Neo-Liberal Academia and the Death of Education

How Much Is… Stupid?

Recent cases of personal information collecting for corporate interests highlight the urgency of revisiting the topic of higher education in its connection with the corporate sector and the government. We ought to reconsider at least some aspects of the complex web of the contemporary “education industry” and its social implications. Understanding how contemporary (Western) education works (or doesn’t work) can contribute to raising the awareness of the general population as to the scale of the problem, and making a change, no matter how small.

What’s the problem?

Why should one be concerned with the way the system of (higher) education works? Although the manifold issues related to the contemporary system of higher education in the West (primarily in the US) cannot be summarized in one word, one phrase does capture the most important problems: corporatization of universities.

This process is not new. It follows the more general tendency of applying “neo-liberal” policies, “business logic” and “market principles” to virtually all spheres of our private and public lives. Higher education—and, in particular, the humanities as the main focus of this essay—seem to be one of the latest victims of the all-penetrating (neo-liberal) capitalist ideology. The application of this ideology in academia has resulted in a couple of significant changes over the past decades, primarily in the US and the UK, but the rest of the world is catching up. These changes have diminished to quite a significant degree the very idea of education in the sphere of the humanities, its meaning and its purpose.

Higher costs

The costs of higher education have skyrocketed. According to some sources, the cost of acquiring a university education in the US has increased 1,120% over the last three decades, and even more if compared with the 1960s and 1970s. It is hard to find any relevant economic justification for this, and in reality, one can show that the rising costs of higher education have a very negative general economic and social implications. However, what makes no sense from the perspective of the economic interests of the general population or the society as a whole makes perfect sense if viewed from the perspective of class warfare.

The effects of the rising costs of higher education are very real—students are trapped by huge debts created by extensive borrowing in order to be able to pay for unattainably high tuition costs. In such a situation, they cannot afford to spend time on extracurricular activities or get engaged in social activism; in other words, they cannot afford to work against the system. Borrowing huge amounts (to pay for what should be free to them) teaches them an important lesson about the system in which they are supposed to live: one must be obedient, accept the rules of the game, get a degree and try to find a “good” job so that they can start paying back the loans. This ideological instrument turns out to be very effective—it helps the system to replicate and expand. It is not difficult to see a very conservative ideological framework behind this logic. It basically says “conform to the way the system works” (i.e. to the “markets” as a new version of secular gods), “don’t question, don’t try to change anything” (since that’s “unrealistic” or even socially “irresponsible” behavior). In continental Europe, where the institutions of higher education are still predominantly publicly funded, class and culture wars are fought differently (but that is a topic for another essay). Instead of individual’s intellectual capabilities, personal motivation and readiness to invest a lot of time and energy in learning, deep pockets and obedience become much more decisive factors of the overall study success.

The growth of the university administration

Higher costs are accompanied by the changing academic culture and the institutional functioning of universities. The role of the faculty and students in governing the university has declined to a remarkable degree. Faculty members are increasingly expected to be obedient executors of the policies designed by the university managers. The corporate-like university management (presidents, vice presidents, provosts, deans, vice deans, etc.) has grown significantly, both in size and in power. In many cases these managers come from very different worlds (e.g. the entertainment industry, politics, financial institutions, etc.) with little or no understanding of what education or university is all about. But they (supposedly) know what the “real world” looks like, and that seems to be sufficient qualification for the positions of the university bosses.

One of the results of this is that the faculty members are becoming administrators—instead of focusing primarily on (real) research and teaching, they are often overwhelmed with “assessment” forms, meaningless meetings and other corporate-like administrative duties that are often not only useless but actually directly counterproductive. Contemporary US academia resembles, in many ways, the late Soviet bureaucracy—an ever-increasing number of forms and procedures mask the lack of any real content.

Market-oriented “education”

The question that is usually asked when education is discussed is, “What do the markets need?” Today, education is understood as training for doing a particular “business.” Many “solutions” that are proposed to the problem of contemporary education fail precisely because they accept this very same “business metaphysics” as the ultimate horizon of meaning. New programs are designed and justified in front of university managers based on the “needs” of the “markets.” But we rarely pause to examine the logic behind this reasoning.

There is nothing necessarily wrong with training for particular jobs (unless, of course, that training is for the aggressive war industries, harmful financial speculations and the like). The problem is that this is precisely what education is not. Education should not be about our ability to fit into the existing, pre-given systems. Education should never be simply training. This is what made higher education, at the dawn of modernity, different from the medieval guilds, where one could obtain training, but without education. University education is about inquiring into the broader context and theoretical principles of things, it is about questioning the very framework of the system and the society as a whole. Doing something that “the markets” expect us to do, although necessary up to a point, is essentially a bizarre enterprise. Why should we do what “the markets” tell us? Who says that what they tell us is good, necessary or meaningful? Who says that this or that is a real problem that we need to “fix”? Maybe there are more pressing issues to address? Well, without (real) education, we will never know.

Asking simple questions like these is already enough to expose the highly ideological nature of today’s concepts of education and of the “real world.” Expert-oriented training (which also often suffers from its low quality, for the reasons listed below) is not what higher education—especially in the humanities—is all about. By limiting the scope of thinking, research and practical engagement, “the markets” (i.e. the leaders of the corporate sector) become the “agenda designers,” the “trendsetters,” those who determine the problem to be fixed and how to fix it (with somewhat predictable outcomes). To further ensure that problem-solving remains within this market-driven framework, one needs to call upon the “experts” and the obedient mainstream media to “explain” to the (already indoctrinated) general audience what the problem is and what the solutions are. This strategy effectively prevents alternatives views, issues and solutions from penetrating the (mainstream) public discourse.

