The Interconnections between Neo-liberalism and English


There is no doubt that the invasion of Iraq in 2003 represented a watershed in people’s perceptions of the new world order. It was a chill confirmation that the Bush administration was serious about their strategy for a global American empire. The conservative think-tank, the Project for a New American Century, had indicated in 2000 what their aims were: to be the world’s ‘ sole superpower’, to enact a ‘leadership’ unilateralist strategy to overcome ‘world disorder’, to use war to transform key regions, to deter potential rivals, and preserve US global pre-eminence . The bombing of Baghdad turned this imperialist rhetoric into imperialist fact.

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The invasion was also a grim reminder that globalisation, far from being a smooth harmonious process, is about force as much as it is about choice. The global market, like trade under colonialism before it, has military might close behind. Early enthusiasts of globalisation, such as Giddens, had embraced the ‘runaway world’ of ‘cosmopolitan tolerance’ and left war entirely out of their lofty schemas, the only worry in this brave new global world being ‘risk management’ (Giddens, 2000). However, some realised just how deadly market competition could be. Klein writing after the invasion, showed what US ‘reconstruction’ really meant. The $100bn invested by US multinationals to rebuild the Iraqi infrastructure gave a new twist to the invasion – ‘bomb before you buy’ as she put it. Iraq was being treated as a blank slate on which ‘the most ideological Washington neo-liberals can design their dream economy: fully privatised, foreign-owned, and open for business’ (Klein, 2003). Never had war seemed so starkly capitalism’s opportunity and globalisation and war now seemed irrevocably bound together. This was neither the much-heralded end of history, nor the end of ideology, but incontrovertible proof of the powerful enactment of both.

The symposium ‘(Re) Locating TESOL in the Age of Empire’ where these papers were first presented, was a part of this broader realisation. Julian Edge’s article in IATEFL Issues expressed poignantly the unease. The overlap between the three leading warring states against Iraq – the US, Britain and Australia – and the three major English language teacher providers seemed to highlight the role of English in this new aggressive empire. Was English part of the US project for a new century? Were EFL teacher’s pawns in that overarching system or even a ‘second wave of imperial troopers’? (Edge, 2003a) Edge went on to express the view, in a North American context, that teachers of English could play the role of the glove over the fist of imperial might, and warned against teachers being used as pawns in the “stealth crusade” against Islam. (Edge, 2003b) . He was asking the awkward question:
Was the TESOL project an updated version of the white man’s burden, an ideological tool for the new world order, America’s ‘soft power’ ?

Deep misgivings about English and its roles in the world had surfaced before. More than twenty years ago, Kachru challenged the neo-colonial canon of western Inner Circle English and argued for recognition for the many other English varieties (Kachru, 1985). Phillipson located English at the centre of imperialism as a crucial weapon in the oppressors’ armoury (Phillipson, 1992). He extended the concept of linguicism and the imposition of English-only beyond post-colonial settings to Europe (Phillipson, 2003). Indeed, over the last few years English as a discourse of colonialism and resistance to its dictates are themes which have moved centre stage within ELT (Pennycook, 1998; Cangarajah, 1999) and the controversial nature of them accepted . What is different about the issues surrounding English, globalisation and the war today is that the debate has been pushed beyond linguistic or sociolinguistic interpretations into the broader social and political arena. As the contributions here make clear, the linguistic home ground has been pushed aside. It is as if those engaged in TESOL have been forced out of the shadows of nonalignment into the glare of war. I am reminded of Franz Fanon, who in Martinique had always imagined that he was French like everyone else and only when he arrived in Paris did he discover that race mattered. Similarly for us amid the dramatic developments of today’s world, the old coat of ‘just-language’ seems to have slipped off our shoulders and we find ourselves situated in the real world, having to take sides, and assume rounded social and political roles.

