Galileo and neoliberal academia: A critical assessment of UK higher education

Surbhi Kesar and Ingrid Kvangraven

Despite all the material progress and technological advancements over the past centuries, we seem to be heading towards an era of darkness in terms of the space for knowledge creation. At this moment, however, the darkness does not necessarily reflect the lack of capacity for fresh and critical thinking and intellect. Rather, it extends to how our society values knowledge itself. At this particular moment of bitter industrial dispute in UK universities, we wish to take a step back and consider what is happening to the higher education sector more broadly, the role of economics in supporting the neoliberal turn in academia, and its implications for the kinds of research and teaching that universities are becoming conditioned to produce. 

In 1633, Galielo argued that the sun, and not the earth, was the centre of the world. He faced persecution from the church with the order stating that: 

“We pronounce, judge, and declare, that you, the said Galileo… have rendered yourself vehemently suspected by this Holy Office of heresy, that is, of having believed and held the doctrine (which is false and contrary to the Holy and Divine Scriptures) that the sun is the center of the world, and that it does not move from east to west, and that the earth does move, and is not the center of the world….We order that by a public edict the book of Dialogues of Galileo Galilei be prohibited, and We condemn thee to the prison of this Holy Office during Our will and pleasure; and as a salutary penance We enjoin on thee that for the space of three years thou shalt recite once a week the Seven Penitential Psalms.”

Many centuries later, a lot has changed but also a lot has not. We do not have churches handing out orders for prosecution of those involved in critical thinking, but there is certainly a structural persecution by the current system that is squeezing the space for knowledge production and education in general, and critical thinking specifically. This might sound a bit surprising given the general rise in education levels of the global population. However, it is precisely this irony – the throttling of the space for knowledge and intellect despite the strides in literacy and (albeit unequal) material progress – that is of interest for us to unpack in the context of contemporary neoliberal academia. 

The marketisation of UK academia 

Critical scholars, such as Paulo Freire and Terry Eaglton, have critically assessed the limits – and the disastrous impacts – of the way knowledge is produced in universities under capitalism, and also specifically under neoliberalism. The story of our times, however, can be criticised even by invoking Adam Smith, the alleged ‘father’ of modern mainstream economics, who advocated the need to keep education and health sectors outside the market sphere. However, academia has in recent decades been through a phase of privatisation, where students are turned into consumers who can ‘buy’ a degree, teachers and universities turned into ‘sellers’, and different universities are compelled to compete as private players to provide the most shiny commodity  Particularly in UK academia, where we are currently both embroiled in an industrial dispute, this started to have an impact with the dramatic expansion of the higher education sector in the wake of the 1992 “Further and Higher Education Act”, which created many more universities and led to a sharp increase in student numbers. As the government did not increase its funding to universities proportionately, the amount of money available to pay for teaching a student quickly fell. As Jonathan Hopkin recently put it, this set the stage for “the financialization of the student experience”. This set many things in motion: instead of education being geared towards developing students to think critically, university degrees were transformed into consumer products that could signal an individual’s worth in the labour markets; students were transformed into consumers while being offered loans to pay for the rising fees and given the option to rate their consumer experience; many faculty and staff were either being made redundant or precarious to cut costs of these ‘university enterprises’; investment funds and investors, despite being outside academia, were increasingly given power to determine what should be the direction of knowledge creation.

While the neoliberalisation of academia is a global phenomenon, let’s dig into the case of the UK for a moment: There has been a drastic increase in the use of precarious labour, a real pay cut of 18% over the past 12 years, a rise in unmanageable workloads and persistent gender and pay gaps of 16% and 17%, respectively (for discussions of other contexts, see e.g. Brazil, South Africa, United States, India). There are literally cases of lecturers being homeless because of the unstable and low pay offered in precarious jobs. On the flip side, student fees have ballooned, which has led staff and students to stand together to ask “where are these increased fees going?”. However, one does not have to look far to figure out where the money is going. Indeed,  the salaries of Vice-Chancellors (the top position in a UK university) have also ballooned recently, with 9 VCs collectively earning £4.45 million annually, and universities have embarked on construction sprees, building new glossy buildings to attract students from across the world. The inequalities and damaging labour conditions this has led to is what the #FourFights strike in the UK is about. To make the situation worse, the recent proposed reforms in student debt rules in the UK will see many graduates spend all of their working lives to pay back the student loans and the reforms are likely to be most costly to students of low-income backgrounds. 

Has the economics discipline contributed to this change?

This may be a crisis of higher education itself, but the economics discipline has provided fuel to this fodder. First, the marketization of higher education is squarely in line with what many in the mainstream of the economics field would expect and approve of, as the field has provided a strong foundation for arguments to be made about privatisation and deregulation providing the most efficient outcomes. This move has continued despite the mounting and increasingly unsustainable student debt burden across the UK and the US in particular.

