Skip to main content

The emergence of academic capitalism and university neoliberalism: perspectives of Australian higher education leadership


Public universities worldwide have incorporated neoliberal behaviours and norms across their activities, moulding organizational practices, processes and cultures. In particular, these changes have been expressed through forms of academic capitalism and increasing ‘marketization’ of public university activities. A little explored perspective on these changes is that of senior leadership within higher education. This paper addresses this topic by examining how 116 higher education leaders view 32 key issues for the future of Australian higher education in the next 10 to 20 years. Half the participants in this study were university vice-chancellors or presidents or those who were part of their senior leadership team, and the other half were leaders outside universities including government leaders responsible for budgets or policy or those in national academic organizations. Generally, both the university and the non-university leaders of the Australian higher education system perceived nearly all of the issues for its future as at least moderately important. Many traditional academic goals of knowledge generation, dissemination and application were seen as high priorities. Rated among the top ten issues were student learning outcomes and ensuring student accessibility to higher education, as well as addressing the needs of society and research on grand challenges facing humanity, such as climate change and food security. At the same time, higher education leaders viewed most of the issues related to both marketization and academic capitalism as important, including issues of internationalization, the balance between tenured and contract academics, and the role of university-industry joint research. Traditional academic goals appear to be tightly bound to components of marketization and academic capitalism. The leaders’ perceptions of the importance, meaning and trajectory of Australian universities suggest core goals of higher education will likely need to continue to be balanced with the emerging neoliberal agendas

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.


  • AUTM-Association of University Technology Managers. (2020). Sharing Trends and Insights. Washington DC: AUTM Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Australian Government (2018). Higher education financial report. Department of Education.

  • Birnbaum, R. (2000). Management fads in higher education: Where they come from, what they do and why they fail. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

    Google Scholar 

  • Bok, D. (2003). Universities in the marketplace: The commercialization of higher education. USA, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Busch, L., & Lacy, W.B. (1983). Science, Agriculture and the Politics of Research. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press.

  • Busch, L. (2017). Knowledge for sale: The Neoliberal takeover of higher education. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Brown, R. (Ed.). (2011). Higher education and the market. New York: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  • Cantwell, B. (2015). Laboratory management, academic production, and the building blocks of academic capitalism. Higher Education, 70(3), 487–502.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Christopher, J. (2014). Australian public universities: are they practising a corporate approach to governance? Studies in Higher Education, 39(4), 560–573.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Croucher, G., & Waghorne, J. (2020). Australian universities: A history of common cause. Sydney: UNSW Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Croucher, G., Marginson, S., Norton, A., Wells, J., et al. (2013). The Dawkins Revolution. Carlton: Melbourne University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Croucher, G., & Woelert, P. (2016). Institutional isomorphism and the creation of the unified national system of higher education in Australia: An empirical analysis. Higher Education, 71(4), 439–453.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Davis, G. (2017). The Australian idea of a university. Melbourne University Publishing.

  • DiMaggio, P.J., & Powell, W.W. (1983). The iron cage revisited: Institutional isomorphism and collective rationality in organizational fields. American Sociological Review, 48(2), 147–160.

  • Dougherty, K.J., Jones, S.M., Lahr, H., Natow, R.S., Pheatt, L., Reddy, V., et al. (2014). Performance funding for higher education: Forms, origins, impacts, and futures. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 655(1), 163–184.

  • Furedi, F. (2010). Introduction to the marketisation of higher education and the student as consumer. In The Marketisation of Higher Education and the Student as Consumer (pp. 15–22). Routledge.

  • Gaffikin, F., & Perry, D.C. (2009). Discourses and strategic Visions: The US research university as an institutional manifestation of neoliberalism in a global era. American Educational Research Journal, 46(1), 115–144.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Giroux, H. (2014). Neoliberalism’s war on higher education. Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books.

    Google Scholar 

  • Gruening, G. (2001). Origin and theoretical basis of new public management. International Public Management Journal, 4(1), 1–25.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Gray, S. (2015). Culture clash or ties that bind? What Australian academics think of professional staff. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 37(5), 545–557.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Guthrie, J., & Neumann, R. (2007). Economic and non-financial performance indicators in universities: The establishment of a performance-driven system for Australian higher education. Public Management Review, 9(2), 231–252.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Harvey, D. (2007). A Brief History of Neoliberalism. USA: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Hood, C. (1991). ‘A public management for all seasons. Public Administration, 69(1), 3–19.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Jessop, B. (2017). “Varieties of academic capitalism and entrepreneurial universities: On past research and three thought experiments.” Higher Education (On-Line) 73: 853–870.

