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Resisting Neoliberalism in EducationLocal, National and Transnational Perspectives$

Lyn Tett and Mary Hamilton

Print publication date: 2019

Print ISBN-13: 9781447350057

Published to Policy Press Scholarship Online: May 2020

DOI: 10.1332/policypress/9781447350057.001.0001

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Moving against and beyond neoliberal higher education in Ireland

Moving against and beyond neoliberal higher education in Ireland

(p.151) 10 Moving against and beyond neoliberal higher education in Ireland
Resisting Neoliberalism in Education

Fergal Finnegan

Policy Press

Abstract and Keywords

The chapter explores the impact of neoliberalism on Irish society and higher education (HE) and how this has been resisted. Taking a critical realist approach it seeks to analyse neoliberalism in HE in a way that is neither simplistic nor politically immobilising. It outlines the trajectory of neoliberal ideas in Ireland and their impact on higher education especially in the wake of the Great Recession. Most research on this topic neglects questions of agency and resistance. Thus, the main concern of the chapter is to document and analyse the various ways neoliberalism has been resisted in Irish higher education by staff, students and through social movement campaigns. It draws on mixed methods and qualitative research alongside documentary analysis for this purpose. The chapter concludes with reflections on how this resistance might be strengthened in the future by building alliances in order to reimagine the university.

Keywords:   Neoliberalism, education, higher education, universities, international, resistance, sociology of education


Irish higher education (HE) offers an interesting case study of both the transformative power and limits of neoliberalism. In many respects, Ireland is one of the most neoliberal countries in Europe, and as one of the so-called ‘PIIGS’ (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain), it was also one of the states that was hardest hit by the ‘Great Recession’. Although neoliberalism has also been resisted in significant ways inside and outside the university, most of the literature on the topic in Ireland focuses almost exclusively on the power, reach and hold of neoliberal ideas. With this in mind, the primary aim of this chapter is to offer a less ‘one-sided’ account and to document how neoliberalism has, and continues to be, resisted by staff and students in HE in multiple ways. Of particular interest here is how ‘everyday’ practices and values (De Certeau, 1984) that are not explicitly political might be understood in relation to more formal political acts of resistance.

Taking a radical, critical realist perspective (Jessop, 2012; Sayer, 2015), I will use empirical and documentary research on resistance and explore how these hidden or ‘marginal’ practices might be drawn upon to re-imagine the university as a space in which we can move against and beyond neoliberalism. As Barnett (2013) argues, an analysis of any such alternative requires close attention to the conditions and constraints on action in a given context and period as they operate at various scales and levels. Thus, the chapter begins with a socio-historical analysis of neoliberalism as both a global and national phenomenon, as well as the specific ways in which this has shaped Irish HE, in order to make full sense of the everyday and political resistance of staff and students described and analysed in the second and third sections.

(p.152) Taking the measure of neoliberalism

Neoliberalism has become, over time, what the geographer Jamie Peck (2013: 133) has called ‘an unloved, rascal concept’, that is to say, it has become a highly elastic and often analytically overstretched term, used as a catch-all term for everything that is negative and disempowering. There is now an all too familiar mode of analysis of neoliberal politics that offers a melancholy and dystopian vision of a ‘totally administered world’. The indiscriminate use of the word ‘neoliberalism’ in the media and parts of academia has led to a reaction against the term and resulted in highly scholastic debates over the precision and saliency of the concept. However, from a historical perspective, either treating neoliberalism as a measureless dark Leviathan or solely focusing on the conceptual haziness of the term is odd. It is worth recalling that the concept was first popularised by alternative globalisation activists from Latin America, most notably, by the Zapatistas in Mexico, who wanted to highlight significant changes in international socio-political conditions and tackle the idea that ‘There is no alternative’ to the current social system head on. We certainly need modes of analysis that move beyond sterile scholasticism or immobilising pessimism.

Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to downplay the structural depth and power of neoliberalism, or the difficulties of effectively challenging it. What we now call ‘neoliberalism’ emerged in an incremental fashion in the early 1970s as an elite response to the disintegration of the Fordist regime of accumulation and growing concerns about social order in the face of the demands of radical social movements. It has since become a truly global phenomenon linked to the political, cultural, economic and spatial reorganisation of capital in the 1980s and 1990s (Brenner et al, 2010; Peck, 2013). As Andrew Sayer (2015: 16–18, emphasis in original) argues, it has three major characteristics. First, ‘markets are assumed to be the optimal or default form of economic organisation and to work best with the minimum of regulation’. This is underpinned by the idea that the role of the state is to provide the economic and regulatory conditions that favour capital and maximise profitability. Second, ‘the rise of neoliberalism also involves a political and cultural shift compatible with its market fundamentalism’. This can be understood as a bid to define a new ‘common sense’ in which ‘through a host of small changes in everyday life, we are increasingly nudged into thinking and acting in ways that fit with market rationality’. Of particular importance in terms of everyday culture has been the promotion of competitive individualism and the rise of an audit culture obsessed with measuring efficiency and performance. As a political project, it has been (p.153) defined by sustained attacks on collectivist movements and institutions, especially of the organised working class. Third, ‘neoliberalism has ushered in a shift in the economic class structure of the countries most affected. It involves not only the shift of power and wealth towards the rich but also within the rich.’ This has primarily been driven by the financialisation of the economy. The impact and importance of this cannot be underestimated, and debt levels have soared not only at a nation-state level, but also for individuals, households and non-financial firms (Lapavitsas, 2013).

Yet, as Brenner et al (2010) note, the application and development of neoliberal ideas through time and across space is highly variegated, contingent and often contested. It is therefore more accurate to speak of uneven processes of neoliberalisation rather than the unfolding of a unified programme. Grasping how these multi-scalar and multileveled processes are sometimes disrupted, blocked or altered, creating pockets of resistance and loosely bound spaces in which emergent practices based on other values can flourish, is crucial to understanding resistance in contemporary HE.

The neoliberalisation of Irish society and education

Neoliberal policies have been driving socio-economic development in the Irish Republic since the late 1980s. Following Kirby (2010), I want to acknowledge the distinct historical trajectory of Irish society but contend that the state now operates as a ‘market state’ oriented to the priorities of corporations and large businesses. In terms of economic policy, this has been reflected in ‘light-touch’ regulation, low levels of corporate taxation and the marketisation and, to a lesser extent, privatisation of public goods of various sorts, such as water and waste disposal (Allen, 2007). Since the 1980s, there has been significant growth of ‘knowledge economy’ industries, such as technology, pharmaceuticals and biotechnology. Ireland is currently the second-most economically globalised economy in the world (KOF Index of Globalisation, 2017) and is highly financialised and very dependent on foreign direct investment, especially from the US (McCabe, 2011). As a result, Ireland has become a small but important node in an Atlantic economy, which is peculiarly sensitive to global economic shocks.

Ireland has also become more unequal since the 1980s (Allen 2010; Kirby, 2010). There has been a diminution in the social wage, as measured through wages, pensions and social welfare, and a concomitant increase in the level of private profit. Allen (2010: 26) calculates that the adjusted wage share for employees dropped from (p.154) 71 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) in the 1980s to 54 per cent between 2001 and 2007. There has been very little systematic research undertaken on wealth inequality in Ireland, but Credit Suisse data (Brennan, 2017) indicate that, today, as much as 32 per cent of the wealth is held by 1 per cent of the population and the richest 10 per cent control 65.8 per cent of the country’s wealth.

Despite decreased control over significant aspects of economic decision-making and rising inequality, throughout this period, Irish policymakers have used corporatist, consensual rhetoric that links the market to notions of meritocracy, modernisation and social equality. Moreover, the boom in the 1990s allowed the government to increase public spending in some areas while implementing neoliberal reforms. A high rate of employment, rising levels of income and the promotion of a ‘social partnership’ in which unions and representatives of civil society were consulted on national policy meant that for most of this period, there was relatively little popular resistance to neoliberalisation.

