Why Irish universities are in thrall to neoliberalism

Opinion: Third level now exists at the troubled epicentre of utility and enterprise

In a remarkable speech delivered recently, as he joined academics and historians at the launch of the Cambridge History of Ireland, President Michael D. Higgins spoke out against the market model of higher education.

Taking unflinching aim at research ratings and rankings, the President criticised metrics as an “ideological fad” of the university.

The reliance on any quantitative measure in the presentation of academic work, he said, is not a meaningful contribution to knowledge or understanding.

Rather, it is “a conforming bending of the knee to an insufficiently contested neo-utilitarian mediocrity”.


The President's words carry their typical rhetorical force; and in the context of higher education in Ireland they resound as both significant and timely.

Most importantly, the President’s words question the power of the individual within the institution, and so inspire the central questions of this piece: if research metrics are an “ideological fad”, who exactly are the perpetrators of this ideology?

How complicit is the lone lecturer or researcher? And what, if anything, is their power to resist?

The Irish university no longer sanctions contemplation as the underpinning of intellectual life

Reflecting a broader international trend in higher education, the Irish university is increasingly in thrall to the behemoth of neoliberalism.

Its response to a dramatic fall in public funding has involved a turn to economically-driven practice as the only way to survive.

Thus, the Irish university no longer boasts autonomy from social or political agenda. It no longer sanctions contemplation as the underpinning of intellectual life.

‘Continual anxiety’

On the contrary, the Irish university exists at the troubled epicentre of utility and enterprise. It is continually anxious about the “competitiveness” of its departmental faculty and the “satisfaction” of its student cohort.

It is evident, moreover, that this market model has arrived to stay. There will be no turning of the educational tide and no reversal from neoliberal to liberal.

Rather, what we are witnessing in Ireland is a global and irreversible shift – in the words of Ronald Barnett, from "a university-in-itself" (committed to teaching and scholarship and edification of selves) to "a university-for-itself" (committed to performance and productivity and competition against others).

At the extreme end of Barnett’s spectrum, the downsides for universities are well rehearsed.

In terms of research, publishable work devolves from considered dialogue to selfish CV-building. Complexity and nuance diminish to simplicity and impact. We become "calculable rather than memorable" in the words of sociologist Stephen Ball. And in terms of teaching, neoliberal students become "customers" buying a "university experience"; they "invest" in their degree and in their "work- ready" skill set.

In its erosion of the university as ideal, this transactional language is deeply damaging. It obstructs the liberal priorities of free expression and robust exchange. Indeed, it obstructs the very heart of educational relationship in its distinctive capacity for transformation as well as care.

We recognise the dominance of this neoliberal model – and yet, taking our lead from President Higgins, we recognise also our potential to resist it. As individual academics, we must consider the possibilities of our own profession.

Three reforms

We must trust in everyday practice as a locus for agency and reform. This is not a rejection of accountability nor a nostalgia for a university that never was. Rather, it is a recognition that the university is a whole organism and not a machine of efficient parts. It is a recognition that the university deserves better.

We must care for our insecure colleagues and call out the toxicity of hourly-paid work

We would say that there are three parts to this “better”.

Firstly, academics must push back against the discourse that is given. It is always a challenge to silence the neoliberal buzzwords, to think outside the stifling discourse of “publication profile” or “research agenda”. These loud terminologies silence quieter ideals of contemplation and scholarship – and yet we must resist the temptation to think only within their confines. Seeking our own expressive language, we must consider what it truly means to educate and to live well.

Secondly, we must connect scholarship to action. If the agency of academia is a matter of frank and risky speaking, it is a matter, also, of aligning practice with theory and so claiming integrity for our own work.

We cannot write about social justice without working for its everyday implementation. We cannot critique neoliberalism and return to neoliberal practice behind our office door.

In making these claims, we are of course conscious of the precarious moral ground that we currently occupy. But we would call for all those in positions of privilege, ourselves among them, to acknowledge their autonomy as well as their power. Critique can take the form of published scholarship, but it can also take the form of lived practice and solidarity.

Finally, and most importantly, we must care for our insecure colleagues and call out the toxicity of hourly-paid work.

The President closed his speech with reference to the early career academic who bears the hardest consequences of the neoliberal model.

It is well known that these colleagues suffer from unreasonable working schedules and radically variable pay. They do not enjoy the respect nor the security of their permanent peers.

Indeed, early career academics exist in a strange professional in-between, often less privileged than the students they teach. “Theirs is a cause”, the President said, “that requires persistent advocacy within the university”.

Calling for careful reflection as well as considered practice, Mr Higgins has proved himself a crucial voice for the contemporary university.

His perspective is that of the internal critic and it is all the more valuable for being so. In encouraging individual academics to work towards community – and in encouraging permanent professors to enact “solidarity and care” – his words are a touchstone for us all.

Dr Áine Mahon and Dr Shane Bergin are based at University College Dublin’s school of education