Saturday, April 27, 2013

The neoliberal assault on academia

Aljazeera,  25 Apr 2013 08:30


The neoliberal sacking of the universities runs much deeper than tuition hikes and budget cuts, notes Barkawi.

Students are increasingly unwilling to take on massive debt for jobs they have little confidence of getting [EPA]

The New York Times, Slate and Al Jazeera have recently drawn attention to the adjunctification of the professoriate in the US. Only 24 per cent of the academic workforce are now tenured or tenure-track.
Much of the coverage has focused on the sub-poverty wages of adjunct faculty, their lack of job security and the growing legions of unemployed and under-employed PhDs. Elsewhere, the focus has been on web-based learning and the massive open online courses (MOOCs), with some commentators celebrating and others lamenting their arrival.
The two developments are not unrelated. Harvard recently asked its alumni to volunteer their time as "online mentors" and "discussion group managers" for an online course. Fewer professors and fewer qualified - or even paid - teaching assistants will be required in higher education's New Order.
Lost amid the fetishisation of information technology and the pathos of the struggle over proper working conditions for adjunct faculty is the deeper crisis of the academic profession occasioned by neoliberalism. This crisis is connected to the economics of higher education but it is not primarily about that.
The neoliberal sacking of the universities runs much deeper than tuition fee hikes and budget cuts.
Thatcherite budget-cutting exercise 
The professions are in part defined by the fact that they are self-governing and self-regulating. For many years now, the professoriate has not only been ceding power to a neoliberal managerial class, but has in many cases been actively collaborating with it.
As a dose of shock capitalism, the 2008 financial crisis accelerated processes already well underway. In successive waves, the crisis has hit each pillar of the American university system. The initial stock market crash blasted the endowments of the prestige private universities. Before long, neoliberal ideologues and their disastrous austerity policies undermined state and eventually federal funding for universities and their research.
Tuition soared and students turned even more to debt financing. Now that bubble is bursting and hitting all the institutions of higher education that depend on tuition. Students are increasingly unwilling to take on massive debt for jobs they have little confidence of getting.
The upshot is to soften the resistance of faculty to change, in part by making people fear for their jobs but mostly by creating a generalised sense of crisis. It becomes all the easier for some academic "leaders" to be drawn up into the recurrent task of "reinventing" the university.
Here is the intersection with neoliberal management culture. Neoliberal managers thrive not by bringing in new resources - since austerity is always the order of the day - but by constantly rearranging the deck chairs. Each manager seeks to reorganise and restructure in order to leave his or her mark. They depart for the next lucrative job before the ship goes under.
One consequence is the mania for mergers of departments and faculties in the US and the UK. In both the university and corporate world, mergers are not only demoralising for staff, but they also break up solidarities and destroy traditions and make staff much more amenable to control from above.
Such projects have little to do with academic excellence or even purposes, and often are self-defeating as the managers and the quislings among the professoriate who assist them have little idea what they are doing.
One of the only things the University of Birmingham was ever known for in the wider world was its Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies. In 2002, the Centre was shut down by fiat in an act of vandalism described as "restructuring". The justification given for this was yet another neoliberal exercise then known as the Research Assessment Exercise, or RAE.
 US universities to consider
positive discrimination
In US terms, post-tenure review is an imperfect analogy for the salutary and depressing tale of the RAE. Invented by Margaret Thatcher's government, the basic idea is to rank all the departments in any one discipline and channel funding to the "best" departments, while cutting funding to the rest. The RAE was an assault on the basic idea of a university - the universe of knowledge - since universities would lose poor performing departments.
In neoliberal speak, this may sound very sensible. But imagine what happens to, say, physics and biology students, when, as the University of Exeter did, the chemistry department is shut down. Who will teach them chemistry?
More to the point, how do you judge which is "best"? For this, the RAE needed the willing and active collaboration of the professoriate.
When I first held a UK academic post in the relatively early days of the RAE in the late 1990s, academics talked about it as if it were just some form they had to fill out, an annoying bureaucratic exercise that would not really affect us. Others, academic "leaders", saw it as an opportunity to do down their colleagues in other universities and channel funds to their own departments.
Neoliberal assault on the universities 
In this way, the professors themselves helped to administer and legitimate a Thatcherite budget-cutting exercise. Worse, they participated in what they know to be a fiction: that you can rank scholarly research like you can restaurants or hotels so as to determine which departments have the "best" faculty.
Little more than a decade later - and now known as the Research Excellence Framework (REF) - this five-yearly exercise completely dominates UK academic life. It determines hiring patterns, career progression, and status and duties within departments. It organises the research projects of individual scholars so as to meet arbitrary deadlines. It has created space for a whole class of paid consultants who rank scholarship and assist in putting together REF returns.
UK academics regularly talk about each other's work in terms of whether this or that book or article is "three star" or "four star". Again, for those attuned to neoliberal ways of thinking, this may appear natural. But remember that the entire point of university research is conversation and contestation over what is true and right. In the natural sciences, as in the social sciences and humanities, one person's truth is another person's tosh, and valid knowledge emerges from the clash of many different perspectives.
Somehow, UK professors have become intimately bound up in administering and legitimating a government-run exercise that now shapes more of university life than they themselves do. They have actively ceded their power.
US faculty need to keep this travesty in mind.
Something as apparently innocuous as an accreditation agency demanding that syllabi be written in a particular format, or majors justified in a particular way, can wind up empowering university management to intimately regulate teaching. A meaningless buzzword in the mouth of a dean, such as "new majority student", might in practice help legitimate the hiring of less qualified faculty. After all, if "teacher ownership of content" is old fashioned, why do you need to hire a professor who can create his or her own course?
The bottom line of the neoliberal assault on the universities is the increasing power of management and the undermining of faculty self-governance. The real story behind MOOCs may be the ways in which they assist management restructuring efforts of core university practices, under the smiley-faced banner of "open access" and assisted in some cases by their "superstar", camera-ready professors.
Meanwhile, all those adjunct faculty are far more subject to managerial control and regulation than are tenured professors. Aside from their low cost, that is one of the principal reasons why they are so attractive to university managers.
Tarak Barkawi is Associate Professor in the Department of Politics, New School for Social Research.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

