Neoliberalism, Marketisation, and Higher Education – University of West London public professorial lecture

I attended this talk as part of my employer University of West London’s public lecture series, to which all are invited and welcome.

Roger Brown is emeritus Professor of Higher Education Policy at Liverpool Hope University, and was previously Vice Chancellor of Southampton Solent University. His work focuses on higher education, public policy, and inequality. An audio recording of the lecture is linked above; Brown spoke without using slides so audio-only works OK.

My university has a focus on widening participation, which I believe benefits society in many ways including raising aspiration and attainment, and social mobility. My interest in this talk as an education worker was to understand better how marketisation has affected those aspects of education that promote equality, social mobility, and the development of informed and democratically-engaged citizens.

The analytical parts of the talk concentrated on links between education policy and political economy, with a foundational argument that marketisation of education is how politicians and policy-makers have employed neoliberal praxes to reshape higher education provision—alongside almost all social relations. Brown dated the commencement of marketisation of English higher education from 1979 to the present day, starting with the reforms of Margaret Thatcher’s government and continued through successive Conservative and Labour administrations: those of market deregulation, privatisation, and undermining of the power of organised labour. This will be a familiar story to many of us; policy-wise the basic idea is that education policy is formed from an assumption that the primary purpose of education is economic, and that it should be both valued and measured in those terms.

Briefly, Brown went far beyond what I had expected and provided us a scathing critique of neoliberal economic praxis. He based his argument on the inconsistent delivery of promised economic benefits under neoliberal governance; the contradictions in the dependence on government to introduce and reinforce neoliberal policies; and the incoherence of neoliberal economic theory itself. However, the effect of marketisation goes beyond simple competition for students, staff, and funding and the uncertainty this creates for universities. Brown argues there has been an increase in ‘distance’ in prestige and a corresponding ‘social distance’ between different universities as a result of neoliberalism, with a direct negative impact on both the creativity of education provision and on widening participation. Counter to expectation, rather than encouraging more diverse and creative ways of delivering higher education we see the opposite emerging: selective universities tend to play it safe and converge on a very similar offer as each other, with elite universities marketing very traditional university experiences to prospective customers.

Considering academic libraries directly we see, for example, how the instability of competition can generate uncertainty for libraries reliant on multi-year subscription deals for information resources and software, and the effect that gold Open Access as a preferred model has had on scholarly communication support and infrastructure. Alongside the effect of introducing real or ersatz markets to education, as Davies argues neoliberalism brings in a tendency to see and understand everything in marketised terms, “expanding the reach of market-based principles and techniques of evaluation” (2017, p. 22). The problems and effects of treating information as a commodity, particularly for scholarly communication, is addressed in detail by Lawson, Sanders, and Smith (2015).

More fundamentally to society, Brown asked us to consider the effect of how universities “being treated as plcs” may lead to them losing public trust in their knowledge creation role, here drawing on Giroux:

“The notion of the university as a center of critique and a vital democratic public sphere that cultivates the knowledge, skills and values necessary for the production of a democratic polity is giving way to a view of the university as a marketing machine essential to the production of neoliberal subjects.” (2014, p.56)

As to what education workers and higher education as a whole can do about this the scale of the challenge seems huge, as Brown said, “We need to aim at rebuilding civil society.” No pressure. Brown argued specifically for increased solidarity between universities and leadership within the sector, particularly for Vice-Chancellors to be visible and willing to speak on issues affecting society rather than narrowly concentrating on issues such as funding of research and teaching.

Afterwards in conversation, I asked Brown how to maintain hope if one loves higher education and wants to work within it for say the next 25-30 years; he said the best thing would be to leave higher education as things probably won’t get better for a generation. I don’t plan to take this advice, but Brown’s refreshing honesty in his talk and generosity with his time to unpack issues raised has provided me with me a huge amount to reflect on and thereby inform practice.

Acknowledgement

With thanks to Kevin Sanders for a suggested addition to the text.

