Audrey Verma: ‘A Clean-up Crew for the Messes and Excesses of Neoliberalism’

Education not for sale

Audrey Verma can identify two impetuses for organizing — through the the Early Career Forum of the British Sociological Association — the upcoming “Between the discourse of ‘resilience’ and death by committee – Reclaiming collective spaces for academic resistance” forum . One was her own experience as an academic hoping to create a career, and the other was a career academic working on her research. Both demonstrated to her repeatedly that, as she explains below, “There are far too many flash-in-the-pan committees, working groups and new management hires in place that are way too eager to carry out yet more ineffectual surveys and piecemeal initiatives aimed at ‘fixing’ individuals, rather than actual material and policy changes to fix the rot in the system.”

In the lead up to that May 4 event hosted by Newcastle University, Social Science Space will publish a series of interviews on academic capitalism and academic resistance with organizers and speakers from the “Reclaiming” event.

In this debut interview with Verma conducted by Social Science Space’s Daniel Nehring, she explains her inspirations in organizing the forum, how her claims of the feminization and racialization of higher ed are borne out in academe, and why critiques of neoliberal impulses in universities have had so little traction in the past four decades. Verma describes herself as an interdisciplinary social scientist (her Ph.D. is in the biological sciences) in Newcastle’s Geography, Politics and Sociology school whose research interests span the digital and biosocial such as “technological mediations between humans and wildlife, representations of nature in digital art and games, digitally-enabled knowledge production and participation/citizenship, digital afterlives, and digital discourses/practices of organisations.”

Daniel Nehring: What, specifically, motivated you to organize this event?

Audrey Verma: The event started as an idea for an article that had been percolating in my head for almost a year before I had the confidence to articulate it. It is very much a reflection of my early career experience, and two things struck me. First, there is a gaping void between recognizing the state of play for early careers and the ideas we have for negotiating an increasingly suffocating terrain. Sometime early last year, I sat through an induction session in which a senior faculty member responsible for collating a report on early career researchers started by acknowledging just how stacked the system currently is compared to just a decade ago. They then proceeded to advise that our best chance is therefore to become competitive by publishing more, choosing journals with high impact factors, managing one’s online presence, networking with the right folk, applying for grants and so on – the usual sort of managerial speak that has become so normalized. I am willing to bet my bottom dollar that all the early careers in the room had already heard this tepid advice that placed the onus of success/failure squarely on our own shoulders. Nothing was said of what is being done to address the issues of systemic injustice, e.g. around casualized and precarious labor increasingly propping universities up, and the feminization and racialization of such lower-paid labor. Until I asked, nothing was said about the collegiate mechanisms for supporting early careers given the pressures that had been spelled out. There was only a cursory mention of basic but important documents such as the Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers.

Audrey Verma
Audrey Verma

In the same week as the induction, I came across a thread on Twitter by another well-meaning faculty member who had been on a hiring panel, again sympathetically acknowledging that the odds are not great (they had received several dozen highly qualified applications for the post). They then advised early careers on how best to stand out as individuals against such stiff competition. Nothing on the wider inequalities e.g. the gender/ethnic gaps in recruitment and progression, and inflated expectations of hiring panels from junior staff. This is not to say that there is no collegiality, I strongly believe there is plenty of it in academia and I could not ask for more supportive colleagues in my current role. The current strikes have also shown very clearly the abundance of collegiality given the right issue.

There is however currently no guarantee of supportiveness for early careers across the board, in part because it is hard to join the dots between issues e.g. conditions of precarity for early careers and a raid on academic pensions. The degree of support an early career receives can often be dependent on goodwill and a constant positive performance by the individual. More critically, I cannot begin to recount the experiences of intelligent and creative peers who face isolation, exploitation, even abuse in academia, leading to anxiety and depression. This of course mirrors the alarming situation throughout all levels of academia. Some colleagues have had no recourse except to quit, flushing months of valuable research down the drain, and depriving academia as a whole of talent. While many within the system have been sympathetic to these colleagues, I find few people are actually able to help. There is generally a reflexive impotence (as Mark Fisher astutely described) around the many problems within academia. We are aware and sympathetic, but few of us really have any good concrete solutions, barring e.g. formal complaints processes that usually takes a very long time (which many early careers do not have on short contracts), will likely be dictated by institutional-bureaucratic responses, and inevitably has heavy emotional/psychological costs for the complainer. (I find Sara Ahmed’s writing on complaints to be particularly lucid and instructive here.)

