulate the job-market, albeit in an uneven pattern: better in pre-REF years than others. It won’t create jobs for everyone finishing PhDs (and there is a genuine debate to be had over whether we are educating too many smart young people to doctoral level), but it surely works against the logic of casualization.

Kelsky argues also that the REF drives us all towards performance targets, and leads to the persecution of great minds who work slowly. Yes, that’s an old and not invalid argument. But here’s the paradox: if the goal is to create a structure that is more open to early-career academics there is actually a value in ensuring that those in mid-career and late-career are actually doing all parts of their job. However much some of us might resent it, the REF helps with that.


The National Student Survey

The National Union of Students has proposed a boycott of the NSS. Actually there’s a logic to this: they argue that if the NSS is to be linked into the Teaching Excellence Framework, and if the latter is to be used to determine differential fees, then the Survey’s original purpose of feeding back to universities on their performance will in practice be superseded by its use as a vehicle of marketization. As someone who has seen the NSS improve the quality of education over many years, I fear a boycott would be self-defeating. But I can see the point.

Yet the NSS – and in due course the TEF, presumably – also works contrary to the forces of casualization that Kelsky bemoans. The NSS gives students some power, and in my experience students tend to be fairly clear about their desire to be taught by fully-qualified and fairly employed lecturers. That’s not to say that we haven’t had superb feedback in my department, year after year, on our (very well trained) graduate teaching assistants. But it is definitely one reason why we employ very few people who look like US-style ‘adjuncts’: who are, typically, people with PhDs, paid to drop into a campus to deliver particular courses, and often working simultaneously at multiple universities.

Do we have people in this category in the UK? Absolutely we do; and I agree that it’s a problem. But I’m yet to see hard evidence that it’s getting worse. And, as I see things at least, another of those neo-liberal monitoring devices, the NSS, is working to some extent counter to the logic of casualization.


I’ve written before about the temptation to draw easy parallels between the US and the UK (in the context of the so-called ‘crisis of the humanities’). I think there are genuine problems in the US, which affect all of us one way or another; and I think there is always cause to be vigilant about developments in the UK system. But there are paradoxes in some of these arguments, and structural forces pulling against what may seem like an incontrovertible economic logic. As much as the UK’s various monitoring systems may at times feel oppressive or frustrating, it just might be the case that they have some positive effects on the sector.



4 thoughts on “The paradoxes of neo-liberalism in UK higher education

  1. I am an American social/cultural anthropologist, but one of the regional subfields I work in is dominated by colleagues in the UK. Rather than an adjunct crisis per se, I am seeing the emergence of a structure very much like the postdoc crisis in STEM. The ERC/ESRC funding models are an important part of the puzzle, as these are mandating team projects. As far as I know, “research assistants” aren’t currently teaching widely, but when I myself was interviewed for a “research assistant” position on an ERC grant at a Russell Group university, I was surprised that the interview was by a panel comprised of faculty from across the anthropology department and I was asked about my willingness and ability to teach. Many of the RAs, like the PhD students, are also not UK or EU citizens, and this is also integral to crises of casualization and two-tiering.

    Meanwhile, my UK colleagues who have just finished/are about to finish the PhD are looking to me to help them opportunities in the US, where they seem to think the grass is greener.

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