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Intervention – Where’s our agency? The role of grading in the neoliberalization of public universities

by Culum Canally, Wilfrid Laurier University

Over the last several years I have been involved in numerous discussions and academic panels that lament the reduction in public funding and simultaneous encroachment of private moneyed interests into the sphere of public higher education.  This process is often termed the “neoliberalization” of higher education by its critics and has resulted in universities taking on the feel and function of large for-profit corporations complete with highly-paid senior administrators who demand economic rather than humanistic justification for the actions of faculty.  It has also brought about the relentless pursuit of worker productivity through technology, precarious labor, and the standardization of administrative and classroom practices.  As insightful as these critics of the neoliberal academy have been in pointing out many of the causes and negative effects of the neoliberalization of higher education, they are virtually silent about the role the academic laborer has in fostering the process (Aronowitz, 2000; Giroux, 1983; Giroux and Giroux, 2004; McLaren, 2005).  This blind spot inhibits them from developing a coherent strategy for resisting the intensification of harmful neoliberal practices.

Critics of the neoliberalization of public universities often view the encroachment of a free-market ethos into higher education as being exogenously imposed on the university by capitalist forces seeking to better control academia, and students’ minds for their own gain.  In addition, these critics often see themselves as individuals trying to hold back the rising tide of neoliberal oppression that is turning their workplace from an institution of scholarly pursuits to an assembly line churning out “knowledge” and “knowledge workers” for the “knowledge economy”.  So far, their best strategy for resisting the privatization of public education has been to create awareness through the publication of research and analysis in journals, books, and conference presentations that shows the detrimental effects this is having on the academy and society (Saunders, 2010).  Since these critics assume that they are not complicit in this process, they believe that they have little or no options to resist or reverse it, outside of analyzing its impacts and lamenting its inevitability.  I disagree.  I believe that academic staff (professors, lecturers, and teaching assistants) are not objects within the neoliberal university.  Instead, they are an integral part of the neoliberalization of public education through the practice of grading, and as such can use grading, or more specifically not grading, as an enormously powerful tool to resist the further imposition of neoliberal practices on public higher education.

Grading has become the core function of the modern system of higher education.  Nearly every process in the university relies on grades from matriculation, class enrollment, financial aid, and graduation, to departmental accreditation and a school’s reputation.  University administrators particularly fret about “grade inflation” and its impact on their school’s or department’s reputation of academic rigor.  Increasingly, employers are looking at not just a student’s degree but also their transcripts to determine whether they would be suitable employees (Iacus and Porro, 2011).  In addition, the heavy emphasis on grades by institutions of higher education and private and public sector employers have caused students’ to fetishize the grade to the detriment of learning.  It is safe to say that if the academic staff, whom are most in control of the grading process, took a principled stand and refused to grade, the current system that values the measurable outcomes of classroom activity because it cannot measure the valuable learning that should go on in a university*, would be disrupted.

Those who currently teach in the university are fostering neoliberalism on public university and college campuses by creating classroom environments that mimic the non-democratic workplace championed by union-busting corporations and politicians.  By enforcing a hierarchy between teacher and student, fostering competition between students, using the coercive measures to ensure obedience, and discouraging creativity and critical thought (all practices inherent in the practice of grading) academic staff are complicit in the neoliberalization of higher education.  This is problematic for two reasons.  First, critical pedagogical and andragogical theory and research demonstrates that this type of environment is antithetical to learning (Flecha, 2000; Johnston, 2004).  People learn better when they are in a collegial atmosphere where they can make mistakes or voice their thoughts without fear of being punished or admonished (Simon, Bellanca, Bailey, and National Center for Grading/Learning Alternatives, 1976).

