Thinking with neoliberalism

I have several books on my wish list at the moment (even as my to-be-read pile grows ever higher): Time and Space in the Neoliberal University, Resisiting Neoliberalism in Higher Education Volume 1 and Volume 2, and Qualitative Inquiry in Neoliberal Times.

Time and Space in the Neoliberal University Qualitative Inquiry in Neoliberal Times Resisting Neoliberalism in Higher Education Volume I Resisting Neoliberalism in Higher Education Volume II

The term neoliberalism appears more or less everywhere in university circles, but is often ill-defined or contradictory. It is a theoretical concept that seems good to think with, even if we are not sure what we are thinking about. It would have tripped me up as a doctoral candidate and early career academic. I remember attending my first conferences, and not knowing what people were talking about, especially when they named theorists or ‘isms’. My early notebooks are full of misspellings with ‘Read this!!!’ or ‘???’ or  ‘Important!’ noted with increasing urgency.

This article in The Guardian (Neoliberalism: the idea that swallowed the world) is a useful starting point for neoliberal neophytes:

It is a name for a premise that, quietly, has come to regulate all we practise and believe: that competition is the only legitimate organising principle for human activity … What if we reconceive all of society as a kind of market?

This gives an insight into how the economic ideals of neoliberalism have meshed so well with higher education, which in the last three decades has been dominated by globalisation, massification and marketisation. Here’s how my colleague Cathy Rytmeister and I break this down in The Politics of Australian Higher Education teaching module:

Massification refers to the global phenomenon of increasing participation in higher education. Australian higher education is now a mass participation system (30-50 per cent of the school-leaver age cohort enrolled in higher education), and may move into high participation status (>50 per cent enrolled) in the near future (Marginson, 2015).

On its own, massification should lead to greater demand for academic staff and opportunities for continuing employment. But at the same time, governments have systematically withdrawn per-student public funding from universities, substituting secure base funding with contestable funding reliant on market-like competitive mechanisms. This marketisation reorients higher education towards competitive markets on local, national, regional and global scales. It is largely the result of public policy underpinned by an assumption that market or quasi-market mechanisms are effective tools for the efficient regulation of higher education (Meek, 2000).

Simultaneously, the increased global mobility of information, finance and people, and the formalisation of regional trading blocs, removal of trade barriers and establishment of a range of free trade agreements have impacted higher education. These aspects of globalisation have enabled the establishment of global, national and local markets in higher education, and provided an opportunity to supplement domestic funding with full-fee-paying international students (Marginson, 2004).

The work of universities both upholds and questions the values of neoliberalism. I am interested in reading more about this simultaneous complicity and resistance, and the ideas these books have in common: academic activism, changes to scholarly work, the quantification of academia, entrenched inequalities in universities, and uncertain educational futures.

Now back to work in my role as handmaiden to neoliberalism so that I can save up to buy these books…

The edge of knowing

Several times recently I have become aware of the limits of knowledge, and what it is  like to feel uncertain and unknowing.

In writing group, I gave feedback on a paper about teaching grammar to young children. Unfortunately, I came of age in an era of Australian education that refused to teach grammatics. The limit of my knowledge: a verb is a doing word; a statement I have subsequently discovered to be false, or only partly true. At the risk of stating the obvious for some readers, verbs can be doing words AND saying words, sensing words, relating words, or existing words.

I have an excellent tacit knowledge of grammar, but reading a paper on its teaching made me aware of the limits of my understanding. To familiarise myself with linguistics terminology, I looked at first year lecture notes. (My university has an online learning commons—that is, lecture notes for most courses are open to staff across the university). So much I have not learned.


Once a week, I volunteer at my son’s school for 45 minutes of individual reading with children in his class. The five and six year olds guess words more often than not. From week to week, their learning is palpable, as is the pleasure in their achievements. It’s amazing to witness their progress after only 15 weeks of school.

My daughter’s high school recently hosted an evening program on adolescent development. The teenage brain is a truly frightening place! (The raising children website has a good summary of the back-to-front development of the brain during adolescence). Referencing Dweck’s work on growth mindset, the school psychologists reinforced the power of ‘yet’ (for our children and ourselves).

I can’t do this … yet.

I don’t know this … yet.

This week I read some new (to me) theoretical work. I am impatient. I want to gulp it down and regurgitate it for a paper I am writing. I want to perform an institutionalised reading. I need to slow down and sip the reading. I don’t understand it … yet.


‘Threshold concepts’ is Meyer and Land’s well-known phrase for how learners navigate difficult or troublesome knowledge. As they describe it in their seminal (or should I say oeuvral?) work:

A threshold concept can be considered as akin to a portal, opening up a new and previously inaccessible way of thinking about something. It represents a transformed way of understanding, or interpreting, or viewing something without which the learner cannot progress.

This ‘portal’ or liminal phase of learning is marked by unknowingness and uncertainty.  It is a transformative time during which shifts in subjectivity occur. The learner is a different person on the other side of the portal. As Kiley and Wisker (2009) characterise it in the context of doctoral education, the liminal state is defined by change and oscillation:

This altered identity often comes after a liminal period of uncertainty, confusion, or doubt, something akin to the transition within a rite of passage … Liminality involves wavering between two worlds, after the separation from the previous identity but before the point of incorporation into a new one … It is while in this state that doctoral students are often likely to feel ‘stuck’, depressed, unable to continue, challenged and confused.