Much sympathy also appears to come in the form of well-meaning advice to, in effect, become more resilient. I do not think it is adequate to respond to systemic injustice by telling individuals (whether student, early career, mid-career or established) to adapt better to the broken structure. There is of course nothing realistic or useful for example about telling a person of color that she has a good a chance as anyone of getting that lectureship if she stays positive, avoids ‘trouble’ and works on that publications list. How can it be realistic when the upper and middle echelons of UK universities continue, even after decades of anti-discrimination legislation, to reproduce themselves in their own white male image? When such imbalances are pointed out and decisive policy changes called for, the responses are often unimaginative and procrastinatory at best. There are far too many flash-in-the-pan committees, working groups and new management hires in place that are way too eager to carry out yet more ineffectual surveys and piecemeal initiatives aimed at ‘fixing’ individuals, rather than actual material and policy changes to fix the rot in the system.

My second motivation stems from my current ethnographic research, which has given me a front-row seat to observe the current and coming stages of the neoliberalization of UK universities. This is a fascinating study in its own right, but I am increasingly aware that the subject of study is intrinsically tied to the conditions of my labor. This research is what led me to critical scholarship on the university. Where funding is increasingly bound to the ideologies of the government of the day, what we have had since the early ’80s in the UK and continue to have is instrumentalist economic logic being applied to universities. There is however a more recent shift being piloted in the arts and humanities, i.e. the disciplines most affected by academic erosions. Some of the calls for big-ticket arts research funding are asking for proposals that are explicitly geared toward ‘business support,’ quantifiable economic benefits, ‘innovation’ in the form of new products and services, alignment to the Industrial Strategy etc. We are no longer just talking about universities as providers of commoditized products within the market i.e .teaching and research shaped into products, university education as an instrument to create workers, turning students into consumers, gathering metric-based evidence of research ‘impact’ etc.

We are now looking at the prospect of universities in full service of industry e.g. with projects in which industry receives most of the research funding pot that came through the university. This is a situation where the business partners have open access to the infrastructure and resources of the university, most academics become nothing more than peripheral ‘consultants’, and the job of ensuring glossy narratives of the predetermined success of the project falls to external marketing agencies and consultants. The few academics who are more than consultants, who lead and champion such projects, are pragmatist cadres minted in the image of the old guard, but are also now adept at the new demands of ‘impact’, ‘networking’, ‘branding’, ‘grant capture’ etc.

The university in this currently unfolding vision functions as an intermediary to grease industry’s wheels, rather than to co-produce the economies that we are part of. (The antagonistic positioning of ‘industry’ against ‘university’ that policymakers and senior university management seem to operate on is frankly baffling and painfully contrived.) The new approach goes much further than demanding quantifiable value from arts and humanities departments. Such projects are still in the minority of research funding budgets (for now), and one may argue that the arts and humanities are not antithetical to free market approaches. Nonetheless, there are a whole host of questions that such university-business arrangements raise, e.g. what happens to fundamental concepts such as the Haldane principle that protects the autonomy and criticality of academic researchers; what are the dynamics between state, university and market within neoliberalism; do these big ticket projects privilege established academics and consortiua thus widening inequality between the professoriat and the precariat, and between ‘elite’ universities and all others; and more basically, what even constitutes research within such projects?

Daniel Nehring: How does the feminization and racialization of early careers operate? Is this a reversal of a previous trend towards greater equality and inclusiveness in academic careers in the UK, or is this the continuation of a long-term trend?

Audrey Verma: I am inclined to think this is neither reversal nor continuation. The phenomenon of feminisation and racialisation of the precariat seems to me to be a matter of expedience and convenience. What I mean by this is: There are now arguably more minority persons in academia than ever before, certainly more women. In narrative, the absolute numbers are often used to construct the modern university as inclusive and meritocratic space. The ideals of inclusivity have of course been espoused with a great deal of voracity in the past few decades – it is part of no few university vision and mission statements. In reality however, such discourses barely translate to the statistics and of course in the continued lived experiences of minority persons in academia. As with other sectors, there is a persistent gender wage gap, poor recruitment and progression of ethnic minorities, exclusion of working class academics, and so on. This is in large part because minority persons are being hired as disposable labour within an increasingly unequal system that offers no permanence to those who come from the outside. We have become a sort of clean-up crew for the messes and excesses of neoliberalism, a labour force that the university can easily get rid of and replace with no sustained responsibility after a few years; but meanwhile, we help, conveniently, to inflate the diversity figures.