The renewed awareness of ideological issues within TESOL would seem to have come about for several reasons. The grounds for going to war disbelieved by so many yet stubbornly upheld by those in government opened up a chasm between the people and their governments. Such a crisis of representation was bound to make itself felt among English teachers, themselves often seen as loose standard-bearers of things North American, English, Australian, and many of who now found themselves completely at odds with English-speaking establishments. The size and scale of the anti-war movement, on foot of the global anti-capitalist movement, encompassed a new social mix and diversity that no doubt included many in TESOL. Thirdly, the waves of this combined movement have reverberated, culturally and politically, against those in power. The sheer numbers that have seen Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, have read bestseller and anti-capitalist handbooks, No Logo by Naomi Klein and the not easily accessible Empire by Hardt and Negri are a testament to the degree to which a critique of global capitalism has become popular. And this does not include the popular mass movements of Mexico, Brazil and Venezuela, and Northern India nor the huge World Social Forums in these continents, which have won their global movement the title of a new superpower. Outrage with the extremes of our social and global world, the suggestion that another world is possible, has connected with large numbers of people in a large number of places.

In this context, the interconnections between ideology and language have become relevant again – to linguistics, educationalists and cultural commentators in general but particularly to us within TESOL. Firstly, perhaps more than most, we are in the crossfire of conflicting ideologies. We are symbolic globalisers through teaching a world language but also instinctive multiculturalists through our contacts with international students and our international teaching situations. The war and the unrelenting triumphalist ideology of the new world order have heightened that tension. Secondly, ideology and language overlap in so many ways that it is difficult to say where one ends and the other begins. For us this is doubly the case. Ideology is the stuff of what we teach, in so far that the material we use, and the culture we are assumed to represent, make statements implicitly or explicitly about the world in which we live. But also, at one removed, elements of ideology persistently form the backdrop to our teaching: it is taking place so extensively only because of US power in the world. Thirdly, the distinction between ideology and language may be particularly useful in discussions of world English and Englishes and get us out of a methodological bind. Ideology and language are not the same thing. One is not reducible to the other and interconnections between language and ideology are not given or even predictable. They are in a constant state of flux since speakers can select, interpret, and contest the ideological underpinnings of any specific uses of language. From this perspective, a focus on the workings of ideology in language allows us to both grasp the power relations expressed and at the same time avoid the linguistic determinism of critiques of world English which see language or discourse styles, in varying degrees, as a straitjacket.

With this in mind, I will examine the dominant ideology of global capitalism –
neo-liberalism. I will look at its influence in English, in the use of certain words and styles and how it constitutes what Bourdieu termed a “strong discourse”. This analysis may shed light on the workings of ideology itself and how ways of expression that seem agreed and anodyne in fact carry a second order meaning which is full of significance. Awareness of such processes are invaluable for us who deal in language since they reveal that uses of English, like any other language, are far from being “unencumbered ideologically”, as was once maintained (Fishman, 1977). Implementation of neo-liberal policies is also taking fulsome shape in the actual teaching world in which we inhabit and teaching English, as we shall see, is in the forefront of the neo-liberal agenda. I will look briefly at manifestations of the marketisation of education in international documents in English produced in Ireland and how neo-liberal language has been adopted locally. Finally, I will also indicate ways in which the process of ideological formation in language is not only top-down but also contested from below.

The Ideology of Globalisation – Neo-liberalism

We are experiencing at the beginning of the 21st century social changes as significant as those experienced by Western capitalism after the second world war. Ever-greater global trade, rapid changes in the production of goods and ways of selling them, US power in the world and the backdrop of war has produced an extraordinary streamlining of dominant ideology. The very changes in capitalism have allowed its preferred ideology to be presented around the world with a uniformity whose strains chime everywhere and with one voice. The global market is good – good for economics, good for democracy, and good for people. In this best of all market worlds, the dictates of this ideology seem to command economies – through the IMF, the World Bank, the G8 and the EU – and individuals – through branding, shopping ‘experiences’, the lure of personal fulfilment through consumerism. Ideological messages of the past, like the happy family on the cornflakes packs of the 1950s, fade into quaint parochialism in comparison with today’s strident global chorus of market ideology.

The centre staging of deregulated trade in goods, in services, in labour constitutes what is meant by neo-liberalism. Neo-liberalism is this set of interlocking ideas and the ideology behind globalisation. It is only now becoming a more familiar term in English speaking contexts. As the US sociologist, Michael Mann points out, what the “rest of the world calls neo-liberalism” the US calls ‘encouraging the world toward more open trade’. Neo-liberalism, is the belief that ‘growth flows from freeing up markets and that market-friendly policies and cutting back role of government must be the primary role of government. Also called the ‘Washington Consensus’, neo-liberalism is considered by Mann to constitute the main thrusts of ‘a benevolent US imperialism’ (Mann, 2003, p.57). It is an ideology of gung-ho, freewheeling, unlimited market capitalism.