References

Davies, W. (2017) The limits of neoliberalism: authority, sovereignty, and the logic of competition. London: Sage.

Giroux, H. (2014) Neoliberalism’s war on higher education. Chicago, IL: Haymarket.

Lawson, S., Sanders, K., and Smith, L. (2015) ‘Commodification of the information profession: a critique of higher education under neoliberalism’, Journal of Librarianship and Scholarly Communication, 3(1). doi:10.7710/2162-3309.1182

Opportunities in new management and leadership roles

Walkers ascend into fog on Snowdon / Yr Wyddfa by the Snowdon Ranger path, in May 2017.

Last June I started in a new library director role. I’ve not shared any reflective writing recently due to various reasons, but as the end of the calendar year coincided with my first six months in this new role I thought I would do so.

I’ve recently changed how I approach reflective thought and its relationship with practice. In a previous #critlib chat on critical reflection I said that I try to build in reflection in focused bursts as and when I can do it; In my new role this is no longer exactly true. What I have started doing is to use my cycle commute as protected time to think about the issues of the day, using a Stoic approach to reflective self-aware focus and questioning.

The basic idea of this type of Stoic ‘inner work’ is to dissect and get to the bottom of why I am thinking about an issue in a particular way, and to overcome resistance. I rarely find this process leads to straightforward answers or light-bulb moments—rather it leads me to forming and shaping better critical questions about problems. These guide enquiry in a structured way, and provide space to dispassionately work through understanding others’ thoughts and feelings on shared challenges.

Starting in a new role

Coincidentally, Jessica Olin started a new role at almost exactly the same time as me and in Letter From a New Job describes many of the feelings that come with a new administration role, especially the need to pace oneself. I rate Jessica’s writing on leadership and used the same book, Michael Watkins’s The first 90 days, when transitioning into my current role. I’ve recommended it to others several times since re-reading it.

A priority for me on starting was to meet everyone in the library, a solid piece of advice from my professional mentor some years ago which is repeated in Watkins’s book. Doing this alongside initial meetings with heads of department and other senior staff, involvement in various university committees, understanding and absorbing institutional culture and process, and training and other induction activities means this is not speedy.

Meeting everyone helps develop early understanding of the expectations and wishes of the team, and allowed me to ask directly what they think I should focus on. It’s also an opportunity to ensure everyone has heard a few key messages unfiltered from me as the new director, such as my perspectives on educational and library practice and labour. By this I don’t mean bringing the bells hooks and Pierre Bourdieu citations to the first meeting with a new colleague, tempting as this might be; rather I mean that where you place emphasis and and how you link personal standards and professional ethics to the work helps in building credibility.

Additionally I am line-managing a new team in my direct reports, who with me comprise the library senior management team. Inheriting an established team that already is performing well provided a wonderful opportunity to thoughtfully consider approaches to existing processes and our decision-making, and design some ‘norms’ for team-working with input from everyone. On a surface level I’ve found these conversations help align expectations about how team members prefer to work, but more deeply they have helped my understanding of the interplay of social structure and human agency (informed here by Anthony Giddens’s theory of structuration) in the social life of the leadership team.

I’ve found it important to be clear and explicit in how I value or weight different aspects of colleagues’ work as managers and leaders. For example, we can consciously place importance on emotional labour in line-management and peer relationships, acknowledging and recognizing it as core to the role and rewarding it as such. We can pay mindful attention to difference in how colleagues work when confronted with uncertainty and other stressors, and how different approaches to making meaning can be combined to provide more insightful pictures than the view of a few individuals.