Second, the recent move towards a ‘theory free’ economic fix (à la Banerjee-Kramer-Duflo) makes it difficult to provide a holistic and structural analysis of the theoretical foundations of such a turn in academia. It has not come into being in vacuum and cannot be ‘fixed’ by ‘plumbing’ leaks. On the contrary, the entire model of neoliberal academia has been politically engineered as a part of the broader neoliberal turn of capitalism (see Eaglton’s take). One of the reasons for the strikes in the UK is precisely the impact of this neoliberal turn on academic staff. 

Third, economics education has itself become increasingly narrow and instrumentalist in its approach to learning, as contemporary economics students gain limited exposure to critical questioning of fundamental philosophical and political premises of economic theories. This aids in creating a generation of economists that do not question the economic structures that have produced this unequal, precarious, and unsustainable academic system. Relatedly, mainstream economics departments, especially those at the ‘top’ of the spectrum, whose degrees are in high demand, remain relatively insulated from many impacts of fund cuts, while the critical spaces where students are more actively encouraged to question and critique  – which that exist to a larger extent at the margins of the higher education hierarchy – face a sharper brunt. 

During the Cold War the marginalisation and exclusion of critical economists in the US was aggressive – as is well documented by Fred Lee (2009)  and others. However, such exclusions did not stop with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Only last year, the University of Leicester targeted left-wing academics with redundancies based on their strategic goal of ‘wanting to shed critical management scholarship’ and move towards a more ‘mainstream’ outlook. Similarly, Goldsmiths is threatening to make staff redundant in the departments of English and History, which is threatening the future of the UK’s only taught MA in Black British History (see here for a recent US example). When students are viewed as consumers and universities simply attempt to supply the commodity in highest demand, we risk seeing further cuts to radical staff and departments across the world in favour of more market-friendly degrees such as Management, Business and mainstream Economics. In Brazil, diversity of academic perspectives in economics is being threatened by strong disciplinary, institutional and wider political pressures with both domestic and global roots. In India, there has been an active attempt to suppress critical thinking and political consciousness of students by attacking centres of critical education, along with a move to promote privatisation in Education. 

The impact of marketisation on critical thinking

The developments outlined so far – marketisation, deregulation, precarisation, and deterioration of working conditions  – are a threat to both critical thinking and to material improvements to inequalities we see both in the higher education sector and in the world more broadly. 

With the major inequalities and high levels of insecurity we now have in the sector, the risks of rocking the boat and challenging authority becomes even greater. This lays the foundation for power abuses such as the recent Comaroff case becoming even more rife. Rather than critically scrutinising and challenging the rigid hierarchies in academia, young researchers are strongly incentivized to fall in line. This situation is worse for women, people of colour, and scholars from working class backgrounds, who already do not fit the profile of what an academic is meant to look like. 

What’s more, the developments are a serious threat to those calling for a decolonisation of universities. As Priyamvada Gopal put it in a recent teach-out on the Cambridge picket line: “decolonisation cannot take a place in an institution that capitulates to marketising ideologies and its attendant consequences.” For example, the Rhodes Must Fall movement in South Africa, which spurred the contemporary movements for decolonising the university in the UK, was accompanied by the Fees Must Fall campaign. One cannot fundamentally challenge imperialism, Eurocentrism, structural racism or sexism in an institution driven by market logic. So, while the  #FourFights industrial action is about labour rights and equality, it has much broader implications, as it pushes for a university where it is possible for academics – regardless of identity – to challenge the structures that we find ourselves within. Given the dire situation and lack of willingness within the sector to address it, various academic activist initiatives have appeared in recent years to address precisely this, such as Diversifying and Decolonising Economics (D-Econ). 

If we are to address the urgent crises that stand before us such as the climate crisis, the covid pandemic, and rising poverty and inequality, we need to have safe, stable and secure spaces where academics and students can learn and think critically about what kind of society we want and how to achieve it. If this is not facilitated, the persecutions of many Gallelios will continue and we will soon be a lost generation who are unable to produce critical and creative knowledge despite making strides on material production. The university, students, and staff are on the picket lines shouting “eppur Si muov” (Galleio’s last words, as inscribed on his gravestone: But the Earth does move!). While the employers are attempting to turn a deaf ear to these shouts, the labour union is escalating industrial action. We go into a new round of strikes now because the employers are undermining workers’ rights and conditions, but also because we believe a better, more radical, and socially relevant university is both necessary and possible. In doing so, we highlight that this turn in academia is not a natural and necessary evolution, but rather a consequence of a series of choices by employers and the State; an ‘ideological fixation’, if you will.    

Surbhi Kesar is a Lecturer in the Department of Economics at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, and Ingrid Kvangraven is a Lecturer in the Department of International Development at King’s College, London (KCL). Both of them are members of the Steering Group of Diversifying and Decolonising Economics (D-Econ).