My colleague Jayde Cahir and I wrote about our experiences of liminality as doctoral candidates (‘What Feelings Didn’t I Experience!’: Affect and Identity in PhD Writing, published in Cecile Badenhorst and Cally Guerin’s edited collection Research Literacies and Writing Pedagogies for Masters and Doctoral Writers).

Did you experience any identity shifts during the process of writing your dissertation?

Agnes: Becoming a mother completely changed me as a person. It consequently changed my research – in fact, my whole orientation towards feminist theory changed … [It] meant a great deal of change and uncertainty. I felt completely different … I think this was an element in my subsequent transition to a different discipline – one dominated by a practical rather than a theoretical orientation.

Jayde: At the beginning of my candidature I felt that I was ready to ‘become’ an academic but as time went on I found that I was asking myself questions like – do I want to be an academic?  And why am I ‘doing’ a PhD? Looking back this was most likely due to the anxiety that I experienced while writing my dissertation but in saying that, the process of writing and research during my doctoral education made me seriously question who I was and where I was going career wise.

What became apparent to us in writing about our learning experiences as doctoral candidates and early career academics was that liminality was ongoing. We never reach a state of complete knowingness.

What did you learn during the process of transitioning from doctoral candidate to early-career researcher?

Agnes: This was a huge learning curve as I changed disciplines. I became a student again, enrolling in a higher education qualification, which prepared me for the shift to a new discipline. Three years on, I still feel that I am establishing myself as a researcher and a writer.

Jayde: I think the key thing that I learnt … was how much more work there was to do. Even though I had spent four years developing and improving my skills, I was really only at the beginning – again.

Photos in this post were taken on a recent family bushwalk; same spot, camera pointing in different directions.

We cross one threshold, only to encounter another. I am keenly aware of this, once again, as an academic and as a mother.


Lost in thought

I love those moments while reading when the mind drifts, when the reader’s thoughts flow towards other ideas and become untethered from the text.

In The Pleasure of the Text (1975), French literary theorist Roland Barthes writes of the experience of reading: “[A text] produces, in me, the best pleasure if it manages to make itself heard indirectly; if, reading it, I am led to look up often, to listen to something else.” He refers to drifting, when the reader is “driven about by language’s illusions, seductions, and intimidations, like a cork on the waves” but chooses to “remain motionless, pivoting on the intractable bliss that binds me to the text (to the world)” (1975, p 18).

These inner reveries of drifting and returning to the text reveal something of the self. In this post, the drift of thoughts I had while reading Raewyn Connell’s The Good University are also revealing of what Barbara Grant calls my ‘tiny university’, one of a thousand possible versions of the university held individually and collectively.

In The Good University, Connell writes about the lies universities tell themselves. At least, that was how I remembered a section of the book. That’s the direction the drift had taken me. On rereading, the text was different. Recollecting the renowned 88 year old jacaranda tree in the quadrangle of the University of Sydney (a tree with its own wikipedia entry), Connell writes:

Around 2013 [the university’s corporate advertising] featured a tutorial or discussion group of students, sitting in a semi-circle on the grass in front to the jacaranda tree in full bloom, talking earnestly together in the bright Sydney sunshine. Marvellous image!

But the picture was lying to us. No class or discussion group is allowed to convene on the quadrangle lawn. It is therefore redundant to observe that jacarandas in Sydney bloom mainly in November, after tutorials are over. The tree died in 2016.

This is a small example, which I noticed because I was fond of that tree. The point is, this kind of falsification has become routine. Every managerial university now puts out a cloud of imagery, text and sound intended to misrepresent the way the way things really are.

File:Jacaranda carpet, Sydney University.jpg

Image source.

I  considered the lies universities tell in advertisements to be one version of a thousand tiny universities (some admittedly less tiny than others). I connected these marketised visions of the university with artists’ representations of buildings under construction, the utopian visions that occupy an imaginary landscape of a university and the people within it:


Image source.

For Connell, the marketing reads as falsehood or deception. I was thinking imaginary. In my tiny university, I was holding the utopian image alongside a counter-image. The jacaranda tree is simultaneously alive and dead. The campus hub will be better than before, after it is worse than before:


Image source.

Image source.

I started thinking about our complicity with the stories universities tell. And I think Connell captures that with her comment ‘Marvellous image!’ In the final chapter, Connell offers the following criteria for a good university: democratic, engaged, truthful, creative, and sustainable. Interestingly, these values are espoused by institutions around the world: social justice, academic integrity, innovation, shared governance, equity, student engagement, scholarship, and building better futures.

There is a tangle of thoughts here: where is the truth? Who is telling lies? Can goodness be used for bad? Or vice versa?

My son has recently watched the three original Star Wars movies, and is very taken with Darth Vader’s redemption. We are having lengthy conversations about Darth Vader’s goodness.  He’s for, I’m against. Before I can think too long about what my stance on Darth Vader suggests for universities, the drift has taken me into different waters.

If you keep reading Roland Barthes, he writes this about drift: “Drifting occurs whenever social language, the sociolect, fails me … Thus another name for drifting would be the Intractable—or perhaps, even: Stupidity” (1975, p 19).