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Reimagining Work: The Impact of Neoliberalism on Universities and Engineering Students

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Reimagining Work: The Impact of Neoliberalism on Universities and Engineering Students
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   " Reimagining Work: The Impact of Neoliberalism on Universities and Engineering Students By Mehran Shamit Crossroads: The University of Michigan Undergraduate Journal of Anthropology Winter 2018, VOL. 1.1 Online: https://umichanthrojournaldotcom.files.wordpress.com/2018/03/crossroads-w18-v5.pdf   Abstract  Neoliberalism is increasingly shaping university education and student orientation towards work, especially in technical fields such as engineering. Universities such as the University of Toronto are specifically targeting engineering students and directing them towards entrepreneurship as they are viewed as future innovators who are most likely to contribute to economic growth and development. Universities are thus increasingly attempting to transform engineering students into  promising reserves of future entrepreneurs. Although entrepreneurship is an uncommon career  path for most engineering students, it has recently gained more interest and acceptability, despite the instability and risks involved. This paper reviews existing literature on neoliberalism, its impact on universities and its transformation of universities into the entrepreneurial format. This paper also uses data from qualitative interviews with undergraduate engineering students at the University of Toronto as well as the author’s own observations of engineering entrepreneurship events held at the university to address how engineering students imagine work and how they respond to the entrepreneurship exposure or “evangelism” that they receive at the University of Toronto. Ultimately, this paper argues that neoliberalism, through its principle of individualism, drives engineering students to reimagine work and adopt entrepreneurship as a desirable career  path later on in their lives, when there are supposedly less risks involved in entrepreneurship. Introduction  Neoliberalism is “a theory of political economic practices” which claims that the wellbeing of humans is best achieved through “liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills” (Harvey 2005:2). The state is held responsible for producing and maintaining aspects of neoliberalism, such as free markets, free trade and private property rights. Neoliberalism is increasingly shaping university education and student orientation towards work, especially in technical fields such as engineering. Engineering is a field that is considered by students to have stable employment opportunities. However, in line with neoliberal restructuring in society as well as in the university, the Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering at the University of Toronto increasingly promotes entrepreneurship, a seemingly risky career choice. Entrepreneurship has also gained greater acceptance due to changing perceptions of work among students who are now attracted to the idea of taking on individual responsibility in exchange for having autonomy and independence at work. This is a product of neoliberal ideology in society promoting greater individualism. Analyzing existing literature on neoliberalism, its impact on universities and its   # transformation of universities into the entrepreneurial format as well as qualitative data from the University of Toronto, I argue that neoliberalism through its principle of individualism drives engineering students to reimagine work and adopt entrepreneurship as a desirable career path later on in their lives, when there are supposedly less risks involved in entrepreneurship. Methodology In my study, I used both primary and secondary sources. I particularly reviewed existing literature on neoliberalism’s impact on university education and the subsequent transition to a common entrepreneurial format. Etzkowitz, Webster, Gebhardt and Terra (2000) show how the capitalization of knowledge has resulted due to this shift in university education, while Brownlee (2015) points out the growing trend of business oriented practices and marketplace relationships taking place within the university system. Although findings from Duval-Couetil, Reed-Rhoads and Haghighi (2012) suggest that education can play a very important role in inspiring entrepreneurship among students, research conducted by Luthje and Franke (2003) show that there are still existing barriers that may prevent many students from taking up entrepreneurship in the immediate future. In this context, I chose to gather qualitative data in order to understand how the University of Toronto actively promotes entrepreneurship, specifically targeting students in engineering compared to other fields. I attended various public events related to engineering entrepreneurship on the university’s St. George campus over the course of two months. These  public events were organized by various actors, including the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, the Entrepreneurship Hatchery (a start-up accelerator or “incubator” based in the Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering) and Engineers Without Borders (a student organization based at the university focusing on the role of engineering in international development). The events were very diverse and allowed me to interact with current engineering students, mainly undergraduates, from different programs within engineering. Although the events were open to the public, my position as a current undergraduate student at the University of Toronto made it significantly easier for me to interact with engineering students attending these events and I did not feel a need to justify my presence as other students assumed that I was merely interested in learning about entrepreneurship and potentially becoming an entrepreneur. I did not always disclose my main purpose behind attending these events. However, when conversations lasted longer and I was asked, I explained my research project and it was met with healthy curiosity. Through informal conversations at these events with different students, I received some very important insights before formally conducting interviews with engineering students regarding their  perceptions of work and entrepreneurship and their views on the entrepreneurship exposure at the university. I conducted