Argos aims to circulate writing about topical matters of public and political import that is local, critical and accessible. We believe critical intellectual conversation should be heard here in Aotearoa-New Zealand, not simply published for credit in international fora for more limited and specialised audiences. Of particular interest to us is writing that grounds its concern with the public or political good of place-making in theory or philosophy.



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Imagining unthinkable spaces

Sarah Amsler & Mark Amsler

The neoliberalised university embodies the destruction of the public sphere by capitalism. Spaces for heterogeneous thinking, for creative, critical, contested connections, and thus for potentially liberating work are being relentlessly foreclosed. Indeed, the very idea that we have the right to intellectual debate, collaborative inquiry and collective action within the university at times feels almost unthinkable. This is why it is important that we not only think these spaces open, but that we pry them in practice, opening up what has been sealed off or is being made inaccessible, unthinkable. We believe it is not only possible to do so, but that building the collective possibilities to create such spaces in everyday academic life is an important part of more ambitious projects to remake the university. We need better for our students, and for ourselves.

Today, higher education is organised increasingly around two complementary projects: market expansion and profitability. Nobler rationales are often offered for these changes: democratisation, dissemination of excellence and ‘world class’ knowledge, promotion of better living for those outside the ‘developed’ west, public/private partnerships which encourage participation by stakeholders. But as exemplified by a recent controversy over New York University’s physical and educational expansion across New York City and around the world (referred to as ‘NYU 2031’), there is a dissonance between, on the one hand, profiteering from corporatised teaching and research and, on the other, democratic ideals, teaching and research for public goods, and public accountability. In March 2013, just over half of fulltime tenured and tenure-track academic staff in NYU’s faculty of Arts and Science approved a non-binding resolution of no confidence in the University’s president John Sexton. Afterwards, both the president and the Board of Trustees stated they were ‘attentive’ to the vote and that ‘the time has come to consider ways in which “the voice of the faculty” may be made even more meaningful’.1 Later, however, Sexton emailed the entire University to assert NYU’s big footprint on international higher education: ‘we have during the past 30 years transformed NYU from a decent regional university into an international research university that stands among the top institutions in the world’.2 He referred to this as a ‘collective’ achievement.

The NYU debate is one illustration of how the possibility for universities to democratise intellectual engagement and shared governance is undermined by market expansion, profitability and aspirations for international status. The vote by teachers and researchers in arts and science subjects illustrates that the structural questions apply not only to academic work in the humanities or soft sciences but across the university. Nor is the situation at NYU idiosyncratic. It is typical of broader agendas within government, senior university management and commercial enterprises to harness the cognitive labour within higher educational and research institutions as resources for organised capitalism. Organised capitalism is the name for a political-economic system that deploys a range of practices enacted by governments, commercial capital groups and neoliberal reformers to consolidate profits generated by corporate organisations and other institutions. It is accomplished through various practices and technologies. The imposition of larger student fees and reductions in tuition grants and living allowances, for example, means that the teacher–student relationship is explicitly founded upon a principle of commodity exchange. Activities such as hypercentralised budgeting, targets-based auditing and accountancy, and the pursuit of ‘efficiencies’ through expanding short-term and ‘contingent’ teaching and research workforces all reorganise higher education according to the logic of capital.3

These same processes are accomplished in everyday action and discourse. Publications have become ‘outputs’; students are ‘clients’ who ‘invest’ in ‘quality assured’ education with a demonstrable ‘graduating profile’ keyed to ‘improving the national economy’. Requirements that curricula conform to generic university ‘templates’ align knowledge to institutional strategies and controls about the university’s representation for ‘public’ consumption. In such ways, universities under organised capitalism pay lip service to serving a public or common good in their mission statements but persistently subvert aims of educating an informed citizenry, producing critical knowledge and qualified professionals, challenging and testing accepted wisdom and acting as the ‘critic and conscience’ of society. As the strategic principle of contemporary universities shifts further from people to profit, higher education as part of the public good becomes a public catastrophe.

