Resistance is Futile: University Deregulation and the Neoliberal Borg

“When language becomes colonised in the way that appears to have been the case with regard to ‘neoliberalism’ in education, it is inadvertently put to use on behalf of the dominant discourse.”

So said Michael Grenfell, and I want to explore the forceful ideological mechanism driving the assault on tertiary education in Australia today.

I would like to position neoliberalism as the new ‘economic’ imperialism – it is Star Trek’s ‘Borg’ of political and social economy: a hive mind that exists to pursue a particular model of perfection: one that is, essentially, unattainable. And resistance, so the Borg collective claims, is futile.

What makes neoliberalism distinct from all the other modes of classical liberal economics? I would argue that it is the predatory nature combined with the emergence, particularly after the 1980’s, of the Thatcherite notion that ‘there is no alternative’. Whereas classical economics could at least countenance the idea of Marxist or Keynesian models of economy, the Neoliberal imaginary posits that there is only one solution, the market, and anything that deviates must either be assimilated (its cultural and technological distinctiveness adapted to service the collective) or destroyed as a threat. Scholars such as Stephen Ball, Fazal Rizvi and Bob Lingard have alluded to the way neoliberal reforms ‘travel’ the earth, and produce, as Matthew Clarke and Slavoj Žižek suggest, a powerful ‘social imaginary’. 

Neoliberalism colonises the regimes of knowledge that challenge its global hegemony.

This mode of totality – the lack of alternative, the inevitability of neoliberal structural dominance – reflects the emergence of what Žižek would call a new ‘master-signifier’. The market, realised through the excessive surplus pleasure of neoliberal enjoyment, has become the point around which contemporary policy articulates. It is through this mechanism that words that seem relatively benign, or even positive, become complicit with the reproduction of the neoliberal imaginary: ‘choice’, ‘competition’, ‘quality’, ‘standards’, ‘productivity’, and most terrifyingly – ‘creativity’ itself has been colonised. And I think we should be deeply conscious of the next frontier for the imperial neoliberal crusade: the ‘critical’ movement, currently the strongest site of resistance.

The deregulation agenda pushed through the tertiary sector, most recently blasted into the forefront of our minds by the first Abbott Budget (but the roots for which can be traced back to the Dawkins reforms of the Hawke-Keating era), is being conducted no longer through colonisation but through an imperial assault on the humanities. The corporatising Borg has already colonised the administrations of most universities in Australia – it is now accepted as a given that they must compete, appeal to customers, and sell their ‘product’. The collective now turns to defeating resistance: of course the first degree to suffer from massively inflated fees will be the Arts – as Razer and Rundle have argued in Crikey – when a degree costs you the same amount as an apartment in Gosford, you want to make sure you begin to reconsider pursuit of purely ‘intellectual’ endeavours and instead look at what brings home some cheese. How privilege functions here is critical.

So we have two modes of engagement: colonisation (and assimilation), or destruction.

Let me talk for a moment about the specific policies flagged by the Mincing Poodle in the recent, profoundly contentious budget.

We’ve heard a fair bit, and seen the huge surge in student protests as a consequence of, the planned deregulation of university fees. At face value, the point of the exercise is another acceleration of the neoliberal logic, further corporatising our universities and somehow, magically, competition will lift standards (as though charging $100,000 for a degree at an elite university were somehow able to be academically ‘competitive’). Obviously competition, true competition, necessitates that there be some degree of a level playing field: this is not the case in the tertiary education sector. High achievers from lower-SES backgrounds may simply be utterly priced out of the ‘education market’, leaving only wealthy, privileged, elite students to go to the ‘elite’ institutions.

The offer of Scholarships is a furphy – academic scholarships will go to a small proportion of high achieving students from backgrounds in which they already had the cultural capital to succeed: education doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and vacuity isn’t an exclusive trait of the Liberal party. In an article published in Fairfax, Poodle Inc stated that:

“This government is making it easier to learn than ever.”

He went on to outline a range of debts that VET students would now be able to access, deploying the dreadword ‘choice’, suggesting of his suite of policies:

“If that is not expanding choice, it is hard to imagine what would satisfy those calling for greater access to tertiary education.”

I would argue that these reforms reveal something more insidious in the Right, and it’s particularly transparent in the juvenile politics of the Minister for Education. This is a policy put in place as a blunt assault on the ‘cultural Left’ – there is no real equitable or academic value in deregulating universities. As I have said the first casualty of Pyne’s blunt ‘culture war’ will be the Arts and Humanities, since there is no possible financial justification for entering a degree with a low chance of highly paid employment and the prospect of decades paying back a truly enormous HECS debt with a brand new 6% interest rate. Don’t believe me? Pyne concludes his execrable spiel by saying that, while university students ‘remain protected’:

“Any debate about  this package is a good thing. It brings out the fact that university students, on average, pay just more than 40 per cent of the cost of their education, and the taxpayer pays the rest. It acknowledges that university graduates benefit from a significant personal advantage, earning about 75 per cent more than non-graduates – or about $1 million more over their lifetimes. It reminds us that 60 per cent of adult Australians who will never hold a degree are subsidising the other 40 per cent”

This is not colonisation, this is Conservative Imperialism. That which cannot be colonised or assimilated is assaulted. Pyne’s culture war isn’t as subtle as Howard – the natives are already speaking his language, now the rest of the brutes must be exterminated. David Harvey explains that the first tranche of neoliberal reforms – the smashing of Labour in the 80’s and the expansion of the power of Capital, followed by a pumped up credit economy where everyone is encouraged to own a home – were designed to prevent debt-incumbent workers from striking. Well here it is for you, the professional, highly educated (and generally left-leaning) young graduates of university are being lured into the same trap. Only this time the debt isn’t tied to a physical asset, it is tied to your very own means of raising capital. In a fantastic article titled ‘Pedagogies of transformation: keeping hope alive in troubled times’, Wrigley, Lingard and Thomson explain:

“Though globalisation has been the most prominent keyword of policy studies for over a decade, we wish to reassert the centrality of class. It is not the planetary scale of modern economies, communications and cultures that is the problem, but the global dominance of capitalism, particularly in its fortified neoliberal version, and the gross inequalities and injustices that it produces.”

The most recent budget should not be read superficially for its unfairness to demographies who are unlikely to vote for the Coalition, and do not misinterpret the deregulation of the tertiary sector as a cost-cutting measure. It is a class war raised by a dying empire, and it is our duty as rational individuals who care to protect democracy to raise hell against it.

The Neoliberal Borg is not indestructible, it is just a machine, and we will tear it apart piece by piece.

These remarks were made at the University of Newcastle Education Collective on May 26 2014, at forum discussing fee deregulation.

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2 Replies to “Resistance is Futile: University Deregulation and the Neoliberal Borg”

  1. Whenever I hear the word “choice” I see Dr Michael Wooldridge’s pudgy jowls quivering with delight. It’s a word he used like we use punctuation. He really liked “choice” and I often wondered what sort.

    But you missed “balance”.

    Balance as in giving equal time and emphasis to ideas or policy inimical to the public interest, balance as one sees in the Murdoch press, balance as the first blow against the critical movement.

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