How does a university become neoliberal

The Bologna Process as a condensation of social conditions

In the course of the protest movements in Austria and beyond, the Bologna Process was the focus of criticism. It was negotiated primarily as a purely university-political problem. The overall social context was mostly ignored.

This can be seen, for example, in the fact that the Humboldt Ordinary University and its educational ideal have repeatedly been invoked, at least implicitly, as an alternative to the neoliberal Bologna University. It is also significant that whenever demands for society as a whole were put on the agenda, some actors in the movement spoke up with the same objection that this was only about the concrete elimination of university policy deficiencies and not about “improving the world” in general goes.

With the catching-up development of Fordism in Austria, from the 1970s at the latest, a much lamented shortage of skilled workers arose in the capitalist economy. While the shortage of unskilled labor, which also became virulent, was covered by the massive “import” of migrant workers (cf. Parnreiter, 1994, 116-146), the shortage of academic skilled workers was temporarily opened up Universities. The concept of the elite full-time university showed itself to be an obstacle to keep pace with the rapid technical and economic development of Fordism. It should also be noted at this point that the move to a group university not only meant a change in the absolute number of students, but also that the proportion of female students almost doubled. Although gender relations at the universities were not broken, as women were still not represented in higher scientific positions, such as professorships, the significant increase in female students is nevertheless remarkable. While there were 38,533 students in the 1960/61 academic year, only 23% of them women, in the 1980/1981 academic year 115,616 students were enrolled. The proportion of female students was already 39.66%. (Statistics Austria 2009).

In addition to the increase in the proportion of women, the emergence of the group university can be characterized by two features: On the one hand, it is characterized by the opening of the university to broader sections of society; for example, the promotion of children from educationally disadvantaged families was a propagated goal of social democratic university policy. On the other hand, the introduction of numerous university committees with equal representation was part of the restructuring. However, social democracy failed due to bourgeois resistance to reform the socially selective multi-tier school system and to introduce a comprehensive school. The opening of the universities was therefore limited to small sectors of society, from the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie as well as the children of (large) farmers.

In contrast to German universities, where critical scientists were systematically excluded from the universities (cf. Sablowski 2010, 9), new institutes emerged in Austria, particularly in the field of social sciences. These also offered opportunities for critical research, for example the fundamentals of feminist political science were researched and feminist theory soon established itself here as part of critical social sciences. (Kreisky / Sauer 1995). The universities did not remain untouched by the incipient crisis of Fordism. The universities' budget was not increased any further, despite the constant increase in student numbers due to the opening. The situation at the universities steadily deteriorated.

At the end of the 1980s, neoliberal policies began to be implemented in Austria as well. The privatization of formerly state-owned companies, the loosening of corporatist wages and the associated rise of atypical and precarious working conditions are all aspects of this trend reversal. Although driven by the social democracy, the neoliberal restructuring accelerated the crisis processes of the social democracy and the trade unions. The other side of the coin was the dramatic rise of the extreme right under Jörg Haider, who filled the “populist gap” (cf. Flecker / Kirschenhofer 2007, 47-51). The neoliberal restructuring was finally further secured by Austria's accession to the European Union in 1995. In this way, national policies were subjected to neoliberal accession criteria and the common market, and finally the scope for national economic and budget policy was massively restricted by the Maastricht criteria for the euro. The supranational organization ‘EU¹ can speak of a“ new constitutionalism ”, that is to say that it is permanent, of certain political paradigms (Gill 1988, 5-26). Not only, but also as a result of joining the EU, there was a shift in decisions away from the legislature and towards the executive state apparatus, in particular to a strengthening of the Ministry of Finance. This process can also be described as part of what Nicos Poulantzas called “authoritarian statism” (cf. Poulantzas 2002, pp. 231-246). Poulantzas describes the shift in the power structure from the legislature in favor of the executive and a consequent change in the law, parliament and party levels. (Poulantzas 2002 [1977], 246).