What is to be done? By analysing and problematising these changes within the organising structures of our academic lives, we can regain agency and critical traction within our institutions, locally and collectively. We want to build alternatives, non-monologic and non-administered worlds both inside and outside the university – ethics and sustainability projects in business schools, community-based science research and indigenous public health, critical analysis of ‘benchmarks’, ‘transferable skills’ and ‘strategic goals’ as part of subject knowledge.. From the vantage point of different institutions, countries and stages of career, we have witnessed how organised capitalism remakes the university through the constant restructuring of our everyday lives and horizons of possibility for critical work. Sharing our experiences offers insight into the complexities of this project, as well as confidence in our analysis of its possibilities.

Across our careers and two generations, we have taught in nine different universities in the US, UK, New Zealand and Central Asia. We now live in New Zealand and England, two countries in which the transformation of the university is embedded in state-driven marketisation and aggressively neoliberal policies. While we belong to different generations of academic experience, both our careers are products of the expansionist agenda in higher education.

Mark completed his PhD in 1976 and began his career as a tenure-track assistant professor in English that year. It was the start of a downturn in the humanities after three decades of expansion in enrolments and academic hiring. The subsequent expansion of higher education in the US, UK, Australia and New Zealand has primarily been achieved through strategic hiring and student (particularly international) recruitment not so much in the humanities as in STEM, business, and engineering subjects.4 Since then, in the US, UK and New Zealand, the numbers of traditional (tenure-track, tenured, or ‘continuing’) university research and teaching posts have declined steadily. In 1969, 27% of US university and college teachers were defined as ‘adjunct’ or temporary staff. By 1998, more than 40% of teachers in US higher education were employed part time, as adjuncts or non-tenure-track staff (Part-Time, 1998:5).5 In 2013, adjunct, part time and non-tenure-track academics make up more than 50% of all US university and college teachers. In Australia and New Zealand, ratios of casual and adjunct academics to fulltime and tenure- track are similar.

The problem is not with adjunct positions as such. It is universities’ and US colleges’ increased reliance on part time, qualified instructors who are hired primarily to deliver instruction, invisible within the institution’s governing structure and often without an institutional voice. What were at first short-term measures in the 1980s to meet new enrolment demands have become normative employment practices throughout higher education.

Sarah was born in 1973. A beneficiary of the expansion of public higher education in the US, she attended the university where both Mark and her mother Ann worked. After completing her PhD in England in 2005, she was appointed a continuing academic contract in one of the many departments of Sociology created through the incorporation of polytechnic institutions into the English system of higher education in 1992. Tenure had existed for some senior professors in the UK prior to this time, but since tenure in any meaningful sense had been effectively abolished by the UK Education Act of 1988, aspiring to a tenured position in the US sense of the term was not a possibility.6

Since 2000, we have experienced in parallel a number of processes which illustrate how key technologies of neoliberal reorganisation and resistance work cross-nationally. In particular: the commodification of the ‘international student’, the tying of academic work to management-imposed performance targets and market efficiencies, the rolling back of labour rights for university and other public workers, the reorganisation of universities into units that can be both centrally controlled and marketed, and the institutional locking-in of loan-based student fees.