No Grade One admissions in 275 schools

Ceylon Today, Saturday, 27 Apr 2013
Not a single student has been admitted to the grade one classes of 275 schools in the country, Minister of Education, Bandula Gunawardena told Parliament yesterday.

He said there are 2,123 schools in the country to which the grade one admissions were less than ten students.

The minister said there are 123 schools, which had only one Grade One admission, 143 schools, which had admitted only two students, 181 schools, which admitted three students, 210 schools, which admitted only four students and 223 schools that received only five Grade One admissions.

The minister said there are 963 schools which had admitted six to nine students for the Grade One classes, and added that the situation was a result of the attitude of parents to get their children admitted to popular schools in the cities. It had also resulted in a poor student-teacher ratio of five to one in the rural schools, the minister said. During the last seven months, 36 schools in rural areas had been closed down owing to there being less number of students.

The minister said this in response to a query raised by Kurunegala District UNP MP Akila Viraj Kariyawasam.

Tiny state’s disaster belies big lessons

The Island, April 1, 2013, 12:00 pm

by Jonathan Eyal

A racially diverse island ruled by the British gets its independence during the 1960s, despite the doubtful noises of its neighbours, who believe that it could never be viable. The newly created island-state possesses neither raw materials nor much land, but still develops a prosperous economy by diversifying into banking, commercial services, shipping and tourism. Need further help in guessing the name of that country?

Perhaps you do, for this is the story of Cyprus, a nation which, in return for avoiding bankruptcy, has now agreed to the destruction of its banking system, accounting for about 10 per cent of national wealth. And although no two countries are the same, how Cyprus ended up in this tragic situation and how this squalid, miserable episode could have been averted remains a tale of crucial importance to all small and medium-sized countries, including Singapore.

The Cypriots may detest being reminded of this, but the fact remains that when they recently came cap-in-hand to Europe, they attracted no sympathy.

For early on in its independent existence, Cyprus flunked its most essential national test: that of maintaining harmony between the majority ethnic Greeks and the minority Turkish population. The result was a 1974 coup d’etat fomented by neighbouring Greece, followed by a military intervention from neighbouring Turkey which divided the island along sectarian lines.

Since then, the Cypriot Greeks have held the rest of Europe to ransom in their obsession to regain their lost land, preferably without re-absorbing their Turkish minority. The Greek-dominated Cypriot government rejected a 2004 plan sponsored by then United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan to reunite the island. And it blocked every effort to forge an urgently needed strategic relationship between Europe and Turkey. Cyprus’ behaviour exasperated European Union governments for decades. Those Cypriots who now bemoan the lack of solidarity from Europe are well-advised to recall that their government offered little solidarity to the rest of the continent.

The EU not blameless

Still, none of this should absolve EU leaders from their own responsibility. For the path that led to Cyprus’ current crisis - big banks bereft of money, a government in disarray and citizens filled with angry despair - goes back to October 2011, when the EU finance ministers, those supposed guardians of financial discipline, decided at a secretive meeting in the dead of night to slash the value of Greek bonds in order to reduce Greece’s debt.

That "haircut" was bound to affect Cypriot banks, which held large amounts of Greek bonds. As Mr Charles Dallara, the lead representative for the banking industry at that time now admits, it was "very clear that the effect of the Greek deal on Cypriot banks would be severe".

