Neoliberalism, Brexit, and Higher Education

Is Brexit bad for UK universities? This appears to be the question at the centre of an article from the Times Higher Education titled “UK researchers face uncertainty over EU grant applications” (David Matthews, June 29, 2016), which was approvingly reprinted in the Bulletin of the Canadian Association of University Teachers (Vol. 63, No. 7, September, 2016, p. 7). It’s peculiar that CAUT would republish this piece, which is not based on facts as much as fear, since CAUT has taken a fairly consistent, hard line in its criticisms of the impact of neoliberalism on higher education. Is it that CAUT’s writers only have a problem with neoliberalism when it adversely affects established traditions in post-secondary education in Canada, but otherwise have no problem with neoliberalism as such? That might explain the odd dualism.

Drawing on comments from the former president of the European Research Council, Helga Nowotny, David Matthews writes that, “UK academics could face dwindling chances of winning European research grants following the vote to leave the European Union”. Nowotny apparently suggested that, “the Brexit vote has thrown future UK participation in multibillion-euro research programmes into doubt, with some European researchers saying that they would now no longer launch joint applications with UK colleagues”. Nowotny is clearly speculative in her comments—but much more definitive in making the following pronouncement:

“In any case, Brexit is bad for UK science, for European science and for all of us. Like in sports, once a high-level competitor is lost, the game also suffers. Overall quality may decrease, and it will also be less fun to compete.” (emphasis added)

At first glance, the assertion makes no sense, and it is made without any attempt at substantiation. How is it that “science” can suddenly only flourish in increasingly authoritarian, neoliberal integration regimes? What about the centuries of British science that occurred before the European Union was even a name? Why do scientists need national sovereignty to be vaporized before they can communicate and collaborate? Will they stop skyping and emailing each other because of Brexit?

One would be right to suspect that, in the name of what is “good for science,” certain academics are grinding a neoliberal political axe. After all, they belong to the same class of “experts” that almost universally condemned Brexit (who also believed it would never happen), a class of experts in institutions that have become most closely aligned with the current neoliberal global order. In fact, the politicking behind the scientific façade becomes more apparent later in Matthews’ piece: “It has been suggested that the UK’s future participation in EU research programmes may turn on whether a new deal with the EU allows for free movement of people, a crucial campaign issue that has split victorious pro-Brexit politicians”. Then it also turns out that the real “concern” is in fact about those UK researchers who have been working so far without any apparent need for EU research schemes: Iain Gillespie, pro vice-chancellor for research and enterprise at the University of Leicester, remarked that, “the challenge is going to be getting researchers who have not much engaged in Europe so far to do so now under these conditions of uncertainty”. The article ends with an official comment from the European Research Council, that everything being said right now is just speculation. Had that comment been placed at the start of Matthews’ article, there might have been no need for the article.

The EU and the Neoliberal Commodification of Education

CAUT itself missed a great opportunity to critique what neoliberal globalization has done, and might still do, to higher education in Europe, one that would have cast Brexit in a significantly different light. For that I am going to turn to Christoph Scherrer’s, “The Role of GATS in the Commodification of Education,” which was published in Bernd Hamm & Russell Smandych (Eds.), Cultural Imperialism: Essays on the Political Economy of Cultural Domination (pp. 167-190), Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005.

On the eve of the founding of the World Trade Organization (WTO), the European Union and its member states signed an undertaking in 1994, with other states soon to be members of the WTO, that would “guarantee free market access and equal treatment for most domestic and non-domestic providers in most areas of education” (Scherrer, 2005, p. 167). What was at stake was the deregulation and privatization of education, as Scherrer points out. English-language education providers would be permitted to deliver their services across borders, especially in the area of “virtual universities”. Education was thus reduced to a tradable commodity. Facilitating the trade in this commodity, the Bologna process sought to create a common European education market, which also entailed standardization (Scherrer, 2005, p. 167).

