10 questions with ... Cris Shore

In this installment of '10 questions with ...' we chat with Professor Cris Shore about his latest book, Death of the Public University? Uncertain Futures for Higher Education in the Knowledge Economy, co-edited with Professor Susan Wright (2017). ASAA/NZ was pleased to hold a launch for this book at the 2017 Shifting States conference in Adelaide

1. How would you describe your book to a non-anthropological audience?


Our book is an attempt to make sense of the changes that have occurred in universities as they try to respond to the challenges of the competitive global knowledge economy. It examines the effects of past two decades of neoliberal-inspired higher education reforms and how these are redefining the meaning and mission of the public university and reshaping academic subjectivities. I should add that the book is the result of an 4-year collaborative project - funded by the European Union and New Zealand’s Ministry of Business Industry and Employment - involving three teams of researchers from the University of Auckland, Aarhus University in Denmark and Bristol University in the UK. Some of the chapters are ethnographic and anthropological in their approach, but others are written from the disciplinary perspectives of sociology, social policy, geography, education, politics, philosophy and STS. We have brought together an amazing interdisciplinary collection of essays. Overall, the chapters identify and analyse key aspects of higher education reform across a range of different countries; they explain what these reform mean for academia and how we got there.

2. Why now?

Because higher education seemingly everywhere today is in a state of transition and turmoil.  As our book clearly illustrates, the liberal vision of the university is under threat. The progressive humanist principles that once underpinned the idea of the public university and academic freedom are increasingly being undermined thanks to a combination of academic capitalism and increasing managerialism. Universities in New Zealand and elsewhere are being transformed from institutions of higher learning and discovery-led research into transnational business corporations whose primary focus and concern is to commercialise their intellectual property and bolster their positions in what some have termed the ‘reputational arms race.’  I know this isn’t a particularly original argument to make, but our book gives some novel and compelling insights into what is actually happening within universities.

In my view, the public university is one of our greatest cultural treasures – a taonga in the proper sense of that term – and yet in New Zealand and elsewhere governments have adopted an increasingly instrumental approach that sees the value of higher education simply in terms of its capacity to drive economic growth. State funding for university research and teaching is now framed in the stultifying language of accountancy (i.e. as a ‘return on investment’ and ‘value for money’). Three decades of neoliberal dogma has resulted in a profound myopia about the value of academic knowledge. The only knowledge that ‘counts’ nowadays is knowledge or research that can be ‘counted’ or, better still, converted into commercialisable products and services. All this goes under the mantra of ‘innovation’, ‘entrepreneurship’ and ‘excellence.’ The idea of university education as a ‘pubic good’ has been replaced by the notion that a degree is a private personal investment in one’s individual career and future income returns. This pecuniary vision has served to justify the replacement of student grants with loans, massive tuition fee increases, growing student debt, a sustained assault on the arts and humanities, a preoccupation with generating alternative income streams, and the rise of a new managerial class who see the university as a business to be run on authoritarian corporate lines.

3. What kind of assumptions do you unsettle in this book?

The book unsettles the received wisdom of policy makers and politicians about the future of the university and the current direction of higher education policy. The title ‘Death of the Public University? is a provocation - and a question. We hope that university leaders, politicians and policy makers will read it and take note, but I doubt that they will as one of the points we highlight in the book is the marginalisation of academics and the ascendency of a new class of anti-intellectual administrators. We also try to unsettle the deeply flawed calculative and instrumental ‘investment approach’ to higher education funding and the vacuous claims that senior university managers make about encouraging innovation and entrepreneurship or making their institutions ‘world class’. As we show, many of the ideas that underpin the way universities are managed and governed are based on out-dated and discredited economic doctrines. Some people have termed this ‘zombie economics’ because, like zombies, these moribund ideas refuse to die or stay buried and, like flesh-eating ravenants, stalk the corridors of higher education sucking the lifeblood and resources from the institutions they have invaded. If I sound a bit over-the-top it is because I work at the University of Auckland where these trends are particularly acute, and I have watched the steady undermining and erosion of our once great institution by a misguided, anti-democratic and largely incompetent leadership team.

4. What drew you to your topic?

I started to study academia as an ethnographic field site during my first period as Head of Department at Goldsmiths College London from 1999-2002. In the three years I had to deal with the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), a Teaching Quality Assurance exercise and an institutional audit. With my colleague Susan Wright, we set out to explore – and to theorise - the rise of ‘audit culture.’ I left the UK in 2002 at roughly the same time as Sue left Birmingham University, following the decision by its new senior leadership to close down its iconic Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS). Apparently the Vice Chancellor had no grasp of the international standing of CCCS and had made his decision to close the centre purely on the basis of research exercise metrics. That approach seemed to epitomize the way universities were now being managed.