"But the tendency in Brussels is to let these things drift, so nothing was done," he explains.

In fact, EU governments did worse than that: They turned a blind eye to the subsequent cover-up. Repeated health checks by the European Banking Authority before the Cyprus crisis erupted revealed significant concerns about banks in Spain, Greece or Austria but not a single one in Cyprus, despite the fact that as early as January last year the European Central Bank was providing "emergency loans" worth 430 million euros (US$551 million) to the Laiki Bank whose recent collapse pulled down the entire Cypriot economy. The idea that, somehow, Europe was surprised by Cyprus’ impending bankruptcy should be dismissed for what it is: patent nonsense.

And equally nonsensical is the argument that Cyprus had to suffer because its banks shielded illicit money from Russia. The really big Russian oligarchs - those who roll billions between their diamond-ringed fingers - have had no trouble buying football clubs in Britain or yachts and palaces on the French Riviera. The top oligarchs were also invited to sit on the boards of German oil and gas companies and, perhaps more enjoyably, attend the "bunga bunga" parties of Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s merry-making former prime minister. Cyprus’ "sin" was not that it attracted doubtful Russian money but that it served as home to the cash of the small fry rather than the big fish, people who could be ignored and whose deposits could be wiped out.

German morality theatre

But the real explanation for the almost obsessive desire to punish Cyprus is that Germany, which acts as Europe’s ultimate bankroller, increasingly treats the euro currency crisis as a religious morality play between the supposedly serious nations of northern Europe who work hard and save for a rainy day, and the allegedly flippant, lazy countries of southern Europe who live on borrowed cash. So, no money is advanced unless the recipients are made to suffer penance and flagellation in public, and in the most humiliating circumstances.

Underlining this morality play is also a prevailing sense of hatred about global banking centres. This is partly due to sheer envy: Paris and Frankfurt tried to become such banking centres but, since both failed, the French and the German governments like to dismiss other bank centres as mere "tax havens", supposed dens of iniquity.

The hatred of banking centres is also buttressed by the prevailing mood among ordinary Europeans, who increasingly want banks to act as just glorified safekeeping vaults, safeguarding the hard-earned pension savings of old ladies and occasionally lending to family-owned businesses, preferably at zero interest rates and without taking any risk.

European leaders know that’s just primitive economics, and that some famously conservative banks can be just as reckless. That, after all, was the experience of Japan’s banks during the 1980s, when they financed one of the biggest property bubbles in modern history. Still, few European politicians are prepared to contradict their public on this score, so both the French and German finance ministers took great pleasure in dismissing Cyprus as a "casino economy". It was an underhand, unnecessarily offensive remark, but one which presumably played well with voters back home.

The result was not a bailout, but utter destruction. Cyprus’ debt will rise to 120 per cent of its national wealth. The country has just lost its core banking industry and has nothing to replace it with: It cannot hope to claw its way back to viability with a tourist boom because the euro currency has made it shockingly expensive. But it cannot leave the euro either, because nobody would prop it up. Ultimately, Cyprus was crucified because it was small: Its fate did not matter, so European leaders enjoyed kicking it about.

Prudent governance needed

But, far from providing an ominous warning about the inherent vulnerability of all small nations, Cyprus can offer them a salutary, constructive lesson.

The fact that Cyprus had a banking sector eight times bigger than the national economy should not be viewed as a source of weakness: Switzerland thrives for over a century on higher multiples than that, as does Luxembourg where bank assets are 22.5 times the size of the tiny state’s economy. What may be required, however, is to improve the capital ratios of the banks, to increase the cushions they have if some of their investments turn sour. Top-notch banking supervision is also a must. But none of this suggests that a banking centre cannot remain much bigger than the country in which it is located.

Furthermore, a nation can compensate for its small size through good governance, harmonious ethnic relations at home, the avoidance of disputes with neighbours and the cultivation of a positive image as a stakeholder in the global community.

Small nations may also need larger-than-usual currency reserves, and should also retain some mystery about the true value of their national financial assets, if only in order to keep others guessing about the muscle they can muster in times of need. For, as Cyprus’ recent experience illustrates, nobody will be willing to pick them up should they stumble. And quite a few would take great pleasure in inflicting pain, particularly if the nation which finds itself in need relies on banking services for its economic well-being.

"Better die on your feet than live on your knees," one defiant placard among the throngs of protesters in Nicosia, the Cypriot capital, read last week. Sadly, that’s no longer an option for the Cypriots, who are already on their knees and may not survive the economic ordeal either.

Yet there’s no reason other nations should ever repeat Cyprus’ sad experience.

(The Strait Times/ANN)