The crisis and bank bailout in 2010, which cost €64 billion, radically changed the situation in Ireland. The government implemented austerity measures, which were overseen and partially devised by the Troika (the International Monetary Fund [IMF], the European Commission and the European Central Bank). Unemployment grew by 10 per cent and the workforce shrunk by 14 per cent, wages collapsed, and ‘fiscal control’ and ‘budgetary restraint’ became the watchwords of the day. As Finn (2017) remarks, by 2015, ‘475,000 people had left since the crisis began, and 17.5 percent of Irish-born people over the age of fifteen lived outside the state’. Once the initial shock wore off, this led to a wave of protests against neoliberalism and austerity.

As might be expected, the reconfiguration of the Irish state, the influence of European Union (EU) and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) directives, and international trends in HE led to a clear ‘neoliberal turn’ in HE over the past two decades (Fleming et al, 2017). While there has been relatively little privatisation and for-profit consortia remain minor players in HE, neoliberal ideas now inform policy, funding models and management culture, and have encouraged the outsourcing of on-campus services (Lynch et al, 2015; Fleming et al, 2017; Mercille and Murphy, 2017). Interviews conducted with senior management and an analysis of key policy documents reveal a clear trend towards less institutional and professional autonomy and the concomitant development of new managerial techniques and practices for assessing performance (O’Malley, 2012; Lynch et al, 2015).

(p.155) The neoliberalisation of HE has intensified under austerity (Mercille and Murphy, 2017); the state has radically decreased direct funding to HE while student numbers have continued to increase and staff numbers have declined (student to staff ratios went from 16:1 in 2008 to 20:1 in 2015) (see Cassells, 2016: 19). Some of the shortfall has been made up through the reintroduction of fees and there is currently much talk of introducing a student loan scheme. Besides this, there has been an increasing emphasis in policy on making universities more responsive to the needs of business and on tightening links with the private sector (Fleming et al, 2017). The appointment of business people to senior positions in the Higher Education Authority, the state body that oversees the sector, as well as to policy advisory groups, has consolidated this shift (Mercille and Murphy, 2017). Consequently, the key strategy document in Irish HE (DES, 2011), which outlines a plan for the future development of HE up to 2030, is markedly neoliberal in its aims and values.

This macro-level policy shift is reflected, and mediated, on a meso level as well. Individual HE institutions have been extensively ‘reformed’ by the extension of market logic through cost–benefit analysis and the application of performativity measures in every part of university life (Lynch et al, 2015). There have also been a number of expensive branding exercises as HE institutions seek to position themselves in relation to national and international competitors.

Everyday and political resistance to neoliberal HE

The application of neoliberal ideas in a state-funded system has given rise to new hybrid forms of policy and procedures that have certainly impacted on teaching, learning and research. Yet, it is striking just how much resistance to neoliberalism there has been, especially since the crisis. However, this is rarely noted and hardly ever researched, and there is a tendency to foreground the power of neoliberalism and the extent to which it has captured hearts and minds and lament a ‘university in ruins’. I think, though, that it is important to remember that HE is a layered, contradictory social institution and a symbolic and cultural space where ideas, practices and values that are not commensurable with neoliberalism are very firmly rooted. Cultural ‘sediments’ of the pre-neoliberal university remain influential in a system that has also been qualitatively and quantitatively transformed over the past 30 years through rapid expansion (student numbers have tripled since the late 1980s). HE has become both a crucial site of accumulation for a (p.156) knowledge-based economy (Jessop, 2012) and widely envisaged as a space of free inquiry, public dialogue and human development. The new social centrality of HE – linked to conflicting and contradictory social forces – in institutions that have evolved over a long time is crucial to understanding HE in a neoliberal era.