In the course of the 800th anniversary of the Sorbonne University in Paris, Claude Allegre, Luigi Berlinguer, Tessa Blackstone, and Jürgen Rüttgers, Science Ministers of France, Italy, the United Kingdom and Germany signed the so-called Sorbonne Declaration on May 25, 1998. In it, the responsible persons of the four largest states of the European Union agreed on the homogenization of the “university architecture” (ie the conversion to the uniform introduction of Bachelor, Master and PhD degrees), the unbureaucratic recognition of the “achievement” and thus connected to the introduction of the ECTS (European Credit Transform System), the promotion of student mobility. The Sorbonn Declaration went much further in its aims in the standardization of the European military sector and in the adaptation to the Anglo-American area than the Lisbon Declaration (April 1997) provided. The Lisbon Declaration represents the first attempt at an agreement between the Council of Europe and UNESCO on the recognition of university degrees in Europe (see Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications in Higher Education in the European Region of Lisbon, 11.IV.1997, www.bmwf.gv .at). The conclusion of the declaration shows that there should be more to the Sorbonn Declaration than a joint, semi-binding paper on the future of universities: “We call on other Member States of the Union and other European countries to join us in this objective and on all European Universities to consolidate Europe's standing in the world through continuously improved and updated education for its citizens. " (Sorbonne Joint Declaration, Paris, the Sorbonne, May 25 1998). The call of the four countries was followed by 29 more, including Austria, but then under the umbrella of the Bologna Process, a non-binding project whose implementation should be completed by 2010. Like the Lisbon Agreement, the Bologna Declaration is not an EU directive, law or something similar, but is a non-binding paper between national executives. It is important to emphasize not only the lack of legislative coordination on the Bologna Process, but also what this development means for the individual states. They give up the decision-making power over strategic decisions in the higher education sector and thus also the ideological reproduction of the next generation of educated citizens and the rulers, in favor of a supranational, informal decision-making structure. The apparent loss of importance of the state apparatus in individual countries is offset by the increase in importance of international structures. Brand, Görg and Wissen describe this as a sub-process of the ‘internationalization of the state’. A new, single state does not emerge, but these structures and their international state apparatus are given functions such as securing property relations that were typical of the modern state. The task of the internationalized state apparatus is: “to secure antagonistic social conditions and to maintain them in the long term. In this respect, the internationalization of the state is a project of the ruling powers - and here in particular of classes and class alliances - with which they try to enforce or strengthen their interests ”(Brand, Görg, Wissen 2007, 222).

In his book “Staatstheorie”, Nicos Poulantzas outlines the theory of the state as the material compression of a balance of power between classes and class factions. The state as a relationship secures the general interests of capital, but not a single class faction, and is part of class struggles. With Poulantzas ’theory of the state in the background and the conclusions of the three authors, an overestimation of the state as a subject of social transformation processes is prevented and the focus is drawn on the actors in these developments. In the meantime the concretization and expansion of the Lisbon reform, the Bologna Process, which once originated from four countries, is being implemented in 46 countries, the implementation of the project looks the same in most countries and it can therefore be assumed that the same will be the case Interests are implemented in the states. Since the Bologna Process is not a binding agreement and the concrete implementation is left to the nation states, it becomes clear that the strength of international institutions and regimes lies “in the discursive implementation of hegemonic projects” (Brand, Görg, Wissen 2007. 227), the nation state remains central in the implementation of the policies.Linked to this is the conclusion that the shifting of decision-making processes to trans- or supranational levels already represents a condensation of power relations, since these are not accessible to all actors in the same way (ibid. 230).

The three self-imposed main or overarching goals of the Bologna Process were the further promotion of student mobility, the international competitiveness of the European higher education sector, and the comparability of tertiary education. Other key words behind which there are profound upheavals are lifelong learning, joint quality development and employability. In the following, the goals and effects of the Bologna Process will be discussed and their social context will be shown.

In Austria, the implementation of the Bologna Process went hand in hand not only with the neoliberal restructuring of the universities, but also with the social cuts, precariousness and de-democratization of the black-blue government under Wolfgang Schüssel. The introduction of the new university architecture led to a shortened study time. This had several effects. There was a condensation of the subject matter, the old diploma course with a minimum period of four years was transferred to a three-year semi-scientific course. The workload of students increased significantly, but the amount of work also increased considerably for scientists (Banscherus et al., 27). The intensification of work - or to use the Bologna Process, the increase in the workload - is part of the neoliberal restructuring and submission of all areas of life to the logic of exploitation. Klaus Pickshaus describes stress as a characteristic of the neoliberal world of work: "The fact that there has been a general increase in stress is related to the upheavals in the world of work: Under pressure from the shareholer-oriented short-term economy, the extensification and intensification of work has increased considerably." (Pickshaus 2006, 219)

