The academy’s neoliberal response to COVID-19: Why faculty should be wary and how we can push back

By Honor Brabazon, assistant professor, Department of Sociology and Legal Studies, St. Jerome’s University in the University of Waterloo

A paper published on 29th May, 2020, in Academic Matters (Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations)

The emergency shift to remote teaching that universities have made in response to the covid19 crisis has been justified as an exceptional measure for these unprecedented times. Faculty understand and appreciate the privilege many of us have in this crisis and we were happy to do our part to keep students safe in last few weeks of the winter semester. However, as universities begin their summer semesters entirely online and start to reveal their plans for the fall, researchers and educators must look more closely at the choices administrators are making, the assumptions underpinning these choices, and the vision of the university they advance.

Critique is essential in times of crisis. It is our job, and our responsibility, not to accept these directives without questioning their impact on the less privileged among us, on the university community as a whole, and on the project of public research and education in which academics are engaged.

A preliminary examination of these questions suggests that remote teaching, as it is being implemented, is not the exceptional response that it has been made out to be, nor is it the only option available. Instead, it is the product of choices that reflect and advance the particular view of society that has underpinned the neoliberal restructuring of universities and other institutions over the past several decades.

Neoliberalism is commonly understood as a market-oriented ideology that is associated with policies of privatization, free trade, deregulation, and public service cuts. The original neoliberal thinkers of the 1930s-1950s sought to devise a way of organizing human interaction that would maximize freedom, which they understood to be limited to the ability of individuals to make self-interested decisions through the market.

Over the past 40 years, there has been considerable variation in how neoliberal ideas have been harnessed by policymakers worldwide, but certain fundamental principles are clear—and a number of these shape the way that universities have responded to covid19. Recognizing these neoliberal assumptions will help faculty both to question the way that covid19 era teaching is being implemented and to imagine alternatives that do not put public research and education at risk.

Assumption 1: Faculty are work-ready employees

In the neoliberal economy, workers are seen as commodities and are expected to be trained and “work-ready” before they are hired. The cost and responsibility for job-training fall predominantly on individual workers rather than on employers. This is evident in the expectation that work experience should be a condition of hiring. This is true of the academic hiring process, which no longer involves hiring those who show promise in their field and can be apprenticed on the tenure track, but rather those with the means, privilege, and grit to assemble a tenurable CV on their own dime and arrive to the tenure track work-ready.

The assumption that faculty are pre-trained, or able to train themselves without additional time and support, underpins university directives that faculty move classes online without investing in training to support faculty in this shift. For context, at the University of Waterloo, the normal supports for developing an online course include one to two course releases, 12-18 months of preparation time, and the help of three staff members—one of whom is an online learning consultant, and each of whom supports only about two other courses. Instead, at universities across Canada, the move online under covid19 is not called “online teaching” but “remote teaching”, which universities seem to think absolves them of the responsibility to give faculty sufficient technological training, pedagogical consultation, and preparation time.

Assumption 2: All faculty are equal

A guiding principle of neoliberal thought is that citizens should interact as formal equals, without regard for the substantive inequalities between us. This formal equality makes it difficult to articulate needs that arise from historical injustices, for instance, as marginalized groups are seen merely as stakeholders with views equally valuable to those of other stakeholders.

In the neoliberal university, this notion of formal equality can be seen, among other things, in the use of standards and assessments, such as teaching evaluations, that have been shown to be biased against instructors from marginalized groups, and in the disproportionate amount of care and service work that falls to these faculty members.

In university responses to covid19, remote teaching directives are rooted in the assumption that faculty are equally positioned to carry them out. However, at the best of times, not all faculty can drop everything to re-design all their courses, and the covid19 crisis has presented additional child care, elder care, mental health, and homeschooling responsibilities, among other challenges that disproportionately affect women (especially women of colour), differently-abled faculty, and contract faculty (who, at some institutions, are putting multiple summer courses online at once while receiving notice that their fall courses have been cancelled).

The dual delivery model—in which some students in a course come to class and others work remotely using pre-recorded or other asynchronous course material—is already part of a number of university plans for the fall, even though it requires vastly more work than either in-person or remote courses alone. The failure to accommodate faculty who are not well positioned to transform their courses from in-person to remote teaching—or some combination of the two— will actively exacerbate existing inequalities, marking a step backward for equity.

Assumption 3: Faculty are atomized individuals

Neoliberal democracy is characterized by competitive individualism and centres on the individual advocacy of ostensibly equal citizens through their vote with no common social or political goals. By extension, group identity and collective advocacy are delegitimized as undemocratic attempts to gain more of a say than those involved would otherwise have as individuals.

