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Governing Australian Academics: An analysis of governance and subjectivity in Australian universities (awarded 2017)

Author: Fabian Cannizzo

This dissertation addresses the question of how academic work is governed in universities in the twenty-first century. It identifies the factors shaping academic governance in public universities. Recent research suggests that academics operating in such settings confront values tensions emerging from the restructuring of higher education within global knowledge economies. A managerial ethos is becoming ever more present, stemming from the uptake of both neoliberal higher education and research policies at the international and national levels and the uptake of performance management systems at the level of the university.
To account for the complexities produced in such a transformation, this thesis utilises a poststructural analysis of academic governance. Governance is broadly defined as attempts to apply rational control techniques to known phenomena. Consequently, governance occurs not only at the levels of state and university, but also within the department, between colleagues, and at the level of the individual. Drawing on Michel Foucault’s writings on governmentality, Nikolas Rose’s theory of advanced liberal governance, and Judith Butler’s relational model of ethics, this dissertation presents an analytics of academic government. It does so by drawing on two groups of data. The first includes strategic planning and policy documents from eight South-Eastern Australian universities, which are used to establish common discourses of governance through which universities attempt to classify and prescribe “good” academic conduct. The second set of data are drawn from open-ended interviews conducted with twenty-nine members of academic staff from Australian universities, through which the career aspirations and discourses of self-governance of academics are explored. These two data sources have been accessed to reconcile university and academic categories of governance into a more comprehensive institutional analysis.

An analysis of policy documents revealed three discourses through which university managers attempt to govern their institutions. These discourses of Excellence, Impact, and Innovation prescribe both ideals and means through which academics may strategically plan their work. Exploring a case study of a “performance management” technology, the production of compliant subjectivities is shown to be both a social and technological achievement. However, evidence from interviews with academics denaturalises the managerial narrative of academic governance presented in university policy. Academics’ careers and work habits are enacted through valorised discourses and ideals, such as the expectation of a “passionate” attachment to their labour, a personal sense of career success, and a pragmatic professional attitude that has emerged in response to the transformation of university governance.

The findings of this study suggest that academic governance relies on amalgamations of discourses, strategies and techniques for self-government that cannot be described by reference to a single policy discourse or technology. Rather, patterns in academic governance are emerging around a new academic ethos (or “spirit”), which is deeply embedded in a culture of authenticity in liberal democracies and made possible through heterogeneous practices of self-government. Future studies of academic governance can benefit from focusing on the intersection of cultural and technological components of governmental regimes.

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