I moved to Auckland in 2003 to take up the post of professor of Social Anthropology. At that time, New Zealand seemed to be relatively immune from the instrumental logics of audit culture, academic capitalism and managerialism, but I would say it has now caught up with –perhaps even overtaken – the UK.  The recent wave of job cuts in the faculty of arts, education and the music school – not to mention the closure of its specialized libraries – are all reflections of this. One of the things we describe in the book is the ‘administrative bloat’ that has accompanied the re-purposing of universities in response to this entrepreneurial vision. University leaders justify cutting academic jobs on the grounds that falling student rolls and withdrawal of state support has left certain departments (notably in the arts and humanities) ‘in deficit’ to the centre. This supposed deficit has not prevented Vice Chancellors and members of the Senior Leadership Team from awarding themselves eye-watering salary increases and the hiring of non-academic staff has continued unabated. In most universities, the legions of technical, administrative and non-academic staff now vastly outnumber those who actually teach and research. Few people seem to question this flawed budget model that justifies this pattern of spending. Moreover, the financialisation of the university has resulted in a opaque and feudal-like model of governance in which administrators (the ‘administariat’) have become the central figures or ‘barons’ of the university story, while academics increasingly constitute the casualised workforce and ‘precariat.’

5. How was you publisher?

Our publisher is Berghahn Press, which is based in both Oxford and New York. They have been terrific; a real pleasure to work with. This is the third or fourth book that I have published with Berghahn, so I know them quite well. We were particularly pleased with the production process, the quality of the text and the general layout. We are now waiting now for the book to be published in paperback so that it can reach a wider audience.

6. What’s your favourite part of the book?

That’s a hard question to answer as the topics covered are so diverse and each chapter has its own particular merits. For example, I really enjoyed Jill Blackmore’s feminist critique of university management and the originality of Birgitte Gorm Hansen’s use of STS to analyse the rise of the ‘project barons,’ those entrepreneurial professors at the interface between universities, science and industry. I have three chapters in the book, each of them co-authored, and all of which I really enjoyed writing. Besides the Introduction (with Sue Wright) these include a chapter with Nick Lewis on how commercialisation is subverting conventional university hiring practices, and another with Tamarah Kohn (Melbourne University) on the problems of university ethics committees, which developed from a very successful round table discussion we held at the ASAA/NZ conference in Queenstown a few years ago.

7. What have you learnt about yourself as a writer as a result of this?

Before I began this project I swore that I’d never do another edited book again as they are a lot of work for seemingly little recognition, but this book reminded me why it’s worth the effort. What I learned about myself as a writer is just how much I enjoy writing collaboratively; I find sharing ideas and pooling knowledge and skills in crafting a text an exciting way to work as the result is often something unexpected and greater than the sum of its parts.

8. Would you write another book?

Yes. I have just finished writing another book (also collaborative and co-edited – with David V. Williams, Sally Raudon and Jai Patel), on the Crown and constitutional reform. The title is The Shapeshifting Crown: Locating the State in Postcolonial New Zealand, Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom, and it will be published by Cambridge University Press.

9. What’s next?

I’m currently working on two projects. One is a study of metricized performance management in universities and its subjectifying effects on individuals and organizations. The other is a book for Pluto Press entitled Audit Culture: How Rankings, Indicators and Numbers Re-order the World. This is a topic that Sue Wright and I have been working on for some years and we thought it was time to pull our ideas together and write something more substantial than an article or a book chapter.

10. What are you reading at the moment?

I’ve just finished reading a play by Mike Bartlett called King Charles III, which is a brilliant satire on British politics and what happens within the Royal Family following the death of Queen Elizabeth. Next on my list are a bunch of novels that I’ve been saving since Christmas. I’m taking a holiday next week and we’re heading to a remote part of southern Sweden, which should be a good place to read novels. I’ve also packed a PhD thesis: like most academics, I suspect, I feel guilty about taking time off for a vacation. That is another defining feature of the contemporary neoliberal university and how it shapes academic subjectivity, I guess, but there are many ways of being an academic and I still love the job.

Cris Shore is professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Auckland and Guest Professor in Public Management at Stockholm University.