Portraying people as atomized individuals allows social problems to be framed as individual failures. For instance, in the neoliberal framework, poverty is understood to be a result of an individual’s poor choices and their lack of effort rather than the collective failure of an affluent society. This shift in thinking has allowed neoliberal governments in countries like Canada to restructure social assistance programs in ways that responsibilize and penalize the poor for their own poverty.

In the neoliberal university, this logic can be seen in the move away from the ideal of the university as a public sphere with collective goals of critical enquiry, equality, deliberation, and the pursuit of knowledge. Instead, faculty are increasingly encouraged to see themselves as competitors who must maintain a constant level of productivity and act as entrepreneurs to sell ideas to potential investors in the form of external funding agencies or private commercial interests. Rather than freedom of enquiry, faculty research is increasingly monitored through performance metrics. Academic governance is being replaced by corporate governance models while faculty and faculty associations are no longer being respected for the integral role they play in the governance process, but are instead considered to be a stakeholder akin to alumni associations or capital investors.

In university responses to covid19, these shifts are visible in the failure to consult faculty or faculty associations, the circumvention of academic governance structures, and the prioritization of revenue concerns over the safety and pedagogical concerns of faculty or the workload, equity, and academic freedom provisions of collective agreements.

Instead, in true neoliberal fashion, it has been incumbent upon individual faculty members to identify their needs and concerns in virtual town-halls or to department chairs. Memos and videos from university administrators thanking faculty for their hard work and telling us we are all in this together leave individual faculty members weighing the need to speak out against the potential perception that we are not team players and that we are failing to put students first.

Responsibilizing individual faculty members for the outcomes of the move to remote teaching treats structural and pedagogical barriers as minor individual technical or administrative problems that the instructor can overcome simply by watching more Zoom webinars and practising better self-care. See, for instance, this Tweet from the manager of UOIT’s Teaching and Learning Centre:

Assumption 4: Education is merely ‘content delivery’

In the neoliberal worldview, the self-interest that guides individual decision-making is not the kind of self-interest characterized by an understanding of the individual as a social being, whose interests are intertwined with those of others and can be known through research or influenced through education. Rather, self-interested decision making is considered more efficient and democratic when it is informed only by an individual’s unadulterated, uninformed perceptions, which are then aggregated and processed by the supposedly unbiased market.

In this view, a transformative education, in which students develop and practise self-awareness, empathy, social consciousness, critical thought, and collective agency, is not necessary to sustain a democracy but is a hindrance to it—an undemocratic interference. In neoliberal thought, education is merely pursued by individuals who want to invest in skills and credentials that will increase their value in the labour market.

This view of education is reflected in the ongoing reframing of postsecondary education as an instrumental mode of job training. Increasingly, students are seen by universities—and see themselves—as customers engaged in a transactional relationship—a view that is only encouraged by (rising) tuition fees. Likewise, faculty are encouraged to strip away the transformative pedagogical work that has long been part of their profession and to merely administer a course or deliver course material, often—as is the case for contract faculty (who now teach over 50 per cent of university courses in Ontario)—with little job security, poor pay, and insufficient benefits.

The notion that faculty can simply move their courses online—or teach them simultaneously online and in person—is rooted in the assumption that educating involves merely delivering information to students, which can be done just as easily online as it can be in person. There are many well-developed online courses, yet all but the most ardent enthusiasts concede that the format works better for some subjects and some students. Moreover, while there are still some advocates for the democratic potential of online teaching, there are strong criticisms that pedagogies rooted in well-established understandings of education as a collective, immersive, and empowering experience, through which students learn how to deliberate, collaborate, and interrogate established norms, cannot simply be transferred online. These pedagogies are not optional frills but the product of decades of research and experience, as well as important commitments to equality and reconciliation that are not meant to be upheld only when convenient.

In particular, some of the essential social and humanizing components of education are diminished, if not eliminated, when teaching is mediated through screens and students are learning in physical isolation from each other. An in-person university course is immersive in a way an online course is not. Even attending a basic lecture is a social experience, like going to a play, parade, or sporting event. On the surface, a lecture may seem to be merely a means of delivering information that students consume individually. However, students learn not only from the lecturer but also from the affective experience itself and from observing how others respond to it. Their shared experience provokes further reflection, discussion, and connection—which are all part of their education.

