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).