  • Since Mark began teaching in New Zealand in 2006, more than one dean or head of department has exhorted staff to increase international graduate student enrolments because ‘they are worth more’. In England, information for prospective postgraduate students assures them that ‘many [. . .] programmes are rooted in industry and [. . .] have excellent links with major global employers who often contribute to the curriculum’. Meanwhile, across the UK, universities comply with demands from the state to monitor the attendance of all ‘non-EU international students’ on behalf of the state or risk losing this now essential ‘revenue stream’.
  • Recently, at one New Zealand university, a traditional arts department hired four new full-time academics at different ranks, but within a few months was required by senior management to downsize its full-time academic staff. The intervention was made to align the department’s budget with the university’s 80/20 ‘rule’, a mandated constraint on the ratio of continuing and part- time (‘casual’) academic staff. Over a two-year period, the department lost through retirement seven senior professors. Academic leadership took a back seat to salaries. In England, the budget rule is often simpler: if you can pay the balance of your salary through attracting fee-paying students and obtaining competitive research grants, you can be considered a valuable, viable and a responsible contributor to the university’s strategic development. Recently, one New Zealand university administration has proposed changing the criteria for academic continuation and promotion to emphasise successful grant applications which ‘stabilise’ one’s position. Ranks are monetised.
  • Since 2002, the UK University and College Union has been working to mitigate revisions to the existing statutes of universities which make it easier to employ people on temporary and short-term contracts and impossible for academics to appeal to third parties in cases of dismissal.7 In 2010, the University of Auckland senior administration proposed removing key working conditions (including Academic Grades and Standards Criteria, Disciplinary Procedures and Research and Study Leave) from the existing collective agreement and making them ‘policies’ upon which academics and the union could comment or advise. A new contract was offered to both union and non-union academic staff with a pay increase but with the working conditions removed. The union forewent a pay increase and organised an industrial action around retaining the key conditions in the collective agreement. After a turbulent year, including mediations, demonstrations and an energetic union campaign supported by activist students to respond to many of the Vice-Chancellor’s claims and rationales, the administration and union finally agreed to a new contract and resolved to ‘ensure collective participation in the academic governance of the University’ whereby the employer will follow ‘participatory processes’ when reviewing policies such as Academic Grades and Standards and Research and Study Leave. Subsequently, however, the union filed a claim against the Vice-Chancellor before the government’s Employment Relations Authority, charging the administration had ‘breached’ the terms of the contract by not involving the union from the beginning in any proposed changes to existing academic policies as defined by the collective agreement. Just recently, the ERA found in favour of the union, asserting that university governance is different from corporate governance and management structures. Nonetheless, the Vice-Chancellor’s proposed changes to existing Academic Grades and Standards Criteria are still going forward, albeit with more involvement and pushback from interested academic staff.
  • InoneNewZealanduniversity,aftermonthsofdiscussionand debate and at least one negative vote by academic staff, one faculty is proceeding to reorganize its 16+ departments and centres into four schools with ‘disciplinary areas’. As one academic said at a general faculty meeting, ‘disciplinary area sounds like the part of the building where you go to get a spanking’. The rationale given for the reorganisation was not to improve research or student learning, but to solve the problem of finding enough heads of department and centralising budgeting and administrative structures. When some academics offered novel and energetic alternative proposals to solve the perceived administrative bottleneck, they were rejected. Other faculties and groups within that same university have experienced similar restructurings and administrative interventions in everything from student learning support services to funding schemes for scientific research posts. In the UK, Sarah has also experienced major restructuring which similar characteristics. ‘Change management’ has become the normative practice in university structures.
  • Recently, our experiences have converged around severe structural disruptions in the organisation of teaching in our disciplines. In 2010, the UK’s conservative–liberal coalition government abruptly withdrew all state funding to English universities for teaching in the social sciences, arts and humanities, redirecting it to individual students in the form of personal loans as part of a wider drive to marketise the system of higher education (except in economically ‘strategic’ areas).8 In 2012, New Zealand’s National-led government allocated ‘new’ resources to university engineering and science faculties by shifting funding away from the humanities and social sciences faculties in a zero-based budget scheme. When dedicated resources for teaching in our disciplines are subtracted, the act of teaching itself becomes embedded more squarely within the logic of the market.

As these examples illustrate, academic life in both UK and New Zealand universities is characterised by continual struggles with central administrators over working conditions, resources, strategic goals, and what we regard as our core academic activities of teaching and research.

And yet, both Sarah and Mark continue to identify with ideals of relatively autonomous inquiry and to participate in knowledge-making for social and public good. These intellectual aims, far from being disinterested, are at odds with the conception of the university as an instrument of organised capitalism and with the broad conditions of our everyday working lives. We find it interesting that versions of this dissonance have always been, to varying extents, part of academic work itself, as Kant, Veblen, Horkheimer and Adorno, Heidegger and Marcuse have shown. We are also aware that because the present project transforming universities into market-expansive and profit- producing economic institutions accelerated after 1975, particularly in the US, UK and Australasia,9 the idea of the academy that we have produced within our own family has been coterminous with both its neoliberal transformation and challenges to it.