Second, in addition to being a tremendous detriment to student learning, grading is also problematic because it opens up the practice of teaching and learning to the rhetoric of neoliberal capitalism (Elton, 2010).  This puts pedagogues at a significant disadvantage in defining the function of higher education.  While many academic workers eschew the stultifying goals of standardized measurable outputs imposed by career administrators, they often reify them by perpetuating the same practices in their classrooms.  By demanding rigid adherence to a set of predefined criteria and punishing those that do not meet these narrow parameters with low or failing grades, faculty are perpetuating the same obedience to hierarchy that is the benchmark of neoliberalism.

The contradiction is not lost on establishment media.  A recent article in the New York Times began “[g]rades are the currency of education” and proceeded to chastise the hypocrisy of teachers’ colleges for assigning grades to their students but not wanting to be graded themselves (Gabriel, 2011).  Portraying university faculties like petulant students, the piece continues “…many of the schools are unhappy, marching to the principal’s office to complain the system is unfair”. This speaks volumes to the contradiction of faculty that perpetuate the audit culture, which in turn supports a neoliberal university, while simultaneously eschewing the same structures they place on students.  When it comes to their ability to teach and research, faculty members often recognize the detrimental impacts of standardization.  However, when it comes to student learning this lesson is often forgotten.  Or perhaps many of them see grading as ancillary to their teaching or a necessary evil and, as a result, fail to recognize the corrosive effect it has on students, their own teaching, and the narrative that the university is a place of learning not training.  If faculty members want to resist the encroachment on their academic freedom that has resulted from the increased standardization of their work environment they should not reify the tools being used against them.

Therefore, to create a space for a non-economic rationale of publicly funded higher education, I propose that academic staff stop grading students.  A job action that results in the refusal to assign grades to students would go a long way to asserting the position of academic staff to define the role of higher education in society.  A movement such as this that sees faculty either refusing to grade students, assigning all students who register in their course top marks, or, my choice, allowing students to grade themselves based on their own assessment criteria would allow academic staff to take greater control of their workplace.

First, it would free teachers to teach, or facilitate learning, instead of being classroom managers.  Instead of the Kafkaesque task of penalizing students for their perceived failures we could spend more of our energy and time providing constructive feedback that would actually be helpful to students.  In addition, we would spend less time preparing tedious multiple choice exams or marking redundant essays and more time producing ludic learning exercises that stimulate students’ interest in a subject.  It would also eliminate the odious and soul-crushing moments when students ask questions about their marks as opposed to the material being discussed in class.

Next, eliminating grading from the classroom would contribute to a learning environment free of extrinsically imposed competition and coercion.  The coercion inherent in the practice of grading does not motivate students to engage with course material rather it causes the students to loose their intrinsic joy for learning.  Instead of demonstrating to students that the material is so distasteful that they need to be coerced into learning it, we could labor under the more accurate belief that students have an instinctive desire to know more about the subject.  Thus, demonstrating that coercion is antithetical to learning would counter the notion the students are lazy and need to be coerced to productively participate in society.  Not encouraging a competitive, coercive environment in the classroom would go a long way toward producing cooperative, egalitarian spaces of learning that further demonstrate the blatant failings of a neoliberal model of education.

Finally, a refusal to grade students would confront the neoliberal, anti-Humboldtian idea that the university must justify its actions and existence strictly through economic rationale.  Grades have become the linchpin of the accounting culture that pervades higher education.  Unfortunately accountability is never to students but instead to university administrations more interested in the prestige of the university than with the learning, or lack thereof, occurring in the classroom.  By grading students, academic staff are reifying and standardizing the instruments that allow university administrators to hold them accountable for the quantity and quality of the “knowledge workers” that they are supposed to produce.  Career administrators use data directly related to students’ grades to produce macroeconomic rationale to obtain more financial support for the university from corporate funders or corporate-funded politicians.  This in turn reinforces a fallacious feedback loop whereby employers and students believe that the role of the university is to produce knowledge workers.  When this does not happen to the complete satisfaction of employers and their prospective workers, senior university administrators put pressure on faculty to offer courses and content with more direct benefits to the economy and practical applications for the workforce.  Not grading robs administrators of this tool of standardization.  It also operationalizes an alternative to the fallacious assertion that the role of higher education is to use a banking model of learning to train students to enter the workforce (Elton, 2010; Freire, 1970).  Since employers will no longer be able to utilize university transcripts or degrees to gauge students’ obedience to a neoliberal curriculum they will be forced to use extracurricular means to determine a candidate’s suitability for a job.

