Academe, Flexgility, and Social Engineering

“… it helps us to recognize neoliberalism as not just an economic or political philosophy or “ideological doctrine” but as a broad and multifaceted social movement with widespread implications for all aspects of politics, society and culture. It also helps us recognize these outcomes as the result of human intentionality created through political and social action rather than being abstractions of something called ‘the economy’ or ‘globalization'”
– Steven C. Ward, on the concept of neoliberalism (2012:10)


The changes in the structure and culture of universities are observable in the reformulation of the academic profession and in the reorganisation of academics. As a part of these changes, the meaning of the academic career is being strategically (and, depending on what one cares for, carelessly) reimagined. The internal changers are university managers, who are responding to the perceived pressures of a rapidly changing environment by attempting to maximise organisational (and thus financial) flexibility and efficiency. In this post I explore this state of affairs and present some personal reflections and predictions through the analysis of a report paper that has caused quite a stir. I hope that the thoughts to come will be of interest to anyone who finds the notion of “social engineering” remotely stimulating. If not, then perhaps the focus on academe, neoliberalism, or a hidden bit of toilet humour will do the job instead.


Earlier this year, The Australian Higher Education Industrial Association (AHEIA), in conjunction with the multinational professional service, PwC, released publicly available the report, Australian Higher Education Workforce of the Future (PWC & AHEIA 2016). The report was developed in consultation with university specific stakeholders (i.e. university leaders) and broad sector stakeholders (i.e. industry bodies and “thought leaders”). Its purpose was to: 1. identify the primary drivers of change; and 2. present “options of what universities can do to shape their future workforce by implementing reforms to the dimensions of workforce capability, engagement and structure” (5). While both of these points are of interest, my focus is primarily on the matter of reform, which may lightly be described as the shaping of institutions and practice, or, more heavily, as structural and cultural (i.e. social) engineering. Of particular concern is the idea that the “traditional and change averse culture” of universities (i.e. academe) is an impediment that must be overcome, lest it be “to the detriment of the future competitiveness of Australian universities” (39).


According to the report, universities should endeavour to “foster a culture of continuous change and advancement,” and “hardwire” the behaviour of workers with skills and values that revolve around three key attributes: professionalization, specialisation, and agility and flexibility (which I just call “flexgility”). Significantly, he neoliberal ideology that suffuses the report is attended by the goal of reimagining the notion and centrality of academe within universities – with the strategy being to preserve the symbolic clout of the notion, even as its innards are rewired and eventually replaced with more flexgile bits. I contend that the Doctorate of Philosophy (PhD) degree will likely be a primary target for effecting such change, as the degree is widely considered to be an apprenticeship and cultural rite of passage for academics, as well as an institutionalised means of academic “boundary maintenance” and “gate keeping.”


The key “external environmental drivers” of change are identified as: industry expectations, technology, competition, funding and policy, and student expectations. If these aspects of the external environment (which includes the juggernaut of competition within the university sector itself) are the drivers of change, then the agents of change are those stakeholders with enough clout to shape structures and workforces. The changes themselves revolve around the pursuit of professionalization, through which “knowledge and expertise is continuously reframed or built upon through adjacent disciplines – and by which technical and professional capacity is renewed” (14); greater role specialisation, which means moving away from the teach/research/engage roles commonly associated with academic workloads; and the flexgility of never getting too comfortable or complacent and always being ready to adapt and move on.


The spirit of these pursuits infuse the example university presented in the PwC & AHEIA report, which I have included bellow:


– PwC & AHEIA, “Workforce interventions – An example university” (2016: 37)


For the purposes of the current discussion, the more notable of the reforms depicted above are those to doe with leadership, roles, and behaviours, which involve: recruiting “new leaders with strong backgrounds in leading change from outside of the sector”; redesigning “academic roles to reflect a consistent, generic set of responsibilities, with actual responsibilities changing year to year subject to demand”; and the aforementioned hardwiring of “values of collaboration, agility and innovation into the employee lifecycle to ensure adoption into actions and decisions.” It is worth noting that, in regard to implementation, the report concludes by acknowledging that, as there is no one-size-fits-all answer to external pressures, “each university will have a unique response to these external drivers of change as they seek to differentiate their value proposition in what will become an increasingly diverse market” (41). This is a fair point on two counts, for competition requires universities to strategically differentiate themselves from one another through specialisation and the pursuit of long-term plans (i.e. deliberate differentiation), while also responding to external developments as a matter of ongoing adaptation (i.e. contingent differentiation).