It is unclear how the dissonance felt by each of us will manifest in future generations of students and scholars. Mark was becoming an adult intellectual and professional academic in the US during the early 1970s, at the end of an earlier era of expansion in public higher education. Sarah, born at the beginning of this period, entered academic life in ways that were not always palpably neoliberal but became a professional academic in more aggressively neoliberal contexts. Many of our younger students and colleagues, however, have had much less exposure to ideas that do not conform to narrow definitions of the usefulness of a university degree determined by specific market goals, returns on student debt, professional status or job anxiety. It is tempting and discouraging to think that the tendency towards what Marcuse called ‘one-dimensional thinking’ in advanced industrial societies has been realised in our intergenerational lifetime.10

And yet, our professional lives also challenge this narrative. We know universities to be contradictory spaces of closure and possibility – often frustrating and demoralising, sometimes radical, transformative and enabling, but never one-dimensional. Our students come in all shapes and sizes, from many different backgrounds, and with different relations to critical knowledge, cultural literacies and the marketization of higher education. We both believe in the importance of being scholar–teachers for whom the classroom is an important discursive space for relating our thinking, writing and speaking with that of our students. Despite institutional efforts to control, instrumentalise and commodify education, we are motivated by a desire for critical thought and practice that thrives as excess, the unthinkable, often as refusal or refiguration, and that can carve possibility into even the most inhospitable of spaces. We are also encouraged and challenged by our students who take hold of critical questions, who pose questions and answers we haven’t dreamed of, who become more active and reflective learners and knowers with complex hopes and designs for the future. Students who protest and struggle to have a voice in their own education when a government minister of tertiary education tells them to ‘keep to their heads down’. Students who themselves are researchers, designers, dancers, bloggers, doctors, public defenders, writers, preschool teachers, literacy advocates, community organisers and much more. Students for whom learning a different vocabulary of reflection and collective hope means finding a different way of being in the world. We believe it is essential to teach and critically explore our subjects and questions with our students in universities that contribute to human flourishing and imagining rather than only or primarily commercial interests or pre-determined goals.

Therefore, we both wonder, from our different locations and contiguous generational perspectives, at what point does it become too contradictory to work in institutions that deliberately, even aggressively undermine, destabilise or close down opportunities for human flourishing, except where it can be exploited as commercially-profitable investment? Isn’t that unthinkable? Is it right to abandon students to a commodified system of education with no dialectical tension, no imagination? Can we re-think how we work, critique, produce and progress in transformative dialogues in today’s universities? Should we imagine doing so outside them?

The flip side of this grim portrait of academic life dominated by neoliberalising processes across two generations is the overwhelming evidence of the practices that challenge, resist and transcend these forces. We call attention to these practices cautiously, not wishing to overestimate the progressive possibilities of autonomous, oppositional and creative work within existing systems. Indeed, our experiences on either side of the Atlantic and the Pacific remind us that what is possible in one place and time is not necessarily so in another. In addition, while there are strong movements that radically rethink the meaning and organisation of the university itself,11 neither of us yet sees a critical conjuncture that would allow us to conceive of a more radical transformation of the university’s existing institutional forms. Practically, while radical change from above seems to be accomplishable in seconds, change from below often seems impossible, unthinkable. It is difficult for many academics and students living within the money economy to imagine escaping the structures of higher education; nor is there a clear shared desire to do so.

Even as we work to critically understand the limits and possibilities of different alternatives, we are also interested in intensifying and expanding the critical spaces that remain within. How can we occupy them otherwise? How can we revolutionise or reassemble teaching and research by altering the thoughts and practices according to which the logic of organized capitalism is sustained and legitimised? We suggest we need to start with dialectic.

Critical dialectical thinking and relationships function not only as resistance by negation. They can also be affirmative and need not, perhaps should not, necessarily produce a synthesis. Rather, an alternative positivity (the negation of a negation) can propel us towards something new. Dialectical practice can help us move beyond the unthinkable to create spaces for democratic, even humanistic transformation in higher education by foregrounding the tensions between cultural and political criticism as action. How can we link up cultural analysis and critique with specific action within our institutions and higher education globally?

Here are nine ways we suggest academics can open spaces of possibility within the university in the everyday:

  1. • Make the ‘place’ and the ‘structure’ into the subject in as many classes, research colloquia, committee meetings and contexts as possible on campus. Try using examples of administrative or official discourse to illustrate all manner of syntactic, rhetorical, logical and politicalclaims,theories,assertions,aspirationsandillogics.Towhom or what does the phrase ‘the University’ refer in a specific context?
  2. • Model heterogeneity, plurality and productive debate in empowering and enabling discourse, rather than as inhibiting or ‘not helpful’. An individual who asks uncomfortable questions is easily labelled as ‘difficult to manage’, but many people asking critical questions can keep space, time and decision-making processes open. Practice being ‘awkward’ together, and make it fun.
  3. • Organise events and meetings with parents, prospective students and colleagues where alternative versions of the university and higher education are presented in addition to and beyond the standard recruitment ones. We don’t mean secret neighbourhood covins but venues and occasions organised locally by subjects, faculties and programmes. Also, find ways to communicate across departments and disciplines, and to build alternative visions that can be meaningful within the various languages and logics of the university. Organise roundtable discussions at conferences and academic meetings, especially where graduate students are present.
  4. • Make the world ‘meaningful’, as Stuart Hall once suggested. Those presently in power do this through controlling language, standardising expression, swamping discourse in neoliberal-ese. Many academics and students have opportunities to speak and write in classes, meetings, public events, newspapers, magazines, blogs and other media. Where critical concepts have been resemanticised for marketing purposes, reclaim them if you can, and create new common languages. Confront the narrowly commercialised linkage of ‘creativity’, ‘innovation’, and ‘imagination’, and represent other intellectual, social and personal values in freedom.
  5. • Cultivate open access to as much scholarly research and writing as possible, especially peer-reviewed work. Presently, the humanities and social sciences are seriously retrograde with the most prestigious 20% of humanities journals not open access at all, as compared with medicine and physics, in which over 90% of published work is openly accessible. Peer or self-archiving is one possibility; new international projects such as the Open Library of the Humanities point to the emergence of more systematic alternative platforms for disseminating intellectual work.
  6. • Cultivate collective action through unionisation and, where possible, academic and public-advocacy organisations. At least, so long as unions and academic organisations work progressively, both within individual institutions and coordinated across them. Where academic unions are not or not-yet viable, cultivate alternative ways of building community and collectivity within the university by reimagining the strike ‘as constituted by moments of dignity and autonomy in everyday acts’ and by developing ways to recognise and support industrial actions.12
  7. • Invoke the powers of parody, highlighting existing institutional rationales, norms or procedures so as to unpack and expose their underlying criteria, implications and roles in neoliberalisation. Also called overidentification, such work can create a ‘cynical distance’ that disrupts situations in which ‘people know that there is something fundamentally wrong but continue to act as if this is not the case’.13 The ‘Books as Shields’ demonstrations in Europe foregrounded in a compelling way the conflict between administered learning and critical inquiry. Members of the UK-based Really Open University once dressed up as a giant brain and then chased it around campus to perform the capture of intellectuality by cognitive capitalism. Extrapolating this logic, how might people react if we were to speak ironically about students as if they were actually commodities in the presence of administrators? What happens when we radicalise the notion of ‘student engagement’ to demand that students participate fully in collective governance? How can we imagine pedagogies of excess?14
  8. • Occupy as many spaces and positions as possible within the institution, where those spaces have the potential to be critically empowering and can strengthen collective intellectual and political relations. Work hard to load up the ballots for key senate and faculty council elections with candidates who are union members or strong advocates for a more open university. In institutions where there is
    little or no academic governance, as is the case of many ‘post-1992’ universities in England, decisions to occupy managerial positions might be made with collective intentions to democratise them.
  9. • Step outside the formal university to learn what is being done in emerging spaces of autonomous, public or non-hierarchical communities for higher education and research.15 Can you contribute? Free universities in the UK, for example, are not only ‘a small but significant part of the fight for the right of all people [. . .] to access free, democratic education’.16 They are also critical spaces of experimentation and ‘conditions within which we are able to engage in processes of humanisation with each other [. . .] in relation to higher education and knowledge production’.17

This sort of practical-intellectual politics might take many forms, including occupying, opening and finding outsides. They allow us to redirect energy from fire-fighting the absurdities of the system towards understanding, refusing and transgressing them critically and collectively. None are exclusively push-backs against power, but because they aim to disrupt as much as diffuse power, they are likely to be uncomfortable and risky. Some will be more possible in particular situations than others, and all should be conceived as collective rather than individualised actions, not least because they are important sites for building relationships of understanding and solidarity in order to overcome practices that atomise, isolate and disenfranchise academics and students. These are some of our initial thoughts on the kinds of work that might contribute in small or maybe not so small ways to the development of a prefigurative politics of academic life, where such politics are still possible. Just imagine.