Giving a basic lecture is also a social experience, like a performance in many ways. Lecturers learn from their audiences, feeling the room and adjusting material—often substantially—as they speak, which is far more challenging online, and impossible in the pre-recorded lectures faculty are being encouraged to produce.

Education is also a humanizing experience that involves questioning and altering one’s sense of self and one’s relationship to others. Humans learn through narrative, context, empathy, debate, and shared experiences. We are able to open ourselves up enough to ask difficult questions and allow ourselves to be challenged only when we are able to see the humanity in others and when our own humanity is recognized by others. This kind of active learning (as opposed to the passive reception of information) requires the trust, collectivity, and understanding of divergent experiences built through regular synchronous meetings in a shared physical space. This is hindered when classroom interaction is mediated through disembodied video images and temporally delayed chat functions.

In the COVID-19 era neoliberal university, accommodations are not being made for faculty who engage in pedagogies that involve more than content delivery. Some institutions are even discouraging synchronous teaching altogether and are not scheduling set times for classes. Making these pedagogical methods impossible and expecting faculty to continue teaching without them constitutes a clear violation of academic freedom.

The administrative push for asynchronous teaching, hybrid online/in-person courses, and flexible evaluation methods tailored to each student are justified in the name of ensuring equitable access for students who face very real limitations during the COVID-19 crisis. However, there is a point at which we must ask what exactly students will be getting access to and if it is worthy of university credit and scholarly advancement, particularly if remote teaching continues in some form for several semesters.

When teaching is reduced to content delivery, faculty become interchangeable, which raises additional questions about academic freedom. Suggestions have already been made that the workload problem brought on by remote teaching would be mitigated if faculty simply taught existing online courses designed by others. It does not take complex modelling to imagine a new normal in which an undergraduate degree consists solely of downloading and memorizing cookie-cutter course material uploaded by people with no expertise in the area who are administering ten other courses simultaneously.

Likewise, when teaching is reduced to content delivery, intellectual property takes on additional importance. It is illegal to record and distribute lectures or other course material without the instructor’s permission, but universities seem reluctant to confirm that they will not have the right to use the content faculty post online. For instance, if a contract faculty member spends countless hours designing a remote course for the summer semester and then is laid off in the fall, can the university still use their recorded lectures and other material in the fall? Can the university use this recorded lecture material to continue teaching these courses if faculty are on strike (as happened in the UK in 2018)? What precedents are being set?

Universities have also been downloading the responsibility to navigate the incredibly complicated process of determining copyright for course material posted online to overworked faculty, which will result in some creative and unconventional material simply being scrapped. Students’ exposure to a range of rigorous thought is also endangered, since it is much easier for students to record and distribute course content when faculty post it online. Some websites are already using the move to remote teaching as an opportunity to urge students to call out and shame faculty they deem to be “liberal” or “left” by reposting their course material. To avoid this, faculty are likely to self-censor, choosing material they feel is safer. Course material will become more generic, which will diminish the quality of students’ education.

Yet, universities push on, insisting to faculty and to the public that students should and will receive the same quality of education that they would in courses offered in the classroom. This simply is not possible, and it is not surprising that students have begun to demand tuition refunds and rebates.

Assumption 5: Research is expendable

In neoliberal thought, the public sphere is severely diminished, and the role of the university in the public sphere—and as a public sphere unto itself—is treated as unnecessary. The principle that enquiry and debate are public goods in and of themselves, regardless of their outcome or impact, is devalued, as is the notion that a society’s self-knowledge and self-criticism are crucial to democracy, societal improvement, and the pursuit of the good life. Expert opinion is devalued, and research is desirable only when it translates into gains for the private sector, essentially treating universities as vehicles to channel public funding into private research and development.

In response to COVID-19, universities have supported medical and other COVID-19 related research but have left everyone else with no choice but to drastically cut back on their research time. As online courses are front-loaded, many faculty have already spent weeks converting a single course to a remote format for the summer semester and are likely to spend at least all of August preparing remote options for fall courses they have taught many times before. Much of this time would usually have been spent doing research. According to some calculations, this lack of support from the university, combined with other barriers such as travel restrictions, will decrease faculty research productivity by 50-70 per cent. Notably, this drop will not affect all faculty equally, with some journals already noting a marked decrease in submissions from women since COVID-19 began.

The expectation that this is something faculty should simply accept diminishes the importance of their research. It suggests that research is a hobby faculty pursue in their spare time when they are finished with their teaching commitments. Research is essential for understanding the human experience, the world we live in, and the nature of our existence within that world. The free and broad pursuit—and critique—of knowledge is arguably even more important in times of crisis and rapid social change.

