Sub-prime scholarship

Jon Austin (University of Southern Queensland, Toowoomba, Australia)

Qualitative Research Journal

ISSN: 1443-9883

Article publication date: 5 May 2015



Austin, J. (2015), "Sub-prime scholarship", Qualitative Research Journal, Vol. 15 No. 2.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Sub-prime scholarship

Article Type: Editorial From: Qualitative Research Journal, Volume 15, Issue 2

In early November 2013, two seemingly unrelated events took place in Melbourne, Australia. One of these events is world renowned, the other of world importance. The first was the annual Melbourne Cup horse racing carnival; the second, the annual conference of the Association for Qualitative Research (AQR) held in association with the international Discourse, Power, Resistance community.

The theme of the conference was Sub-prime Scholarship, and through that lens, presenters and participants explored in diverse ways, through various qualitative research approaches, and from first-hand personal experience what it means to work in and construct identities through contemporary academic spaces as they are subjected to shaping and re-shaping as the dictates of an almost ubiquitous neoliberal ascendancy (and, arguably in many parts of the world, a neoconservative resurrection) require. To quote from the conference program:

The aim of this conference is to provide the opportunity to explore the nature of academic work, particularly as it becomes increasingly shaped, examined and defined by ERA, PRBF and RAE/REF research assessment exercises, increasing levels of performativity, and harsh effects on academics of new managerialism.

The impact of market-oriented ideologies and agendas on the higher education sector, and universities in particular, has been the subject of both critique and despair by those who still see the imperative, urgency and responsibility of academics to contribute to a broad campaign for global justice. David Harvey chronicled the capture of US research universities, their business schools in particular, by market-oriented ideologies, despairing that they became centres of neoliberal orthodoxy from the very moment they opened. Further, he argues that the “elite” USA research universities are still “training grounds for many foreigners who take what they learned back to their countries of origin – the key figures in Chile’s and Mexico’s adaptation to neoliberalism were US trained economists, for example – as well as into international institutions such as the IMF, the World Bank, and the UN” (Harvey, 2005, p. 54). Slaughter and Leslie (1997) described the development of academic capitalism, an entrepreneurial ethos within universities that took hold as they were seduced by market-driven approaches to what had previously been considered a primarily human- and socially oriented function: education.

Since those publications, the speed, intensity and scope of such anti-social and destructive changes wrought upon the academic world have caught many intellectual workers off-guard. As academics of many types, we live in times where the World Bank identifies teachers and their traditional protections as the main obstacle to market-based efficiencies; where academic accountability often means subordination to accountancy techniques; and where, increasingly, the University is seen to be complicit in “efforts to discipline labor for capital, as part of a global agenda” (Levidow, 2005, pp. 157-161). It was to further the critique of such times that this conference was convened.

As delegates made their way to the conference venue on the morning of the running of the Melbourne Cup, they joined the flow of people heading to Flemington Racecourse or to various off-course celebratory party locales and the inanities and trivialities of sweeps and horse games – after all, the significance of this race is such that a public holiday is gazetted for the day of the race.

In many ways reminiscent of Bakhtin’s (1984) idea of Carnival, people from the 99 percent dressed up in their finery in imitation of their “betters” were flocking off to participate in a day of “licensed transgressions” (Eagleton, 1981), where “the first aspect of life that is suspended is the hierarchical structures that determine our “proper” place – including the acceptable ways of talking, dressing, laughing, and celebrating” (Shields, 2007, p. 101). For one day at least, the victims of neoliberalism could imagine what it must be like to be a beneficiary of the workings of global capital: they could cheer as loudly as the multi-millionaire or billionaire owners (as the case may be) of the horseflesh being forced around the racetrack. At the end of the day, as the conference wound up, we also joined the throngs heading home from their day of Carnival. On both trips that day – the outward and the inward – one wonders how many noticed the evidence of the brutality necessary to shore up the 1 percent as we all walked past scores of homeless, impoverished, “disposable” people whose lives revolved around doorways, shop fronts, park benches and bus stops around the railway station opposite the conference venue. Certainly, conference goers would have had a heightened sense of connection with our homeless comrades – participation in the discussions over the three days of the Sub-prime Scholarship conference drew into stark reality the similarities and possible futures of all workers, academic or otherwise, in contemporary neoliberal times.

The papers in this issue of Qualitative Research Journal address directly or more tangentially the impact and consequences of being an intellectual worker in these times. All of the authors share a concern to contribute to the construction of transformative and compassionate futures through their work.

Dr Jon Austin


Bakhtin, M.M. (1984), Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN

Eagleton, T. (1981), Walter Benjamin: Towards a Revolutionary Criticism, Verso, London

Harvey, D. (2005), A Brief History of Neoliberalism, Oxford University Press, Oxford

Levidow, L. (2005), “Neoliberal agendas for higher education”, in Saad-Filho, A. and Johnston, D. (Eds), Neoliberalism a Critical Reader, Pluto Press, London, pp. 156-162

Shields, C.M. (2007), “Living in a carnivalesque world”, in Shields, C.M. (Ed.), Bakhtin Primer, Peter Lang Publishing Inc., New York, NY, pp. 97-128

Slaughter, S. and Leslie, L.L. (1997), Academic Capitalism: Politics, Policies, and the Entrepreneurial University, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, MD