In order for me to participate in futures work within higher education in a way that fits with my values – I needed to sharpen my tools and refresh my own thinking about the forces shaping the contemporary landscape of colleges and universities. As I aim for a better understanding, tools and strategies to be part of the preservation of our sector as it goes through (some needed) significant reforms and changes, as well as truly monumental challenges in the coming years, it is essential to understand neoliberalism.
Neoliberalism is widely discussed as a huge factor in the evolution of higher education – and in largely destructive ways. In a VERY simplified definition, neoliberalism reflects a pervasive “marketization” of formerly non-market resources within community life.
Anyone who works in higher education (particularly public higher ed) understands this phenomenon at the “gut” level…we’ve all been dealing with a perpetual cycle of decreasing funding, increasing expectations regarding complex accountability and accreditation systems, increasing pressures to expand among other elements.
It is worth noting that I’m not at all against accountability – I’m an advocate for continuous quality improvement, revising and updating outmoded methods (where they might be appropriate) and finally, widening our relevance and success with all members of our communities. Most academics I know are very committed to the best quality, at the most reasonable cost possible for their students – and most are dismayed at the increasingly market-driven reality that higher education has become.
But many suggest that we’ve long since left the land of “earnest and quality public administration” and entered spaces of higher education that are increasingly (and some would say dangerously) neoliberal spaces. This reality is beyond the scope of any one institution – this is structural, it is deep, and it is happening in many if not most institutions of higher learning here in the U.S. and beyond.
What is neoliberalism in a fuller sense? This 2017 article from the Guardian provides a strong overview and provides a helpful historical context.
For a deeper academic analysis of neoliberalism in general and globally, there is a brand new edition of the journal Globalizations dedicated to the topic – the introductory essay is open access. Here’s one more general overview piece about the history, definition and current trajectory of neoliberalism.
I completed a literature review to do a deeper dive as it relates to neoliberalism and higher education to simply extend my own literacy on this topic – and this link will lead you to the work that I completed.
Can and should a neo-liberal lens, language and movement be stopped or interrupted? Can a lens of higher education (and all that both promises and delivered) be restored and reinforced for the future? I sincerely believe we can only get there if we continue to learn what we are up against, and join together (rather than compete) to make progress. The future I want to help create and protect has done exactly this.
Note: Neoliberalism has had a huge impact on social work practice throughout the U.S. (and beyond) as well, and that topic is worthy of its own discussion. This particular blog entry focuses on our “home” as social work educators.