In Dissident Knowledge in Higher Education, editors Marc Spooner and James McNinch bring together contributors including Noam Chomsky, Linda Tuhiwai Smith and Eve Tuck to offer critical perspectives on the impact of neoliberalism and new managerialism on universities. Grounded in rigorous research, this is a worthy read for scholars, policymakers and education practitioners, writes Khalaf Mohamed Abdellatif.

This post originally appeared on LSE Review of Books. If you would like to contribute to the series, please contact the managing editor of LSE Review of Books, Dr Rosemary Deller, at lsereviewofbooks@lse.ac.uk.

Dissident Knowledge in Higher Education. Marc Spooner and James McNinch (eds). University of Regina Press. 2018.

In Dissident Knowledge in Higher Education, editors Marc Spooner and James McNinch provide critical perspectives on the impact of neoliberalism and new managerialism on universities, with a particular focus on higher education institutions in Canada and the United States. Additionally, with a heartful forward by Zeus Leonardo, interviews with Norman Denzin and Noam Chomsky, along with contributions from Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Eve Tuck, Joel Westheimer and others, the book discusses the problematic situation of the commodification of knowledge and highlights the resistance of the post-managerial academy to ‘compliance to management standards and pre-determined outcomes’ (xxvii).

The book comprises 13 independent chapters in total, with contributions by experts who have written on aspects of higher education. The collection was developed out of the symposium ‘Public Engagement and the Politics of Evidence in an Age of Neoliberalism and Audit Culture(23-25 July 2015) on the same theme, held at the University of Regina, Saskatchewan. Spooner and McNinch clarify that the main aim of the present volume is to reimagine ‘knowledge, scholarship, and academy’ (xxx); therefore, the book is divided into four parts, following a chronological overview of higher education to offer insight into the social function of the university.

The first part, ‘Historical Perspectives and Overview’, offers a historical account of neoliberalism and audit culture. Yvonna S. Lincoln argues that neoliberalism has placed added pressure on the academic community, leading to the commodification of published research and even intellectual property. Consequently, the massive increase of administrative staff in academia has paved the way for the emergence of ‘top-down managerialism’ (7). Lincoln also criticises corporatisation, wondering: ‘How would you rank an individual alongside other individuals at the same rank in your discipline?’

Here, Smith, in her chapter, provides an insightful argument regarding the measurement of research impact in higher education, offering a comprehensive answer to Lincoln’s question through a discussion of ‘measurement’ and ‘performance’. Smith makes clear that ‘it is easy to see the “turn” to the measurement of research impact as an invention of the neoliberal and corporate university’ (38). She highlights the measuring of Indigenous scholarship, showcases Māori research in New Zealand and argues that measuring ‘performance’ is not a new approach, as it was common in the old liberal university; however, Smith outlines some particular constraints for the field of Indigenous research, because it endeavours to maintain legitimacy across Indigenous and academic contexts.

Image Credit: (Pixabay CCO)

Neoliberalism also diminishes the authority of local governments and hinders the shaping of social interests. In her chapter, Patti Lather illustrates that the shift to neoliberalism ‘has set in motion radical principles of limited government’ (104). Chomsky effectively sums up some of the resulting concerns:

One major problem is the sharp rise in the cost of tuition, which is associated with a significant cutback in public support for the university system. The contribution of the states to the college and university system has significantly declined overall. All of this, again, is part of […] the general neoliberal agenda. Neoliberalism should be understood as a form of class war […that] shows up in all institutions, including universities. […] The use of temporary labour is efficient from an economic point of view. By ideological measures of economic efficiency, that means that most of the people who are actually doing the teaching and the research can’t even participate; they are not part of the system, they are temporary workers (59 – 60).

In his chapter, Joel Westheimer discusses the impact of audit culture in higher education. He sheds lights on the suffering of university staff facing endless accountability, data, value-added measures of success and form-filling. Furthermore, he argues that the majority of educational policy recommendations are currently calling for austerity, public accountability and career preparation. Westheimer claims that universities should resist the focus on skills training, workforce preparation and the commercialisation of knowledge to the benefit of private industry; instead, universities must make a radical shift to participate in the rebuilding of beneficial education for the public good. Perhaps this could be achieved through the rejection of austerity and accountability, and a focus on strengthening the democratic community for all as a university function.

In North America, according to Smith, Budd L. Hall, Marie Battiste, Eve Tuck and Sandy Grande, the traditional university itself represents a problematic situation because it is not only deeply implicated in the physical colonisation of Indigenous lands, but also in attempts to ruin Indigenous knowledge. This may result in more oppression and inequality for higher education staff. In her chapter, Tuck discusses the link between settler colonialism and the historical roots of neoliberalism by reviewing the theories of change at work in academic research. Accordingly, she postulates that given its settler colonial roots, the settler colonial futures of the academy are ‘not hard to guess’ (149), since the decision-making in academia is guided by neoliberal rationalism.

In her chapter ‘Refusing the University’, Grande also provides a balanced debate on the particularities of settler colonialism and native elimination. Since the traditional university is criticised for collusion with colonialism and trying to destroy the intellectual legacy of Indigenous people, Grande supports the voices that are calling for people to refuse the university. She argues that this refusal would not cause the university to disappear; rather, it would contribute politically to its reform. Here, she illustrates the possibilities of co-resistance and argues that to ‘commit to collectivity […] commit to reciprocity […] commit to mutuality’ (183-84) is a strategy for refusing the university.

The scholarship of the book is extremely rigorous, and the authors seem to have read the contributions of each other, as there is no evidence of repeated material. However, the book does have some limitations. Most particularly, discourse on sustainable education is absent, as well as a concluding chapter to wrap up the book’s messages. Maureen Tam (2018) has argued that neoliberal discourse promotes lifelong learning to develop human capital for a contemporary knowledge economy in a changing world, but this book does not discuss the relationship between neoliberalism and lifelong learning. Perhaps including a chapter on the relationship between higher education and both ‘deregulation’ and ‘privatisation’ as liberalisation policies would also add merit to the book in a future edition. Overall, however, Dissident Knowledge in Higher Education is recommended as a good read for scholars, policymakers and practitioners, and it may also be a worthy text for undergraduate students too.


Khalaf Mohamed Abdellatif, M. Ed., is a PhD candidate in social education at Hiroshima University and an assistant lecturer at Cairo University. His professional career as a researcher has focused on issues related to action research, adult education, lifelong learning and community-based learning.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Impact blog, or of the London School of Economics.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email