Under the aegis of the WTO, education was to be treated as a “service” and as a commodity that could be traded in the market. The WTO took over the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) signed at the end of the Uruguay round of negotiations in 1994, and it would also preside over the agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). The aim was to liberalize the international trade in services, and to encompass education within that trade. As Scherrer spells out throughout his chapter, in considerable detail, when a state provides public funding to higher education, and where there are private universities, then the state effectively loses sovereignty in decisions about which institution to fund, under the GATS agreement. The “most favoured nation” principle would come into effect, allowing foreign private institutions to equally apply for public funding (Scherrer, 2005, p. 172). The European Union has in fact committed itself to “equality of treatment,” thus admitting foreign, private education providers at most levels of schooling. They also grant market access to foreign subsidiaries providing educational services, at all levels (primary, secondary, and tertiary).

The WTO aside, Scherrer points out that “the strongest deregulation pressure originates in the European Single Market Program” (2005, p. 175). The Bologna Declaration of 1999 also introduced standardization with respect to mobility of persons and capital, comparable final qualifications, a credit point system, and “quality assurance” (Scherrer, 2005, p. 175).

Industrial lobbies pressing for liberalized trade in services (with education increasingly listed under this heading) have also been active in advising the European Commission during the renegotiation of GATS (Scherrer, 2005, p. 180). US-based educational companies have presented demands for protection of their foreign subsidiaries, easier access to US-based programs for students abroad, recognition of US qualifications, and international implementation of intellectual property rights for US education materials (Scherrer, 2005, p. 181). Non-EU education providers, especially English-language ones, have both a head start in terms of international provision, added to the weight of international reputation, and the prominence of English as a language of globalization.

Academics Hating Brexit

It is safe to say that, thus far, the majority of academic opinion (especially in North America and the UK), has been anti-Brexit, sometimes even going to extremes of tearful denunciations and hysteria about mass pogroms and impending “fascism”. It’s not surprising. The majority of academics are implicitly married to globalist neoliberalism, they have made their tacit bargains, and the struggle with the corporatization of the university is a struggle to maintain academic power, rather than a struggle against corporatization more broadly. It is thus easy to encounter individuals who grind away at generating public distress calls about their “precarity” in academia, yet nevertheless endorse the neoliberal institutions, agents, and principles that created their precarity to begin with. These are adjuncts who are only at their most radical when it comes to knocking on the system’s doors to gain entry. However, they are basically reformists, seeking a personal niche, so they can start building a little comfortable nest for themselves. Some of these same adjuncts were loud in their visceral denunciations of Brexit. CAUT is echoing this tendency, by presenting only one side of academic opinion on Brexit—the one that places it in the least favourable light, the one stressing loss and not opportunity.

Globalist Mythology in Academia

At some point, academics decided that academia can only function if it is “internationalized,” which means that education becomes exportable, everything becomes exchangeable and interchangeable, and knowledge somehow can only take root in the global stratosphere. It is largely a myth, and a rather shallow and thus transparent one at that. In some instances, it is even crassly mythical because it is aligned with agents such as Hillary Clinton, institutions such as the Democratic Party, and a range of state and corporate partnerships spawned by the Obama administration. It was thus surprising to see how late this statement by eight US university presidents appeared, organized by NAFSA: Association of International Educators. The statement, titled “Diverse Alliance Issues Joint Statement: The United States is Stronger, More Secure as Part of the Global Community,” includes the following declarations, advanced with the gloss of academic capital and scientific authority (but for purely partisan purposes):

“The undersigned individuals, representatives of the foreign policy, national security, peacebuilding and education fields, believe the United States is stronger and safer when we recognize that we are a part of an interconnected, interdependent global community. Collectively, we urge the next president to pursue policies and practices that embrace the diversity within and outside our borders and that build on our ability to communicate with allies and foes alike.

“We believe that protecting our health and prosperity will depend upon the next president’s commitment to fostering mutual understanding and global cooperation. Epidemics don’t recognize national borders, our climate is shared by all, the proliferation of nuclear weapons and materials threatens our security, and a healthy global economy lifts up our own. Isolation diminishes us, and we seek a president who leads with an appreciation that we increase our own power when we find common cause and common ground with others….

“Our next president must value diversity in our nation and in our world, honor our tradition as a nation of immigrants, and be willing to deliberate and collaborate.”

While I am not disputing that most academics in the US side with the Democrats, and many engage in open boosterism for Hillary Clinton, one still has to do some basic research to learn the role that NAFSA has played. Unfortunately, a recent article by Scott Jaschik in Inside Higher Ed failed to mention that NAFSA is actually listed as an official “force multiplier” of the US State Department, and is itself proud to share that fact with anyone willing to know. NAFSA became a tool of US foreign policy specifically under the Obama administration, and when Hillary Clinton headed the State Department. Their statement is thus empty of anything else than partisan cheerleading, as much as it might fool some by hiding behind the pretence of respectable and reputable academic authority.

