Musicology in the marketplace: the neoliberalization of higher education

With the UK general election now less than a week away, Rachel McCarthy offers her thoughts on the politics of higher education in the current academic climate, considering the impact that changes in HE have had, and are likely to have, on music research and in academia more generally. Rachel is a PhD student at Royal Holloway, University of London whose research focuses on the politics of twenty-first century music.


Most of us will be aware, at least to some extent, of the raft of reforms to the British system of higher education that have resulted from an increasingly neoliberal political climate. Some of their effects include the business-like management of universities (whereby students are regarded as consumers and institutions compete for their custom), an increasing instrumentalisation of research  for economic ends, job losses and casualisation of the lower- and middle-ranking workforce while vice chancellors’ salaries go through the roof, funding cuts in the humanities and social sciences, a heightened administrative burden for academics, and so on. Various scholars have voiced concerns about these reforms in recent years, and there is now a significant body of literature devoted to the subject. In 2012 the Council for the Defence of British Universities was founded in protest against the changes taking place; a number of prominent academics and intellectual figures have since joined its ranks. It is not the intention of this blog post, however, to set out the details of the reforms, which has been done more eloquently elsewhere (the CDBU website is a good place to start for an introduction to the main issues; see also this excellent summary by Keith Thomas). What I offer here instead are my own thoughts on the matter, first considering the effect of the reforms on music research in particular, before discussing my personal experience of the changes. I’ll end by providing a brief exposition of various political parties’ stances on HE, so that we might have some idea about whether we should expect any significant change in this area after 7 May.

So how have these reforms impacted music research and teaching? As a humanities subject, music was bound to feel some repercussions following the government’s decision to slash funding for non-STEM subjects. Indeed, it was recently announced that the Institute of Musical Research (IMR) at the University of London would close due to cuts in state funding. It is notable that the media coverage (for example, here and here) focused much more on the closure of the Institute of English Studies (IES), announced around the same time. While academics responded to this news by immediately protesting the closures of both institutes, it was eventually decided that the IES should be saved, while the IMR would be dissolved as planned. Similarly, reports (see here and here) on the restructuring faced by various humanities and social sciences departments at Surrey University focused almost exclusively on cuts to the politics department, even though the music department is similarly affected. While we should be wary of jumping to conclusions based on these two examples alone, they do appear to confirm the unfortunate truth that many musicologists have grown used to bemoaning: that music is not valued as highly as other subjects in the humanities and social sciences (let alone the hard sciences). But is apathy among music students and researchers the problem? Could they have done more to protest and prevent these cuts? Evidence from elsewhere suggests not: a student petition against the proposed closure of the music department at the University of East Anglia did nothing to prevent the closure from going ahead. These examples show music struggling to prove its worth in an academic climate in which the humanities come second place to the sciences, and music comes somewhere at the bottom of this second tier. For those who bemoan music’s undervalued status in the academy, these events show that the current neoliberal agenda is unlikely to improve music’s position as such.

In our current position as postgraduate students most of us remain relatively sheltered from the effects of the reforms outlined in the first paragraph. The main way in which they will have impacted on our studies so far is in the area of postgraduate funding: cuts to the AHRC have resulted in less funding for PhD students and virtually none for masters students; the new consortia-based system of allocating the money has the effect of increasing competition not just between students but also between universities, and makes for a more bureaucratic and tedious application process. Otherwise, we can for the most part choose to remain blissfully ignorant of the damage going on around us, without feeling the pressures of the REF or the increase in admin faced by staff, for example, nor even yet experiencing the harsh realities of a shrinking academic job market (even though this is a worry for many of us who intend to continue in academia, especially as we come closer to finishing). As such, it is easier for us to remain apathetic towards the reforms. Every so often, however, something may happen to bring them closer to home. A few months ago I attended a congress that brought together all the PhD students funded by one particular consortium. The two-day event consisted of workshops and lectures designed to help us improve our research skills and get ahead in the post-PhD job market. While this would appear to be unextraordinary and harmless – certainly well-intentioned – I nevertheless left the gathering with an acute feeling of unease. The uncomfortable reality is that the AHRC, through the consortia, has chosen to focus their limited resources – not only in terms of money but also in terms of training – on a select group of funded students, teaching them how to play the game, to jump through the hoops of the system in order to get ahead and leave the less fortunate unfunded students trailing behind. I could not help but feel a sinister suspicion that we were being groomed to become the future managers whose task it is to implement these neoliberal policies in the academy. One presentation focused on preparing us for a career post-PhD, explaining what we should do to make our job applications stand out from those of our peers. The speaker – an academic who also held a managerial position – presented with a (perhaps admirable) tone of optimism, without mentioning the difficulties we and our colleagues were likely to face in securing a job. In the Q&A session that followed, one student challenged the speaker on the realities of the academic job market, mentioning the exploitation of young adjunct teaching staff and the diminishing number of full-time positions. But the speaker evaded the question, leaving the audience with the message that rather than working together in an attempt to protest and mend the failings of the current system, we should resign ourselves to said system, focusing our energy instead on pitting ourselves against one another in order to compete for the ever-diminishing selection of academic posts.

If we as postgraduate students did want to protest the system, however, it would be difficult to know where to start – let alone whether this would be an advisable course of action for those of us intending to stay on in academia. Anyone who does not enjoy the security of a permanent position must be wary of being too vocal in their protests against the system, lest they damage their chances of employment within that system. Worryingly, the recent suspension of Professor Thomas Docherty at Warwick University, suspected to be connected to his open protests against the reforms, suggests that even higher-level academics should be wary of speaking out (it should be noted that after nine months his suspension has now been lifted and he has been cleared of all charges, but only after an expensive legal battle).

The initial idea for this blog post, which goes out just a week away from the general election, was to set out the various parties’ policies on higher education, and analyse what changes, if any, a different government might bring. Conveniently, Times Higher Education recently published a Q&A session they conducted with spokespeople from Labour, Conservatives, Lib Dems and the Greens on this very matter. Briefly summarized, the three main parties’ HE policies all seem pretty indistinguishable from one another (the notable exception being Labour’s pledge to cut undergraduate fees to £6000); the Greens are the only party who stand out as offering a real alternative to the current situation. The Greens position themselves as the party most open to cooperation with universities on devising HE policy, and they have clearly taken note of academics’ concerns about the REF in their pledge to abolish it. (Labour also indicated they will listen to what universities say about the REF, though they have no plans to get rid of it.) Along with the SNP, the Greens stand out from the other parties in their refusal to view students as consumers, and both support the abolition of undergraduate tuition fees. The Greens say they are against the increasing bureaucracy of the HE system, and pledge to ‘introduce a public research funding code to protect against commercial bias in research’.

Rising support for the Greens notwithstanding, it is highly unlikely that the party will gain enough seats to exert any influence on the next government, as the latest election forecast indicates. The more probable outcome of a Labour minority government or a Labour/SNP coalition might work to stem the tide of neoliberalism in the academy (and the country at large) to some degree. Given the closeness of the two main parties’ stances on HE, however, even with a change in the balance of power the chances that future governmental policy will do anything to drastically alter the form of HE that we are unfortunately becoming used to seem very slim indeed.


*The views expressed in this post are those of the author.

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