Assumption 6: Faculty are expendable

Since the neoliberal approach views people as commodities in competition with each other, it acknowledges that some people will simply be left behind and considers this the inevitable result of market competition functioning as it should.

The culture of disposability fostered by this view can be seen in the dramatic expansion of precarious contract work and gig labour during the neoliberal period. Just-in-time production and outsourcing have gone hand-in-hand with the casualization of labour in many industries, building an expendable workforce that can be hired and fired as needed to protect profit.

In the neoliberal university, this has meant an increase in the number of contract faculty, who, again, teach over half of the courses at Ontario universities. They have years, if not decades, of teaching experience, and are typically overworked and underpaid.

As universities plan for the possibility of lower fall enrolments, they are already dramatically cutting contracts for contract faculty. But because these are contracts the university can simply choose not to renew, they are not counted as layoffs so contract faculty generally are not eligible for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit.

The message that these plans send to all faculty—contract or not—is that their expertise, societal role, and physical and mental health are expendable.

Assumption 7: There is no alternative

Policies that advance neoliberal ideals have long been justified—and opposition to them discredited—using Margaret Thatcher’s famous line that “there is no alternative.” This notion is reproduced in universities framing their responses to COVID-19 as a fait accompli—the inevitable result of unfortunate circumstances. Yet the neoliberal assumptions that underpin these responses illustrate that choices are being made and force us to ask whether the emergency we face necessitates this exact response.

Instead, we should see this as but one approach that is rooted in a vision of the university we do not need to support. Liminal times, in which the established social order is suspended, are opportunities, and this is an opportunity for university communities to have a broad discussion about what the university is, what we think it should be, and how to move toward that goal.

Pushing back

Instead of discussing better Zoom learning techniques, we should collectively ask what teaching in the COVID-19 era would look like if universities valued education and research as essential public goods. For instance, what would remote teaching look like if we openly acknowledged that it was not an adequate substitute for classroom teaching and reduced both tuition and teaching and learning standards? This would alleviate pressure on both faculty and students and facilitate open conversations with students about the nature of education and the limitations of a tuition fee-based model. It could be supported by acknowledgements from administrations that faculty are not expected to completely reimagine and redesign their courses to suit the online format but merely to offer as much as they can of their existing courses online as a temporary stopgap measure.

Likewise, what would COVID-19 era teaching look like if it were properly supported? It might include course releases and smaller course sections, which would create additional positions for contract faculty; more teaching assistant, technology, and online pedagogy support; postponement of courses with pedagogies that do not work online; extra compensation, job security, and health benefits for contract faculty; strong protections for intellectual property, academic freedom, workload, and research; accommodation for faculty with additional challenges and responsibilities at home; and discussion of the additional support that many faculty members need under normal circumstances—and the precarity faced by many.

Finally, what would COVID-19 era teaching look like if educational institutions made decisions about teaching on the basis of pedagogy instead of neoliberal fiscal policy? So far, we have been buying into the trope of scarcity and deficit-mongering that characterized the cruellest social policy of the 1990s. In this crisis, even conservative politicians have shown that the bottom line can be shifted to fund public priorities. Universities have a tendency to prioritize funding for capital projects, administration, and surpluses, while claiming they are unable to find sufficient funds for their core missions of teaching and research. However, most universities have healthy reserves they can draw on in times of crisis. Further, federal and provincial governments can and should be providing funding to sustain institutions essential to the public sphere, including universities, during this crisis and into the future. Even in the midst of a crisis, it is not necessary, appropriate, or responsible for universities to sacrifice teaching and research or to make overworked, overstressed faculty members feel like they may be responsible for letting their institution’s core mission slide.

These are only very basic ideas. The point is that faculty, students, and all university workers can—and should—be having a discussion in which we collectively imagine a better path forward—one that is consistent with, and moves toward, the kind of university we want for students’ education, for quality research, for good jobs, for a thriving campus community, and for a vibrant democracy.

Emergencies matter. Far from occasions that justify suspending our principles, the way that we handle the extra-ordinary, the unexpected, sends a message about what we truly value. While COVID-19 may seem exceptional, university responses to this crisis are hardly a departure from the neoliberal norm, and university administrations are already making plans to extend online teaching after it dissipates. We must be careful not to send the message that the neoliberal university and the worldview that underpins it are acceptable.

The author thanks colleagues at various universities for helpful conversations on the topics in this article.

You can read a shorter version of this article in the CAUT Bulletin.