However, overemphasising such heterogeneity belies the homogenising effects of the neoliberal rationality, for if we assume that the future university imagined by PwC & AHEIA is anything to go by, then the Australian academic workforce of the future will be led by corporate executives and managers, who need not have any background in academe and will therefore be more likely to view the sector “objectively” (in an economic sense), rather than “sentimentally” (in a vocational or traditional/academic sense). Academic teachers and researchers will be increasingly subject to the changing/perceived demands of students and industry, and thus operate more along the lines of service-providers and facilitators, rather than as stewards and scholars. Insofar that flexgility is tied to specialisation (and thus differentiation) and professionalization (and thus accountability), the situations experienced by such a workforce will be increasingly precarious and individualised. This amounts to a university in which the values and aspirations popularly associated with academe take a back seat to the organisational priorities of industry.


In a roundabout way, PwC & AHEIA are forthright about this vision and are aware of its contentiousness, vis-à-vis the difficulty in reconciling academics with their reformed roles and organisational structures. This can be observed in the statement that “in a sector that has traditionally valued academic autonomy, there has been some cultural resistance to adopting elements of contemporary management practice” (36). The sector, of course, is the university system (rather than higher education in general), the culture is academe, and the elements of contemporary managerial practices are those that have been widely and critically identified as neoliberal (Archer 2008; Ball 2012; Callinicos 2006; Connell 2015; Gill 2010; Ward 2012). Such resistance is therefore not surprising, for academic freedom and institutional autonomy are often seen and cited as a fundamental part of the modern Western university (Bleiklie 1998: 299). For instance, the German concept of Lernfreiheir (freedom to choose what, how and where to learn) was adopted by the US early on, and has gone on to influence the UK, Northern Europe, and Australia (Fanghanel 2012: 9). In saying this, I cannot stress enough that I mean for “influence” to apply not just to policy and governance, but also to popular perceptions among the public. After all, at some point in the process of becoming an undergrad, then postgrad, then aspiring and fully fledged academic a person will develop an idea of “what a university and academe is about.”


In this respect, the link drawn between values and tradition is well placed, for it is simply a matter of fact that the university and academe have long been like peas and pods; with the university being the base of operations for academics and the spiritual home of the academic profession, while academe has long represented the constellation of aspirations and communities that universities have long sought to cultivate and capitalise on. Anecdotally, the two are comparable to what sportsmanship is to the parameters and conditions of any given sport, or to what religious dispositions are to the continuity of the church. Without meaning to overemphasise the semantics of the terms, what these relations have in common is the link between the sacred and the profane. And so it is little wonder that suggestions born of the neoliberal agenda (which has been critiqued for holding nothing sacred – save perhaps the sanctity of the market) are so often received by academics as though they were (and responded to with) profanities.


In spite of the fact that this relationship between universities and academe has proven to be an idiosyncratic and dynamic one, the report equates the emphasis on autonomy to a “traditional and change averse culture” (39). Semantically this is a strange move, for the notion of “autonomy” engenders the potential for continuity as well as for change, and thereby covers both the preservation of traditions and the pursuit of innovation. Indeed, the literature on neoliberalism cited above makes it abundantly clear that the issue is not that academics are averse to change in general, but rather that they have demonstrated a particular aversion to the neoliberal rationale – which is widely believed to undermine both autonomy and culture. Evidently, this aversion extends (or at least at the time of the report’s production, was expected to extend) to the reforms presented by PwC & AHEIA.


With all this in mind, it seems to me that the conflict is not over the technicalities of what to change and what to preserve, but rather between the differing ideological priorities of cultural stewards on the one hand, and economic stakeholders on the other. The ideological thrust of the report is to frame the drivers of change like economic and technological forces of nature, occurring within the nigh-uncontrollable external environment of global knowledge economies. In the face of such conditions change is not just critical to survival, but a moral imperative for anyone who cares about the future (and therefore present/pressing) needs of their society – which is in turn assessed-in/reduced-to economic terms of growth and the mitigation/exploitation of risks. Within this narrative, the agents of change, as in the university and industry leaders and stakeholders, are the sober stewards of the future, while those who question such narratives are the impediments to progress.


So the story goes: it is not the changes proposed that are being resisted, nor is it the people proposing such changes or the reasons they give for doing so. Nor is not a matter of the rejection of a particular ideology narrative, or of resistance to an increasingly pervasive and reductive ideology. It is especially not a matter of class or more localised conflicts of interests, whereby the proposed changes have clear winners and losers. Rather, according to a number of university leaders consulted by PwC & AHEIA, it is a matter of overcoming a change-averse culture in both the context and interest of a “historically change resistant sector,” with such “cultural limitations” being “one of the most significant barriers to responding to, and anticipating, changes impacting the sector, to the detriment of the future competitiveness of Australian universities” (39).



