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

education for all sign

Anthropologist and sociologist Mariya Ivancheva has viewed modern higher education from a number of global perches, whether in Eastern Europe or South Africa, the strapped Bolivarian University of Venezuela, and in the UK, whether from across the Irish Sea or in her current role as a post-doctoral research fellow at the University of Leeds School of Education. She’s currently part of an ESRC- and Newton-National Research Fund-sponsored collaborative project, The Unbundled University, examining how digital technology, marketization and unbundling are affecting universities in South Africa and the UK.

Her vantages have left her no fan of the neoliberal reforms — or perhaps, ‘reforms’ — that characterize western-influences higher education. “It is quite shocking to see how normalized the reforms are,” she tells Daniel Nehring in the third installment in this series highlingting the upcoming upcoming forum, “Between the discourse of ‘resilience’ and death by committee – Reclaiming collective spaces for academic resistance,” “and how a lot of colleagues get totally imbued into the logic imposed by managers even while they criticize it openly.”

In the lead up to that May 4 event hosted by Newcastle University, 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?

Mariya Ivancheva: I guess unlike most people who came to this from the critique of capitalism in general and the concern over their own working conditions, for me it worked almost on the reverse. I come from Bulgaria where the introduction of any performance mechanisms was welcome mostly because the academic field has been extremely naval-gazing, nepotistic, and – with rare exceptions among academics – hardly engaged in meaningful scholarly international exchange. At the time I left the country around 2004, I still shared a lot of the liberal views that our generation was imbued with after 1989: the worldview that history is over and capitalism is the only valid way to organize society; the belief that a free market society is the only way to introduce fairness.

Still, something did not square. I went to do my MA in London and was surprised to see how many academics in the West were still interested in socialist ideas and ways of organizing a more just and equal society, and were looking for inspiration in what I deemed unlikely places as newly socialist Venezuela. I was intrigued but also terrified by this discrepancy. I went on to study what went wrong in the debate between Western critical intellectuals and socialist-time dissidents that made them come to so different conclusions about what is best for our societies after state socialism was over.

Mariya Ivancheva
Mariya Ivancheva

In this intellectual pursuit, I ended up studying at the Central European University – a university set by dissident intellectuals from the East of Europe, and Western liberal intellectuals to educate a new intellectual and political elite in the ‘new democracies’ in the post-socialist world. Entering CEU I realized what important role universities play in projects for social change – paradoxically, because they are also entrenched in the reproduction of social norms and power elites, yet they are also central fields of social contestation.

This brought me to the curiosity about diverse trajectories of universities in times of social change – why does post-socialist Eastern Europe set this Western-oriented, English-language elite graduate school, while in Venezuela the new government of Hugo Chavez massifies higher education and opens it to the poor? And what are the intended and the unintended outcomes of such diverse projects. So I went to study the socialist experiment in higher education in Venezuela: quite a heart-warming, eye-opening, and soul-destroying experience, all at once. It was heart-warming because it made me realize the enormous effort and thought that goes into institutional design for egalitarian causes – the impressive political will to make change for the benefit of those suffering most from our unequal society, and the real-life effort to make research insights from humanities and social sciences contribute to every other aspect of human knowledge by producing awareness of the long-term consequences of scientific activities in each field.

It was eye-opening because it brought me to think institutionally about universities outside the agency of individual policy-makers, and as they are immersed in bigger power-fields. It was clear that I could not just think of the Bolivarian University as an isolated experiment but needed to see its advances and limitations as presented in that field.

It was soul destroying because by the time I finished my fieldwork it was clear that despite the colossal efforts the returns were quite minimal – to get accreditation of its degrees the university had to comply with a lot of requirements dictated by global trends in higher education. That included many of the pressures for performance management, publications, fundraising, while faculty were also gaining their own graduate credentials and coping with enormous teaching loads. This is where my interest and awareness of the functioning of the neoliberal university in the West came in. It made me rethink how I view my study- and work-place, what worries me about its developments and how I want to see it changing.

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

Mariya Ivancheva: Perhaps before going to this question, I should say that before coming to the UK I spent time in Ireland, where I worked as a post-doc on the impact of the global financial crisis and austerity reforms on workers in the neoliberal university system there. A lot of my insights on this system then come first from Ireland, where a lot of similar reforms are happening but still at slightly lower intensity, and this allows me to see the extent to which they have been normalized in the UK. So, I think the most important one I can point out is the change of budget from institutional grants to a core budget funded by student fees, and a research budget that is external and competitive.

This changes the priorities of public universities and they start trying to recruit fee-paying students whom they treat as customers, and to push faculty to spend increasing time on administration and grant management, rather than on intellectual work. Management is increasingly divided into systems which are like parallel universes with quite significant disconnect among themselves and with the core purpose of the university – knowledge production and education.

A growing number of administrative staff cater to these systems but their work does not reduce the academic administration especially around teaching, audit, evaluation, marketing and grant management. Senior managers are increasingly recruited among people with experience in the private sector and they behave as CEOs of corporations, making decisions at the detriment of students, faculty and staff. These decisions are often in favor of big businesses which vulture on public services – universities including – for cheap expert labor and knowledge production while reaping the benefits from research done by grants sponsored by taxpayers’ money.

