Perhaps the writer of these lines is not too far off from having a first-hand experience of the idea of Academentia that has entered the public domain in recent times. Academentia combines two things: a) academia, i.e. those working in post-secondary education, e.g. universities; and b) dementia: the progressive impairments of memory, abstract thinking, and behaviour which negatively impacts a person’s ability to function.
It also describes a state of organisational insanity in which university academics can no longer function as academics and scholars. Instead, these academics have become auxiliaries, chattels, and tools of university managers and university apparatchiks. Academentia only occurs in conjunction with the transformation of real universities into neoliberal universities, now run by the faceless apparatchiks of Managerialism.
Today, many, perhaps almost all academics have become used to Managerialism’s new performance mantra of impact factors, teaching evaluation by students, league tables, the constant assessment by university apparatchiks who do not teach nor do research, etc. but are the unchallenged master of academia. These have turbo-charged the old ideology of: to publish or perish – which is now linked to KPIs and promotions. More precisely, the entire system should be called what it has really become: to publish in top journals or perish.
Yet, even those who do not believe in the ideology of the managerially-driven neoliberal university are still forced to play this oppressive game. They know that they must – in order to survive inside the neoliberal university. Just as Thucydides said two and a half thousand years ago, the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must. With the rise of neoliberalism during the 1980s, we seem to have returned to a time long forgotten.
Yet, much of this is driven by the neoliberal myth of merit. This ideology has been made highly pervasive – even in academia. And, it works even better when university apparatchiks link this myth to something called innate talent. Today, ideologies like these have been deeply ingrained in the managerialist and have supported corporate mass media in hammering the neoliberalism for 40 years or more.
Meanwhile, the managerialist’s goal to publish in top journals has become detrimental to the intellectual and scholarly diversity of scientific theory, social science, and is even recognizable in the field of philosophy. It is easy to be scornful and to characterize the drive to publish in top journals as mere careerism. Yet, in some cases, it has to do with exactly that. In reality and more significantly, the problem is structural – not individual.
For many junior scholars, the incentive to publish in top journals remains rather clear. It has been made up to be the only way to get a permanent job and, in some cases, it is even required for temporary jobs. As a consequence, junior scholars have immense demands on their working time. Here is the case of Adam and Eve.
Adam and Eve’s Academentia
Let’s have a brief thought experiment. Eve is a thirty-two year old academic with a PhD from a mid-ranking UK university. And, like 20,000 others, Eve is working in the UK on a so-called teaching-only contract and is being paid per teaching module.
Over the course of one academic year, Eve works at two different universities and during the summer, she works in a local bar. As ordered by university apparatchiks, Eve teaches new content each semester and this necessitates lots of unpaid preparation time. And, on top of all that, Eve is constantly applying for more work and currently commutes to two different cities for her university work.
In the previous year, Eve worked in another country on a research postdoc. Since the university only paid for new tenure-track staff’s relocation expenses, Eve is still paying off the costs of her first degree and the cost of her move abroad. Beyond all that, Eve is currently living at her boyfriend Adam’s house – much to the disparagement of the boyfriend’s house mates. Meanwhile, Eve is looking for somewhere more settled to rent that her meagre salary can afford and that is within commuting distance to her current university jobs.
Adam, on the other hand, is time-poor with extremely limited research time that he tries to do his research after 8pm, when he has finished teaching. He also researches on Saturdays while on Sundays, he prepares for his next teaching class on Monday. With Adam’s tight research schedule, Eve gets increasingly annoyed because he spends hardly any time with her.
Given the limited space for research, the pressure of the neoliberal academic job market, and the need to publish as quickly and as much as possible, Adam has decided to focus all of his energy on getting a publication in a top journal. As for Eve, having studied in Germany – the home of Critical Theory has provided her with a scholarly background in the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory.
Now, she too, is thinking of getting a publication in one of the Critical Theory journals. Eve hopes that this will enable her to secure a permanent position in the UK, giving her the stability, research time, and time for a personal life that she so craves.
