Conclusion: The New Common Sense

Over the holidays, I read Mary Evans’ Killing Thinking: The Death of the Universities[1]. I was struck by the similarities between Evans’ concerns and some points I had raised in my previous blog posts. Her argument is clearly grounded in a strong understanding of the history and current development of higher education in Britain, and her writing is forceful and often polemical. For example, writing about the surveillance and regulation of teaching, Evans departs from ostensible parallels with the regime of totalitarian control depicted in George Orwell’s 1984:

‘It is tempting (and indeed irresistible) to move immediately from Orwell’s 1984 to the publications of the Quality Assurance Agency and other agencies associated with learning and teaching in British Universities, since these publications illustrate particularly well all Orwell’s fears about the misuse of language.’ (Evans 2004: 50)

Killing Thinking was published eight years ago. Many other trenchant appraisales of audit culture and the new mangerialism in higher education have been published over the past decade. Nonetheless, the trends deplored by Evans and many others continue unabated. If anything, they have acquired greater force through the ‘reforms’ proposed by the coalition government. Why, then, have high-profile public critiques advanced by well-placed academics such as Mary Evans been so seemingly ineffective?

In order for public narratives to acquire purchase on current events, they need to resonate with the audiences that consume them, and they need to be told and re-told until they acquire a distinctive presence in community life. Arguably, recent critiques of new managerialist higher education that have not achieved such a resonance. To begin with, they seem to run counter to prevalent public opinion and the views of most high-profile politicians and journalists. Books like Killing Thinking do get published, but they appear to me as largely isolated interventions in a cultural and political climate characterised by indifference to or support for the neoliberal streamlining of university life.

The instrumentalisation of higher education for economic purposes thus still makes for a significant public controversy. At the same time, there seems to be a certain superficial quality to such controversy, and managers at Middlesex University must have recognised this when they decided to avoid debate with protesters. Moreover, even some of these protesters could not avoid the language of ‘value for money’ managers had used to justify the department’s closure in the first place! The connection between money, degrees, employability, and the ‘real-world’ relevance of academic work has been hammered so relentlessly into our minds that is has become virtually possible to eschew. Even within universities, the profoundly anti-intellectual and philistine distinction between ‘real life’ and ‘university life’ all too often creeps into meeting rooms and lecture halls. Moreover, universities have put into place so many measures of performance and impact that even dissenting academics have little room to challenge the new common sense effectively and through more than words. In turn, those on the margins– all those junior and not-so-junior academics in short-term and part-time employment who vie for a more stable future – are too busy hanging on to their careers by their fingernails to be able to resist.

I believe that a challenge to this new common sense is essential, lest universities be transformed into institutions hardly recognisable even for the more senior of current academics. But how is this going to happen? To what extent is it still possible for academics to engage with and act upon alternative narratives such as Mary Evans’? How is change going to come about?

[1] Evans, Mary (2004) Killing Thinking: The Death of the Universities. London: Continuum.

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Daniel Nehring

My career so far has taken me to a fairly wide range of places, and this has allowed me to experience a wide range of approaches to sociology and social science. In my blog, I reflect on this diversity and its implications for the future of the discipline.

Over the last few years, I have also become interested in exploring the contours of academic life under neoliberal hegemony. Far-reaching transformations are taking place at universities around the world, in terms of organisational structures, patterns of authority, and forms of intellectual activity. With my posts, I hope to draw attention to some of these transformations.

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