Competitive thinking and competition are also central aspects of neoliberal ideology and can be found in the Bologna Process. For example, due to the imminent quantitative or qualitative restrictions for a postgraduate master’s degree, the students are under enormous competitive pressure. Collective learning based on solidarity is becoming the exception. Scientists compete with each other for most publications, citations and the successful collection of third-party funds, employment contracts and jobs. In addition, the universities compete with each other for the best places on questionable ranking lists. Research - which takes place, if at all, in the master’s degree, becomes a luxury good that only belongs to those who can find themselves in this competitive logic. The bachelor's degree, on the other hand, becomes mass processing, second-class studies that are geared towards economic usability under the market-dominant catchphrase of employability. The change described by Poulantzas can be described as a further de-democratization of society, which is also manifested in universities. While the group university was still dominated by committees with equal representation, the post-Fordist university is controlled by professors and external persons from politics and business who weigh up the decisions according to the principle of cost neutrality. In Austria, de-democratization was promoted with the University Act 2002, professors and the rectorate were given more rights, and students only had seats in advisory bodies. The Ministry of Science describes the UG 2002 as an “example of good practice” in the implementation of the Bologna process (

Looking back, it becomes clear that universities have never stood outside of society. The ideal of education for its own sake was ideology at best; in truth it has always been related to the requirements of the reproduction of capitalist conditions. (Althusser 2008 [1971], page 24ff) The indignant accusation of many that the universities would suddenly be “economized” is insofar as this is not a new process of neoliberalism, but universities have always been part of economic, ideological and political conditions . Only with this understanding - to see universities and higher education policy as part of social conditions - an all-encompassing, profound criticism of the Bologna Process can occur.

It must therefore be clear that the fight against Bologna cannot be won at the universities alone. The point is, above all, that subordinate groups, each of which are affected by neoliberalism in different ways, unite to form a new anti-neoliberal “historical bloc” and fight together for a social alternative.


Reading list
BRAND, Ulrich / GÖRG, Christoph / WISSEN, Markus (2007): Second order densities. The internationalization of the state from a neo-poulantzian perspective, in: Prokla 37 (2): 217-234.

ALTHUSSER, Louis (2008 [1970]): Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes towards an Investigation), in: ALTHUSSER, Louis (2008): On ideology, London / New York: Verso.

PARNREITER, Christof (1994): Migration and division of labor. Employment of foreigners in the world economic crisis. Promedia: Vienna

BANSCHERUS, Ulf / GULBINS, Annerose / HIMPELE, Klemens / STAACK, Sonja (2009): The Bologna Process between Claim and Reality. The European goals and their implementation in Germany. Expertise on behalf of the Max Traeger Foundation.

Available at:

Thomas SABLOWSKI (2010): The Entrepreneurial University and the Education Strike. In: Socialism 1/2010.

KREISKY, Eva / SAUER, BIRGIT (1995): Feminist standpoints in political science. An introduction, Frankfurt / Main, New York: Campus textbook.

FLECKER, Jörg / KIRSCHENHOFER, Sabine (2007): The populist gap. Upheavals in the world of work and the rise of right-wing populism using the example of Austria, Berlin: edition sigma.

GILL; Stephan (1988): European Governance and New Constituinalism: Economic and Monetary Union and Alternatives to Disciplanary Neoliberalism in Europe. In: New Political Economy 3/1998

POULANTZAS, Nicos (2002 [1977 French]): State theory. Political superstructure, ideology, authoritarian statism, Hamburg: VSA-Verlag.

PICKSHAUS, Klaus (2006): Stress; in: URBAN, Hans-Jürgen (2006) (Ed.): ABC to Neoliberalismus. From “Agenda 2010” to “Reasonability”, Hamburg: VSA-Verlag.

University statistics (2009), Vienna: Statistics Austria

Published 1 July 2010
Original in German
First published by Stefan Heissenberger, Viola Mark, Susanne Schramm, Peter Sniesko, Rahel Sophia Süß, "Uni Brennt. Basics - Critical - Atmospheric", Vienna-Berlin: Turia & Kant 2010

© Martin Konecny, Hanna Lichtenberger / Eurozine