Annie Vinokur, “Governing universities through quality”

Annie Vinokur is an emerita professor of political economy who recently ran a project, FOREDUC, on “The Future of Education Systems” at the University of Paris-X. I’ve previously reviewed a 2010 journal issue that came out of the FOREDUC project, which was edited by Vinokur and Carole Sigman. I want to write a few words here about a new paper that Vinokur recently published in French, “The quality-based governance of universities,” which is a useful complement to much of the recent Anglophone literature on neoliberal policy in higher education. As a critical political economist, Vinokur’s specialty is thinking about the relationship between flows of capital and social institutions.

Here’s the English-language abstract of her paper:

Since the 1990s universities have seen a proliferation of methods for quality assessment and management. Borrowed from the New Public Management business model, they impose a definition of quality on universities which is radically opposed to their traditionally held values of quality of knowledge and professional autonomy. This unprecedented movement can now be seen as participating in the capitalist absorption of a non-commercial public sector. We endeavour here to analyse its origins and the uses of quality measurements and management techniques in the process. We assess where this transition could lead according to the recent British government White Paper (May 2016) which intends to establish a market open to all providers, for-profit and non-profit, granted equal access to the public funding of students’ loans. This market would be regulated by a single non-departmental quality agency, concerned only with students’ value for money.

What I like about her paper is that it considers a set of policies and trends that are familiar to anthropologists working on “neoliberal” European higher education, but from a quite different angle and a higher level of abstraction. As a point of terminology, Vinokur generally uses the European category “New Public Management” (NPM) instead of the more ambiguous term “neoliberalism.” I agree with her that NPM is a much more precise category and that “neoliberalism” can become a fraught term, but I will freely use both terms here because both have been widely used in the literature on this topic.

Much of the work on neoliberal policy in Europe has been broadly influenced by Foucault, and as such, has treated discourse — neoliberal policy discourse in particular — as the chief cause of a number of other social effects. As this literature has shown (I can provide citations if anyone wants them), these effects would include:

  • Reshaping everyday academic work practices (often making them more grant- and ranking-focused).
  • Creating more entrepreneurial and calculating (but also more stressed, anxious and precarious) subjective stances among academics.
  • Declining support for permanent, tenured academic work, which gets replaced by precarious, temporary, grant-funded and contract-based forms of labor.
  • Withdrawing public funding and increasing tuition burdens on individual students.
  • Making public universities more subject to contract and incentive-based forms of management (instead of direct management by the state apparatus).
  • Shifting the image of higher education as a public good into a private good. (For students, education becomes an individual investment in their own human capital and workplace skills. For European public universities as institutions, they may find themselves transformed into something like publicly owned corporations, owning their own real estate, running their own budgets, managing investments, etc. In France, this system has already led to a number of budget crises…)

I don’t mean this list to be comprehensive, but just to give a quick overview of phenomena usually associated with European university neoliberalism. What Vinokur brings to those of us steeped in this literature is, in essence, a high-level view of a non-Foucauldian analysis of this situation. For Vinokur, policy discourse is an intermediate effect, not a first cause. What is primary, meanwhile, is a large-scale structural analysis of conflicts between labor, capital and the state as they confront a given historical moment. This enables Vinokur to usefully retheorize a series of seemingly disconnected policy moments — those relating to Quality Assurance in this case — as fitting together into a coherent process.

Let me make a quick aside about theoretical causality in this literature. I am not saying that anyone participating in this research is committed to a clear metaphysical view about first causes and secondary effects. This is social research, not philosophy. You very rarely get a clear a priori claim that X is the cause of Y, whether X is “capital flows,” “discourse,” or anything else. (With apologies to philosophers, this is probably a good thing, since static metaphysical claims about social reality have a way of causing more controversy than they avoid.) What you find instead, as a reader of this literature, is that in the process of doing social analysis, scholars always end up having to treat some phenomena as primary and others as secondary, classifying some things as causes of other things. So my observations about neoliberal discourse being a primary cause for some people and an intermediate effect for others are only meant to describe the way they attribute causality in particular cases, not to attribute a metaphysics (whether Marxian, Foucauldian, or whatever other kind).

