Academia is in a Critical Condition

Thomas Allan explores the emerging conversation about the social responsibilities of an academia that is increasingly consumed by narrow market dogma.

Author: Thomas Allan

Challenges and possibilities for critical leadership and management studies in current times.

What if Universities were seen as institutions with responsibilities to the societies they inhabit? What hope is there for a citizen-led, participatory curriculum to equip us with the knowledge to build a more human, caring and sustainable economy? These were the questions being explored at the Bristol Leadership and Change Centre (BLCC) research symposium. The event was described by event organisers as bringing together leadership and management scholars, to reflect on the nature, purpose, and challenges of being ‘critical’ in the contemporary Business School environment.

Critical challenge

Education, as the process of facilitating learning and change, has a critical challenge. Many educators are aware, often intuitively, of the limitations of the liberal institution of education, characterised by the detached observations of objective, scientific discourses that form the supposed neutrality of knowledge. Many still adhere to the dispiriting task of preparing debt-laden students for the mercies or exclusions of work, markets, and consumption that follow.

More recently, learning in an era of globalization is understood as dispersed, taking place outside the bounds of formal education and within a high velocity exchange of people and places, technologies, cultures, settings, and spaces. Despite talk of helping individuals adapt to complexity, diversity and change, the priority of education still seems the narrow, quantitative models valued by economists and market-fearing policymakers, alongside a distinctly neoliberal narrative of entrepreneurship, leadership and 'being enterprising'.

Creativity is the buzzword, but in an increasingly disturbed social world. At the same time, individuals have become ever more isolated from each other amid spiralling mental ill-health and shrinking space to imagine alternatives. Technological advances are reducing family, peer and social relations to cyber-relations - only exacerbating feelings of loneliness - and marketization reducing much subsequent employment to precarity or meaningless grind. Political apathy, social inequality and welfare state dismantling seem the accepted human cost of ever-expanding markets and ‘continuous improvement’.

Most critically, still moving stealthily among us is the spectre of homo economicus. This is the utility-maximising ‘rational’ economic agent inculcated with the knowledge and the skills to play the occupational roles demanded by the financialised economy. Yet we apparently still need the human touch, the sense of presence and care increasingly found absent in our market society. Recent research has demonstrated that social connection, empathy, and cooperation are at the foundation of personal, social and community life.

Do educators - or, more likely, leaders in education - have the courage to move the discussion beyond the shadow of the selfish gene?

In a critical condition

The value of critical pedagogy lies in its capacity to equip us with the knowledge to expose and challenge often hidden injustice. It also lies in a sense of hope that grows with connecting with like-minded others and working together to co-create practical and political alternatives to the major challenges of our time, such as social inequality, resource-depletion and climate change. This is important because how we frame contemporary social or environmental problems depends on our values and principles, which can in turn open up a broader spectrum of solutions than our modern polity or market governance may view as plausible.

So what is the nature, purpose and challenges of being ‘critical’ in the contemporary Business School environment?

There were some bright minds, interesting discussion and excellent presentations. Keynote speaker Martin Parker exposed the ‘hidden curriculum’, explaining how contemporary business schools teach a narrow form of capitalism where ‘the market’ is the underlying driver and determinant of the education they provide. He pointed out how literally hundreds of alternative forms of organising social and economic life are excluded in the Business School curriculum, demonstrating this through his ‘organising dictionary’. In this dictionary were many alternatives, including some of the more well-known such as worker-owned cooperatives and the commons.

Importantly, Parker invited us to think about patterns, and urged us to start re-building higher education from the bottom-up experiences and strengths of citizens and communities. To facilitate a more accurate conception of the rich tapestry of human organising, he moved us away from ‘management’ and towards the margins of what contemporary capitalism would consider value-able. He proposed an alternative institution: The School for Organising. This institution will develop and teach the multitude of different forms of organising, “enabling individuals to discover alternative responses to the issues of inequality and sustainability faced by all of us today”.

Dr Sarah Robinson of the University of Glasgow delivered some penetrating insights (and warnings) for the aspiring early career academic. Of particular interest for me was the disjuncture between the intrinsic motivation of critically-minded scholars who go into academia (considerations of social justice, democracy, intellectual autonomy and independence) and the post-PhD reality (Key Performance Indicators, stress, insecurity, audit culture, managerialism, publishing restrictions and conditionality).

Dr Neil Sutherland delivered a convincing presentation on the drawbacks of ‘teaching’ under the rubric of the critical banner. A short paragraph alone would not hope to capture the clarity of his thinking on this topic. Yet in essence, he asked, does this impose ‘our’ way of thinking on free-thinking students? Does this create an unhelpful binary of us and them?