If this narrative is taken seriously, then the question arises as to what to do about these cultural limitations. The answer depends on how we conceptualise and locate academic culture. Here we can take a cue from PwC & AHEIA and focus first on the thought-leaders, as in those senior academics who represent what many highly influential people now evidently consider to be an out-dated era. Many of these older academics (who I once heard referred to as the “Old-Guard of the Ivory Tower”) are professors, and thus have enough organisational clout and capital to be of consequence to management, and are secure enough in their employment to do so in relative safety (so long as they are cautious in their use of social media). However, many of them are also due to retire or accept redundancy within the 10-15 year timeline presented by the report, and so, at least in terms of employment, cannot really be counted amongst the future workforce with which we are here concerned. (In saying this I do not want to reduce people to incumbent university employees that are on the way out. Indeed, I argue elsewhere that participation in an intellectual community and critical engagement with public issues are often seen as central to academe, and it would be wrong to assume that such preoccupations cease after retirement.)


Another obvious possibility is to focus on the younger generation of current and aspiring academics. However, if we keep in mind the contemporary obsession with being strategic in all things, it seems to me that the changers are not concerned with “academe” per se (for the notion is a treasure chest of symbolic capital that is still widely popular,  attractive, and thus marketable). Rather, the focus on structure and engagement indicates an interest in how the academic workforce develops and transmits those values and dispositions that have been identified as cultural limitations. In other words, if the university of today is to successfully transition into the university of tomorrow in terms of culture as well structure, then the agents of change must address the matter of intergenerational transmission, and thus the institutional links between the old and the new.


The Doctorate of Philosophy (PhD) is one such link. It became the conventional academic qualification and “rite of passage” in Western universities throughout the second-half of the century (Fanghanel 2012: 4). In order to make an original contribution to knowledge, a PhD candidate will work under the supervision of a more senior academic, and insodoing develop an understanding pertaining to very narrow (and not necessarily flexgile) field and disciplinary skillset. It is a primary means of socialisation and enculturation, for as the candidate becomes more engaged with the broader academic community they develop academic networks and internalise the dispositions required to “fit-in” (Austin 2002; Bess 1978; Gerholm 1990; Raineri 2013). Along with academic research, the degree is also a primary entry point into university teaching, and thus into a position of academic authority and (at least so far as people other than more senior academics are concerned) relative prestige (Probert 2012).


It is due to this functionality and attractiveness that the PhD has been identified as being central to drawing and preparing the future “stewards of the discipline,” and thus crucial the preservation of academic knowledge and values (Golde & Walker 2006). Simply put, the PhD degree is widely considered to be central to the cultivation, preparation and production of future academics and, by extension, the academic workforce of universities. Cambridge Professor of Intellectual History, Stefan Collini, describes the degree as a “peculiar characteristic” that makes it hard for “other forces in society” to exert control over universities (on this point Collini and the PwC & AHEIA report are in agreement). It is  worth quoting Collini at length:


“Universities are among the very few institutions whose rationale includes selecting and shaping their own future staff. Schools educate everyone: it is not a distinctive part of their remit to form and prepare future school-teachers. Companies recruit new staff and train them in the appropriate techniques, but this is a secondary task, not part of their primary rationale, which is to produce goods and services and make a profit. By contrast, the forming of future scholars and scientists is not just an instrumental necessity for universities, but intrinsic to their character. Educating someone to pursue the open-ended search for deeper understanding has to be a kind of preparation for autonomy. This makes it unusually difficult for those outside universities to specify how this professional preparation should be carried out, and so the academic profession – by its very nature rather than as a pathological form of self-interest – will be bound to appear self-absorbed as well as self-recruiting in a way in which most other social organizations will not.”
– Stefan Collini, on the peculiar characteristic of the Doctorate (2012:8)


The emphasis here is thus on distinctions, with the university being a distinctive system insofar that it maintains a distinctive way of recruiting and preparing its own distinctive workforce and communities. Indeed, owing both to its famous difficulty and infamous rates of attrition, the PhD can be described as the means of institutionalised “boundary maintenance” for academe vis-à-vis the “gatekeeping” of academics. This is certainly the case in Australia, where the status of university is restricted to institutions which conduct research and offer research masters and doctorates in at least three broad fields of study.


