An End in Sight for the Neoliberal University

by Iida Käyhkö and Charlie Macnamara

1 March 2018

Angus O’Brien

In the last two weeks, University College London’s (UCL) academic board and its students’ union have both passed votes of no confidence in the governance of the university. These votes represent the first steps in the rejection and replacement of corporate models of governance—a core pillar of the neoliberal university project, for which UCL has been a flagship. Combined with the ongoing UCU strike action, the votes represent a decisive shift among all groups on the Bloomsbury campus against the neoliberal university project, which has almost completely transformed higher education over the last decade.

The new model of university finances effective since 2010 and based on student fees as opposed to government grants, fundamentally changed how higher education institutions work and the sort of education they deliver. In place of grant-based funding from the government, universities now depend more heavily on income from fees and from their estates, through increasingly extortionate rents for student accommodation. This has created a structural imperative to rapidly increase student numbers to bring in more income, while simultaneously cutting back on all ‘unnecessary’ costs—like research funding, teaching hours, and the salaries and pensions of academic workers. All those shiny new buildings? They’re meant to attract students and to hide the fact that mouldy student residences are now 56% more expensive than five years ago and that teaching assistants make minimum wage.

Universities now operate like businesses: allowing management salaries to grow while wages for academic workers stagnate or decrease, increasing their student numbers far beyond capacity and engaging in vanity construction projects on new buildings and offshoot campuses. At UCL—a testing ground and a flagship for neoliberal reforms, thanks in part to its close relationship with government—student numbers have grown from 17,000 to 40,000 in less than ten years. The university’s new expansion plans in Stratford, East London are expected to provide space to increase this further to 46,000, and eventually to 60,000.

This over-expansion impacts hugely on the running of UCL. Classrooms are frequently booked out, resulting in the need to hire-out conference rooms in nearby hotels for lectures and seminars. Student mental health and other support services are stretched far beyond their capacities, with nearly 1000 students who try to access mental health services each year never getting seen. Academics, especially early career researchers, are hired on fixed-term contracts with no job security. Cleaning, security and catering workers have been slowly shifted from outsourced subcontractor to subcontractor under steadily worsening employment conditions.

Managers have full control and any sense of the social responsibility or moral purpose universities once had has disappeared. Governmental frameworks charting teaching, research and student satisfaction constrict academic freedom. Students have been cast in the role of consumers whose only power is the choice not to buy. At its core, the neoliberalising project attempts to undo the radical potential of the university to create a sense of community and to foster learning based on principles of critical thinking and collaboration—all of which are hated by the right.

The dramatic transformation of our universities has only been possible thanks to a new generation of senior managers from corporate backgrounds who have worked hand-in-hand with the government, while academics, students, workers, and the communities around them have found themselves with little power or say in how their universities are run.

UCL council—the main governing body of the university—includes a former chief economist at Shell and four real estate developers. The council as a whole includes more financiers, accountants, economists and real estate developers than it does student or staff representatives. The influence of a small elite on UK universities has become laughably transparent: the Ritblat family, property tycoons behind gentrification projects across London, sit on the boards of King’s College London, the London Business School and the Royal Academy of Music.

Crucial to this take-over by the oligarchy have been changes to the governance and management structures of universities across the UK. At Queen Mary University between 2009 and 2010, management abolished the formal academic body which oversaw them, replacing it with a senate—a small body of managers and trustees fully aligned with their plans and appointed at their discretion.

At UCL, resistance to this erosion of democracy and accountability has come to a head as a result of the management’s risky expansion plans, which have put it in a “barely sustainable financial position”. Last summer, after academics expressed widespread dissatisfaction with the university’s governance, the academic board instituted a new governing board to oversee and check the senior management—although it has since struggled to exercise control over management’s decisions.

Two weeks ago, academics went one step further, calling an unofficial meeting of the academic board to vote no confidence in the university’s governance, which passed by 94%, along with appointing a barrister to investigate whether the decisions made by management are in breach of the college’s internal regulations. And last week, Students’ Union UCL passed their own vote of no confidence by 97% to calls of “sack the Provost!”

Many have recently been quick to point out that the university does not function like a company, in that it does not lose money when staff go on strike as its customers—the students—have paid upfront. Some have seen this as a problem for any strike action within the university. Actually, this is where the potential for a radical reimagining of the university lies. Students are not just customers. Staff are not merely service providers. The university, fundamentally, is not a company—it is a community and a collaborative effort.

Over the last two weeks, academics and students at UCL have taken charge of decisions removed from their hands and shown how they can organise collectively to begin to unravel the neoliberal university. To take ownership and control over our universities, the first step is voting out managers. Demanding open, democratic governance of the university, by elected staff and students, would be the second.

Visions of a liberated curriculum, of free education and of community-controlled universities cannot come true without an on-campus power shift. This shift needs to take us beyond tokenistic inclusion and allow the re-politicisation of the recently toothless students’ unions and the creation of further solidarity between staff and students. From there, we can begin reimagining the university—as a community that serves those who work and study within it, instead of the interests of capital.


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