It is a purely academic exercise to compare theoretical approaches in the abstract. The real question is: what new knowledge can you produce, given your presuppositions? At its most basic, Vinokur’s argument is that the proliferation of Quality Assurance methods is “participating in the capitalist absorption of a non-commercial public sector.” I’m not a Marxian economist, but my impression is that Vinokur draws here on a longstanding view in critical (~Marxian) political economy. The underlying thought there is that as capitalist firms search continually to maximize profit, they see opportunities in every non-capitalist sector of the economy, such as the post-1945 welfare state university system. Needless to say, in the post-1945 period, higher education has been increasingly integrated into systems of social and professional reproduction that themselves are necessary prerequisites of corporate enterprise, but there is a clear difference between higher education as a reproductive prerequisite of corporate enterprise and higher education as a corporate profit center.

In any case, given its point of departure, I found Vinokur’s paper quite “good to think with,” as it went on to deploy a sort of high-level taxonomical thinking about this ongoing re-integration of public higher education into corporate capitalism. For instance, she organizes different moments in New Public Management policy into three logical “stages” in the capitalist appropriation process:

  1. After “the liberation of international flows of capital and the deregulation of finance in the 1970s-80s”, university management is redone to conform to the NPM style of governance by incentive and contract. (The state correspondingly gets out of the business of directly providing public services.)
  2. Universities are pressured to conform more directly to the “new needs of the economy” as a post-industrial “knowledge economy” becomes trendy, and university organizations become subject to quality assurance regimes that put universities in competition with each other on international markets. (Though as Vinokur suggests elsewhere, arguably the real function of universities is to systematically produce a surplus of graduates who end up unemployed and keep down wages among the skilled workforce…)
  3. After the 2008 financial crisis, “the overabundance of global liquidity is in search of rents” (as she puts it) and seizes on education as a major market opportunity.

In the French case, I note, pressures to make universities “conform to economic needs” date back at least to the late 1960s. (In October 1968, for instance, one French legislator complained publicly about the “insufficient effectiveness of the adjustment between the education system and working life,” as Romuald Bodin and Sophie Orange have recently reported.) Vinokur is providing a high-level schema, not a detailed history. But I found it clarifying to think of some of the earlier managerial and ideological reorganizations of public universities — which in themselves do not entail privatization, per se — as prequels to new forms of for-profit higher education. The more universities are standardized and rationalized, the more they are rendered into abstract competitors on a globalized educational market, the more – arguably — they are ripe for further competition from non-public entities. At least, this would be the hypothesis that one could explore in more historical detail.

Vinokur also draws out a useful set of types of academic “quality control” and helps us see their connections to fundamentally capitalist forms of international standardization. She distinguishes (I’ll translate from §3):

  • Quality of the product: bibliometrics, patents, standardized tests, measurement and certification of “skills”, “tuning” the norms of the European system of credit transfer, universal grading standards, etc.
  • Quality of the production process: ISO 9000+ quality assurance standards, audits, “best practices,” quality assurance frameworks, etc.
  • Quality of the producer: H-index, ratings, rankings, benchmarking, grading institutions by credit rating agencies, job placement and income of graduates, amount of grants [volume des contrats], etc.

Again, what I liked about this list was that it evokes the eerily totalizing nature of what might otherwise seem a very disparate set of academic practices. Common grading standards seem very different from grants and credit ratings. Bibliometrics (assessing the quality of research products) seem very different from skill certifications (which measures the qualities of students-as-products). Yet, as Vinokur points out, these can all be seen as partaking in an educational system where products are measured for quality, production processes are measured for quality, and producers are measured for quality.