Demonstrating that learning is something other than the measurable accumulation of knowledge and skills, a grade abolition movement within the academy would challenge the core assumptions about higher education that has evolved to suit a neoliberal agenda that benefits an elite capitalist class.  This means that academic staff would no longer have to justify their existence and their practices in purely economic terms and instead could begin focusing on the humanistic role of public higher education in society (Readings, 1996) while simultaneously providing a better learning environment for students (Connor, 2007).  In other words, refusing to mimic the hierarchy of neoliberal capitalism in the classroom would give academic staff a powerful, consistent position on issues and questions related to the role of higher education in society.


* Paraphrasing Robert Birnbaum in Gaye Tuchman’s (2009) Wannabe U: “…an education philosopher might claim that those things of greatest value are precisely those things that cannot be measured…If we cannot measure what is valuable we will come to value what is measurable”.


Aronowitz S (2000) The Knowledge Factory: Dismantling the Corporate University and Creating True Higher Learning. Boston: Beacon

Connor M L (2007) Andragogy and pedagogy. (last accessed 26 November 2011)

Elton L (2010) Complexity theory: An approach to assessment that can enhance learning and – more generally – could transform university management. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education 35(5):637-646

Flecha R (2000) Sharing Words: Theory and Practice of Dialogic Learning. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield

Freire P (1970) Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Herder and Herder

Gabriel T (2011) Teachers’ colleges upset by plan to grade them. The New York Times 8 February (last accessed 24 January 2012)

Giroux H A (1983) Theory and Resistance in Education: A Pedagogy for the Opposition. London: Heinemann

Giroux H A and Giroux S S (2004) Take Back Higher Education: Race, Youth, and the Crisis of Democracy in the Post-Civil Rights Era. New York: Palgrave Macmillan

Iacus S M and Porro G (2011) Teachers’ evaluations and students’ achievement: A ‘deviation from the reference’ analysis. Education Economics 19(2):139-159

Johnston B (2004) Summative assessment of portfolios: An examination of different approaches to agreement over outcomes. Studies in Higher Education 29:395-412

McLaren P (2005) Capitalists and Conquerors: A Critical Pedagogy against Empire. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield

Readings B (1996) The University in Ruins. Cambridge: Harvard University Press

Saunders D B (2010) Neoliberal ideology and public higher education in the United States. Journal for Critical Education Policy Studies 8(1):41-77

Simon S B, Bellanca J A, Bailey W J and National Center for Grading/Learning Alternatives (1976) Degrading the Grading Myths: A Primer of Alternatives to Grades and Marks. Washington: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development

Tuchman G (2009) Wannabe U: Inside the Corporate University. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

6 comments on “Intervention – Where’s our agency? The role of grading in the neoliberalization of public universities

  1. Muchsin Maltezos
    23 April 2012

    This is a useful article, and supports my own empirical research and evaluation of teacher training programmes and processes. I have to confess though, as a prospective PhD student currently seeking funding, I am a little anxious about the impact of a no-grades approach upon the diversity of funding bodies, some inevitably from the corporate sector, who may well decline to fund research that undermines their own neoliberal approach. What solutions are available to this problem? Only a long process of re-education for all concerned?

