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Thesis Spotlights – How Is the University Influenced by Neoliberalism? The Composition and Practice of Accountability in Taiwanese Higher Education

Issue 45: Pandemic (Im)Possibilities vol. 1 Tue 2 Jun 2020

Ming-Te Peng, PhD student, UK

Email: mpeng042[at]
Institution: Department of Sociology, Goldsmiths, University of London, UK
Time: September 2015 – March 2020
Supervisor: Prof. Daniel Neyland
Funding: Government Scholarships for Overseas Study, Ministry of Education, Taiwan

Models of university management around the world have been substantially influenced by neoliberalism and entrepreneurial culture in recent decades. Under this tendency, performance evaluations, bibliometric indicators and career precarity have become part of academic everyday life. This project aims to illustrate procedures by which academic reality has been established in the neoliberal era, rather than treating the neoliberal movement as a black box. Taking universities in Taiwan as a case, this thesis draws on Foucauldian theories and Actor-Network theory to investigate how the neoliberal discourse has been enacted within the academy. Semi-structured interviews and document analysis were utilised to gather empirical data.

My first empirical chapter focuses on the problematisation of academic practices. By investigating historical and political configurations where policy on academic governance and higher education had emerged, this research suggests that the sector of higher education has always been an object of government in Taiwan. Although the tension between the State bureaucracy and academic autonomy is a consistent theme, models of governing universities have changed in various periods, reflecting changes in domestic political situations and socio-economic contexts. The switch from direct supervision to marketisation represents a transition in the exercise of power from sovereign power to governmentality. In a similar vein, this chapter also articulates how solutions have been described by the same set of languages that are used to define the problems.

The second empirical chapter aims to elaborate alternative narratives of higher education within the dominant neoliberal discourse. Through discussions on contemporary concerns about globalising higher education, university industry collaboration and university’s social responsibility, a variety of narratives are identified, representing the existence of alternative frameworks for seeing higher education and the possibility of resistance against the neoliberalising university. On the other hand, the third empirical chapter emphasises how the neoliberal discourse gained authority through its circulation within academic organisations. With those institutional practices, the imaginary of the neoliberal university has been actualised by individual scholars, turning it into a reality.

In sum, this research project suggests that the dominant position of neoliberal discourse should not be considered the status quo but a temporary result of continuous neoliberal practices in which a range of actors take part. It is better to understand the neoliberal movement as a heterogeneous attempt rather than a universal essence. This study also indicates that objects, like bibliometric measures in this case, could play an indispensable role in two aspects. First, the bibliometric measure contributes to accumulation of subject knowledge regarding academic behaviours. Second, it provides a ground for individuals to interpret and to build the academic world.  

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