Class Act: Room for meaningful change

Fresh approach: It is time to look at more meaningful ways forward in universities.
Fresh approach: It is time to look at more meaningful ways forward in universities.

Hierarchies “are mechanisms for solidifying advantage and disadvantage” writes Smyth in his new book The Toxic University.

The more layers of management created between those who actually do the real work and those who administer and manage the work, the more we surrender to a neoliberal market ideology that focuses on “infantile, distrustful and demeaning management, auditing, measurement and performative apparatuses”. These management strategies are utterly divorced from the reality of academic work despite management attempts to control it.

Smyth goes so far as to say these management “empires” are “completely out of control and serve no useful purpose whatsoever” except to generate “wasteful expenditure of resources” to support their proliferation.

In the last few months, I have been in meetings and conferences where there is a feeling that the tide might just be beginning to turn. The critique of neoliberalism and its negative impact on the world (let alone its negative impact on education) is growing.

Some very powerful voices (Chomsky, Giroux, Alvesson and Spicer and our own Raewyn Connell) have put together coherent and convincing challenges that are resonating with many who feel disenfranchised by the current system. Even at UNE I see staff who normally do not engage beginning to recognise that it is not to their advantage to continue to accept increasingly unreasonable demands.

It is time to work together to challenge and suggest alternatives that can lead us away from neoliberal ideology. We have to recognise in taking this stance that there will be considerable opposition from those for whom neoliberalism has worked – those who have gained privilege through the ways things currently operate.

To combat this, we need to take collective action: we need to stand up together. Dennis suggests that: “Just as you don’t need a black belt in karate to call out bullying when you see it, you don’t need an economics degree to call out bullshit when you hear it.”

Here he is talking about “econobabble”, the language of neoliberalism. When we hear meaningless words such as “we need to work smarter not harder” we have to ask “say it again in English”.

We have to challenge words such as efficiency, effectiveness, competitive advantage and ask exactly what is meant by them. He suggests if these questions are not clearly answered, then staff should simply walk away rather than engage in meaningless generalities.

We need to talk about what we want our universities and our school systems to be: what is their grand purpose? We need to reflect on what we are actually doing and ask ourselves why are we doing these things in these ways? Whose interests are served? Are there other ways? When we have done this, we can move together towards figuring out ways to do things differently.