in-depth, face-to-face interviews with five students in the Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering using a semi-structured approach, in two separate group interviews or discussions on campus. All of the respondents were either fourth or fifth year undergraduate engineering students and under the age of 25. Three of the respondents were domestic students, while two were international students. Accounting for the existing gender imbalance in the Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering, only one of the respondents was female. Initially, I encountered some difficulties convincing students to be formally interviewed. Even after explaining my research project and stressing that all of the information from the interviews would  be kept confidential in accordance with the University of Toronto’s ethics protocols, many students   $ were hesitant and decided not to go through with the interviews. This was possibly because they did not completely trust me as I only recently met them. Having experienced this setback, I then decided on using some of my friends as a resource. I was able to get in-depth interviews through friends as there was already an existing level of trust. During the interviews, the main questions asked related to future employment and the types of occupations the respondents hoped to pursue, how the Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering  prepared students for the workplace, what respondents thought of the job market and current labor conditions, how entrepreneurship was specifically embedded in the University of Toronto engineering curriculum as well as how respondents felt about the promotion of entrepreneurship in engineering. In order to protect the privacy of respondents, pseudonyms are used in this paper. Neoliberalism, Individualism and the University  Neoliberalism suggests that economic imperatives come first and as a result all other goals, including equality and security, have to be sacrificed for the prioritized goals of economic  productivity and economic growth (Graeber 2013). However, global economic performance throughout the years suggests that the project of neoliberalism has been a failure as growth rates are far below what they used to be during the “old-fashioned, state-directed, welfare-state oriented capitalism of the fifties, sixties, and even seventies” (Graeber 2013). The “neoliberal revolution,” often attributed to Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan after 1979, was achieved using democratic measures as the turn towards neoliberalism caused a massive shift and required popular  political consent from the general public (Harvey 2005:39). In order to legitimize the turn towards neoliberalism, popular political consent was generated primarily through the spread of neoliberal ideas and ideological influences within the media, corporations and institutions such universities, schools and professional associations (Harvey 2005:39). In essence, the establishment or organization of think-tanks through corporate funding, control over certain parts of the media as well as many intellectuals adopting neoliberal views and attitudes helped garner support for neoliberalism as “the exclusive guarantor of freedom” and later culminated in the control over  political parties and the capture of state power (Harvey 2005:40). The emergence of the neoliberal state is often characterized by the transformation of the administrative state into a state handing  power to global corporations and reimagining humans as “productive economic entrepreneurs of their own lives” (Davies & Bansel 2007:248). Although neoliberalism on the surface promotes the advancement of individual freedoms, David Harvey (2005) points out that, in reality, it is a project to restore class power and economic  power to a small elite (40). Interventionist or regulatory practices of the state competed against the supposed ideal of individual freedom promised by neoliberalism and this value of freedom was used by elites to justify their own interests, primarily their aim to restore or protect capitalist class interests (Harvey 2005:39;41). Viewing neoliberalism as a political project reveals how politicians, CEOs and trade bureaucrats have all convinced the world that the “financialized” capitalism of today is the best and only feasible economic system, despite failing to meet the needs of most of the world’s population (Graeber 2013). However, many economic innovations may make more sense politically than economically and the ruling class often uses such innovations to control other segments of the population (Graeber 2013). In the case of universities, many are economically dependent on external institutions in order to survive. At times, they may even be controlled by those providing them with financial support as external institutions also want to ensure that the status quo of wealth and power are guaranteed (Brownlee 2015:13-14).   %  Neoliberal ideology calls for the removal of social solidarity from society and emphasizes greater individualism and personal responsibility (Harvey 2005:23). Neoliberalism favors private enterprise and entrepreneurial initiative as they are considered to contribute to innovation and wealth creation (Harvey 2005:64). As state obligations decrease, allowing for greater privatization, a culture of entrepreneurialism develops. Subsequently, surveillance, financial accountability and  productivity are implemented onto institutions such as universities (Harvey 2005:61). As a result, universities are restructured and reemerge as institutions producing economic entrepreneurs who are “highly individualized, responsibilized subjects” (Davies & Bansel 2007:248). Under neoliberalism, economic productivity is expected to come from transforming education into a  product that can be bought and sold (Davies & Bansel 2007:254). This may further hinder government investments into education. The aim of neoliberalism is to produce subjects who are strictly governed and subservient, however view themselves as free (Davies & Bansel 2007:249). This creates the illusion of having agency and being able to exercise free will, which in reality may actually be restricted. Neoliberal subjects are shaped to become responsibilized individuals who have the ability to become successful entrepreneurs and make it on their own. Individuals are “seduced” by their perceived  powers of freedom and accept increased individualism as a marker of that freedom (Davies & Bansel 2007:249). Under