In Europe, the concept of neo-liberalism is better known. The French sociologist and populariser of the term, the late Pierre Bourdieu defined it thus: ‘a programme for destroying collective structures which may impede the pure market logic’. He outlined how neo-liberalism promotes, through agencies such as the IMF and the OECD, the economics of the free market to the status of irrefutable scientific theory. Its advocates – stockholders, financial operators industrialists – present free market economics as a kind of incontestable logic whose dictates of flexibility, competitiveness and rampant individualism brook no opposition. It is a ‘strong discourse’ an ‘infernal machine’ whose necessity imposes itself across society, even on those who stand to lose from its imperatives (Bourdieu, 1998). His description of neo-liberalism presents a European perspective and it is the logic of capitalism in general, not the US variant that he evokes. Equally, his analysis of what constitutes neo-liberalism is in France and in French, a reminder to us that it is not only US styles in English that have a monopoly on its ideological articulation. Indeed, far earlier than others, he saw how French capitalism was restructuring towards the ‘knowledge’ society and he catalogued its impoverishing effects on people’s quality of life (Bourdieu, 1999). Today, his characterisation of neo-liberalism sounds all too familiar almost anywhere in the world. He showed powerfully the mechanisms by which we are all drawn into the neo-liberal net and assume, almost nonchalantly, its language.

It is important to stress that the neo-liberal purview puts a rosy gloss on the actual workings of the market. Neo-liberal ideology describes a world that bears as little resemblance to the real thing as Coca-Cola. Trade is not free, nor very deregulated, and the ‘Washington Consensus’ lives happily with the US being the lead player in tariffs and patents. The market is not left to its own devices because the US dictates to other economies through strictures on debt repayment and thereby monopolises and distorts their markets. Furthermore, the state far from being hands-off, is the economic ‘back seat driver’ and a major co-player with multinational corporations through subsidies and awarding them access to running public services (Mann, 2003, Chapter 2). As Monbiot has shown in the case of Britain, corporations need local states, more than they need a free market, to back their interests and the overlap between state and corporations is becoming greater (Monbiot, 2000). Finally, the market itself is carved out by the power of states and war. The first round of liberal economics – laissez faire in the 19th century – was neither liberal nor free. It was dependent on armed occupation of colonies from East Asia to East Africa, from India to Ireland, and often the forcible destruction of industries and people. Similarly, global capitalism today needs military might to impose its rule and fashion its ‘free trade’ (Callinicos 2003,106). The occupation of Iraq shows just how hands-on the US and UK states can be.

This contradiction within neo-liberalism is itself part of the ideological process. Ideologies present a world-view that is a partial interpretation, seen through the prism of particular interests. Marx in his writings on ideology called this an upside-down view of things as in a camera obscura and drew attention to the role of language in this consciously one-sided representation of the world (Marx and Engels, 1974) . Gramsci, too, noted that dominant ideology presented itself as ‘common sense’, self-evident and simply ‘ the way things are’, but was in fact built on half-truths and folkloric intuitions rather than historical fact (Gramsci, 1971, pp.323-5). These beliefs promoted an uncritical view of the world and their currency across society was part of how those in power maintained their rule, or hegemony. Language, Gramsci also noted, played a crucial role in elaborating on this ‘feeling’ type of knowledge in popular consciousness, by bestowing new meanings to established concepts (Gramsci, 1971, pp. 418-425). Other forms of representation can of course be deeply ideological, as Barthes showed in his demystification of visual representations (Barthes, 1993). But in language, the process of ideological formation, condensed down to actual words and the way they are used, can become more readily discernible. The Russian linguist, Volosinov noted, also in a period of social upheaval nearly a century ago, that linguistic representation itself tends towards the ideological in so far as signs reflects and refracts reality. “Wherever a sign is present, ideology is present too” (Volosinov 1973,10). Hasan in an article on language globalisation and ideology makes a similar point:

If language is viewed as a system of systems of choices then, in a manner of
speaking, all its use has to be seen as ideological; in the final analysis, the actual
choice, albeit unconscious lies with speakers who in the nature of things are
socially- positioned and thus ideology-specific.

