Jonathan Jansen

In the daily churn of university operations, it would appear as though the question of purposes: “What are universities for?” has been settled. Students are clients. Teaching is inputs. Publications are outputs. Curriculum is (unit) standards. Measurement is accountability. Assessment is performance. Scholarship is metrics. Graduates (oven-ready) are for the labour market. Leadership is management.

The language of critique that targets these narrowed down purposes for the university is by now familiar to those who study higher education: the neoliberal university, managerialism, the new public management, academic capitalism and more. But does a critical language that routinely describes these tendencies in the modern university do anything to even begin to shift institutional practice? In other words, have the critics reckoned with the power of what we call the institutional curriculum — that ensemble of rules, regulations, values, and processes that keep official knowledge sheltered in place?

Recent South African experience is instructive in this regard. In 2015, our universities experienced massive disruptions through student revolts against the colonial imprint and consequences of higher education. The curriculum was too white, the professors too pale, and institutional cultures too exclusive. The students started with the radical descriptor decolonisation that later formed part of a couplet of demands for “a free, decolonised education”. On the face of it, this was a powerful moment in student resistance that seemed to enjoy support from “management” across the 26 public universities. Did anything change?

Our study on the uptake of decolonisation in the curriculum of public universities showed that little changed beyond the official performance of participation and support (Jansen & Walters, 2022) because the institutional curriculum did its job domesticating, marginalising, and subverting any attempts at radical incursion into settled knowledge inside universities.

The authors in this stunning new book are not unaware of the power of institutions labouring under the weight of a political economy that reduces academic work to market value. What, then, about the “pockets of freedom” (Raaper, 2019) in universities that can be exploited to do the work of resistance and generate alternatives to teaching, learning, assessment, and the making of curriculum?

This understanding of change is vital if a politics of hope — what Kate Bowles in this book calls “small hope-building practices” — rather than despair is going to emerge from under the crushing authority of the neoliberal university. The writers are aware of broader, democratic commitments to openness, participation, inclusion, and “infrastructures of care” (Chan et al., this volume). I have worked in those crevices as a university leader in a university which gained notoriety for racism. My colleagues created social and physical spaces on campus, such as the Institute for Reconciliation and Social Justice at the University of the Free State, where students could gather for both informal interactions and formal events on topics like race, identity, and our shared humanity. It was also a generative space for creative works from art, music, history, drama, and politics that gave expression to student struggles and ideals.

The downside of these enclave initiatives in large institutions is that systemic or system-wide change is not possible. Our study of enclave curricula found not only considerable institutional resistance on the one hand but also benign neglect on the other. Enclave initiatives are often the result of the activism of one or more scholars who fight for resources on an ongoing basis. They work hard to mobilise allies within their universities in the struggle for a pedagogy or assessment that is more socially just. They demonstrate alternative ways of teaching and leading at seminars and workshops on their own and other campuses. In other words, there is a considerable personal investment in sustaining an engaged and transformative pedagogy on the campus.

What is intellectually fascinating is how exactly academics with an enlarged agenda for pedagogy and assessment work in these institutional crevices such that they satisfy institutional demands, while at the same time widening those pockets of freedom. Here are hard lessons to be learnt that are sometimes ignored in the optimistic, breezy accounts of alternative education; that kind of naivete is not only poor analysis but also weak strategy when it comes to the politics of change. One example will suffice.

At my current university, I encouraged staff in student support to develop a core curriculum for undergraduates that deals openly with issues of race, identity, power, and history. This was important since thousands of first years enrol annually from very diverse schools in terms of race and resources, and some constitute a threat to the wellbeing of black students on a formerly white university campus. The university management generously funded a pilot of the core. The students who attended voluntarily were exceptional and greatly enriched the core. But they were generally open-minded, progressive black and white students, not the ones you wanted to target for this kind of curriculum. We made the case for system-wide implementation, but the argument was that some of the deans did not feel there was time for an addition to the curriculum. This, by the way, is a nonsense argument in curriculum theory.

There is always time given the highly selective tradition of curriculum decision-making. Still, the pilot was funded every year, a curriculum enclave of sorts. Until a white student in a brazenly racist attack in 2022 urinated onto the laptop and other belongings of a black student. There was intense and widespread reaction on and beyond the campus which led to the appointment of a judicial commission of inquiry into racism at the university. In the meantime, the student was suspended pending an investigation and eventually expelled. It was at this time that the university took seriously the plea for an institution-wide core curriculum that will now be implemented. What is the point of this account? That rare, enclave curricula or other projects can sometimes break through because of an institutional crisis or burst of conscience on the part of university leadership. By the time of this crisis at my university, there was a fully trialled core curriculum in place ready for implementation.

And finally, when there is the opportunity for deep thinking about “higher education for good” we should always ask, “good for whom?” (Childs et al., this volume). One of the most devastating consequences of the pandemic is that lockdown arrangements led to great learning losses for those with little to no access to bridging technologies and, in the process, widened the inequality gap between students of the middle classes and the poor. Put differently, when reimagining the neoliberal university, we must constantly and consciously pose the question as to the differential impacts of newly envisaged institutions. That reimagination has implications for everything from infrastructure to pedagogy and to forms of assessment.

This courageous book works with an unspoken proposition, that we cannot wait for the neoliberal university to transform itself. Universities can change “because of their capacity for challenge, critique, invention and intellectual growth… but it has to be fought for” (Connell 2019, p. 10).


Connell, R. (2019). The good university: What universities actually do and why it’s time for radical change. Zed Books

Jansen, J. D., & Walters, C. A. (2022). The decolonization of knowledge: The shaping of institutions in South Africa and beyond. Cambridge University Press

Raaper, R. (2019). Assessment policy and “pockets of freedom” in a neoliberal university. A Foucauldian perspective. In C. Manathunga & D. Bottrell (Eds), Resisting neoliberalism in higher education (pp. 155–75). Palgrave Macmillan.

Stellenbosch, South Africa, 18 August 2022

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