The neoliberal university is making us sick: Who’s to blame?

Trigger warning: This post contains the discussion of depression and other mental health issues, and suicide. If you or anyone you know needs help or support for a mental health concern, please don’t suffer in silence. Many countries have confidential phone helplines (in Australia you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14, for example); this organisation provides worldwide support, while this website compiles a number of helpline sites from around the world.

I am writing today from a place of anger; from a rage that sits, simmering on the surface of a deep well of sadness. I didn’t know Dr. Malcolm Anderson, the senior accountancy lecturer from Cardiff University whose death, after falling from the roof of his university building, was last week ruled a suicide. I obviously have no way to know the complexity of his feelings or what sequence of events led up to his decision to end his own life. However, according to the results of an inquest, we can know what Dr. Anderson wanted his university to understand about his death – that it was, at least in part, because of the pressures of his academic work.

The media reports that Dr. Anderson had recently been appointed to Deputy Head of his department, significantly increasing his administrative load. Nonetheless, he was still teaching 418 students and needed to mark their work within a 20-day turnaround. To meet that deadline, he would have needed to work approximately 9 hours a day without food or toilet breaks, for 20 days straight, and not do ANY other kind of work during that time (such as the admin that comes with being a Deputy Head). Practically impossible, given he was also a human being, with a home life, and physical needs like food, in addition to work responsibilities.

His wife, Diane, has been quoted saying that Dr. Anderson worked very long hours and often took marking to family events. She has said that although he was a passionate educator who won teaching awards every year, he had been showing signs of stress and had spoken to his managers about his difficulty meeting deadlines. A colleague told the inquest that he was given the same response each time he asked for help, and staffing cuts had continued.

A Marked Problem

Few educators don’t have a story like this, albeit usually with a different ending. I saw a thread on Twitter recently, asking why marking deadlines needed to be so tight anyway? There were so many responses to this, stories of physical pain and injury, coupled with discussions of how demoralising it can be, not having time to genuinely engage with your students’ work.

One academic on Facebook, responding to a post that a friend of mine wrote about Dr. Anderson’s death, commented that once, after a series of 16 hour days of marking on her computer (which is often how marking is done now), her eyes began bleeding. Another talked about being put on an ‘improvement plan’ for not getting 220 assignments of 3000 words each marked on time1. I, too, have pulled all-nighters, using my Pomodoro app to limit myself to my department’s allocated 25 minutes per assignment, with a 5-minute nap between each paper. My vision would become so blurred that I had to increase the font size to 250% to make out the words. I’m sure I was providing my students with highly insightful feedback on each occasion.

Ask not for whom the Black Dog howls. Academics, he howls for thee.

In that same thread on Twitter, mentioned above, there was a troll (I have to assume) who wrote:

And look, I get it. To someone outside the academy, I’m sure the perception remains that academics sit in leather armchairs, gazing out the gilded windows of our ivory towers, thinking all day.

That has not been my experience, nor that of anyone I know.

My colleagues and peers have, howeverexperienced levels of anxiety and depression that are six times higher than experienced in the general population (Evans et al. 2018). They report higher levels of workaholism, the kind that has a negative and unwanted effect on relationships with loved ones (Torp et al. 2018). The picture is often even bleaker for women, people of colour, and other non-White, non-middle-class, non-males. So whether you think academics are ‘delicate woeful souls’ or not, it’s difficult to deny that there is a real problem to be tackled here.

Obviously, marking load is only one issue amongst many faced in universities the world over. But it’s not bad as an illustration, partly because it’s quantifiable. It’s somewhat ironic that the neoliberal metrics that we rail against, the audit culture that causes these kinds of examples to happen, could also help us describe to others why they are a problem for us. So quantifiability brings us to neoliberalism. How did neoliberalism become so pervasive that it’s almost impossible to imagine how the world could look different?