    • Culum Canally
      1 May 2012

      Eliminating grading in universities is supposed to undermine the neoliberal influence on the university. I am not proposing a business as usual solution to managing neoliberalism in universities. I present it as a radical refutation of the tenets of neoliberalism that are unceasingly imposed upon and embraced in our learning environments. Essentially, the whole point is precisely to undermine those corporate sector funding bodies, disrupt the status quo, and finally lay bare the assumptions of many corporate managers and there politician foot soldiers who believe the primary purpose of the university is it to train the workforce to be more obedient and productive. Not to get Foucauldian but I am looking to unsettle the governmentality of the university whereby it is no longer used by the corporate sector and public bureaucracies as a means of categorizing future workers. As for solutions, I think that a long process of reeducation may be possible but, having experienced the stifling orthodoxy of the academy, I put more faith in an engaged student movement to make this type of radical shift. I don’t think this has a snowball’s chance in hell of catching on with the professorate class but perhaps it would strike a chord with some students in Quebec or Chile. Instead of demanding free education they could also demand an educational space free of stultifying coercion.

      I am afraid that I may not have satisfactorily answered your question but I wish you luck on your quest to secure funding for your doctoral work it sounds interesting.

  2. Kean
    3 May 2012

    Apologies for the length of this comment ….

    I think that it is anachronistic to call grading ‘neoliberal’ – grading has been around long before the ascendance of the ‘market ethic’ (to use David Harvey’s term). It might be more accurate to describe grading as ‘elitist’ (as in elite-making) than neoliberal, and limit the use the neoliberal moniker to describe ‘grade inflation’ or ‘grade inflating’. Grade inflation has also been a perpetual concern for generations admittedly, but it seems more relevant now when significantly more young people are corralled into higher education as a means to keep them out of both the labour market and off the unemployment statistics.

    To put it bluntly, if more people are expected to go to university then they can only do so by one of two methods: either universities have to lower their entrance requirements (unlikely), or schools and universities have to change their grading standards and modes of assessment (which happens all the time and is probably the cause of grade inflation – real or imagined). The latter is bemoaned by my present and past colleagues, who come from a range of universities, and it is also bemoaned by teachers in secondary education. From anecdotal chats with various people, it seems that standards are not necessarily changing, but that assessment methods are – in particular, school students are writing far fewer essays and that students are being ‘taught to the tests’ far more.
    On top of this change in modes of assessment, the rising tuition costs of university have meant that students expect more from their university programmes. In an interesting book on US business schools, Rakesh Khurana outlines the impact of rising fees on grading standards and student expectations in US business schools; here the cost of education on student expectations (i.e. high fees = desert for high grades) is compounded by the career expectations of academic faculty who are increasingly narrowly discipline- and theory-focused, with few practical and useful things to teach students about the ‘real’ world of work. Both these combine to reduce the ‘rigour’ of grading as academics come around to the idea that they can’t fail students who have paid a small fortune for their education.

    I agree that as teachers it is important to recognize what it is students are doing rather than focus on the fetish of grades – grades are an epiphenomenon. I got this point from a cheesy Danish video called Learning Learning, Understanding Understanding that was very helpful. By this I mean that it would be better to construct assessment mechanisms that do not force students to compete with one another, that do not force coercive obedience, that do not discourage creativity or critical thinking, and so on. Changes in the mode of assessment need not lead down one pathway (i.e. grade inflation); they represent possibilities for change too. So, for example, if you want students to read something then reward them for doing the reading; if you want to see whether they understand something then organize and reward presentations and discussions; if you want to test essay writing abilities (still a must-have skill for graduate school and later life) then work out ways to do that using new modes of assessment (e.g. get them to do an outline, then an annotated bibliography, then write the essay, then redraft it); if you want students to participate in social justice then get them out there in the world working for activist groups; and so on. An interesting idea is letting students grade their own contribution to class, but it would be a good idea to temper this idea by telling students that you will then assess their contribution and their final grade will reflect how closely their assessment tallies with yours. That way they are motivated to think reflectively about their contributions.

    However, no matter what we do, we have to also accept that a significant number of students do not have an ‘intrinsic joy for learning’ – for many it is a struggle, an extra burden on top of full-time or multi part-time jobs, or simply a means to an end. One question to consider is what we do if our students want to be graded competitively? Want to make sure that other people know that they can do well in something as determined by grades? Not giving a grade does not do anything for the students and it does not necessarily challenge the perpetuation of “the same obedience to hierarchy that is the benchmark of neoliberalism” (if that is the benchmark considering that neoliberalism is based on the idea of individualism and choice, however market-oriented that may be).