In working with the additional ambiguity and uncertainty a more senior role brings, I will share some excellent advice from a previous line manager about the need to quickly and accurately discern the “signal from the noise” in strategic situations. Reading Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, fast and slow I understand this idea as an expression of skill that must be developed in senior roles:

The acquisition of skills requires a regular environment, and adequate opportunity to practice, and rapid and unequivocal feedback about the correctness of thoughts and actions. When these conditions are fulfilled, skill eventually develops, and the intuitive judgments and choices that quickly come to mind will mostly be accurate. […] A marker of skilled performance is the ability to deal with vast amounts of information swiftly and efficiently. (Kahneman, 2012. p. 416)

Reflectively though, I would add to this a need to understand what is “noise” is always subjective and relative, perhaps personal, and certainly can be contested. Daniel Kahneman’s work is replete with insight into the psychology of judgment and cognitive bias, and I read it after completing workplace unconscious bias training run for us by an Equality Challenge Unit trainer which cemented that learning. It is one of just a few books I would recommend all higher education workers to read (another is bell hooks’s Teaching to transgress).

A note on the performative in management

I wrote a little about performativity in management in Professional identity, impostor syndrome, and performativity:

Management is fundamentally performative: expressing power by a mode of authoritative speech, a case of actions embodied in “Doing things with words” (Learmonth, 2005).

Since starting in my current role have thought a lot about the relationship between performative speech and power in management roles and leadership situations. The concept of ‘performativity’ used here goes back to J.L. Austin’s notion of performative utterances (or performatives), but importantly for our purposes Jean-François Lyotard’s understanding of the role of performativity in governing the legitimation of knowledge in postmodernity and the implications this has when inspecting power structures and relationships.

In management and leadership, this legitimating role can both aid the creation and development of shared or common understandings, and also in my view is central to how managers exercise power in speech-acts. The view that “words are deeds” runs contrary to the tendency to privilege action as something concrete, practical, and more authentically meaningful than words are, particularly when there is a clear need for transformative action such as political activism. I feel though this is a false comparison, as in management roles and leadership situations there are many highly practical choices made where we act to translate words as deeds. For example, what and who we focus attention on, centre, and prioritize; how we explain our views and beliefs; as well as how we employ words to build support for and set in motion actions.

In my view a key task for managers is balancing the pragmatic such as compromise and coalition-building, with the need to retain—and be seen to retain—an authentic position which is congruent with one’s values. It may be tempting to think of words as tools to create messages for different audiences, only loosely connected with those values. On considering the use of words as performatives I will end on a cautionary insight I have found particularly valuable from Sara Ahmed’s analysis of how words are employed by diversity workers in higher education, from On being included:

A political question becomes the extent to which we can separate ourselves from the words we use. […] If we do things with words, then words can also do things to us. We don’t always know what they will do. (Ahmed, 2012. p.75)

References

Austin, J.L. (1975) How to do things with words. 2nd edn. Reprint, Oxford: Oxford University, 2011.

Ahmed, S. (2012) On being included. Durham, NC: Duke University.

Giddens, A. (1984) The constitution of society. Cambridge: Polity.

hooks, b. (1994) Teaching to transgress. London: Routledge.

Kahneman, D. (2012) Thinking, fast and slow. London: Penguin.

Learmonth, M. (2005) ‘Doing things with words: the case of “management” and “administration”’, Public Administration 83(3), pp. 617–637. doi:10.1111/j.0033-3298.2005.00465.x

Lyotard, J.F.  (1984) The postmodern condition. Manchester: Manchester University.

Watkins, M.D. (2003) The first 90 days. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School.

Why don’t libraries share the results of UX work?

While conferencing at ELAG 2016, Simon made this suggestion for improving collaboration among libraries doing user experience (UX) work on their systems:

I’ve been thinking on-and-off about the question implied in Simon’s second tweet – the reasons libraries do not generally share results of user experience testing of their systems. Below I discuss some of these, which are drawn from examples from people with first-hand knowledge from academic libraries.

“Not all libraries…”

I know many libraries do share their results and analyses, whether more formally in articles, books or book chapters and conference presentations, or more informally in blog posts, conversations, and social media. I am extremely grateful for any and all sharing of this type.