That is also combined with an obsession with league tables and performance mechanisms that often have very little to do with teaching (even student surveys are more often focused on the consumer experience of students with university facilities rather than the content and actual support they receive). Led by these rankings, students chose and are ready to pay fees to research-intensive universities, where they end up being taught by a reserve army of teaching support staff, while the faculty whose publications and fundraising portfolio feed the rankings, are too busy to publish and manage grants. Instead of offering more permanent contracts and distributing the workload more evenly, leaving faculty time for research and teaching smaller groups, university management is pushing casualization ever further. More recently this trend also is accelerated by the digitalization of teaching and the outsourcing of teaching to private providers: a trillion-dollar-strong private sector cannibalizing higher education.

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?

Mariya Ivancheva: Yes, to a large extent. It is quite shocking to see how normalized the reforms are, and how a lot of colleagues get totally imbued into the logic imposed by managers even while they criticize it openly. The USS pension dispute and the 14 days strike served as a reminder of two things. On the one hand, they were a powerful evidence that that beneath the surface there is huge discontent, frustration and desire for change. The slogans and demands put forward by striking faculty and students supporting their strike have shown clearly that the stakes of the strike by now are much higher than the pension scheme. At stake is the future of public higher education in the country, and only a profound reform can save it from becoming a next victim of corporate greed. The creativity, solidarity and passion shown during the protest also speak of resilience, important for the battle that UK higher education is facing and that will determine what we leave to next cohorts and to generations to come.

At the same time, the strike has been a reminder of issues that make contemporary trade unions constrain conservative structures that constrain rather than enable social change. We have just witnessed the abysmal leadership of Sally Hunt at UCU, who has gone out of her way to secure that there is just any compromise that puts an end to the ‘dispute’ or ‘campaign’ rather than an opportunity opening for a larger and historic campaign to reclaim higher education from the market.

This has also opened questions about larger structures of union democracy connected to processes of decision-making within liberal democracies that alienate union members and societies from representative structures. There were also further issues of inequalities in the labor force: the fact that casualized workers with no guarantee of work or pension, actually took pay cuts and went to picket lines for other faculty members’ right for pension, while permanent faculty members have not stood up campaigning against the obnoxious casualization of academic labor. Now that the strike has ended in what a lot of member feel like defeat, or as the workshop title calls it, ‘Death by committee.’ It is really the task not only of the rank-and-file within the union, but also of people in decision-making positions within its structures, to oppose the leadership and the logic of its functioning and renew the discussions of broader strategies, and restore the hope many of us lost.

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’

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

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 characterized 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)?

Mariya Ivancheva: I guess my answer to the second question already speaks to these points. One of the interesting points related to this, though, that we found in our research with academics in Ireland, is the extent to which the measurement does not stop once office hours are over. While work and life are portrayed as separate, almost opposing categories, the logic of metrics we use to evaluate our academic performance we used in every part of our life: our food habits, sports and fitness, our relationships, sexual and parenting skills, all seem to be given a value within a system of symbolic credit that sometimes translates into monetary return. This becomes a source of further frustration at any ‘underperformance’ and related accumulation of stress-related physical and mental health issues. It is a completely vicious circle that needs to be interrupted and reversed, or else it will boomerang against us very badly, very soon.

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

Mariya Ivancheva : This is an important question and one to which I have dedicated much of my research, but of course there is no simple answer. A few points though. First, the university itself contains a contradiction: it is one of the key institutions of elite reproduction, but also it has historically been one of the key sites of struggle and social change.

Second, there is a similar argument that can be made about academics: while being what Pierre Bourdieu called us, the dominated stratum of the dominant class, many are incredibly complacent with the system and have been historically privileged au dessus de la mele up in the ivory tower. Yet many academics have also put their lives on the line, joined and lead movements for liberation, emancipation, and social justice.

In this, third, currently neoliberal governance, evaluation, and surveillance technologies pit us ever more against each other, placing us in competition over ever scarcer symbolic and financial resources allotted to public universities and their workers. It is quite difficult to unite and organize resistance around a common cause while higher education has a huge reserve army of workers on precarious fixed term and fractional contracts, unsure if they will have secure employment and bread on their table in a few months. And this while even permanent academics feel ever more vulnerable and threatened for their position, stability and autonomy because of performance mechanisms, enormous workloads, the short cycle project work in research and increasing lack of autonomy over monitored, top-down managed content that with digital technologies looks ever more like pre-fab and recyclable content.

But all that said, the recent USS pensions strike has shown that the grapes of wrath are ripe, and that ranks can be crossed in solidarity between students and faculty, and precarious and permanent employees at the university. The strike was a breath of fresh air that showed grate repositories of anger but also of creativity, solidarity, and resilience. Of course, in the meantime, senior management and its minions in administrative and academic ranks do not sleep, and they have won the battle, not without the help of the trade union leadership. But they have not won the war. The next months are crucial. At stake is the future of 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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