Neoliberal EAP: are we all neoliberals now?

Over* the past 40 years or so universities have undergone profound changes that call into question the values and purposes of universities, the roles they hold in civic society and nature of the knowledge that is produced there. Successive governments, driven by neoliberal ideology**, have imposed a raft of unending reforms, directives and legislation to force universities (quite willingly?) to become embodiments of free market dystopia (just one irony is that the neoliberal university requires so much more regulation, auditing, management, legislation and control to ensure that its functioning is congruent with neoliberal principles).

The nefarious and pernicious effects of neoliberal ideology on universities are damming and vast. One pernicious effect (among many) of this is the positioning of students as consumers and teachers as sellers of educational products. The ‘student is expected to serve as the personification of market forces’ (Furedi, 2011:3). This fuels consumer fantasy (Haywood et al. 2011) as to the lifestyle, economic wealth and social status that a qualification will entitle the holder to expect and demand. Education is a means to aspirational vocational and economic ends – indeed success governments attempt to transform universities into catalysts of economic wealth (the ‘knowledge economy’). Through a process of commodification students are encouraged to perceive education in terms of their access and entitlement to wealth and social capital, they tend to avoid experimentation, risk-taking, intellectual challenges and manifest conservative attitudes towards learning in order to maximise their chances of academic success (Nixon et al., 2011). The ‘student experience’ is just one of the many neoliberal euphemisms that litter university websites, documents and brochures (internationalisation – being another). A pernicious side effect of the neoliberal attempt to transform universities is the surely connected concurrent rise of therapeutic education alongside an increasingly illiberal, censorious and conformist university.

Employability and student satisfaction are now key metrics in determining how desirable a university is. Lecturers (and universities) are judged, ranked and promoted depending on a range of metrics (research output, income generation, public engagement, knowledge transfer, scores from students, workload, administration, managerial responsibilities…). It seems everything can and must be measured and ranked. There are gongs for these things too.

I could go on (and on) but I won’t. There is a growing and significant body of research and publications that set out the many effects of neoliberalism on universities and they make the case much more articulately than I can. What does EAP (through its publications) have to say about the neoliberal university? What are the impacts of neoliberalism on practitioners of EAP?

In turning to discuss the first question one could turn to JEAP, the flagship publication in EAP, which claims in its editorial policy that ‘no worthy topic relevant to EAP is beyond the scope of the journal’. Apart from a special edition on Critical EAP in 2009, in which neoliberalism wasn’t properly or fully analysed in any case, JEAP has systematically failed to discuss the socio-economic structures that shape the praxis of teaching EAP. It is as if the structural conditions and ideologies that permeate our professional lives simply do not exist or are not worthy of investigation. Titles in the current edition of JEAP are fairly typical of its preoccupations e.g. ‘Learning academic formulaic sequences’, and ‘Nominal stance construction in L1 and L2 students’ writing’. Worthy and useful perhaps, but hardly indicative of a worldly stance to the teaching of EAP. In her final editorial piece Liz Hamp-Lyons sums it up well:

The socio-political and economic imperatives for the rise of EAP we described in 2002 are, if anything, more serious and indeed deeper issues than they were then; but they have barely appeared in the pages of JEAP in recent years. Sarah Benesch guest edited a Special Issue of JEAP in 2008 (8, 2) but there seems to have been little uptake, at least in this journal. The overt use of the international student ‘market’ by governments to shore up the finances of universities is an embarrassment to many of us, and is discussed in small fora and face to face among EAP teachers and programme managers, but is not found in the research literature.

The future of JEAP and EAP Volume 20, December 2015, Pages A1–A4

The problem is compounded in JEAP because it projects a disciplinary identity for EAP that includes neither the voices of practitioners nor their concerns. It is as if EAP exists in an ideological vacuum. Simply put, apart from the occasional presentation (a link to one I did) or paper there is little in JEAP or the literature more generally that tackles issues relating to neoliberalism, the university and the EAP practitioner.