Daniel Nehring: What are the central features of the neoliberal university in Britain today? What are their consequences for sociological labor in universities?

Audrey Verma: The literature that identifies the character and conditions of neoliberal academia is comprehensive and growing. Reiterating the arguments here in too much detail would however be counterintuitive since a large part of the reason for the event is precisely to move quickly from identification (which also happens to be lived experience for many of us anyway) to action. To summarise broadly, the neoliberal university is one built around a primacy of free market values, despite its irrationalities, failures and incompatibilities with learning, democratic citizenship and knowledge production. This expresses itself first in terms of reconstituting knowledge for capitalist consumption and instrumentalist ends, and second in terms of new forms of management, associated with the commoditization of research and teaching that in turn necessitate universities being run as pseudo-businesses, requiring justificatory mechanisms and metrics (I recommend Liz Morrish’s blog on the subject of audit culture).

Other posts in this series

Event information and signup

Series description

Ewan Mackenzie: ‘A Sense of Hope for Achieving Broader Change’

Mariya Ivancheva: ‘At Stake is the Future of Public Higher Education’

David Webster and Nicola Rivers: ‘We Need to Recognize that Educators Can’t Solve Neoliberalism’

A large part of the story of the neoliberal university for me is the way in which the university appears to have been imagined over the past three decades almost exclusively from the top down. Where and what exactly the alternative grassroots visions and values are, why these narratives are so muted, and why are academics generally seem so passive in accepting the dominant vision? A central feature of the neoliberal university in UK is thus, in my opinion, a poverty of polyvocal imagination. The resistance that comes with alternative imagination appears buried under layers of “capitalist realism,” tiredness, fear and a lack of faith in the idea that we as academics are the university, though the current strikes have revealed a tiny glimpse of the wonderful alternatives.

In the current dominant vision however, there seems to be an embarrassment of, in some cases outright disdain, for the idea that exploration, knowledge, inquiry and critical citizenship are intrinsically valuable and rightly the remit of universities. These ideals are still discursively appropriated in some instances for marketing purposes but in practice, there is a whole other story. The constructed fear of universities becoming irrelevant and perceptions of elitism may have some small basis in reality but have been far more useful amplified, as political tools to reconfigure universities in the neoliberal image, to justify the new managerial colonialism and audit culture set to quantify, commoditize and control academic labor.

Daniel Nehring: The announcement of the event mentions “explosion in critiques of the neoliberal university, which are accompanied by a comparative dearth of sustained resistance or structural change from within the institution.” Arguably, this contradiction has been an important part of British academic life already since the 1980s. There have been numerous high-profile critiques of neoliberal reforms of higher education across this period, with, apparently, very little practical import. Would you agree with this diagnosis? If so, what might explain this contradiction?

Audrey Verma: Yes, I would agree, although I am now optimistic that the current strikes across UK HE, unprecedented in scale, may yet prove this diagnosis wrong; but not simply if the strikes are successful in reversing the UUK position on pensions. Rather, I fervently hope, the strikes mark a turning point in the collective academic consciousness and imagination, so that we now have momentum to start chiselling away at the many issues that have plagued academic life here. My fear is that the active resistance against pension cuts speaks to aggregate self-interest rather than a genuine collective, and that may mean the movement we see now will not go on to address casualization, harassment, discrimination, erosion of academic freedom i.e. the issues that are largely experienced and confronted at an individualized or localized level but in reality affect us all. There are however plenty of at least discursive indications that the will to change is present and strong. The recent university strike in Helsinki did address some of these other issues. There are also many more academics aware of the connectedness of these issues, who very much want to imagine and create a far less neoliberal version of the university of the future.

There are however barriers to change that may also account for the disjuncture between discourse and action. First, it occurs to me that many academics are now ‘subjects adrift’ – we are aware of the technologies and structures that maintain the toxic university, but we continue to cling on to and actively use some of these mechanisms for our work and to further our own careers. We therefore need to rethink the tools, processes and narratives we use, and if this means abandoning some methods (e.g. new managerial metrics) altogether, it is a leap we must commit to take, lest our critique becomes mere performance (to paraphrase Jana Bacevic’s point made here).