Neoliberalism, then and now

These last two weeks I’ve been working out of the Stockholm Centre for Organisational Research in Sweden, which, by coincidence, is where Professor Cris Shore, anthropologist of policy and the guest on our next podcast episode is currently based. I was chatting to him the other day about the interview we recorded last December, which centres around many of the ideas I’m discussing in this blog post. I had to admit, I hadn’t realised until we did that interview how angry many people still feel towards the Thatcher government for introducing neoliberal ideologies and practices into the public sector. Despite doing a Ph.D. about modern university life, it hadn’t fully registered for me that events of the past, specifically the histories of politics and economics in ‘the West’, were such active players in the theatre of higher education’s present.

To understand today’s neoliberal universities, let’s explore a little history in the UK and the US, two of the biggest influencers in the global higher education sector today. In 1979, Margaret Thatcher rose to power on a platform of reviving the stagnant British economy by introducing market-style competition into the public sector. This way, she claimed, she was ensuring, that “the state’s power [was] reduced and the power of the people, enhanced” (Edwards, 2017). For universities, this meant increased “accountability” and quality assurance measures that would drag universities out of their complacency.

Meanwhile, in the US, Ronald Reagan was also arriving at neoliberalism via a different path. Americans historically don’t trust central government (Roberts, 2007), so in 1981, Reagan introduced tax cuts (especially for the rich) for the first time in American history, therefore “protecting” the American people from the rapacious spending habits of the state (Prasad, 2012). In American universities, this manifested over the next 30 years in reduced public spending on higher education, transferring the costs for tuition to student-consumers, and encouraging partnerships with industry and endorsements from philanthropists (often with agendas) to cover research costs (Shumway, 2017).

Then in the 90s, there was a moral panic about the public sector caused by scandals such as “the collapse of Barings Bank in 1995, the failures of the medical profession…revealed by investigations into the serial murders by Dr Harold Shipman, and the numerous cases of child abuse that have plagued the Catholic Church(Shore, 2008). Frankly, it seems pretty understandable that people were looking for greater transparency, a bit of accountability, and a whole lot less of, “leave it to the professionals, they seem like alright blokes, don’t they?” from their public sector.

However, an ideology that had originally looked so promising to the public began, over time, to create a new set of problems. As Cris Shore points out in his seminal 2008 article, ‘Audit culture and Illiberal governance: Universities and the politics of accountability’:

The official rationale for [neoliberal ideologies and actions] appears benign and incontestable: to improve efficiency and transparency and to make these institutions more accountable to the taxpayer and public (and no reasonable person could seriously challenge such commonsensical and progressive objectives). The problem, however, is that audit confuses ‘accountability’ with ‘accountancy’ so that ‘being answerable to the public’ is recast in terms of measures of productivity, ‘economic efficiency’ and delivering ‘value for money’ (VFM).

The trouble with neoliberalism and its offshoot, New Public Management, is that much like the Newspeak of Orwell’s 1984, the words that were used to sell it – quality, accountability, transparency etc. – in practice, mean the opposite of what they appear to mean. For example, as Chris Lorenz (2012) points out in an article that convincingly compares New Public Management in universities to the outcomes of a Communist regime, there has been no evidence, statistical or otherwise, that increasing ‘quality control measures’ in universities has actually improved quality in universities by any objective criteria – and often just the opposite.

What has “improved” in universities because of neoliberal practices is efficiency, often through measures like restructures and reviews. Again, taking steps to save money and time sounds like a positive. However, the problem with ‘efficiency’ is that, unlike its counterpart ‘effectiveness’ (the ability to bring about a specific effect), ‘efficiency’ has no end point – it is a goal unto itself. As Lorenz phrases it, “efficient, therefore, is never efficient enough,” (2012, p. 607).

Bringing this back, then, to issues of mental health and increasing workloads on campus. Liz Morrish of Academic Irregularities pointed out last week that when tragedies such as the death of Malcolm Anderson occur in universities, the most common response is for said university to announce a review. As anticipated, two days after the results of Dr. Anderson’s inquest were first reported in the media, Cardiff University announced that they would be reviewing the ‘support, information, advice and specialist counselling’ available to all staff, but also urged any academic “who has any concerns regarding workload, to raise them with their line manager, in the first instance, so all available advice and support can be offered.”