Meanwhile, Adam’s strategy might not pay off. His article could be easily rejected by journals with a swift desk rejection, or by a bruising peer review report of someone who barely knows what his research topic is about. Even if he does get a publication in one of the top journals, it does not guarantee Adam a permanent job. It merely moves his CV up the pile, if anything.
When Adam competes with the PhD students of people on hiring committees, or the friends of people on hiring committees, or faces an internal competition (often an internally favoured candidate), Adam’s publications will probably not matter at all. The reality of the academic job market – from what we were told by the apostles of neoliberalism and by the university apparatchiks is that it is all about quantitative metrics filled with nepotism, personal connections, friendships, stereotyping, racism, favouritism, managerial likings and dis-likings, as well as the infamous old-boys’-network. In which, all of this is still very much alive today.
Some academics even suggest that becoming a faculty member is like becoming a member of a secret society. Often, it involves knowing who to know and knowing the codes of what gets said and unsaid. Moreover, bias, prejudice, and sheer arrogance when it comes to where a candidate was educated at are rife.
Someone with a PhD from an “assumed-to-be” better university (Oxbridge, Ivy League, etc.) has a statistically much better chance of securing a job than Eve. No chance for Einstein, for example. The poor man only graduated with a Diploma as a subject teacher of Mathematics and Natural Sciences from ETH. Worse, Einstein published in the Annalen der Physik. No job for you!
Beyond all that, there are the well-established barriers of structural sexism, racism, ableism, homophobia, etc. that affect all individuals from these social groups. But whatever the outcome of Eve’s efforts to secure an academic’s job is, her approach remains rather rational. Yet, it is pretty much the only thing that she can do to have any chance in the academics’ job market.
In any case, non-Anglo-American PhDs with a non-mainstream scientific background are presumed to be non-standard and not marketable by university apparatchiks. In such cases, the job application is simply defined as “unwanted” by university apparatchiks. If PhD students go on in order to get an academic job, they are still forced to publish in top journals.
Even if they do not want to, they have to do their research and must publish using the methodology that is set by the journal editors of the so-called top-journals. These “top” journals are, according to Wikipedia, is merely a list of journals established by so-called “academic leaders” (whatever that is) through a committee vote. Apart from the point that the managerial leadership ideology divides the world into two hierarchical groups: “leaders-vs.-followers”, all of this also means two things: firstly, the term “academic leaders” means leaders, not academics. In other words, university apparatchiks. Secondly, “committee vote” can mean: hearsay, trends, likings, flavours, attitudes, and perhaps even prejudice.
When getting hired into a university depends on publishing in (an elected) top journals, and these top journals systematically exclude anything but the dominant methodology and mainstream issue, then it does not pay to spend one’s time working within other – seen as non-mainstream – theoretical frameworks.
Yet, it might pay in terms of intellectual fulfilment and to fulfil a public good for the preservation of modes of thought and culture. Yet, these have been colonized and displaced by university apparatchiks and the eternal drive to deliver on the h-index.
All of this will not broaden the horizons of theory in a discipline and may even be rather formalistic, confined, and restrictive. Yet, it will pay the bills. Thinking outside the mainstream will not secure academic prestige and permanent employment. Yet, university apparatchiks and journal editors will never grow tired of telling the young academics to think outside the box. Still, a journal article that falls outside the box will simply be seen as being outside the box, i.e. no review, a mere desk rejection.
Perhaps our best academics have always been outside the box. They have been side-lined: Galileo was confined to his house; Marx had to escape to England; Hegel was a mere house teacher, a newspaper editor and only became a professor at the end of his life; Horkheimer and Adorno had to escape the Nazis; and, worse of all was the “grossly indecent” Alan Turing – who solved the Entscheidungsproblem – and was driven into death by the British establishment. This list goes on.