Why this silence persists bemuses me and I find it difficult to account for. The rise of EAP (more than) coincides with the advent of neoliberal education and is perhaps a result of neoliberal policies. The existence of EAP (in terms of employing many teachers in universities) has been dependent on universities marketing and recruiting international students in greater and greater numbers. Attracting students paying large fees to benefit (financially) the university is unrelenting and EAP has emerged as a result of this. In an important sense EAP is a product of neoliberal policies and our existence (apart from perhaps as a somewhat esoteric discipline) depends on capturing international students.

That there is money to be made from EAP is quite evident. Study Group, which offers ‘partnerships’ with universities to provide EAP courses, is owned by Providence Equity (you can get a flavour of what they are like here). Other private providers (owned by shareholders, hedge funds et al.) also compete to seduce universities into profitable partnerships. EAP centres are also often expected to generate profits for the university. It is far from uncommon to hear papers talk about the EAP industry or to discuss EAP students in terms of customers. Not only is the academic field of EAP almost silent on neoliberalism but it seems practitioners perhaps have diverse views on the relationship between neoliberalism and EAP (or its significance to EAP). Why is there so little public discussion among practitioners about the economic structures that shape our work? Perhaps the (oppressive) dominance of neoliberal discourse more generally over a number of years has dulled the imagining of credible alternatives? It might be bad but what alternative is there? What can or should we do in any case? Perhaps we have profited from the rise in neoliberalism and have no wish to criticise? Perhaps discussions of this type seem abstract and far removed from the classroom? Whatever the reasons, and I’m sure there are a great many, it appears that the structural conditions which shape our lives are not discussed.

So, this post is an invitation to discuss this further. To continue to ignore discussing the structures that shape our lives will only limit our ability to understand them and to find ways to navigate them. Ignoring this also obscures the complexity of (and materiality of) teaching EAP in universities, it avoids questions of how best to prepare students for (neoliberal) university study and leaves unanalysed our (ideal) place, identity, autonomy and roles in universities.

Two more posts will follow shortly, one from me discussing some approaches we might take to navigate the neoliberal university and one from an ex-student and EAP practitioner.

* I’d like to think that previous posts on this blog (by others at least) have been thoughtful, carefully written, referenced and based on professional investments, interests and/or expertise. Not so this entry. I have no claims of any kind of authority to write about neoliberalism whatsoever. However, I feel compelled to write something about neoliberalism and EAP because I want to know what you think and because we (EAP Practitioners) rarely (at least in publications) debate the socio-ideological forces that shape our praxis, discourse, identity and purpose.

** “Neoliberalism is in the first instance a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets and free trade. The role of the state is to create and preserve an institutional framework appropriate to such practices. The state has to guarantee, for example, the quality and integrity of money. It must also set up those military, defence, police and legal structures and functions required to secure private property rights and to guarantee, by force if need be, the proper functioning of markets. Furthermore, if markets do not exist (in areas such as land, water, education, health care, social security, or environmental pollution) then they must be created, by state action if necessary. But beyond these tasks the state should not venture. State interventions in markets (once created) must be kept to a bare minimum because, according to the theory, the state cannot possibly possess enough information to second-guess market signals (prices) and because powerful interest groups will inevitably distort and bias state interventions (particularly in democracies) for their own benefit”

(Harvey 2005:2).