However, the possibilities that exist within such a layered and contradictory situation are easy to overlook if we approach it solely on a structural and systemic level of analysis. It is important not to overlook the undramatic, but often creative, forms of ‘everyday’ and political resistance within and at the edges of the university. As De Certeau (1984: 34) points out, people are frequently ‘poets in their own affairs’, who know how to escape, circumvent and tactically adapt to a dominant logic in culture and institutions. With this in mind, I want to now discuss how staff and students orient themselves and act within HE on a day-to-day basis, drawing on several empirical research projects (Fleming et al, 2010; Finnegan and O’Neill, 2015; Finnegan et al, 2014). These studies on student experience, retention and employability comprise of one mixed-methods (Fleming et al, 2010) and two large-scale qualitative projects (Finnegan and O’Neill, 2015; Finnegan et al, 2014). For these, we conducted 200 in-depth interviews with HE students and graduates, and 40 interviews with staff. However, I also want to draw on documentary research in order to describe the range of ways in which neoliberalism has been politically contested and to explore how everyday and political resistance might be linked.

HE staff: disciplinary passions, critical values and workplace organising

It was noticeable how rarely the staff we met described their work in neoliberal terms. Disciplinary passions remain crucial for many lecturers’ sense of identity and purpose. For example, several lecturers, mainly in the social sciences, said that fostering critical reflection on established mores and values was central to their discipline and their teaching. Stephen, a science lecturer, spoke of his passion for his subject and his dedication to encouraging the same passion in others. He was critical of the shift towards funding for scientific research with clear and immediate market applications as he thinks that this is undermining the future development of his field. He devotes a great deal of time and effort to teaching and research conversations that are meaningful for him as a scientist and expressed disinterest in effective (p.157) networking or winning funding for career purposes despite being in precarious employment conditions. This sort of everyday resistance was also discernible among non-academic staff. For instance, social justice mattered a great deal to staff in access and guidance, who described how they sought to use the dominant language of targets and metrics to support students for this ‘deeper’ purpose.

These values and commitments often explicitly inform how research and external engagement is approached as well. For example, some interviewees had sometimes done work on inequality and the impact of austerity in collaboration with trade unions, community groups and non-governmental organisations (NGOs). If one looks beyond the interview cohort, it is clear that a small but not insignificant portion of academics have used their specific skills to do ‘movement’-relevant research for public campaigns against neoliberalism (for example, on housing policies, the privatisation of water, corporate tax avoidance and the appropriation of natural resources).

There are even degree programmes within the ‘entrepreneurial university’ where developing academic–activist alliances against neoliberalism is integral to the course. The ones that I am most familiar with are the courses run by the School of Social Justice in University College Dublin and the Masters in Community Education, Equality and Social Activism (CEESA) at Maynooth University. In both cases, staff have had extensive interaction with community groups and political movements, including popular education efforts related to neoliberalism and austerity over the past decade. While this only shaped the experience of hundreds of students and a few dozen academics, such efforts did, and do, create a space for research and social action that is explicitly at odds with neoliberalism.

There is, of course, more visible workplace organising going on as well. The main trade unions in HE have all, in various ways, sought to resist the neoliberalisation of HE. Most of the work has been defensive (that is, specific disputes over contracts and resources), but it also included a one-day strike in 2016 to push the state to acknowledge the extent of the crisis in HE and a broad campaign run between 2013 and 2015 to ‘Defend the University’ based on a charter that rejected the commercialisation and commodification of education.

Many, for the most part, young and early-career, academics feel that the established trade unions have not done enough to highlight the increasing level of precarity in academic work (Courtois and O’Keefe, 2015). As noted earlier, austerity measures affected the sector very badly, not least in blocking access to meaningful career paths. As a result, in (p.158) the midst of the crisis, Third Level Workplace Watch was established. They describe themselves as a:

collective of precarious workers organising to defend our rights to fair wages and working conditions. We wish to make explicit the university workplace as site of struggle.… We feel any discussions on the third-level sector must first and foremost address the casualisation of labour and exploitative workplace practices that allow universities and colleges to function.

(Third Level Workplace Watch, no date)

Throughout the crisis up until 2017, the group organised meetings, did independent research on working conditions, lobbied trade unions, published articles in popular and academic forums, networked internationally, and took a series of ‘agitprop’ actions to generate publicity.