Apart from the issues regarding membership and success in the academic profession, however, there is something that should concern academics even more: the ways in which professional practices influence the intellectual contours of the discipline itself. One of the high costs of university Managerialism is the narrowing of the academic fields into the ideology and irrational demands of, namely Managerialism. The reduction of scholarship to the pathological demands of Managerialism is highly significant. The neoliberal university, in conjunction with Managerialism, is stifling intellectual creativity and dissent, breeding myopia and mediocrity.
Given a choice of different research projects, many scientists will almost always reject both the prosaic work of confirming or disproving past studies, and the decades’ long pursuit of a risky engagement. They will reject both in favour of a safe middle ground that contributes very little but gets published. For researchers, much of this means selecting a topic that is popular with editors and likely to yield regular publications in top journals.
This is done even if it is a rather meaningless garbage that gets published that not many will quote, unless told by the journal editor of that so-called “top” journal to do so. Referencing a journal – even in the very same journal – moves the journal up the scale. In the world of numerical assessments, every click counts. It is quantity over quality.
Rather than aiming for genuinely original and ground breaking ideas, many academics are forced to aim to swiftly “spot-&-fill” an inconsequential gap in the vast space of an Anglo-American literature. Commonly, Anglo-American science literature mirrors the idea of positivism – a system recognizing only what can be scientifically verified by logical or mathematical proof. That is one of the best strategies for a successful publication in a top journal. Yet, more often than not, it is not a strategy for intellectual innovation nor for social progress.
Many genuine insights and theoretical disruptions are shut down by the toxic flames of peer reviewers who – together with journal editors, as the even more powerful gatekeepers – strictly police and enforce the boundaries of an academic discipline. Even if creative and disruptive ideas made it past the peer review process, they can be rejected by editors and editorial boards who want to maintain the “brand-name” of a journal. In this case, Branding overtakes science and knowledge.
In other case, editors and referees reject challenges and potential changes to their established way of doing things. Getting published can amount to pleasing as many people as possible who operate within the dominant methodology, the current mainstream, and what is considered to be trendy. Yet, for people – most importantly: editors – to please is not a recipe for creativity, advancement, and dissent. Perhaps worse, there is also a cost to intellectual diversity.
Beyond all this, even permanent academics are wallowing under the managerialist’s demands and workplace pressures in an academy that has been forced into Academentia. Permanent staff must also prove their worth by constantly publishing and achieving teaching excellence – as defined by university apparatchiks. This usually translates into staying in their lanes and not branching out into new – and worse: non-mainstream – areas of research and publishing.
When overall working hours are counted, on average, a UK academic is already doing two days a week of unpaid labour. They work, an average of 50.9 hours per week which is 13.4 hours over the norm of 37.5 hours per week. Worse, it is well in excess of the maximum 48 hours as recommended by the European Working Time Directive.
Not surprisingly, many academics are experiencing despair and with some are even dreaming of quitting the profession. Full professors in The Netherlands, for example, are working 55-hour weeks while spending just 17% of their time on research. Ultimately, this problem is structural – not individual. Hence, to try to search for an individual reason and blame the victim would be a waste of time. Instead, neoliberalism and Managerialism are to blame.
Ultimately, the core claim might well be that the neoliberalization of academia is not just the reason for Academentia, but also for the miserable days of working at a university. Today’s academics face stiff performance targets, constant assessment against arbitrary quantitative metrics invented by non-academics and adjacent university apparatchiks, ever increasing workloads spiced-up with ever more admin, and the deliberate creation of precarious working conditions. All of these are shaping how academics should teach and how to do their research.
In any case, more academics need to join trade unions that are representing academics. Together, academics can enforce their goals. They can go on a strike and they can take other measures directed at reversing the neoliberal attacks on universities. In other words, academics can – collectively – play their part in the quest for a better world. The academic precariat may play a significant role here. If academics withdraw their labour en masse – or perhaps start with something as simple as withholding exam marks – this will have an immediate and decisive impact on university apparatchiks.