EAP Teacher education and development: some thoughts

Over the past few months my thoughts and energy have been directed at co-researching and writing (with Gemma Campion*) a chapter on education and development for EAP practitioners to be published in the Routeledge Handbook of EAP (eds. Ken Hylands and Philip Shaw). This endeavour proved far more challenging and thought-provoking than I had imagined when first embarking on this project. In this post I want to briefly discuss just some of the challenges and questions that emerged during this process of researching and writing on teacher education and development.
There is a dearth of publications and research exploring EAP practitioner education and development by researchers, teacher educators and practitioners themselves and few (but growing in the UK) opportunities to study for specialist post-graduate qualifications in TEAP. The practitioner (especially in terms of education and development) is almost absent from the pages of JEAP (Journal of English for Academic Purposes). It would appear that practitioners are of only very minor interest to the discipline. Despite infrequent calls over the years for more attention to be paid to practitioners this has not translated into a substantive body of work. Why practitioners have solicited so little interest from the discipline remains a mystery and seems to confirm Belcher’s (2012:544) recent observation that the ‘community that ESP professionals know the least about is their own’.
This lack of interest by the discipline is not entirely reflected by the profession, at least in the guise of BALEAP, where there have been significant developments over the past 8 or 9 years to articulate, guide and standardise the competencies required to teach EAP. Initially, BALEAP developed a competency framework for teachers of English for Academic Purposes (CFTEAP) which has formed the foundations of a new and ambitious accreditation scheme. This accreditation scheme offers three levels of recognition; associate fellow, fellow, and senior fellow. Whilst this scheme appears to have been welcomed within the UK EAP community it is not without problems. The aim of this post (but possibly a future one) is not to dissect this scheme in detail but simply indicate some of the problems with it.
Much of the scheme relies of the orthodoxy of the reflection as the motor of development and education. Yet there are multiple meanings attached to reflection, reflection serves diverse educational and ideological ends and there are some serious concerns pertaining to the quality, significance and aims of reflective practices. Along with a lack of empirical evidence to demonstrate the effectiveness of reflective practices this would suggest greater caution in relying so heavily on reflection in this scheme.
There is a general preoccupation (obsession?) in the available literature on the inadequacies of the novice practitioner and how ill-prepared they are for teaching EAP. The novice is cast as ‘deficient’ and requiring induction and assimilation into existing practices and values. This stifles, partly through promoting and privileging ‘experience’ and learning from experienced colleagues, innovation and transformation whilst promoting reproduction of existing praxis. How EAP is to develop in this framework is unclear.
There is an emphasis on understanding and applying institutional values (and even then only in three restrictive areas; equality of opportunity, sustainability, and internationalisation) rather than encouraging practitioners to question and shape these values. In addition, the focus of these three values in unnecessarily restrictive and practitioners should participate in wider debates on the (effects of) commodification of education in a neoliberal world. Practitioners should, in my view, be questioning the range of ideologies and values that profoundly shape (rather than simply form the backdrop to) EAP as well as articulating their/our own values and responses to them. A much more sociologically-informed and reflexive emphasis is needed in education and development frameworks and courses if practitioners are to make a bigger impact on their worlds.
These are just three examples of issues that troubled me during the process of writing this chapter. More generally, during this process of researching and writing, I became (painfully) aware of just how parochial my perspective was/is: it is a very UK-centric perspective. Courses and development frameworks for practitioners all emanated from the UK and the UK perspective appears to dominate discourse on education and development. This raises serious questions about the relevance and pertinence of these courses and frameworks for those teaching EAP in other contexts (about which relatively little is published). A global perspective or multiple perspectives on education and development is simply unavailable at the present time and the UK perspective(s) risks shaping and dominating professional development and education at a time when much more recognition needs to be given to EAP enacted elsewhere in possibly very different and challenging contexts.
One way of reading the growth of interest in EAP practitioner development and education in the UK is as a response to both the expansion of EAP in the recent past as well as a desire to protect and promote the teaching of EAP (and practitioners): to promote greater professionalism within EAP in the UK in a period of expansion; and to seek greater recognition (and security) for EAP within the wider educational community. This comes at a time when the professional status and identity of practitioners is particularly fragile within the UK (EAP units have no settled ‘home’ within universities, out-sourcing of teaching to for-profit organisations is not increasingly common, pay and conditions vary greatly etc.).
I will return to this topic in the next couple of weeks but this just gives a flavour of some of the questions and issues I have been thinking about during this process of writing.

* the views expressed here are my own.