Closer to home, the editor of Concordia University Magazine, put out a statement that makes it quite clear that Hillary Clinton is the preferred candidate. Suggestions that this is the stance are evident in statements such as, “the arrival of a President Trump would have an impact on the world’s financial and political stability” (meaning he’s a threat to the elites’ much adored “stability,” i.e. the status quo). The editor (Howard Bokser), speaking for all Canadians, mentions “our” alleged “anxiety” of Trump’s possible impact on NAFTA. The editor later suggests that ignorant people voted for Brexit: “If they indeed choose Trump over Clinton, they couldn’t claim they didn’t know what they were getting — unlike what some critics say of British voters who chose to leave the European Union in the Brexit vote in June”. Then, of course, Trump and those like him are “reactionary” and a “cancer”: “the appeal of reactionary politicians seems to be spreading around the world like cancer”. I was not expecting to see such partisan, and actually reactionary hyperbole, in the pages of a publication that supposedly represents Concordia University. Needless to say, while my opinions do not represent those of Concordia University, the opinions of those speaking for the university certainly do not represent my own.

But the disappointment did not end with the editorial—an article by Sue Montgomery backs up the editorial, with such glaringly polemical comments as this one, dressed up as phony questions:

“Will Trump be the next president of the United States and, if so, will the U.S. become the laughingstock of the world? Or are Americans ready to elect their first woman president, Democratic Party candidate Hillary Clinton?”

So it’s clown vs. woman. There is nothing at all objectionable about Hillary Clinton. Before Trump, the US was loved and respected. The article, with the support of a selection of academic experts, then moves on to cast the GOP as more right wing than ever—even if it is now to the left of the Democratic Party on trade, the working class, big banks and multinationals, NATO, and foreign intervention. It is simply the party of “ignorance” and “racism”—unlike the blessed Democrats with their corporate racketeers, racialist hucksters and their “diversity” of supporters divided up into “food groups,” while renting homeless and mentally ill people to serve as violent thugs to break up Trump’s rallies. A colleague brings up “fact checking,” and then applies this only to Donald Trump and his “outrageous comments”—implying with the obvious silence that Hillary Clinton’s campaign has a monopoly on the truth, on factual information, and is never outrageous (as when essentially calling for war with Russia, and terminating humanity). This attitude of the selected academics persists in spite of the decades of scandals that follow the Clintons, added to the email cover-up and whitewash, and the corruption involved with the Clinton Foundation. We now also have the Wikileaks releases and Project Veritas videos, added to the material acquired by Judicial Watch’s freedom of information access requests, plus the Clinton interview notes released by the FBI. Indeed, Watergate looks tiny by comparison. But by all means, let’s just “fact check” Trump.

Robert Merry provided some context for what we witness with the examples above:

“Globalists captured much of American society long ago by capturing the bulk of the nation’s elite institutions—the media, academia, big corporations, big finance, Hollywood, think tanks, NGOs, charitable foundations. So powerful are these institutions—in themselves and, even more so, collectively—that the elites running them thought that their political victories were complete and final. That’s why we have witnessed in recent years a quantum expansion of social and political arrogance on the part of these high-flyers.

“Then along comes Donald Trump and upends the whole thing. Just about every major issue that this super-rich political neophyte has thrown at the elites turns out to be anti-globalist and pro-nationalist. And that is the single most significant factor in his unprecedented and totally unanticipated rise.” (emphasis added)

However, there is some good news, and even better news. The good news is that academic experts, like their media counterparts, are suffering a huge decline in public trust–and they know that. They are—and it was inevitable—being held to account for their positions as accomplices. Even better news is that they are apparently, and with great energy, doing everything necessary to accelerate their own decline. No doubt they will eventually learn from their errors, and by then it may be too late for them.

4 thoughts on “Neoliberalism, Brexit, and Higher Education

  1. a fine debunking of the Establishment , whose academic “arm” underwrites so much of the wrongness in the world. “La Trahison des Clercs” once again- but then, have “they” ever been otherwise inclined ?

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