This platitude has been taken by many online as exactly that – a platitude. Several commenters on Twitter have pointed out that providing more mental health support doesn’t actually reduce workload, while others have noted that there has been no discussion by Cardiff U of attempting to fix the underlying cause. I agree with them, and it’s part of the reason I’m so angry. Malcolm Anderson could easily be any one of us.

Yet, I have to admit, I’d also hate to be part of the executive team at Cardiff University right now. Can you imagine the anguish of knowing that someone had taken their life, and held you directly responsible? You’d have to feel so helpless, so powerless in the shadow of neoliberal forces that permeate every last aspect of the global higher education sector. I don’t know, I haven’t been a Vice Chancellor, maybe you wouldn’t have to feel that way. But it’s easy to imagine how one could.

The path to neoliberal hell is paved with good intentions

So, what’s the answer? I wish I knew. What I do know is that anthropological thinking has a lot to offer in the exploration of big immutable mobiles2 like neoliberalism. As Sherry Ortner asks in her 2016 article “Dark anthropology and its others: Theory since the eighties”, who better to question the power structures inherent in ‘dark’ topics such as neoliberalisation or colonialism than anthropologists? Yet, she urges an approach that also acknowledges the possibility of goodness in the world, quoting from the opening to Michael Lambek’s Ordinary Ethics as rationale:

Ethnographers commonly find that the people they encounter are trying to do what they consider right or good, are being evaluated according to criteria of what is right and good, or are in some debate about what constitutes the human good. Yet anthropological theory tends to overlook all this in favor of analyses that emphasize structure, power, and interest. (Lambeck, 2010, p. 1)

And this is where I have to deviate from the majority of the neoliberal university critiques I’ve read. In these pieces, it’s all too common to read criticisms of academic managers, or administrators, or university ‘service providers’ as if they are The Reason that neoliberal ideologies get enacted in university contexts. But usually, they’re just human beings too, also subject to KPIs and managerial demands and neoliberal ideologies.

Having worked at different times as an educator, a researcher, and a communications manager in various universities for more than 10 years, and now having conducted fieldwork at a university for my PhD, I have had the chance to observe and conduct research on at least nine different university campuses, in at least five countries. Based on those experiences, I am in complete agreement with Lambek: the majority3 of non-academics that I have encountered, in every type of department, and at every level of universities from Level 1 administrative officers to Presidents and Vice Chancellors, “are trying to do what they consider right or good” (2010, p. 1).

They demonstrate, both through words and their actions, their beliefs that education is valuable, and that students are important as human beings, not just as cash cows. They are often working long hours themselves, trying to keep up with the demands that neoliberal university life is placing on them. I just can’t get on board with the idea that they are, universally, the villains of the neoliberal horror story.

It seems much more likely, to me, that neoliberal ideologies continue to get enacted and reinforced by academic managers because these practices have become the norm. Throughout and because of the historical growth pattern neoliberalism has experienced, these ideologies have put down roots, and these roots have become so entangled with other aspects of university life as to be inseparable. For many working-aged people, neoliberalism is the water we were born swimming in. Even presented with its inadequacies, it’s difficult to imagine an alternative.

What I can agree with the critics about, however, is that non-academics often don’t understand or appreciate – or perhaps remember (if they had worked in that capacity in the past) – the demands of being an academic, just like academics don’t tend to understand or appreciate the demands that non-academics within the university are facing.

In their recently published book Death of the Public University (2017), Susan Wright and Cris Shore refer to the idea of ‘Faculty Land’ – a place synonymous with ‘La La Land’, where non-academic employees of universities think academics live. This really resonates with what I saw on fieldwork at an international university in Vietnam, but not only from administrators – academics too.