What about libraries that are doing such work but not reporting it? When I know about such work, though it requires extra effort I have had good success asking colleagues about their findings. People are usually generous with sharing – sometimes surprised in the interest, but delighted to be asked about their work. In my experience the trick to doing this effectively is:

  • Knowing that others have been doing something in the first place, for which an active stance towards professional networking helps enormously.
  • Finding the best way to engage colleagues on their terms, and making it easy for them to help you. If you’re nearby offer to visit, or set up a video chat; ask for an hour of conversation rather than anything in writing or a presentation. Manage the time and conversation effectively: focus on what you are asking about; be explicit about asking for honest opinions; always ask about lessons learned.

Why we don’t share

Time and money

By this I primarily mean a lack of time and money to refine the work into something publishable by traditional routes, such as a peer-reviewed journal or presenting results at conferences. I think this is a huge barrier, and I have no simple answers. There is an huge qualitative difference between libraries that invest time and money in this way and those that do not, which is only really apparent with experience.

There are alternative routes. For me the actuality of dissemination and sharing always trumps the esteem in which a particular route of communication is held. Some of the most effective project communications I have seen are blog posts that summarize progress and demonstrate the momentum and trajectory of the work simply with clear and engaging text. This is the kind of work I or a team member would expect to do as part of internal project communication, so text can be reused with reworking for an outside audience.

For events, workarounds such as unconferences and similar events are a lower-cost approach, but these aren’t without issues. Events with no registration fee still favour those privileged in various ways. Even if one can attend unconferences these don’t always attract an audience with enough specialist knowledge, or are not promoted in a way that will attract such an audience. This may sound contrary to the Open Space Technology principle that “Whoever comes [are] the right people” (Owen, 2008), but in practice OST principles depend on a lot of work behind the scenes and careful management on the day to be effective.

Culture

By this I mean the overall stance of the library towards engagement with their sector and understanding of the value of sharing, as a cultural factor. Having a budget for conference attendance and other development activity is not enough if your workplace does not value this type of professional engagement in and of itself, or does not have confidence in staff ability or value the work. In practice this may manifest more subtly in general discouragement and ‘lack of permission’ from managers in the organization, or not sending staff operationally involved in project work to events to speak and network with peers.

Competitive edge

I have heard an argument that we should not give away findings that could help competitors elsewhere in our sector, sometimes scaffolded by belief that as contemporary universities exist in a competitive market they should behave more like private companies. I disagree with the ideological foundation of this argument, but it is logical in acknowledging the reality of a market that has been deliberately created and fostered by government. At Library Camp in 2012, Liz Jolly and I argued that:

Universities have a culture of sharing both internally and externally, and also between those working in the same disciplines across institutions. Furthermore, both within and without higher education, librarianship is a particularly collaborative profession.

(Preater, 2012)

We could remove some of the ideological focus, and simply ask if the investment of time and effort to communicate our work might be less worthwhile than the other things we could spend it on. Above I argue that communication strategies in projects or otherwise should provide you with reusable material, but looking at this strategically I think skipping communication is ultimately detrimental to your library.

To be sure, there are benefits to individual staff in building their professional profile and to the library in being seen as a place ‘where things happen’ and viewed as forward-thinking, including in recruiting and retaining staff. Additionally though, I see an advantage in shaping the speed and direction of thinking as a form of technological leadership in the sector, creating the ‘discursive formation’ (in the sense Foucault describes, for example in part II of The archaeology of knowledge, 1972) of user experience rather than waiting for others to do so.

In communicating our work and engaging our community in discourse we define the content of the discursive formation, of the body of knowledge, in what is still a relatively new and not yet fully-established area. Communication has power in and of itself in bringing in to existence this body of knowledge, and while the practice of user experience is contested, early movers are able to establish how the ‘truth’ of this practice is created and sustained, in our particular context.