Dr Pam Seanor and Dr Doris Schedlitzki invited participants to weave together their own personal and professional experiences with the entrepreneurship, leadership and 'being enterprising' agenda, an agenda that advances a narrow commercially-driven form of creativity without criticality.

Professor Sandra Jones was engaging in her provocation, inviting us to reject the dominant vision for humanity of competition and profit maximisation. Two aspects of her talk chimed most with me. One was her admission that, as well as the more common complaint about skewed resource distribution, many millenials had been left scant opportunity by their baby boomer predecessors to challenge the damaging conceptual myth of homoeconomicus, free markets and market growth. The second was a darkly humerous ‘quote’ from George Orwell in reference to his dystopian novel 1984:

“I wrote it as a warning, not a fucking instruction manual.”


Despite my enthusiasm, the event felt quite overwhelming at times. It was free and inclusive. It was friendly. There were refreshments and breaks. People were free to talk, listen, ask questions, or participate as they wished. There was an invitation to continue conversations and networking at the end of the symposium. Yet I sensed a similar paralysis in other participants as the event drew to a close, almost like a sense of fear or unfinished business. Something that didn’t escape the attention of event organiser Professor Richard Bolden.

As I waited in the cool, darkening autumn evening for my return train at Bristol Parkway station - listening to the occasional clanking of machinery or watching the faceless faces whizz past - I thought it was worth reflecting more on why this might have been.

Perhaps, as one participant pointed out towards the end, it was life and living conditions. To a large extent, people still need to submit to the anonymous power of the market for their livelihoods, their homes and their wellbeing. People are worried about their lives, their loved ones and their futures; faced with new and shifting threats each day. There is a tangible sense of pressure, atomisation and psychological strain. Economic life can feel like an uncertainty that follows you.

“Whether through the enclosures brought on by neoliberalism or the increasingly authoritarian and exclusionary politics of the further right, the expected normality (job security, pensions, unemployment supports, fair working hours and conditions) that citizens experience or aspire to will likely continue to erode.”

Bauwens et al (2017)

In this world of fast-paced change, we hardly have time to navigate one personal trauma before ‘the economy’ bludgeons us onto the next social or environmental crisis. Where neoliberal restructuring and toxic stress are still the norm, it is hard to know what is reality anymore let alone how we come to know it, or the right methodology for teaching it. Critical questions: How can we carve out shared spaces for living, caring and transitioning to something more time-rich, caring and human? How do we find ways to connect with one another in solidarity and on a deeper, more intuitive level? 

Critical moment

To me, critical pedagogy feels honest and authentic. We can be guided by the values of autonomy, responsibility and solidarity, and we are part of a larger interdependent whole rather than the struggling atoms of liberal-individualist and neoliberal market culture.

Yet it is also about having the courage to voice social silences and inject some authenticity beyond the sometimes gilded halls of academia and the career-building activity of contemporary neoliberal subjects. It might ask the following challenging questions:

In this sense, I reflected, perhaps this is as much about courageous leadership and creating safe spaces and conviviality as it is about creativity or reformulating the curriculum. Creativity is, after all, not something that is the product of extraordinary individual minds but “originates from a culturally-shaped cooperation they also serve” (Gronemeyer, 2014).

The ability to think critically and reflexively is a fundamental priority if we are not perpetuating the mistakes and injustices of past and present. There is great social value in such approaches to education. Participatory and action-orientated models of education and research, for example, go far further than formal, liberal interpretations of fairness and equality that stop at equal opportunities for individuals.

Yet whether scholars who identify themselves as agents for social change can carve out the common ground they seek solely ‘inside’ the university alone I’m not so sure. I sense that the radical spirit that drives this pedagogy will only find what it seeks once we have stopped striving as competing individuals and we have instead carved out spaces where there is nothing left to prove to one another. Conviviality is, after all, “a constant reminder that the community is never closed” (Illich, 2005, cited in Gronemeyer, 2014). Perhaps only then will we be at the critical moment.

Knowledge as a commons

Academics might reasonably point out it is not solely up to them to solve all society’s problems. Moreover, giving up stable employment to start a research cooperative in today’s climate might be considered a very risky undertaking. Yet if we really want to see ourselves as agents or catalysts for social, democratic or environmental renewal, then we must begin to find ways to step out of the private sphere and begin listening to citizen’s voices and experiences. We need to work together to reclaim and create the public spaces for us to manage matters which concern us all.