(Hasan, 2003)

Hasan’s description brings out the important fact that the process is fluid, even when the ideology expressed is hegemonic. Ideology, like language, is a two-way process with two or more participants who both contribute to meaning. Meanings in language are unstable because they take shape between people. Some speakers, however, have more power than others. We shall now examine ways in which neo-liberalism is expressed in English, how it becomes the “strong discourse”, and how it presents itself through language as “common sense”.

The language of neo-liberalism

Language is often the first register of the existence of new coherent ideologies. Raymond Williams noted, in a different era but also one of enormous social upheaval, that certain “keywords” became hotly contested. His examples were words with overt political overtones – – alienation, bourgeois, community, democracy, ethnic, class and so on – but he showed that their meanings were in the process of change and the subject of controversy (Williams, 1981). The ‘keywords’ today are those, which have jumped beyond their conventional semantic field and denotation – the realm of business or industry – into other areas of social activity. This semantic stretching has become a whole new mode of expression and one, which Cameron notes, has pervaded every walk of life. Every hospital has a “mission statement” and nearly every local council, government department, GP surgery and tax office all pledge themselves to the highest standards of “customer care”. Public language, she writes, has been taken over by corporate jargon and language itself has become part of brand-image, or ‘nice-speak’. (Cameron, 2001). Fairclough in the introduction to a volume of Discourse and Society given over to Language in New Capitalism highlights how there has been a ‘colonization’ of other fields by the economic field and how there has been a globalisation of ‘orders of discourse’ alongside the globalisation of English (Fairclough, 2002, p.163). Hasan notes that what she deridingly calls ‘glibspeak’ consists of turning the semantics of ordinary English upside down and globalising new concepts, which are friendly to the ideology of capitalism. Like Williams, she observes that political words such as equality, freedom, liberalization, and non-discrimination are redolent with ideological shifts. She also charts the process of ‘re- semantisation’ by drawing attention to the ideological meanings which have attached to globalisation only recently – like “lower costs of production”, “international expansion of companies” and “appropriate take-overs” (Hasan, 2003, p. 437).

It is in the education arena and the university sector that the language of neo-liberalism seems most intrusive, perhaps because it is where one would least have expected it to become so unthinkingly adopted. Studying in the UK, a large part of which is studying English, has become one of the first educational experiences outside the US to become ‘branded’. The creation of the British Government and the British Council’s ‘Education UK brand’, complete with sponsors, MORI and McCann Erickson, is designed to ‘maintain the UK’s credentials as a world class provider of education and training’ and stands for ‘quality, dynamism and diversity’. The Chairperson of the British Council valued this promotion for the trade it generates and the chances it gives Britain to influence a wider and younger public internationally . This type of branding is an interesting development, from an ideological point of view. Brand, normally applied to a product made by a particular company, has ‘re-semanticised’ to cover not a product but a process and the rather complex process of learning. Klein (2000) points out that brand names are increasingly evoking not just an image but a whole lifestyle – the Starbucks drinking coffee experience, for example – and this is what the British government and the British Council, albeit in a somewhat less subtle way, are attempting here. Older ideological justifications of the teaching of English were more complex and ambitious. They aspired to identifying English with a ‘modernising’ social role, with aspirations to a civilising mission and the colonizer’s responsibility to ‘bring culture’. The ideological package of nineteenth century imperialism was one of an all-embracing social vision of Empire – distasteful precisely because its intricacy helped to conceal plunder and devastation. Today market ideology is less convoluted and smaller in scope. ‘Branding’ English makes no attempt to justify itself; it simply assumes that the market will do its work. ‘Education UK brand’ is very transparently about commodification, not only of the language but of those teaching and learning it as well – many of whom would probably find it hard to identify with such blatant dumbing-down of educational experience.