Student lives and student activism

One of the common critiques of the neoliberal university is that it invites students to see themselves as self-interested and instrumentally minded clients and consumers (Lolich and Lynch, 2017). However, while the students we met were certainly seeking upward social mobility, the values and motivations of these people were neither simply individualistic nor straightforwardly instrumental. Among mature students, “becoming more of yourself” (Rachel) was seen as one of the main benefits of attending university. Among younger students, HE was also described as a vital liminal space for learning and for forging relationships, as well as the basis for a career. For many working-class students, going to HE was seen as a valued opportunity to have time for formal learning for its own sake. It was also seen as an opportunity to undo prior misrecognition: “to prove them wrong”, as Terry put it (in this case, he was talking about teachers and negative evaluations of him as a working-class man generally). Frequently, students and graduates said that social science courses offered them words and concepts that allowed them to name their world, to understand why certain communities are “overlooked” (Chloe), to try to tackle inequality and to also ‘give something back’ to their communities. Being in HE was repeatedly linked to profound explorations of worth, identity and meaningfulness. As a result, people were willing to make (p.159) enormous sacrifices in terms of security and financial stability to get their degree, which simply does not make sense in ‘purely’ economic terms. A survey of 4,265 students (Lolich and Lynch, 2017) indicates that this multidimensional way of valuing the university and the everyday practice that flows from this is very widespread.

The high value given to education also led a small number of the interviewees to take part in the explosion of political activity by student groups and students unions against the reintroduction of fees from 2008 onwards. As part of this, the student group Free Education for Everyone, which included activists from eight HE institutions, engaged in a campaign of civil disobedience (sit-ins, blockades, pickets and demonstrations). Student unions went on to develop a national campaign against fees and for publicly funded HE, which resulted in large demonstrations of tens of thousands for several years. This is by far the largest and most visible wave of resistance against neoliberal HE, and was a vital part of the learning story given by these interviewees. In the midst of the crisis, this also resulted in an attempt to link students, graduates, the unemployed and young, especially precarious, workers in a campaign called ‘We are not leaving’.

Troubling the boundaries: re-imagining the university

There has also been a series of small initiatives to re-imagine the university and find new terms for thinking about the purpose of HE in relation to the activity of wider social movements. The first is ‘Occupy University’, an offshoot of the Occupy movement. As is well known, the protests in Wall Street during 2011–12 sparked similar events in 950 cities. In Dublin, a camp was set up on Dame Street at the Central Bank Plaza that lasted from October 2011 until March 2012. Szolucha (2013: 23), an ethnographer who was based in Occupy Dame Street, notes that:

The camps were structured and operated in ways that could prefigure communities in which people would like to live in the future. The direct democratic ways of making decisions may provide some clues as to how to facilitate more democratic ways of self-governance.

Significantly, this included an ‘Occupy University’ made up of academics, students and activists. The collective organised over 78 talks in the first two months, mainly from a radical perspective. In a (p.160) contemporaneous report (Burtenshaw, 2012), an academic who was heavily involved, Helena Sheehan, explained:

The kind of discussions we really needed weren’t happening in our universities and that was a big encouragement to us.… What we did, I feel, stands up intellectually. It was of a more rough and ready, certainly less standardised, variety than university lectures.… But we tackled big ideas in difficult circumstances.

This continued for over a year. Interestingly, after the camp lost direction and energy, the group sought to connect with other movements, including a community television station, and hosted and broadcast lectures on radical history.

A project that similarly sought to re-imagine the university was the ‘Provisional University’ project. This collective of mainly young academic-activists, alongside students, worked between 2010 and 2016. Influenced by international debates on the changing nature of the university, a flavour of their aims and approach can be gleaned from the following statement (Provisional University, no date)

In the university and the city processes of exclusion and exploitation multiply. These processes are the effect of the governing neoliberal logic: university competes with university, city competes with city, and so are we forced into a competition that generates fewer and fewer winners, more and more losers. As well as excluding those who are unable to play the game, the logic of competition erodes and dismantles the public goods and services that we rely on. … This does not just come in the form of privatizing and marketizing public resources and institutions, but also through the individualization and precaritization of many aspects of our lives: the ways we are forced to see and act as entrepreneurs, against one another.