In this sense, one thing critically-minded scholars can do is to begin to learn about the commons and situate research and learning within the context of the Commons Transition.

“In the past thirty years, contemporary scholarship has rediscovered commons, illuminating their cooperative management principles as a counterpoint to conventional economics and particularly its growth imperatives, artificially created scarcities, and fealty to consumption as a preeminent goal.”

Bollier & Weston (2014)

But what are commons? According to innovator Michel Bauwens commons are:

(Bauwens et al, 2017)

Much research into commons was initially focused on natural resources. Dispelling the myth of the ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ (Hardin 1968), Elinor Ostrom (1990) considered subsistence commons such as meadows, water, forests, or fisheries (the resource alone minus the self-determined norms, practices, and traditions of communities is referred to by Economists as a common-pool resource). More recently, commons scholar Silke Helfrich (cited in Bauwens et al., 2017) points out how every commons, even those that revolve around land and water, are knowledge commons, “because the commoners must learn to apply knowledge in managing them”.

A commons, therefore, is distinct from a common-pool resource, and constitutes a self-management regime and dynamic social process called commoning. It can include digital commons such as free, open-source platforms such as Wikipedia and social, cultural and civic commons such as community support schemes, social care coops, playgrounds, public spaces, knowledge and ideas, public schools, libraries, and parks. In fact, a commons can arise whenever a community decides to pool its resources and defend or take control of its collective wealth, enlivened by this social process of commoning.

Possible actions

Where might academics fit within the Commons Transition Plan, a name coined by the P2P Foundation to “describe a process of facilitating open, participatory input across society, prioritising the needs of people and environments affected by policy decisions over market or bureaucratic needs”? (Bauwens et al. 2017)

1. Tell the story of the commons and its enclosures, the private appropriation of our common wealth.

2. Recognise how knowledge, information, and culture are part of the public sphere, and gain value though open access, sharing, and collaboration. Academics can help by facilitating open-source rather than proprietary knowledge.

3. Practice conviviality, involving, in the words of Marianne Gronemeyer (2014):

“Conviviality needs a language that is both objectionable and triggers ideas, a language without which there is no understanding but only “consensus” achieved by manipulation, research that speaks a personal language full of experience; practice that does not compete, but cooperates and shares; and technology that helps to make the best out of the power and the imagination that everyone has (Ivan Illich).”

4. Learn about the power of Vernacular Law:

“Vernacular law originates in the informal, unofficial zones of society and is a source or moral legitimacy and power in its own right…places and spaces where people are struggling to achieve regeneration and social restoration against the forces of economic globalization.”

Bollier & Weston (2014)

5. Recognise the need for a Partner State and by teaching, organising research or resourcing through Common-based Peer Production.

“Through imagining and constructing independent governance that supports the infrastructure of cooperation…can help us to protect the best qualities of the welfare state model, and transcend it with a radically reimagined politics that would facilitate social value creation and community organized practices.”

Bauwens et al (2017)

6. Support the work of the School of Commoning, a worldwide community of people supporting the developing commons movement.

7. Support the work of the Centre for Welfare Reform (CfWR). Working on such projects as Sustainability and Social Justice, Constitutional Reform, Basic Income and other Commonfare practices to navigate the economic risks of life. CfWR is an open-access knowledge commons and community of independent citizens committed to equality and diversity.

8. Join, support or contribute to Citizen Network, a global non-profit cooperative movement, formed to create a world where everyone matters – where everyone can be an equal citizen.

9. Finally, if nothing else: Add the missing social context. We should be wary of simple solutions to complex problems, but much social suffering could be avoided or reversed if the political will, citizen understanding, and the right public institutions of support and cultural learning existed to do so. This starts with the rejection of the idealized fiction of homo economicus.

In brief conclusion, challenging the sanctity of the market as the sole determinant of human nature, worth, and value creation is the priority. However, there’s much critical work to be done.


Bauwens M et al (2017) Commons Transition: a primer. Transnational Institute.

Bollier D & Weston B (2014) Green Governance: Ecological Survival, Human Rights and the Law of the Commons. Cambridge University Press.

Gronemeyer M (2014) ‘Conviviality’: Patterns of Commoning. The Commons Strategy Group. Amherst, MA.

Ostrom E (1990) Governing the Commons: The evolution of institutions for collective action. Cambridge University Press.

Hardin G (1968) The Tragedy of the Commons. Science (December 13th 1968).

The publisher is the Centre for Welfare Reform.

Academia is in a Critical Condition © Thomas Allan 2018.

All Rights Reserved. No part of this paper may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher except for the quotation of brief passages in reviews.

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