  • Kauppinen, I. (2015). Towards a theory of transnational academic capitalism. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 36(2), 336–353.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Lacy, W.B., Glenna, L.L., Biscotti, D, Welsh., R., Clancy, K. et al. (2014). The two cultures of science: Implications for university-industry relationships in the U.S. agriculture biotechnology. Journal of Integrative Agriculture, 13(2): 455–466.

  • Lacy, W.B., Glenna, L.L., Biscotti, D., Welsh, R., Lacy, L.R., et al. (2020). Agricultural biotechnology, academic capitalism, and the two cultures of science. Journal of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology., 5(2), 04.

  • Lacy, W.B., Croucher, G., Brett, A., Mueller, R. et al. (2017). Australian universities at a crossroads: Insights from their leaders & implications for the future. University of Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Education. Melbourne and University of California Center for Studies in Higher Education

  • Lafferty, G., & Fleming, J. (2000). The restructuring of academic work in Australia: Power, management and gender. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 21(2), 257–267.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Letizia, A. (2016). The evolution of control the convergence of neoliberalism and neoconservatism in performance based funding policies. Critical Education, 7(2), 1–18.

    Google Scholar 

  • Levin, J.S., & Aliyeva, A. (2015). Embedded Neoliberalism within faculty behaviors. Review of Higher Education, 38(4), 537–563.

  • Lipton, B. (2017). Measures of success: Cruel optimism and the paradox of academic women’s participation in Australian higher education. Higher Education Research & Development, 36(3), 486–497.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Macintyre, S., Brett, A., Croucher, G. et al. (2017). No End of a Lesson: Australia’s Unified National System of Higher Education. Melbourne University Publishing.

  • Marginson, S. (2007). The new higher education landscape: Public and private goods, in global/national/local settings. In Prospects of higher education (pp. 29–77). Brill Sense.

  • Marginson, S. (1993). Education and public policy in Australia. Cambridge University Press.

  • Marginson, S. (1997). Steering from a distance: Power relations in Australian higher education. Higher Education, 34(1), 63–80.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Marginson, S., & Considine M. (2000). The enterprise university: Power, governance and reinvention in Australia. Cambridge University Press.

  • Martin-Sardesai, A., Guthrie, J., Tooley, S., Chaplin, S. et al. (2018). History of research performance measurement systems in the Australian higher education sector. Accounting History, 1032373218768559.

  • Norman, G. (2010). Likert scales, levels of measurement and the “laws” of statistics. Advances in health sciences education, 15(5), 625–632.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Norton, A., & Cherastidtham, I. (2018). Mapping Australian Higher Education 2018. Carlton: Grattan Institute.

    Google Scholar 

  • Pitman, T. (2016). The evolution of the student as a customer in Australian higher education: A policy perspective. The Australian Educational Researcher, 43(3), 345–359.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Rhoads, R.A., & Rhoades, G. (2005). Graduate employee unionization as symbol of and challenge to the corporatization of U.S. research universities. The Journal of Higher Education, 76(3), 243–275.

  • Rourke, F.E., & Brooks, G.E. (1964). The “managerial revolution” in higher education. Administrative Science Quarterly, 154–181

  • Ryan, S., Connell, J., Burgess, J., et al. (2017). Casual academics: A new public management paradox. Labour & Industry: A Journal of the Social and Economic Relations of Work, 27(1), 56–72.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Scott, W.G., & Hart, D.K. (1991). The exhaustion of managerialism. Society, 28(3), 39–48.

  • Slaughter, S., & Cantwell, B. (2012). Transatlantic moves to the market: The United States and the European Union. Higher Education, 63(4), 583–606.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Slaughter, S., & Rhoades, G. (2004). Academic Capitalism and the New Economy: Markets, State, and Higher Education. JHU Press.

  • Stromquist, N.P. (2017). The professoriate: The challenged subject in US higher education. Comparative Education, 53(1), 132–146.

  • Taylor, A. (2017). Perspectives on the university as a business: The corporate management structure, neoliberalism and higher education. Journal for Critical Education Policy Studies, 15(1), 108–135.

    Google Scholar 

  • Welch, A. (2016). Audit culture and academic production. Higher Education Policy, 29(4), 511–538.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • White, K., Carvalho, T., Riordan, S., et al. (2011). Gender, power and managerialism in universities. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 33(2), 179–188.

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Gwilym Croucher.

Additional information

Publisher’s Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Croucher, G., Lacy, W.B. The emergence of academic capitalism and university neoliberalism: perspectives of Australian higher education leadership. High Educ 83, 279–295 (2022).

Download citation

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:


  • Higher education
  • Leadership
  • Management
  • Governance
  • Neoliberalism
  • Managerialism
  • New public management
  • Academic capitalism
  • Marketization