The project took the form of meetings, pieces of movement-relevant research and publications, and put a very strong emphasis on finding more democratic ways of producing knowledge. As is often the case, these initiatives rely on small groups of individuals and specific contexts, and the project slowly wound down when members were drawn into other campaigns and the demands of paid work.

(p.161) Building alliances and emergent possibilities

Neoliberalism has been described as a highly variegated phenomenon that has reshaped Irish society in very significant ways, and these ideas have become dominant ones in HE at a policy and management level. Yet, this has provoked widespread, albeit mainly diffuse, resistance within and at the boundaries of HE. Sometimes, this has flared into view but much was ‘under the radar’. However, it is significant that in a highly neoliberal country crippled by crisis and austerity, where HE is underfunded and increasingly envisaged in marketised terms, a great deal of teaching, learning, research, access work and career guidance, and workplace organising in HE has sought to confront or tactically circumvent the dominant logic. The range and vitality of this activity should not be discounted. We know, though, that neoliberalism is a deeply rooted, transnational phenomenon, and that the level and type of everyday and political resistance discussed here has not been sufficient to alter the general direction that HE is taking, let alone that of society as a whole.

To reflect on this, I want to turn to Raymond Williams (1977), who argued that it was useful to distinguish dominant from residual or emergent meanings, values and practices in critical historical analysis. He describes residual culture as ‘effectively formed in the past, but it is still active in the cultural process’ (Williams, 1977: 122), and emergent culture as that which carries ‘new meanings and values, new practices, new relationships’ (Williams, 1977: 123). Using this framework, I can say that although the dominant culture in HE is clearly neoliberal, this interacts with, and is being resisted through, a variety of emergent and residual cultures. I think that the idea of disinterested scientific inquiry, critical social science and the humanist idea of education for personal development discussed earlier are examples of such residual ideals. As we have seen, these feed into ‘tactical’ everyday forms of action and also sustain political resistance of various sorts. The idea of education as a public good and a belief in the non-commodifiable nature of organised learning and inquiry appear to be especially important.

However, within and at the edges of the university, there are also emergent forms of critical culture that perhaps offer coordinates for higher education beyond neoliberalism. Initiatives such as the Provisional University and Occupy sought a new type of democratic relationship between students and lecturers, were self-consciously internationalist, and explicitly linked education to wider social movements. Here, the university is viewed as a potential space for the elaboration of new (p.162) forms of democratic knowledge production beyond the terms that have predominated in the past or prevail in the present. The desire is to free knowledge from old hierarchies and recent commodification in order to develop a knowledge ‘commons’. In this way, such groups, however fitfully, are beginning to puzzle out how we can best respond to the changing, and changed, political circumstances in which we live.

In Ireland and internationally – in Chile, South Africa, Québec and the UK – the debate over the purpose and funding of HE is now a central and potentially explosive social question. Defensive actions by institutionally embedded groups, which draw sustenance from a conception of HE elaborated within social democracy, can – at best I think – only offset the worst effects of neoliberalism. The social forces and political compromises that made this possible have simply disappeared. However, future-oriented versions of the university that have little or no institutional purchase and do not have the backing of large-scale social movements are destined to fade away as well, leaving only faint traces of activity. As neoliberalism unravels, we need to be able to learn from previous waves of resistance in HE. To move beyond the diverse but limited, relatively fragmented resistance discussed earlier, I think that we will need to build alliances and dialogue between individuals and groups who draw from these residual and emergent cultures. The task, then, I think, is to elaborate a new vision of the university that draws critically on the widely shared belief in the non-commodifiable nature of education and builds on the idea of a knowledge commons in order to imagine new forms of HE altogether (Alcántara et al, 2013).


I wish to thank Mariya Ivacheva for her help and advice, and Niamh McCrea, Bernie Grummell and Kathleen Lynch for rich conversations.


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