Neoliberalism. To some, this one word encapsulates all that is wrong with capitalism today – from the marketisation of public services, such as health and education, to the takeover of local high streets by global, tax-avoiding corporations.
To others, neoliberalism is a vague word that signifies little other than the pseudo-radical credentials of the person using it. In 2010, professor of higher education Ron Barnett described neoliberalism as a ‘catch-all term used with little discrimination’ that has taken on the aura of a grand theoretical concept. Sociologist Frank Furedi echoes this critique, arguing that the ubiquity and lack of specificity of the word has rendered it a vacuous insult.
Most recently, Colin Talbot, professor of government at the University of Manchester, wrote on his personal blog that ‘neoliberalism is a myth. It’s a pervasive myth on one side of politics – the left. But it is nevertheless a myth.’ Talbot explains that no one identifies themselves as ‘neoliberal’, and points out that at ‘the start of neoliberalism… the state was more than four times the size it had been in 1870’.
Talbot’s blog is interesting and well worth a read, but he’s clearly not the first to claim that left-leaning academics and commentators are over-reliant on the virtue-signalling rhetoric of neoliberalism. However, he is perhaps the first to have a student lodge complaints with three heads of department at his university for putting forward such a critique. The student, an economics postgrad, called for Talbot to retract his blog post. According to The Times, he claimed that the ‘professor’s argument was not worthy of an A-Level student let alone a head of department’.
The student who complained about Talbot’s views on neoliberalism has rightly been taken to task on social media and, sensibly, the University of Manchester is taking no further action. But news that some students are prepared to make formal complaints against academics for saying something (not terribly) controversial – even if, as in this instance, the student is not taught by the professor involved – will no doubt chill academic freedom and make lecturers think twice about engaging in debate both inside and outside the classroom. It serves as a reminder that some students expect freedom from intellectual challenge and emotional discomfort rather than free speech. It adds to the anecdotal evidence of students switching courses or choosing modules specifically to avoid having their beliefs challenged.