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How Neoliberalism Transforms the Role of Higher Education

When I told my parents that I wanted to study philosophy at the end of my last high-school year, I got an immediate and unanimous answer: “Why don’t you choose something that’s going to give you security on the job market? As a graduate in philosophy, you aren’t gonna starve, but you’re not gonna live very well.” – They said. Back then I accepted my parents’ opinion without questioning it, therefore – being good at maths – I chose to study economics.

Now, as a BSc student, I’m getting more and more furious about the decision I made three years ago. Instead of being taught how to think critically and how to raise correct questions to challenge the status quo, I am being indoctrinated with “politically neutral” ideas that have failed to gain empirical support. The worst is that most students do not even seem to care about this. Something must be broken in the system of higher education, and neoliberal ideology is to blame.

Neoliberalism is a socio-economic paradigm that sees markets as individually functioning entities, rejects governmental intervention in the economy, promotes materialism, consumerism and the commodification of public goods.

With the birth of this worldview at the end of the 60’s, a new kind of relationship was established between corporations and universities. Institutions of higher-education begun to operate according to business principles, trying to gain revenue out of essential functions.

A robust cooperative business network of universities and multinationals got formed, which allowed these two agents to trade the “end-products” of higher education – knowledge, and information – with no barriers in the way. Thus, the good of higher education is commodified, and it gets expropriated by privately owned corporations, hence their owners, the ruling class, even though the benefits generated by education should be distributed evenly across society since it is an investment funded by public money.

Transferring public wealth from the many to the few is not the only problem. By creating a demand for specific information and knowledge, corporations can determine what the curriculum of universities has to include. This is a powerful tool in the hands of the ruling class to maintain control and to dominate the lower class. To analyze this situation we can use the work of Antonio Gramsci, an Italian philosopher, who would label this as a part of “the hegemonic project,” through which the beliefs and ideas of the ruling class become mainstream and the lower class adapts to the value system of the ones on the top.

Hegemony leads to the awkward situation, in which people who are supposed to challenge the status quo – the intellectuals – are unable to raise the correct questions because they are so deeply indoctrinated with the views of the ruling class. This way they are rendered incapable of inducing change. With the words of Slavoj Zizek: “We feel free because we lack the very language to articulate our unfreedom”.

The system of hegemony creation is not a conscious conspiracy, but a hidden process that happens without anyone acting on purpose, or anyone even noticing it. Neoliberalism penetrated our collective consciousness so profoundly that we came to believe that we live in an ideology-free world, and, as Margaret Thatcher said; we think that there is no alternative to it.

As it was mentioned earlier, passing on information, which is “value-neutral”, became the norm in higher-education in the past 40 years, which assigns an even stronger role to universities in the hegemonic project. Lecturers try to stay away from stating their own opinion since “professionalism” turned into a form of educated neutrality. Thus, neoliberal ideology impairs the very principle of academic freedom. The message, which is being sent to students by this, is terribly harmful. It says that the classroom is not a space for debate, but a sterile conveyor belt of indoctrination. Eventually, students accept every idea that is given to them, because they falsely believe that those theories are politically correct and value-free. Besides, they do not even acquire sufficient tools for analyzing and challenging the methods that are being taught to them. Instead of graduating universities as critically thinking intellectuals, they turn into experts, who know a lot but are afraid and unable to challenge the world around them.

Neoliberalism transformed not only the role of universities in society but also the values of students. In his study based on the results of the Cooperative Institutional Research Program, Alexander Astin shows how the goals of university applicants changed between 1991 and 2007. At the beginning of the 90’s, developing a meaningful philosophy of life was the most important aspect for students when it came to applying for college; about 80% of the respondents put this option on the top of their list. Being well off financially could only reach the sixth position, with 45% of prospective students labeling it as important. By 2007 these two goals swapped their places on the list. According to the same study, the main benefit of a university degree was “to increase one’s ability to create financial stability”.

In the neoliberal world, one seeks education, not because of its intrinsic value, but one purchases the educational product because of its potential to improve the consumers’ economic conditions. My example can be used to demonstrate this: I ended up choosing economics instead of philosophy, not because I value that kind of knowledge more, but because I was expected to be better off financially after my studies. My situation is prevalent nowadays. Astins study shows that the number of students applying for liberal arts or teaching courses has plummeted drastically.

Another study by Marteen Vansteenkiste showed that those who value extrinsic goals more than intrinsic ones are more likely to get depressed, anxious or narcissistic, they tend to have more conflicted relationships, and they are under threat of engaging in high-risk behaviors.

This trend is even more severe when it comes to economics students that study the economic aspects of the neoliberal paradigm more in-depth. According to a study, which was made in Israel, merely studying homo economicus can change students. Homo economicus is the smallest building block of economic models, an oversimplified portrait of all humans. It says that humans are selfish, they can compare all possible options in their head and they always act rationally. After studying economic models with homo economicus in their core for years, third-year economics students are more likely to value altruistic traits, such as loyalty, helpfulness, kindness or honesty far less than first-year students. According to the same study, third-year economics students also reported far more selfish behavior than anyone else.

With commodification of education, with corporations and the ruling class shaping our curriculums – thus our way of thinking –; not just academic freedom, the traditional role of universities, and our mental well-being are in danger. Neoliberalism threatens the very foundations of democracy. Us students, as the intellectuals of the future, are responsible for challenging the “hegemonic project”, which is trying to swallow us all. With our future at risk, we are obliged for not letting the road roller of money stomping on the last bits of intellectual freedom. The dictatorship of capital must be stopped before it is too late. Otherwise, we will become mindless servants of neoliberal ideology.


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