Vinokur’s paper is largely devoted to a general overview of the historical schema that she brings up. I do, though, want to highlight a couple of specific institutional moments that she mentions. It is well known that organizations like the OECD have sought to subject higher education to market standards, but I hadn’t been aware that UNESCO, a seemingly more “cultural” organization, had also been an organ of this process. Yet Vinokur cites a remarkable 1998 UNESCO conference that declares that higher education must adapt itself to “the logic of risks,” and that “the effective independence of the university depends more and more on its capacity to demonstrate its efficacy and efficiency.” She also emphasizes that the ISO (International Standards Organization), usually known (if at all) for fairly dull standards for encoding country names or dates, also has a set of process quality guidelines, the ISO 9000 series, that seem to have inspired European projects of educational standardization, such as the ones introduced by the Bologna Process. As Elizabeth Dunn has noted in another context, “Because standards such as the ISO’s 9000 series dictate not only the qualities of the finished product but also the manufacturing process itself, they offered the possibility of disciplining firms from the inside out” (2005:176). Though I am still not completely clear on the ISO’s role in European higher education, it is interesting to see how some New Public Management instruments have private sector origins, rather than being, say, a pure invention of state authorities.

One last note on an American comparison. Inasmuch as Donald Trump represents anything in education, I would suggest that he has been the vehicle for a process of trying to extract symbolic value from elite higher education while also trying to crassly hijack higher education as a new source of potential profits (both symbolic and monetary).  This at least is what I learned earlier this year about his own educational history and his ill-fated Trump University project. As the Trump administration’s educational policies have been devoted almost solely to critiquing public schools and offering renewed “choices” of for-profit or religious education, one can only wonder whether this policy direction will also come to affect U.S. higher education (which already has a large and complex private sector, to be sure).

If so, it will be interesting to revisit Vinokur’s general thesis that NPM’s quality assurance sets the stage for a full corporate takeover of higher education. The U.S. case could not be directly comparable to the European case, since New Public Management does not really exist in the United States. (As Bonnie Urciuoli points out, neoliberal ideologies that work through state policy in Europe often work in the U.S. through market and publicity mechanisms. Davydd Greenwood also has a useful comparative paper, “Bologna in America,” that is worth re-reading here.) But since the U.S. federal government controls massive revenue flows in higher education, by administering the student aid apparatus, one has to wonder whether Vinokur’s glum scenario could get realized in the U.S. by alternative institutional means.

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Eli Thorkelson

Eli Thorkelson edits Academography and also keeps a research blog at decasia.

One thought on “Annie Vinokur, “Governing universities through quality””

  1. I find Eli’s rendering of Vinokur’s arguments enticing and useful. They both contend that a significant part of the critique of developments in higher education is myopic in relation to the broader context and thus not very useful for moving beyond critique. So far so good.

    A couple of caveats. The “new public management” is widely known and deployed in the US and a number of us have made the link between NPM and neoliberalism a point of departure (e.g. Chris Newfield, Marc Bousquet, me).

    A word on my own trajectory might be useful as a way of reinforcing what Eli and Vinokur are emphasizing. I began academic life as an “economic anthropologist” teaching the work of both Marx and Polanyi alongside the neoclassical school, the so-called “formalist/substantivist” debate. It was not particularly enlightening as a debate and evolved into yet another academic parlor game.

    However that teaching ended up affecting my analysis of the then intense Basque nationalist movement I experienced in the 1970s and the political economy of the Spanish Constitution that created a context for all kinds of race/ethnic fantasies with real world consequences. Tiring of race/ethnic othering in Europe when I had quite enough experience with it in the US, I moved on eventually becoming the director of number of fairly large centers and programs in the university. My experience of the irrationality and moral cupidity of so many academics and academic administrators who more intent on their narcissistic goals forced me to observe they repeatedly blocked all the necessary steps to create and conserve academic integrity and quality in these organizations. Only then did I begin to connect the dots between my previous experience with economic anthropology, the political economy of ethnogenesis, and these ills of academia. This was reinforced by reading the works of Naomi Klein, Michael Lewis, Thomas Picketty, and others for whom the academic story I was living was simply one more example of the play of larger forces.

    One consequence is this realization is that it makes addressing the problems of neoliberal academy a much larger project. If academia is only one more instance of a brutal set of larger forces that have laid waste to so many of pro-social, public goods producing organizations, then reforming academia cannot be done merely by organizing a group of academics as some kind of political movement.

    It also raises a curious question for me. The plutocrats and oligarchs of neoliberalism have an outsized hatred and fear of universities. In my experience, most universities are socially passive, self-interested, often dull, stifling places. Yet to the Alt-Right, we seem as dangerous as the anti-Christ. Their fear of such generally passive organizations remains a puzzle to me.

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