The Digital University in a Neoliberal Age

The Digital University in a Neoliberal Age

Contemporary Philosophy of Technology Research Group Symposium

 Wednesday 8th November 2017, 1-6 PM

University of Birmingham – Arts Building Lecture Room 1

Register here


1 – 1.30  reception and buffet lunch

1.30 – 2.30 Gary Hall

2.30 – 3.30 Liz Morrish

3.30 – 4 tea and coffee

4-5 Jana Bacevic

5-6 Mark Carrigan




Neoliberalism has disrupted higher education by redefining it as a market trading in commodities. In theory, price signals are meant to reflect the worth of a product in a market but neoliberals tend to see the economic success of corporations as the gauge of market success, despite their ability to ‘distort’ market signals. In the UK, higher education uses audit culture in place of an open market of differing price signals. This allows the state, which engineers how the ‘free market’ works, to set the terms of competitive reference. The REF, the NSS, various league tables and ‘rankings’ based on these assessments combined with other data such as data on employment, and now the TEF, provide ways for university brands to compete for students redefined as ‘customers’ purchasing human capital. Information and communication technology (ICT) allows for the intensification of audit culture and marketization. The ‘performance’ of staff can be assessed continuously, often using a traffic light system of staff grading, with management using ICT to check on the ‘impact’ of ‘research outputs’ and customer ‘feedback’ for instance. In place of professional autonomy there is to be ‘transparency’, with academic work continuously monitored for performance in relation to the objectives of brand managers. The purpose of this symposium is to both diagnose the range of problems presented by the neoliberal use of digital technology in higher education and to explore what potentials there are to overcome such problems.



Speaker Abstracts and Biographies


Jana Bacevic

‘Who acts and what matters in the neoliberal university? Power, potential, and resistance in the academia’

Jana works on social theory and the politics of knowledge production, and is a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Cambridge, writing on the critique of neoliberalism in UK higher education.

This talk explores how we frame matter and agency in the critique of neoliberalism. The first part engages with the social ontology of actors in the neoliberal academia – from institutions, to human beings, to metrics and algorithms – and examines the roles they play and different forms of power they are ascribed in accounts of transformation of higher education and research. It situates these framings within particular theoretical traditions, from Marxism to object-oriented ontology, showing how each in turn displaces the question of power. The second part examines how these agents and actants *can* act – that is, what sort of emergent properties we can expect their interaction to produce – and discusses the implications of these potentialities both for thinking about the present, and acting in the future. In conclusion, the talk opens the question of the relationship between forms of agency, critique, and forms of resistance.


Mark Carrigan

‘Craft and exploitation in the digital university’

Mark is a Digital Fellow at The Sociological Review.

This talk explores the institutionalisation of social media as a vector through which the conditions of labour in the academy are changing. What was once seen as a private matter irrelevant to scholarly life is increasingly seen as one of the core competencies which the ‘engaged academic’ must demonstrate in order to win be opportunity for something resembling the conventional notion of a ‘career’, rather than an endless iteration of precarious engagements. Drawing on the accelerated academy project and platform studies, I explore how the process of ‘becoming academic’ is changing under these conditions, examining digital labour through the parallel concepts of ‘craft’ and ‘exploitation’.


Prof. Gary Hall

‘Data Commonism versus ÜberCapitalism ‘

Gary is a media theorist working in the areas of art, culture, philosophy, politics and technology, Gary Hall is Professor of Media and Performing Arts in the Faculty of Arts & Humanities at Coventry University.

“Economics are the method; the object is to change the heart and soul.”

— Margaret Thatcher

How can we affirmatively disrupt the übercapitalism of Airbnb, Deliveroo and in order to invent a different, more caring future: for the sharing and gig economies, for post-industrial, post-capitalist society, and for individual life too? This paper will argue that in order to do so we need to experiment with new ways of living and working; ways that are based far less on self-centred individualism, competition and celebrity.

The university has an important role to play in this process. After all, this is where the 24-hour artistic/entrepreneurial subjectivity that is such a feature of contemporary capitalism and its creative industries was first developed, before being exported throughout society more widely. (Hence Facebook’s HQ is known as a ‘campus’.) The university is thus a particularly appropriate place to experiment with developing a counter-subjectivity to the hyper-competitive, neoliberal microentrepreneurs of the self that übercapitalism is pushing us to become.

Accordingly, this paper will endeavour to provide a sense, both of the neoliberal intensification and acceleration that is lying in store for many us over the course of the next few years, and what we can do about it.


Liz Morrish

‘The accident of accessibility: How the data of the TEF creates neoliberal subjects’

Liz is an independent scholar and campaigner for sustainable careers in higher education, and against audit culture. She left academia in 2016, and recently wrote this for the Times Higher

Liz blogs at

And tweets @Lizmorrish

In an era of neoliberal reforms, academics in UK universities have become increasingly enmeshed in audit, particularly of research ‘outputs’ via the Research Excellence Framework (REF). A new Teaching Excellent Framework (TEF) has emerged in 2017, whose results are determined primarily by proxy data of National Student Survey (NSS) scores, retention data and Longitudinal Educational Outcomes data (LEO), i.e. salaries of graduates. This has been made possible by SBEE (Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Act 2015) legislation which has enabled data mining and synthesis of data streams from records held by the Student Loans Company (SLC), HMRC and universities themselves.

These two audit processes, REF and TEF, were originally envisaged as instruments to evaluate research and teaching, respectively, at institutional level. This had a distinctively neoliberal purpose in seeking to mould universities more closely towards serving the economic needs of the nation. The REF, however, has also been recruited as an instrument of individual performance management in universities, with each academic forced to compete in academic output and research funds with the most talented and unencumbered scholars. The TEF, similarly, bestows an institutional ranking, but will rapidly be repurposed in order to shape the behaviour and priorities of academics. For example, the participation of local areas (POLAR) classification allows universities to be rated according to their success against the Widening Participation (WP) agenda. In this way, universities can appear to fail by revealing larger differential outcomes for target groups according to ethnicity and social class than their benchmark permits. The discourse of the TEF legislation, bolstered by studies from HEA/HEPI, assumes the source of inequality of outcome is poor teaching and requires corrective action by universities. Further justification for surveillance and quasi-regulation is borne by appeals to ‘value for money’ and ‘competition’. Universities are positioned as subject to market forces, and students positioned as consumers. Universities are responding by creating ‘managers for the student experience’ whose responsibility it will be to oversee change, without ever addressing the question of what causes differential outcomes, or what actions on behalf of government or institutions might make a difference.

I argue that what seems to be an arbitrary constellation of proxy data points has in fact been a calculated plan to render universities, staff and students as neoliberal subjects. The accident of accessibility, inasmuch as it overlaps with the neoliberal imperative, has determined which data shall function as Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). These KPIs are signalled via metrics-driven student and staff dashboards which offer no retreat from the interpretation and coding imposed by government, and the whole assemblage is cemented by discursive choices which align with neoliberal principles. In this way, the ideological purpose of the legislation and the audit is realized: the imposition of institutional and personal responsibility for structural inequality has been achieved.

The Government White Paper Success as a Knowledge Economy, May 2016, will form the text for corpus analysis of keywords, discourses and metaphors.


CPT Symposium - Neoliberal University-page-001

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s