Finally, while many academics feel trapped in the eternal game of neoliberal competition, it is important to consider who benefits. As a group, neither academics nor science, public education, and society as a whole – benefit. There is only one group that benefits from all this: the university apparatchiks.
Instead, our intellectual horizons have been narrowed by the influx of neoliberalism and Managerialism. Many academics are over-worked and stressed. They feel the need to constantly compete against their own peers and the managerialist metrics which they are assessed against with. Worse, academics have next to no hand in shaping all this.
In short, academics are dominated by a system but not of their own making. Yet, this system undermines the capacity of academics for collective self-determination by putting academics against each other. Driven by managerialist and university apparatchiks, the neoliberal university has largely shunned its Humboldtian ideal. There is no longer an identification with res publica. And, the neoliberalism university has done away with this rather resoundingly. Worse, under the evil twin ideologies of neoliberalism and Managerialism, academics are forced into strict obedience to bureaucratic authoritarianism. All of this creates Academentia.
As a consequence, many academics feel a bit like overworked subcontractors rather than public educators who are dedicated to advancing human knowledge, science, and social, as well as cultural progress. Simultaneously, many academics are working themselves into their early graves, or at least early retirements – perhaps even without a pension. Worse, they are forced to do this for the sake of increasing their university’s score in league tables.
Yet, for university apparatchiks, this is seen as an important marketing tool as, so they hope, it will attract more students – particularly full-fee paying students. In turn, more students means more fees and more revenues which may perhaps push their university even up the managerial hierarchy, so that some university apparatchiks somewhere can sit on a bigger desk.
Beyond all that, the insanity of the journal system is yet another vehicle for making money inside the academic system. Quite often, it costs $25 to read a single article, $42 for others, and $48 for even more expensive journals. If someone does not have an institutional support, i.e. university access, reading academic articles can be rather expensive.
Most of the world’s population do not have the kind of money to access scholarly journal articles or the institutional support needed. Many academics at universities in the Global South or those employed by a less well-endowed universities in the North, do not have access to these articles through their institutional libraries.
The business model of academic journals was pioneered by the notorious Robert Maxwell. And, here is how the very profitable journal-scam works: academics write articles for free – often in their spare time like evenings, weekends, even holidays, etc. Next, these articles are published by the corporate (read: profit-making) publishers like Elsevier, Springer, and Wiley – to name just three of the headless horsemen of the academic publishing apocalypse.
In a subsequent step, these near-monopolistic publishers are charging libraries and individuals obscene amounts of money to access the content of these journals. Of course, they walk away with profit margins of up to 40%. Worse, in most cases, some of these journals add very little to the work of academics – but lots to profitable publishing corporations:
- the peer review process is undertaken by people working for free;
- journal editors working for free;
- none of the academics who write these articles are getting paid.
To stop the publishing sleaze, more civic-minded academics prefer to publish in open access journals. Yet, this is a luxury the precariat and the young aspiring academics cannot afford. The underlying structure of the field forces them to publish articles in top journals to secure jobs and prestige. In the end, Adam and Eve are forced to align their research with these so-called top journals. This process marginalizes people, topics, and methodologies that these journals do not support. Adam and Eve’s intellectual creativity, diversity, and dissent are sacrificed on the altar of neoliberalism and Managerialism’s rankings, scales, assessments, journal lists, etc.
Yet, academics like our Adam and Eve know – rather well – that change will not come from the managerial class. Simultaneously, a significant external change – via politics, for example – is a long way off. It is therefore, incumbent for Adam and Eve – and other academics – to collectively decide: what do Adam and Eve want their profession to be, and to take steps – however difficult that is – to achieve it.
Thomas Klikauer teaches at the Sydney Graduate School of Management at Western Sydney University, Australia. He has over 780 publications including a book on Media Capitalism. A big thank you goes to my highly dedicated proof reader Meg Young.