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

(Photo: Marco Verch/Flickr)

Two speakers at the upcoming  “Between the discourse of ‘resilience’ and death by committee – Reclaiming collective spaces for academic resistance” forum say they became interested in the state of the neoliberal university because of attempts to bandage wounds that the current system had inflicted. In an interview with Social Science Space’s Daniel Nehring, Nicola Rivers and David Webster, both at the University of Gloucestershire, say that the need to patch problems revealed to them the severity of the problem. “I think in this position,” Rivers says, “it is difficult not to be involved in debates of this sort.”

Rivers, a lecturer in English literature, and Webster, head of Learning & Teaching Innovation, will speak together on “Resilience & responsibility in UK Higher Education: A neoliberal sleight of hand?” during the forum at Newcastle University. In the lead up to that May 4 event hosted by British Sociological Association’s Early Career Forum,, Social Science Space is publishing a series of interviews on academic capitalism and academic resistance with organizers and speakers from the “Reclaiming” event.

Daniel Nehring: What has motivated you to become involved in debates about academic capitalism and the neoliberal university?

David Webster
David Webster

David Webster: I think that it was a combination of simmering issues, that I had been peripherally conscious of, and these becoming more apparent and explicit via phenomena such as being offered ‘resilience training.’

Nicola Rivers: For me, it was the well-meaning intervention of colleagues telling me to ‘keep going,’ ‘keep up momentum’ despite still being in precarious employment four years post-PhD. Although well-intentioned, the subtext seemed not just to be, ‘keep trying’ but ‘try harder,’ but the goalposts for what counts as enough are continually shifting.

I think in this position, it is difficult not to be involved in debates of this sort.

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

Nicola Rivers: In my experience precarious employment, underemployment, and exploitative contracts. This in turn leads to an atmosphere of intense competition, scarcity, distrust and anxiety.

David Webster: It is partly marked by the separation of the academic community. Students as consumers, permanent staff as opposed to those who cover their classes, and managers who don’t teach or research. The conditions of the University make it challenging for people to feel a sense of common academic endeavour.

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?

David Webster: We were discussing something related to this recently. Volumes and volumes of dense critique of neoliberalism in universities, published with elite publishers, with eye-watering prices, often funded so that the authors may have purchased precarious academic labour to cover their teaching, while writing them (who can only dream of being able to afford the books). If I was being cynical, I might consider it a cottage industry of critique. A lucrative furrow to plough, whose harvest benefits only the critic. Less cynically, it might derive from a fundamental feature, rather than flaw, of late capitalist neoliberalism that is a kind of intellectual appropriation that allows, even encourages and applauds, criticism. Bring it on. It generates an illusion of the free and robust exchange of ideas, but debate is framed somehow structurally divorced from the idea of how it might translate into action. This is a fundamental, tangled issue at the heart of how to take this kind of work beyond the seminar room.

Nicola Rivers
Nicola Rivers

Nicola Rivers: My feeling is that the multitude of critiques coupled with the comparative lack of action highlights one of the central paradoxes of the neoliberal university; namely that despite the shift towards centring the individual as both the architect of their own success or failure, very little responsibility is taken by individuals. In critiquing the university, attention is rightfully given to the systemic issues that influence people’s experiences, yet there is less acknowledgment that it is people who both instil and reinforce systemic problems. Academics have been individualised to such a degree that they seem unwilling or unable to think or act collectively. However, I do think the recent USS strikes went someway to rectify this, offering a sense of hope in the possibilities afforded by collective action.

Daniel Nehring: Through an array of audits, performance management systems, and other practices, neoliberal academia in Britain has redefined scholars as academic entrepreneurs. The work of these academic entrepreneurs is characterised by the high-pressure pursuit of metrics – citation frequencies, REF scores, student satisfaction scores, journal rankings, and so on – that are instrumentally useful in an academic world that has come to be driven by market-based competition between national academic systems, universities, departments, and individual academics. To what extent do you degree with this diagnosis? Why (not)?

Nicola Rivers: I suppose the only part of this diagnosis I disagree with is that I’m not sure how instrumentally useful these metrics actually are. This kind of audit culture clearly fuels the hyper-competitive atmosphere of higher education, placing academics under increasing stress and creating anxiety. Such rigid and narrow ways of measuring success also disproportionately effect certain people, perpetuating inequalities across lines of gender, race, (dis)abilities, class, and prestige. Audit culture also stifles creativity in both teaching practice and research.

David Webster: This diagnosis clearly matches some of what has occurred in the higher education sector in the UK. What needs adding is the hollowing out of career pathways for staff entering the sector, and the way this entrepreneurial culture intensifies the drivers towards competition between staff. But there is also here the danger of nostalgia for an HE sector that never existed. For example, in the past, as now, elite universities also acted as conservative forces in replicating inequity. They were full of misogyny, poor teaching, and unethical employment practice. To portray academic staff as ethical superheroes set against the cartoon villains of academic management is disingenuous bifurcation.

Daniel Nehring: How can neoliberal discourses and practices in higher education be contested? To what extent is systemic change possible, beyond the localised achievements of activism at specific universities? How can academics be engaged in effecting change?

David Webster and Nicola Rivers: Localized achievements shouldn’t be overlooked, as we can learn from them. We can get a glimpse of what actions might have some efficacy. Small acts of resistance and solidarity can have an impact, and also have unforeseen effects, helping us see what it is to stand together with colleagues, and the positivity this engenders in us when we do so.

Beyond this, perhaps we need to recognize that educators can’t solve neoliberalism. The issues we have identified in the Academy are symptoms, and one view might be that the root causes are political and need larger political solutions.

Other posts in this series

Event information and signup

Series description

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

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

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

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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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