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Challenging the Necessity and Inevitability of the Neoliberal University: Value and the Humanities in the Twenty-First Century

Zoe Bulaitis, literary scholar and author of Value and the Humanities: the Neoliberal University and Our Victorian Inheritance, reflects on contemporary valuation cultures within universities in England, and how re-considerations of the past can challenge, enhance, and reform our understanding of the role of the humanities in the twenty-first century.

Value and the Humanities (2020) provides an account of the entanglements of economic policymaking and the value of the humanities from the nineteenth- to the twenty-first century in England. Throughout the book, I offer a sustained challenge to the idea that neoliberalism within universities is unavoidable, natural, or necessary.

The project is personal: I was witness to significant changes to the management and value of university education during my time as an undergraduate student (2009-12). In the early 2010s, contemporary public debate about the value of a university education became entirely dominated by appraising the economics of education. How much should tuition cost? Who would pay for it? What represents good value for money? This discourse still dominates public conversations today, as if no other conceptions of the university are worth serious consideration.

Within the context of the shifting ownership of student debt inherent in the reforms of the Browne Report (2010), I noticed that little attention was being paid to a far more important question: what is the value of a university education? My interest in writing Value and the Humanities arose from the belief that the value of education should not and cannot always be measured in economic terms. The foundations of this book were established at this time, as I began to research the extent to which alternative languages of value were being subsumed by the econocratic rhetoric of higher education policy.

I quickly found that thinking beyond the limits of neoliberal education required the skills which a humanities degree provides. I close-read educational policy, critically analysed political debate and popular press, and historicised our present ‘inevitable’ into a wider context of contingency and governmental choice. It was Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism (2009) which demonstrated how the act of historicizing is both political and powerful. He writes:

“over the past thirty years, capitalist realism has successfully installed a ‘business ontology’ in which it is simply obvious that everything in society, including healthcare and education, should be run as a business […] emancipatory politics must destroy the appearance of a ‘natural order’, must reveal what is presented as necessary and inevitable to be mere contingency, just as it must make what was previously deemed to be impossible attainable”.1

Therefore, one of the main strategies of Value and the Humanities is to investigate how drawing upon a different historical moment can disrupt our present monoculture of neoliberalism in higher education. Throughout the book, I explore the interconnections in debates about culture, economics, and the value of a humanities education between the nineteenth century and the present day. This historical connection is important for everyone to understand, not just nineteenth-century scholars. It was in the 1800s that England saw the increased access and debates concerning the public value of cultural institutions such as the British Museum. It was in the 1800s that the formalisation of subjects such as English and the practice of literary criticism became a political and public occupation. The nineteenth-century also saw the expansion of educational systems and support, such as compulsory education and the opening up of universities to those for a wider range of socio-economic backgrounds. The Victorians established the values that surround access to education and the importance of culture to society. However, while nineteenth-century liberal education sought to cultivate a society of individuals equipped with faculties for making moral choices and living meaningful lives, contemporary neoliberal higher education redefines individuals primarily as consumers of education. There has been a shift whereby the freedom of an individual has been transformed into an individual’s freedom of choice, in a free market of economic opportunity.

I reflect upon and at times refract nineteenth-century cultural and political history in order to provide readers with new tools to approach familiar questions regarding the value of the humanities in the twenty-first century. Value and the Humanities was specifically written to engage and support those from a wide range of audiences and explores the interdisciplinary connections between the humanities and museum studies, cultural economics, and educational policymaking.

I feel strongly that if we hope to address the changes occurring in the contemporary academy, we need to articulate the value of the humanities beyond the marketplace of higher education. Therefore, rather than writing a singular defence of the humanities against contemporary economic rationalism, this book proposes and exposes a kaleidoscopic range of ways in which value is manifested, each of which offers a different perspective on the present debate. It is my sincere hope that placing contemporary higher education within a far longer history reveals how “what is presented as necessary and inevitable to be mere contingency” (Fisher 2009, 17) and we can collectively articulate alternative narratives of value.

Dr Zoe Hope Bulaitis is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Manchester in the School of Arts, Languages, and Cultures. Her open access monograph Value and the Humanities: The Neoliberal University and Our Victorian Inheritance (2020) explores the relationship between nineteenth- and twenty-first-century economics, literature, and higher education. She is currently affiliated with the AHRC’s Creative Industries: Policy and Evidence Centre, researching the function of universities as civic and cultural institutions. Twitter @zoebulaitis

1Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (2009)  O Books. p.17

Zoe Bulaitis
Valule and the Humanities