A short commercial break

Earlier this week, Helen Sauntson and I submitted the book which gave its name to this blog. Or was it the other way around? Anyway, Academic Irregularities: Language and Neoliberalism in Higher Education is finished, and away to the publisher, Routledge. Writing the last two chapters partly explains a bit of a fallow summer here on the blog. But there was also rather a lot of life-enhancing activity going on, like spending time with my partner, and observing for the New York Open Water 20 Bridges marathon swims, and ending the summer with a swim of my own with NYOW’s Spuyten Duyvil 10K.

Below is some information about the book which we hope will be published early in 2019.

We all know that universities in the UK and elsewhere are very different places than they were 20 years ago. There has been a massive reorientation of universities away from their previous mission as serving the public good, as repositories of knowledge, as a refuge from the discipline of the market and capitalism, and governed by the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. The purpose of universities is routinely assumed to be to serve the economic needs of the country, or even of individuals who graduate from them. Cultural and political changes such as consumerism, marketization, New Public Management with its focus on metrics, audit and performance management, have left their imprint on the very language we use to talk about universities – and indeed on the language the university uses to talk about its staff and students. Neoliberalism is a contested term but we use it to designate a broad agreement that universities have reorganised their priorities – and perhaps been coerced by successive governments to do so –  to align with ‘the market’. We uncover the power relations and contradictions experienced by those working and studying in UK and other (largely) western universities. We  make connections between economic and political developments in society, and the changes to conditions of labour and values operating in universities. We find that the nature of academic identities has been resignified so that lecturers and professors feel less autonomous and more ‘managed’. Even what counts as work’ has been redefined in narrow terms which accommodate metrics and audit. Some academics try and resist the new discourse, but it is becoming rather difficult to do so in a context when its use is compulsory. Some of these changes have left academics feeling alienated and deprofessionalised. 

This is an original critique of the neoliberal university and it sits within an emerging discipline of Critical University Studies. We build our case from firm evidence of discourse which echoes the concerns of neoliberal ideology: competition, the market, personal responsibility and benefit, value for money, return on investment and efficiency. Over the three or four years of the project, we amassed a large collection of  documents from university management training courses, performance reviews, university and student union marketing materials, mission statements, REF and TEF policies. Then we got to work with the tools of applied linguistics, such as corpus linguistics, critical discourse analysis and appraisal analysis, to show how insidiously damaging this discourse is. In constructing our own discursive audit trail, we have unearthed metaphors which seek to normalize the discourse of the market, the student as consumer and the academic as corporate subject. We take a look at some of the adjectives and nouns which seem to shift their meanings to the extent they are meaningless: excellence, quality, innovation, vision etc. The discourse analysed throughout the book is more than just a reflection of neoliberal ideology – it is arguably constitutive of ideological change, and of a new kind of neoliberal, self-managing, subordinate subject. 

The book brings the tools of applied linguistics to bear on some central questions for critical university studies:

  1. What does a critical linguistic analysis of managerial discourse reveal about academic values and identities?
  2. How can the tools of applied linguistics be used to enhance knowledge and understanding about critical university studies?
  3. What can critical linguistic analysis reveal about the role of discourse in formulating resistance to the managerial project?

During the course of this project both authors have both faced professional upheaval. This resulted in Helen changing jobs (and earning promotion to professor) and I left academia. In completing this book, we have been sustained by colleagues both personal and virtual too numerous to mention. Special mentions must go to our spouses: Caroline Sauntson and Kathleen (K.O.) O’Mara who have patiently buoyed us with their belief that our work is worthwhile.

We have valued encouragement from and the opportunity for discussion with:  Thomas Docherty, Justin Cruickshank, Eva Bendix Petersen, Kate Bowles, Richard Hall, Aidan Byrne, Derek Sayer, Yoke Sum Wong, Craig Brandist, Eric Royal Lybeck, Nicky Priaulx, Nick Megoran, Raksha Pande, Rosie Miles, Filip Vostal, Jana Bacevic, Mark Carrigan, Sarah Amsler, Annabelle Mooney, Emilie Whitaker, Veronika Koller, Erika Darics, Kerry Dobson Clukas, Joanne Hollows, Patrick O’Connor, Lisa Clughen, Richard Bromhall, Catherine Adams, Steve Jones, Jean-Pierre Boule, Nic Dunlop, Monica Franco-Santos, Louise Mullany, Martin McQuillan, Charlotte Walker, Robert Compton. There are also a few university PVCs and Registrars who might wish to remain anonymous. We are fortunate to have been writing in an age of social media when there are blogs, Twitter accounts and Facebook groups for like-minded scholars which have offered support and information.

We mourn the untimely loss of Judith Baxter and Joyce Canaan whose work has enlightened us, and their insights have informed each chapter of the book.

Here’s the Table of Contents. Each chapter includes critical discourse analysis of two case studies based on authentic data.


Chapter 1 – Critical University Studies: Defining a Field

Chapter 2 – The Student as Consumer and Commodity

Chapter 3 – Marketing the Goods

Chapter 4 – Language and Audit Culture 1: Research and Performance Management

Chapter 5 – Language and Audit Culture 2: The Case of the Teaching Excellence Framework

Chapter 6 – Colonising the Corporate Academic

Chapter 7 – Conclusions and Possibilities for Contesting the Discourse

Glossary of terms

Colleagues from universities across the world have shared their stories, examples of discourse and dissatisfaction with the neoliberal academy. While a reorientation of universities from a focus on knowledge-creation to a focus on the student consumer has subdued the enthusiasm of many for academic life, these changes have,  nevertheless, provided an endless source of data for our enquiry.  And so, lastly, we owe sincere thanks to the managers, without whose opaque and hyperbolic discourse in strategy documents, policies, training courses and all-school messages, this book could not have been written. You have been an inspiration.


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