To be fair, the PwC & AHEIA report does not explicitly identify this institutional rite of passage as a cultural limitation (indeed, it does not identify any cultural limitations beyond the mention of autonomy). Nevertheless, the example university clearly foreshadows conditions that do not bode well for the degree. For instance, while academic autonomy is the cornerstone of the degree (particularly in the Arts and Social Sciences, in which candidates are more likely to develop their own thesis questions and work alone), this may again have to take a back seat depending on how great an emphasis is placed on collaboration with external stakeholders, as well as future prevalence and structure of alternative PhDs, such as the industrial/professional PhD (Fink 2006; Harman 2010; Mangematin 2000).


Perhaps more pressingly, there is a clear tension at play between, on the one hand, the emphasis Collini places on both the PhD and the university being presided over by academics (with the university seeming self-absorbed and self-recruiting as a result), and, on the other hand, the call in the report for universities to employ non-academic leaders, partners from industry, and greater numbers of non-academic professional staff. However, the fact that the environmental drivers of change listed by PwC & AHEIA, as well as many of the stakeholders that contributed to the development of their report, represent (or, more precisely, are represented as) externalities to both the university system and academe, undermines the likelihood that such boundary maintenance will be considered tenable by the influential agents of change.


What I am implying here is that one solution to the resistance of academics to the restructuring of higher education and the rewiring of the workforce is to reform and decentralise the PhD. While the voicing of such a strategy may to some seem tantamount to heresy, there is good reason to believe that such strategies are already on the table. So far as the report that I have dealt with here is concerned, one indication that what I have said here is more than just conjecture is the recommendation that universities should seek to develop an “academic pipeline”:


“Academic pipeline: in a faster, more responsive university where industry practice is valued, traditional academic pre-service (e.g. the decade required to prepare an individual for an academic career) risks becoming less relevant. Universities may change the role requirements of academics and will begin to consider whether the PhD is necessary (noting the current requirements for PhDs, or equivalent, teaching Masters and above students) and what might be suitable for academics of the future.” – PwC & AHEIA (2016: 36)


I’ll leave it there for now, save to appreciate the rather visceral link between this recent fascination with academic pipelines and flexgility and Marc Bousquet’s essay on The Waste Product of Graduate Education: Toward a Dictatorship of the Flexible, which is worth quoting at length:


“… it has to be acknowledged that increasingly the holders of the doctoral degree are not so much the products of the graduate employee labor system as its by-products, insofar as that that labor system exists primarily to recruit, train, supervise, and legitimate the employment of nondegreed rather than degreed teachers. This is not to say that the system doesn’t produce and employ holders of the Ph.D., only that this operation has become secondary to its extraction of teaching labor from nondegreed persons, primarily graduate employees and former graduate employees now working as adjunct labor—as parttimers, full-time lecturers, postdocs, and so on.”
– Marc Bousquet, on the linkage between graduate education and the system of academic labor (2002: 86)



I wonder if the Australian Higher Education Industrial Association or their ilk would ever consult such a thought-leader?


Bousquet, M. (2002). “The waste product of graduate education: toward a dictatorship of the flexible.” Social Text 20(1): 81-104.

Callinicos, A. (2006). Universities in a neoliberal world. London, Bookmarks.

Collini, S. (2012). What are universities for? London, Penguin.

Connell, R. (2015). “The knowledge economy and university workers.” Australian Universities Review 57(2): 91-95.

Fanghanel, J. (2012). Being an academic. New York, Routledge.

Fink, D. (2006). “The Professional Doctorate: Its Relativity to the Ph.D. and Relevance for the Knowledge Economy.” International Journal of Doctoral Studies 1.

Gerholm, T. (1990). “On Tacit Knowledge in Academia.” European Journal of Education 25(3): 263-271.

Gill, R. (2010). Breaking the silence: The hidden injuries of the neoliberal university. Secrecy and Silence in the Research Process: Feminist Reflections. R. G. Flood, R. London, Routledge: 228-244.

Golde, C. W., G, Ed. (2006). Envisioning the future of doctoral education: Preparing stewards of the discipline. San Francisco, Jossey-Brass.

Harman, G. (2010). “Producing PhD Graduates in Australia for the Knowledge Economy.” Higher Education Research and Development 21(2): 179-190.

Mangematin, V. (2000). “PhD job market: professional trajectories and incentives during the PhD.” Research Policy 29(6): 741-756.

Probert, B. (2014). Becoming a university teacher: the role of the PhD, Australian Government Office for Learning and Teaching.

Raineri, N. (2013). “The PhD program: between conformity and reflexivity.” Journal of Organisational Ethnography 2(1): 37-56.

Ward, S. (2012). Neoliberalism and the Global Restructuring of Knowledge and Higher Education. New York, Routledge.




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