31 July 2016


'Academic critique of neoliberal academia' by Andrew Whelan in (2015) 12(1) Sites: a journal of social anthropology and cultural studies comments
Academic critiques of neoliberalism do work: positioning their authors and their readers as subjects invested in the moral logic the critique establishes, and thereby moralising the collaborative accomplishment of the reader-writer relation. This relation and its constitution is a feature of contemporary leftist academic culture, and of the mechanics of critique as a social or ‘solidarising’ form of writing/reading. The academic critique of neoliberal academia warrants scrutiny particularly, given the casualisation of academic work and the emergence of a majority precarious academic labour force. Attending closely to it highlights some vulnerabilities of the academic critique of neoliberal forms, and illuminates the extent to which it constitutes its object in problematic ways: in terms of the political consequences or otherwise of critique as intellectual practice, of the model of subjectivity posited by the critique, and of the historical relations between academic practices and neoliberalism itself.
Whelan argues
If academic labour is going to be conceptualised, conducted, and described as a kind of critical struggle against the logics of ‘neoliberalism’ (or at least, as a presumably meaningful and consequential element to such struggle), there are a variety of specifics which need to be very clearly delineated, lest the endeavour remain at a somewhat general and unfocussed level. The costs of remaining at this level are high, intellectually and politically, and I aim to show how these costs are borne by some confusion as to the political and affective implication of academic work and academic writing and reading as social practices, and, when it comes to the critique of neoliberalism inside the university, a muddled and inconsistent account of academic subjectivity.
Better delineating these specifics would also go some way to clarifying the is sue as to whether this is what academic labour-as-critique is, does, or should be – that is, as to what it would mean to say that academic work can be described as a critical struggle against the logics of neoliberalism. By extension, this involves calling for greater reflection on the contemporary politics of intellectual work in the institution that is the university, an institution not separate from, but thoroughly and intimately bound up in fantastic variants of the processes marshalled under the sign of neoliberal optimisation.
The site of the critique, the institution variously colonised by and to be defended from neoliberalism, has been ‘ruined’ for some time now (Readings 1996). The challenges are complex: diminishing budgets, multiplying audit mechanisms ensuring ‘accountability’, technological developments that appear to throw traditional teaching practices into question, closed publishing models, spiralling student-staff ratios, student loan debt crises, increasingly rigid and competitive research funding mechanisms, and perceived threats to academic freedom and independence. There is, consequently, a burgeoning literature in ‘critical university studies’ (zombieacademy 2010).
For the purposes of this article, the most salient issue in this context is the sustainability of the academic profession: the casualisation of academic work and the emergence of a majority academic ‘precariat’. It is not easy to come by robust quantitative measures of the scale of this issue, but in Australia, for example, over half of all university teaching is provided by casual staff (Rea 2012). By head count, over sixty per cent of academic staff are casual (Hil 2013). There are an estimated 67,000 casuals employed in the sector in Australia; the majority of these are women (May 2011, 6). Almost half of all university staff are employed on fixed term contracts, and on average seven out of any ten new roles are casual positions (Lane and Hare 2014). Effectively, ‘“the full-time, permanent, centrally-located teaching/research academic” is no longer the norm around which policy and practice can be formed’ (Percy et al. 2008, 7).
Casual or sessional academic staff – ‘para-academics’ – are normally paid on an hourly rate under fixed term contracts, commonly of a semester’s duration, though they are commonly re-hired every semester, often for a number of years (these are ‘YIYOs’ – ‘year in, year outs’). They work with limited resources and no access to professional development, no job security, no entitlements t eave or sick pay, and no say in decision-making regarding how their work is structured, conducted, or assessed. Their pay ceases when the semester comes to an end. The summer recess in Australia is ordinarily of four months duration. It is common for sessional teaching staff to work at more than one university in order to make up sufficient income to survive, as there are limits to how many hours can be offered at an institution before the employer is obliged to provide benefits. Working hours routinely balloon beyond the nominal rate, particularly where there is an impression that student surveys and a good reputation with continuing staff impact on hiring decisions in the following semester. A significant component of core university work is thus conducted unpaid, on ‘volunteer’ labour. This presumably has some bearing on teaching ‘quality’ and ‘standards’, although this is not something senior university representatives are often noted drawing attention to. One interesting implication of this situation is how it articulates into the standardisation of assessment tasks, which now often requires setting particular word counts. The word count is a proxy for the piece rates the sessional staff receive to mark the student work. The tail of a ‘flexible’ workforce, a consequence of quite rapacious cost- efficiency logic, thus wags the pedagogical dog.
What follows is broken up into four sections. An account of academic culture as a culture of practice, which valorises intellectualism of specific kinds and in specific forms, is followed by a summary of the common themes and approaches in the academic critique of neoliberalism. The third section synthesises these accounts by way of a discussion of how academic critiques of neoliberalism in the university express the relationship between the reader and the writer, and thereby, how an under-articulated and contradictory model of subjectivity can be shown at the textual level in these critiques. The final section describes and problematises the neoliberal subject posited by the critique, before suggesting some alternative strategies to think through and with.