The architecture of the neoliberal university

University resources, including staff, now constitute a means of knowledge production and, as such, universities have become committed to their efficient allocation and utilisation to maximise returns. The university, as Woolf (1977 [1929]) noted, is a physical space that is far from costless, driving universities to efficient usage. This has a number of consequences.

First, it is becoming increasingly difficult for academics to have a room of their own as universities, whether elite or not and in the UK and across the world, increasingly adopt open plan offices. Such architecture restricts the mental space of academics, limiting their capacity to work thoughtfully and in private, whilst subjecting them to factory-like surveillance regimes characterised by significant usage of internal glass walls.

Second, central timetabling units that allocate teachers to classes and classes to rooms remove a large measure of academics’ discretion in the ordering of their work and have little regard for their need for joined-up time in which to concentrate on their research. Massification has accentuated this by transforming teaching from craftwork that could often be undertaken in the personal domain of academics’ offices to industrial scale enterprises requiring significant centrally administered dedicated space.

Third, because space and time are enmeshed in the industrial organization of the academy, time is money and therefore a resource over which universities seek control. This leads to work intensification as managerialist workload allocation models increase the amount of time explicitly directed towards visible work (such as teaching and meetings). In a further twist, the inexorable lengthening of the teaching year means that previously sacrosanct times for research are ever diminishing. Consequently, academics increasingly do research in their ‘own time’ or stop doing research at all (Court and Kinman, 2008). Indeed, this is particularly the fate of many early career academics and of women, who tend to take on higher loads of teaching and administration at the expense of their research (Fletcher et al., 2007).

Fourth, because time is money, money is the currency that academics must use to buy research time. This involves obtaining research funding to buy their time out of teaching or even to cover the research they do as part of their contracts. Thus academics increasingly only get time to do work that contractors are willing to pay for directly. Because government increasingly values only work deemed ‘economically useful’ or providing ‘policy-based evidence’ (sic, Boden and Epstein, 2006: 226), academics are driven from ‘blue skies’, theoretically driven enquiry, or that which challenges received wisdoms.

Fifth, academics need facilities and equipment to do their research – everything from computers and libraries to laboratories and telescopes. Organizational or governmental control over access to these inevitably constrained resources can be problematic for freedom, with those disciplines requiring extremely expensive equipment being particularly vulnerable. For instance, in 2006 the UK government created the Science and Technology Facilities Council to control access to major national and international research facilities in particle physics, astronomy and nuclear physics. Access to these facilities is now largely determined by a range of performance indicators which may address the state’s objectives for science rather than what scientists might feel is valuable (Select Committee on Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills, 2008).

Boden, R. and Epstein, D. (2011) “A flat earth society? Imagining academic freedom”.The Sociological Review, 59:3

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