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How Much Should We be Troubled by the Past?

Published in Governance by Mark Murphy on February 15, 2013

University College Cork

University College Cork, (c) Kman999

This post is a response to a question from Rille Raaper, a PhD student at the University of Glasgow, in response to my recent seminar – find the original comment here.

What a great question you ask Rille, and one that certainly deserves much more attention than it currently gets – my interpretation of your question is: why did the academic community effectively cede control over the last 2-3 decades to the combined forces of marketisation and consumerism?

There are a range of factors at play – a lot of them external to the academy, but in a recent paper Troubled by the past: History, identity, and the university, I point the finger at the academy as a player in its own right when it comes to the onslaught of market forces – via a combination of professional introversion, the stranglehold of disciplinarity and an over-emphasis on academic freedom at the expense of a focus on responsibility. This point, it should be added, has been known to cause mild controversy … but essentially my argument is: we took our eye off the ball and left the door WIDE open for others to account for our actions, rather than taking on the job ourselves.

… BUT I wrote a riposte to my own argument (still to be finished/published) that was an attempt to balance this understanding somewhat:

 “There is another sense in which universities and academics should be really troubled by the past, which relates to the powerful force that swept marketisation across higher education in the 1980s. This force was nothing other than a ‘fundamental change in the ideology of higher education’ (Peters 1992, 126), a change pursued with zeal by the Conservatives in the UK, who shamelessly used industrial and technological changes as a justification to ‘bring the university into line’.

It is difficult to perceive this transformation in the character of universities other than as a direct attack on the institution (Kogan and Kogan 1983). Far from being inevitable, the transformation was a form of counter-revolution against one of the last bastions of liberalism and source of enlightenment, a political offensive that sought to recast the university as irrelevant, outdated and anti-vocation. Integral to this undertaking was the development in the 1980s of a ‘hostile, negative view of the educational past’ that ‘held the “educational establishment” responsible for the problems that needed solving’ (McCulloch 1997, 74). This political strategy set the stage for an evangelical pursuit of efficiency, performance and marketisation, and Peters was correct to note in 1992 that this form of historical branding ‘will set the parameters within which higher education is to be conceived for a considerable time to come’ (Peters 1992, 126). The ‘benign’ tension between the state and university (Bailey 1975 in Berdahl 1990, 180) was swept aside by the real politic of ideological score settling, leaving in its wake a tangible antagonism.”

I should really finish this paper (!) as it does counter-balance what I’ve said previously. I do think, however, that acting as if the academy had no role to play in getting to where we are now, is a naive stance to take. A more interesting issue for me is attempting to understand how internal and external forces combined, in particular when and how they combined.

But I’m certainly open to other ideas on this topic – feel free to comment, Mark

[Unlinked references below]:

Kogan, M., and D. Kogan. 1983. The attack on higher education. London: Kogan Press.

Peters, M. 1992. Performance and accountability in ‘post-industrial society’: The crisis of British universities. Studies in Higher Education 17, no. 2: 123-139.

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Mark MurphyMark Murphy is a Reader in Education and Public Policy at the University of Glasgow. He previously worked as an academic at King’s College, London, University of Chester, University of Stirling, National University of Ireland, Maynooth, University College Dublin and Northern Illinois University. Mark is an active researcher in the fields of education and public policy. His research interests include educational sociology, critical theory, accountability in higher education, and public sector reform.


  1. Dave Talbot
    Dave Talbot

    It is nice to see someone else willing to point at least part of the blame back at the negligence those who do the complaining. I did something similar with my masters thesis. I looked at the pervasive problem of really poor televised history (in this case the recent BBC ‘History of Scotland’), which receives considerable (but mostly internal) derision within the discipline. My conclusion was the the biggest cause was continued ambivalence within the discipline about teaching or setting a professional standard for the responsible relation of national identity through history. The television executives are not to blame for sensationalising it and ignoring historical evidence if no standard has been articulated by historians, they are just doing their jobs as they have been taught to do them.

  2. Mark Murphy

    Sounds like an interesting thesis Dave – I think the HE sector is very good at exploring nuance and complexity when it comes to other sectors and issues, but for some reason this rigour and reason go out the window when it comes to examining our own sector (not always the case but mostly). If the bogeyman of neo-liberalism didn’t exist, it seems to me that academics would be chomping on the bit to invent it, Mark

  3. Rille Raaper
    Rille Raaper

    Thanks for this great discussion! I agree with your arguments and I happen to think the similar way. I also read a bit about Foucault’s biopolitics and his ideas about the neoliberal governmentality lately. Not to mention how difficult it was to understand, but I think he made a great point in arguing that the governmentality can be understood as the “mentalities of rule” and this new type of neoliberal governmentality have had significant expectations to institutions and individuals and their functions in “governing the self”. Even if the system is actually bureaucratic and very formalised, it makes individuals feel that they are free and they have central role in managing themselves and the processes around them. So it made me think that perhaps the overall societal, political, ideological changes have influenced how we, public institutions and academic communities even understand the system and its functioning and perhaps we often think that we are so autonomous in doing what we want, and we actually go with the flow that reduces the freedom. And then suddenly the reality hits..just when the consequences become visible.

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