The consumer-type of “education”

In neo-liberal academia, students are increasingly being treated as customers/consumers. The logic they are trained to absorb is that they “pay” for a certain “product” or “service.” Applied to higher education, that “product” is the diploma or certificate, not education or knowledge. Obtaining real education and knowledge is not the same, not even similar, to going to a supermarket or a restaurant where we are supposed to be “satisfied.” Education implies hard work, challenging situations, dissatisfaction, frustration, creativity, initiative, dedication and much more. The results of this consumer-centered “education” are the well-known phenomena such as grade inflation and low learning outcomes, accompanied by an increase in all possible services on campuses (sports halls, coffee shops, entertainment rooms, etc.), except those that have something to do with (real) education.

Related to this is the broader issue of the impact of technological advancements and the broader cultural shift that has accompanied it. It has been evidenced now that when we read from our laptops, cellphones, tablets and other screens, we memorize and understand less than when we read from old-fashioned (paper) books. In addition, the sense that all information (mistaken for knowledge) is readily available to us diminishes careful reading, analysis and thinking about what we read. To paraphrase Baudrillard, more and more information seems to result in less and less knowledge and understanding. This is not an argument against technology; it is merely an argument about many of the side effects of the way we use it, with elements having a direct, detrimental impact on our reading and thinking culture, both vital for (good) education.

The culture of “safe spaces” and political correctness

This issue is intimately linked with the “consumer-centered” ideology. Since students are treated as customers, there is a tendency to keep them “safe” from anything that can potentially be “harmful” or cause “distress.” This means that students are exceedingly kept from exposure to different ways of thinking, different types of information and different values. This is literally killing education. When the consumerist logic is taken to its extreme, and applied to all spheres of our lives, it results in students being encouraged to advance the anti-intellectual discourse in which “I feel like…” is a sufficient argument against all the points of view, arguments and values that they “feel” they don’t like. More and more classrooms begin to resemble the one from the famous Modern Educayshun video. The culture of “trigger words” and politically-correct speech becomes the stage on which the play of education is staged. This spectacle is often called “progressive” and “liberal.” The true name for this is not progressive, left or liberal, but a sad, anti-intellectual performance of the late consumerist era. The paradox is that when many of these “liberal” or “leftist” circles (primarily in the US) advocate political correctness, “safe spaces” and other supposedly noble and progressive ethical postulates, they, in fact, advocate a secularized fundamentalist worldview (some of which is so brilliantly captured in Nikki Johnson-Huston’s essay “The Culture Of The Smug White Liberal”).

The persecution of professors is a part of these crusades launched against freedom of speech and freedom of thinking. It becomes not all-too-uncommon to find cases of tenured professors being fired for simply speaking their mind, for expressing views that are considered “problematic” or “unacceptable.” This brings to memory the darkest episodes of totalitarian systems.

The public discourse and, even more tragically, academia, are thus often hopelessly caught between religious-fundamentalist oppressiveness (called the “right”) and secularized fundamentalism, both very oppressive.


Neo-liberal academia, in some of its features, seems as a return to the pre-modern types of training, when a student would enter a guild to penetrate a particular interest group, learn a skill and then conform to the market demands. This understanding of education is fundamentally different from the humanistic idea of education, with its stress on theory, analysis of principles, critical and free thinking (which means thinking without any pre-determined purpose or constraints).

Following the business/market logic as the ultimate criterion in education is harmful. The reality is that at this point the neo-liberal logic of global corporate capitalism (with its disregard for the ecological and humanitarian crises for instance) is driving the world toward its ultimate destruction. Designing university curricula to conform to this logic is therefore nothing short of contributing to the destruction of the world.

What’s the solution?

Contrary to the present tendencies, one can think of a different form and meaning of higher education. Its primary role should be to question everything, especially widely accepted views and values, everything that has become “normality.” Its role should never be to make people fit into existing models. A meaningful system of higher education should, in my view, offer three key elements:

(1) Systematic, in-depth knowledge of a particular field or discipline. This is supposed to make students future experts/professionals in their respective fields. This is what the “training” is about, and this is a necessary, yet, alone, insufficient element of good education.

(2) Critical thinking and social responsibility. We should educate students to question and change the existing ideological frameworks and social and political institutions every time they do not meaningfully contribute to the society, and especially when they become harmful. The goal of (serious) education should not be to prepare students to fit into the (corrupt) system; the goal should be to prepare them to change the system and the markets, to make them more humane and meaningful.

(3) Personal growth. This dimension of education, which once upon a time was considered vital, has almost completely disappeared from academia. Education and the growth of one’s knowledge should not be a “job” divorced from one’s personality, from who we are. Education should be about activating our individual creative potentials, it should be pleasurable, adventurous, it should make us better persons. It should allow us to reach who we can be, beyond the demands and limitations of the currently existing power structures.

We should not let capitalism make us forget who we are as human beings.

Davor Džalto is associate professor and program director at The American University of Rome. Read other articles by Davor.