For me this idea explains some of the meaning behind practitioners such as Andy Priestner stating, two years ago, that “UX in libraries is a thing now” (2014, emphasis mine), and from experience I would gauge this kind of engagement as putting you between two to three years ahead of libraries that are not doing so.

External validity or being ‘too special’

In this I include disbelief in the external validity of the work, or belief in the necessity of such validity as a precursor to sharing. ‘External validity’ means the extent to which the findings from particular research can be generalized beyond the specific context of the work. I first heard this argument when I was a participant in a library usability study, and naively asked the librarians how they were going to share their results – turns out they weren’t. Some libraries are indeed unusual in themselves, or attract an unusual user base, or both, but there is also a cultural aspect to this problem. Without deliberately maintaining wider awareness, we can lose perspective and end up believing it ourselves: thinking our service is ‘very complex’ or our situation ‘highly unusual’ when it is not particularly so.

My counter-argument is the commonalities between library services and membership mean ideas and concepts are often very transferable. Include some caveats or ‘health warnings’ on your results by all means, but let us weigh things up. Let us include you in our ongoing analysis. This is one reason I value making the theoretical underpinning of the approaches we use in our work explicit when describing what we are doing.

Fear of criticism, lack of confidence in the work

In this reason I include anything in the general space of a wish not to have one’s work critiqued, research methods problematized, or particular choices judged by others in the community. Perfectionism on our part can also play into and amplify this. All engagement in professional discourse includes some measure of risk-taking as there is implicit openness to criticism: speaking at a conference or using a platform or network where replying is easy invites replies. Criticism is tempting as it can be relatively easy for a clever person to say something high-impact. You could do as Ian suggests and start a blog and turn off the comments, but people can (and do) comment on your work elsewhere…

I experienced this recently (with my manager and her manager in the room) when a recording of a user from a piece of UX research was shown that could be interpreted as strongly critical of my project team’s work. This was extremely difficult to accept at the time, but on considered reflection seeing an interpreted piece of feedback was valuable, as it spurred ongoing development and provoked questioning of design choices that had seemed well-founded based on our research.

My recommendation is to trust your judgement if you are on top of your professional development, spend adequate time reflecting-on-action, and test your ideas by taking a critical stance toward your methods and work – including opinions and perspectives from peers. On this subject I recommend Elly’s post on ‘professional confidence’ (O’Brien, 2015). This is a great post that really bears re-reading as part of reflective practice in judging our own expertise and focusing where best to develop skills.

Concluding thoughts

Simon is right in that there is no central location for sharing results of our user experience work. I would love to see something like this created, with low or no barrier to entry so all practitioners could contribute. I think for academic libraries a space on the helibtech wiki could be a good starting point for collaboration. This is a slightly selfish request as in my workplace we maintain a list (a wiki page) of reports, presentations, industry white papers and so on about systems user experience, and used these in developing and shaping ideas for our ongoing research and development.

Absent such a location, I want to encourage practitioners to share their work. We want to hear what you have to say – share your methods, results, and conclusions where you can, as doing so contributes to and shapes discovery user experience as a professional practice.

References

Foucault, M. (1972) The archaeology of knowledge. New York, NY: Vintage.

O’Brien, E. (2015) ‘Professional confidence and “imposter syndrome”‘, Elly O’Brien, June 29. Available at: https://ellyob.wordpress.com/2015/06/29/professional-confidence/

Owen, H. (2008) Open space technology: a user’s guide. 3rd edn. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler.

Preater, A. (2012) ‘Free and Open Source software and cultural change, at Library Camp 2012’, Ginformation Systems, 15 October. Available at: https://www.preater.com/2012/10/15/free-software-and-cultural-change-at-libcampuk12/

Priestner, A. (2014) ‘Why UX in libraries is a thing now’, Business Librarians Association conference, Leicester, 11 July. Available at: http://www.slideshare.net/AndyPriestner1/why-ux-in-libraries-is-a-thing-now-36899649