As I’ve said in a previous post, all the actors in universities are trying to abrogate responsibility sideways or upwards until they can only blame ‘the neoliberal agenda’, and once they get there, all they can see is a towering, monolithic idea, and it becomes like trying to have a fist fight with a cloud. Most people don’t ever get to that point though, because the world feels more controllable if we believe that there is another human to blame.

The thing is though, blaming others almost never works. It doesn’t make things better, it just creates a greater divide between groups, encourages isolationism and othering, and decreases the likelihood that either side will ever want to work together to fix the problem.

Dr Anderson’s tragic death, and the similarly tragic statistics that tell us that the collective mental health of our academics is in crisis, should be a wake up call to all of us who work or study in universities, in any capacity. Whether it will be remains to be seen.

Again: If you or anyone you know needs help or support for a mental health concern, please don’t suffer in silence. Sometimes talking about things with an objective outsider can help.

    • If you work in a university with a counselling service, consider seeking them out. Many have emergency sessions set aside each day.
    • Many countries have confidential phone helplines (in Australia you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14, for example).
    • provides worldwide support.
    • The International Bipolar Foundation has compiled a number of helpline sites from around the world.
    • If you (or your department) have the financial means, psychologists who specialise in working with HDR students and academics, such as Dr Shari Walsh of Growth Psychology sometimes offer Skype appointments. (I have had Skype sessions with Shari myself; she’s lovely. PS. I don’t get anything out of plugging her services, I just think what she offers is valuable.)

Yes, I know, this is a structural problem and we shouldn’t have to take care of it as individuals (see Grace Krause’s moving poem about this here). But in the meantime, while we work on that, please seek help if you need it.

Feature image: ‘The Life of the Mind’ by Jodie-Lee Trembath, taken during fieldwork at an international university in 2016.

  1. I gained permission from both of these academics to anonymously reproduce their stories here []
  2. Bruno Latour’s (1990, 1998) notion of immutable mobility describes the way a thing or idea can come to be or at least appear immutable, unchangeable, and can then be mobilised in different contexts and still be fully recognisable. These phenomena are very difficult to change, and one needs to understand how the thing or idea came to appear so unchangeable before solutions should be sought. []
  3. Just to be clear, there obviously ARE monsters working in universities, as there are everywhere, and even amongst those who don’t fit that category, still not everyone is nice or even well-intentioned, and few people are these things all the time. My point is more that ‘bad’ people can be found everywhere – they are not specific to university management any more than they are unique within the professoriate. But the vast majority of non-academic staff working in universities that I have met, observed and interviewed seem to be genuinely decent, well-meaning human beings who are just trying to get by. []

3 thoughts on “The neoliberal university is making us sick: Who’s to blame?

  1. Thank you for writing this thoughtful piece. It is excellent. Like you, I believe that university managers are to some extent victims of external forces. However, I think there are other complexities too, and some behaviors are ‘performative’ of management, in the Judith Butler sense, others are predicated on personal vanity. Current management fashions also play a part. The rise of HR and the disciplinary culture which does so much to cause stress is completely alterable. Similarly, the preference for spending on buildings at the expense of permanent faculty is a choice. There is no external force that says you have to treat staff ‘like shit’, to quote the late Stefan Grimm. It is inexplicable why staff who have worked hard should have promotions rescinded because they wish to advance their careers in another direction, or who have an temprary setback in producing ‘outputs’. The state of university staff morale is appalling, and if there is one constitutency to whom accountability should apply, it is management.

  2. Thank you for this fantastic article.

    I think you make a very interesting point about the difficulties of finding ‘someone to blame’ in the neoliberal university. I have had so many fights with support staff, people in management, etc. I’ve often found myself so furious at someone who, in my calmer moments, I realise hasn’t actually made the decisions that have hurt me. I’m sure every single school manager at Cardiff University will tell you that they are powerless to treat staff better, that there is simply not enough money to lessen people’s workloads.

    My solution has been not to fight these one on one battles, which sometimes become more about my desire to be right than about winning. Instead we need to fight structures collectively. Getting involved with UCU has done wonders in focusing my energy and strengthening my mental health.

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