neoliberalism, freedom is gained from self-improvement through entrepreneurial activities undertaken by individuals and by dissolving collective responsibility, the  passive citizen transforms into the active citizen or “entrepreneur of the self” (Davies & Bansel 2007:252). All activities previously the responsibility of the state, including education, become  privatized and commodified in order to be efficient and profitable (Lorenz 2012:602-603). Citizens are thus transformed into consumers. Entrepreneurship and the Corporatization of the University In the late 20th century, universities arrived at a common entrepreneurial format, carrying out the missions of teaching, research as well as economic development (Etzkowitz, Webster, Gebhardt & Terra 2000:313). The entrepreneurial university promotes and stresses “entrepreneurship, firm-formation and risk taking” (Etzkowitz, Webster, Gebhardt & Terra 2000:327). This shift in universities and the entrepreneurial activities pursued by them are  primarily intended to improve regional or national economic performance as well as a university and its faculty’s financial advantage (Etzkowitz, Webster, Gebhardt & Terra 2000:313). However many, including some academics, view this recent “entrepreneurial paradigm” as posing a threat to the integrity of the university (Etzkowitz, Webster, Gebhardt & Terra 2000:314). They argue that the university as an institution for public good should only focus on facilitating research and the production of graduates. Others argue that higher education is currently being reconfigured by corporations to meet their needs as employers as well as to gain control over scientific inventions (Brownlee 2015:3). Some companies concerned about the emergence of competitor firms from the academic sphere are also opposed to the idea of the entrepreneurial university and believe that universities should only engage in academic–industrial relationships instead of increasingly  promoting and facilitating entrepreneurship on their campuses (Etzkowitz, Webster, Gebhardt & Terra 2000:314). Although universities should aim to use research to contribute to economic growth, it may  become a problem when economic growth or competitiveness is the primary purpose of universities and hinders their ability to achieve their other main purposes, such as educating future   & workers (Polster & Newson 2009:32). In universities today, there is often a lack of critical analysis of the harms and benefits of economic globalization taking place around the world. Instead, the global economic order, which many argue serves the economic interests of only a few powerful multinational corporations and is responsible for impoverishing huge parts of the world, is almost unquestionably promoted on university campuses (Polster & Newson 2009:32). Governments around the world recognize the potential of universities in enhancing innovation and producing science-based economic development (Etzkowitz, Webster, Gebhardt & Terra 2000:314) and the entrepreneurial university is thought to be the perfect solution. Fostering entrepreneurship is a priority for many actors, including the state, and entrepreneurial pursuits are targeted at students who are viewed as potential future entrepreneurs, innovators and contributors to economic development. Students in technical fields, such as engineering, are specifically targeted more than others as they are most likely to create their own companies in innovative areas and thus increase employment opportunities as well as economic growth (Luthje & Franke 2003:135). In order to play an active role in economic development, the academic missions of universities are altered and undertaken in new ways. This includes reinterpreting teaching to facilitate the modernization of low and mid-tech firms and disseminating research through different forms of technology transfer (Etzkowitz, Webster, Gebhardt & Terra 2000:314). Additionally, academic patenting, royalty income and industrial sponsorship of academic research have expanded greatly within universities (Etzkowitz, Webster, Gebhardt & Terra 2000:327). The capitalization of knowledge is currently a priority as academics increasingly  participate in entrepreneurial activities, caused by both internal changes taking place within academia as well as external influences on the university (Etzkowitz, Webster, Gebhardt & Terra 2000:315). As knowledge becomes an increasingly big part of innovation today, the university takes over the responsibility of industry and government and plays a larger role in industrial innovation. In the current knowledge-based economy, in engaging in entrepreneurial activities, the university often facilitates the creation of firms based on the commercialization of academic research. When the entrepreneurial paradigm becomes institutionalized in the university, faculty members and technical personnel within academic departments and centers of the university are given the responsibility to examine the commercial importance of research findings (Etzkowitz, Webster, Gebhardt & Terra 2000:316). Technology transfer offices and the conditions or requirements of government funded research support also encourage academics, researchers, scientists or engineers to look at the results of their research in light of its technological and economic potential (Etzkowitz, Webster, Gebhardt & Terra 2000:315). This can indirectly encourage research that can be patented and marketed. Unfortunately, economic priorities may cause disadvantages to many researchers or academics and place them in difficult situations, even restricting their academic freedom. Performance based measures adopted by universities and research councils allow for limited accountability and instead may even impose restrictions on academics, largely looking out for economic priorities such as how many patents universities have  produced (Polster and Newson 2009:33). Canadian universities turned to “academic capitalism” in the 1980s and 1990s and this turn was seen with the shift towards “curricula with market relevance, an increase in applied and entrepreneurial research, and greater reliance on tuition fees and other sources of private funding” (Brownlee 2015:29). It was further supported by corporate lobbying and government policies, including those encouraging commercial research and development and a more competitive institutional environment (Brownlee 2015:29). This was the beginning of the “corporatization” of
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