Second and related to the first, there is a huge swathe of academics who have recently entered or are entering into a system of pragmatism, perverse incentives and precarity. Our imaginations, fears and desires are already been shaped by the structures and meanings of the neoliberal university. This is not to say we are entirely colonized by the neoliberal university, but it does make the exercise of agency and imagining alternatives a lot more challenging and anxiety inducing. Even where there is attempted critique and resistance, one finds it can so easily and strangely be co-opted to bolster the very practices being critiqued e.g. a ‘viral’ blog article against the REF being picked up by university PR to showcase public engagement. Here I think an open source, crowd-sourced curriculum or manual of alternatives for being an academic, geared toward postgrads, early careers and those who have quit academia might be a useful start. We also need to start rewiring our mind-sets: academia as the enterprise of knowledge production and sharing is not competitive as things like the REF and current funding processes will have us believe, it is necessarily collaborative and iterative. These two ideas are a large part of what our event hopes to kick-start.

Third and for me most important is the timidity of imagination I mentioned earlier. We have allowed the neoliberal vision and its adherents to define the university of the present, in part because we cling on to the dying myth that there is no better alternative to this failing form of parasitic capitalism that operates on the worst assumptions of human nature. The task here is not to simply outsource our dissatisfactions and productive anger to the over-burdened and over-regulated union. We need to look for collegiate mechanisms of governance within. This could start with more socially minded academics in less insecure positions wresting back control of structures and processes (paying particular attention to HE governing and funding bodies), insisting on diversity for board and panel constitution, and carving out committed spaces to counter the voices that are doubling down on failing neoliberal methods.

A crucial dimension of the imagination point for me is the meritocratic imaginary that Alexander Gallas (2018) describes in an important new paper on analyzing academic precarity. Gallas points out rightly that there is still the assumption that universities are meritocratic spaces. This is closely tied to academic self-identities, one that many academics from minority backgrounds can testify will provoke strong backlash, even repercussions, if questioned. (The new book, Inside the Ivory Tower, edited by Deborah Gabriel and Shirley Ann Tate provides strong examples of this).We need to be far less afraid and defensive in addressing our own complicities in the unjust system we have now. There needs, for instance, to be resolute action to diversify academia at every level, and to demand wage parity and non-discrimination without bureaucratic excuse or delay. An inclusion rider in academia would not be a bad idea either!

More generally, while there are already valiant and growing efforts (for example with UCU’s anti-casualization campaign), we, as a collective, need to start hearing each other better; thinking of more cohesive, imaginative and genuinely empathetic (rather than sympathetic) responses to the systemic problems we know exist; and in general, we need to do better especially on the issues that may not appear to directly affect us.

Daniel Nehring: The announcement of the event mentions discourses of resilience. What do you mean by this? Can you give specific examples? What role do these discourses play in contemporary academic life in the UK?

Audrey Verma: I would very much recommend David Webster and Nicola Rivers’ blog, and Robin James’ writing for in-depth discussions around discourses of resilience .In my response to the first question, I wrote about the gap between recognition of the conditions of academic labor and the unimaginative responses to this difficult terrain. Discourses of resilience fall squarely into the category of such impoverished responses. It encompasses telling students and academics to ‘suck it up,’ ‘toughen up’ and fix ourselves or pick ourselves up from rejections or harassment. Many of us are ourselves guilty. Resilience is however also the most convenient response for the new managerial classes to superficially address, for instance, the high rates of depression in academia.

Rather than understanding the social and material contexts that give rise to the epidemic, or questioning current models of defining academic success, which would necessitate structural changes, it is far easier to couch well-being as the individual’s responsibility that can be sorted with the magic of positive thinking imparted during some pseudo-spiritual, pseudo-psychological half-day workshops. Like many corporatist responses, it individualizes the problem by operating on a deficit model, and is a quick cost-effective fix that does not question or threaten the status quo. The performance of resilience is also very much written into academic life, for instance when we are expected to just get over the many rejections we have had in the year and focus on writing positive future narratives for that annual performance review.

Three things in particular make me wary and weary of discourses of resilience. First, there tends to be a highly problematic valorization of ‘inspirational’ exemplars in stories of grit and resilience. Second, there is a baffling implicit expectation of gratitude and praise for well-being initiatives offered by universities–it like putting a small plaster over a huge open wound and expecting thanks for the plaster. Third, the concept of resilience allows the system to continue inflicting damage on individuals (see Robin James), and it is no coincidence that particular individuals e.g. women, ethnic minorities, working class academics, then have to be more ‘resilient.’

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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