    As a final point, for my fourth year class this year I started off at the start of the course with a little game in which I told the students that I would sell them their grades in a blind auction (the epitome of neoliberal marketization). I would give out As to 25%, Bs to 25%, Cs to 25% and Fs to 25%. However, there was a catch; all they could use to pay for their grades was the money they had in their pockets. The message being that money can pay for anything if you want it to, but if you use money to pay for anything then that thing soon loses its intrinsic worth.

    • Culum Canally
      11 May 2012

      Hello Kean,

      Thank you for your insightful response. I certainly would describe grading as elitist too. As such I think this elitist practice truly inhibits the fostering of an inclusive learning space.

      I also agree that grading isn’t a neoliberal practice per se; however it seems that grading may have been conceived to increase personal productivity and wages in the late 18th century ( I was arguing that the classroom hierarchy that the practice of grading creates mimics the same structure that is present in anti-democratic work environments. My piece was essentially imploring those who lament the universities rapid transformation into an edufactory to consider their actions and agency in fostering the demise of higher education.

      Instead of infantilizing students by creating assessment methods that coerce students to attain certain skills or memorize information, I chose, in the courses I’ve taught, to believe that humans have an innate curiosity to learn and that true learning is intrinsic and has an aversion to authority. Therefore students that are just coming to my class and/or university to get the grade and the piece of paper that certifies their obedience can have it because that grade, as you so astutely pointed out at the end of your post, has no intrinsic value. In my mind it doesn’t hurt them to get a high mark for doing nothing and it doesn’t hurt other students who are there because they have an interest in a topic, subject, or analytic. Although I would truly love it if all students came to university because of a need to know more deeply about the world around them I know they all don’t and trying to force or coerce them to will only breed an aversion to learning later in life so I try to let it roll of my back. Also I have had to accept that, due to fiscal priorities, university administrations will continue to show their contempt for learning by cramming more students into classrooms. Both conditions I would like to change through a grade abolition movement by the way.

      Am I impeding their learning by not assigning them grade and instead allowing them to develop their own assignments, their own grading rubrics, and then grading it themselves? I don’t believe that I am. I use the time that I would normally spend looking for “mistakes” and “errors” to engage with each project that the students produce. I offer them the same critical and constructive feedback I would to a journal manuscript I was reviewing or a conference presentation that I was attending. I actually feel that I can be more critical because there is no grade attached and therefore I don’t have to wrestle with the subjectivity of determining which “errors” were egregious enough to merit a demerit. I have been a university lecturer for five years and in the last two I implemented a dialogue based classroom with self-assessment grading and have been shocked by the volume of work, level of creativity, and the amount of critical reflection that students put into what we call their focus projects and learning dossiers; All without the carrot or stick of a grade.

      As for students that want to be graded competitively I would simply turn the table around and ask what would most academic laborers do with a student that doesn’t want to be graded competitively? That is quite a glib retort but I would also add that, like any academic laborer, I privilege certain values over others in my role as and andragogue and competition, like racism, sexism, etc., is one that I cannot abide.

      Finally, grade inflation is the intended goal of my call for a grade abolition movement since it demonstrates the purpose of grading is not to measure learning but to more effectively control an obedient workforce. I didn’t get into the academic game to be mandarin in the corporate-academic nexus and I am pretty sure most academic laborers would say the same. Instead, I signed-up to be part of an institution/profession that views learning as an emancipatory practice. I figure the least I can do is try to remove barriers to learning that are ever present in modern higher education.

      Thanks again,

  3. Pingback: Life and time(s) in the neoliberal university: Tell me about it (seriously, do) |

  4. Pingback: Questionner l’évaluation des étudiants | alternativespedagogiques

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