Marketing and packaging, not of products as such but of experience, has become the norm in the Higher Education sector in English speaking contexts. Hatcher has argued that neo-liberal globalisation has provided three business agendas for systems of education: the provision of human capital for competitiveness in the global economy, implementing it through a business model of management, and opening up state education institutions to private education- for- profit companies (Hatcher, 2003). The official language now used in Higher Education confirms this perspective. Universities as competitors and students as the target market, education in global competition and the knowledge economy, value- for- money education, world-class educational provision, managing change, the university industry, delivering and packaging courses, research outputs, teaching outputs, units of resource (i.e. students), the pursuit of excellence and the (fairly vacuous) international best practice, as Graham points out, are repeated endlessly in the colossal quantities of electronic communication that flits across campuses(Graham, 2004). They occur in reports, in minutes of meetings, in proposals for new courses, in strategic plans. The language is part of what has been called, perhaps too kindly, the economisation of education (Jones 2004). The phenomenon is most developed in North America where ‘for-profit schools’ have been aggressively marketing themselves to the potential student with ‘enrolment management centres‘ replacing Admissions to ‘improve their market position’. (Kirp 2003:12). In the US, it is very often transnational corporations from within the universities who are having a direct input into degree and research programmes with the accompanying corporate ‘speak’ (ibid: 208.). In the UK, what is striking is the degree of conformity to the new language, especially from academics who one would least expect to tailor their language in this way. The analogy between universities and industry, with language of delivery and output, would seem to have been adopted with little question, at least publicly.

The Irish Higher Education sector is interesting in this respect. Ireland had one of the most traditional and sheltered education systems, with first the Catholic Church and, somewhat belatedly, the Irish state leaving their particular mark. Its colonial past would have made Irish policy makers wary of going too openly down the “Thatcher- Blair” road of wholesale privatisation. The Irish economy was experiencing what no other country in Europe was, a boom which saw GNP levels rising by, on average, 10% a year. Indeed, its education system was reckoned to have contributed considerably to these growth rates – 20% of economic growth during the Celtic Tiger period from 1995-2001 according to one estimate (CHIU, 2003). In spite of this and the fact that for the first time in its history, the Irish state would be in a position to equal public spending levels of other European states, government thinking on education switched unashamedly to US funding models (HEA 2004). Irish -US ties had always been close, because of emigration, but now the special relationship took on a far larger dimension. Corporate America was investing heavily in Ireland and it soon had Irish public policy singing to its tune (Allen 2003).

For these reasons, neo-liberal language is a relatively new phenomenon in Ireland and thus, possibly, its tones grate all the more. In an important review entitled The University Challenged the weight of international consensus was brought to bear to encourage Irish universities further down the ‘entrepreneurial’ road:

[Universities] need to become more entrepreneurial: to cooperate in selling such services as undergraduate and post-graduate places and consultancies on the global market.

There are very serious challenges to appoint new staff with aptitude for a broad range of entrepreneurial as well as academic roles….

The changing environment of higher education requires enhanced management and
leadership skills….

Skilbeck 2001

The language is characterised by the frequency of particular word clusters whose super ordinate is industry, not academe, as the following words which appear in just two pages of the report make clear:

_production, productivity, performance, market place…
_new sources of funding, improve their efficiency, resource utilisation…
_economically and socially responsive, changing fiscal policies, improve efficiency and raise productivity….

Skilbeck 2001:23-24

The author of this report was Australian and individuals from the consultative panel from France, UK, Norway and Ireland. It is thus a representative example of the global neo-liberal speak which adopts the same predictable words and tones with little local colour. The ‘challenge’ in the title announces the style, as Graham points out: together with ‘change’, it is one of the most used in neo-liberal speak and both are euphemisms for adopting market values (Graham 2004). Ironically, for an ideology that promotes so insistently the virtues of consumer choice, its documents and public statements have a drab uniformity that recalls Orwellian Newspeak in that the language becomes slavishly adopted and anything else considered a heresy.

The publication of the OECD Report on Higher Education in Ireland in 2004 elicited much discussion about education, about the language used and the “philosophy” behind it . The report, despite its supposed neutral ‘expert’ status, is in many ways one of the most coherent neo-liberal statements regarding Higher Education. The pages which summarise the priorities for Irish education, entitled Irish Education at the Crossroads, exemplifies the workings of neo-liberal ideology in education policy (see Appendix). The repeated use of certain words, without explanation and introduced as self-evident, highlights how the ideology translates at the level of language. The unifying strand of the proposals for education is competition and being competitive. This, apparently, is the main conditioning factor for education systems; they lead to pressure and the need for Ireland to punch its weight internationally – an rather aggressive expression in the context of education. It is assumed that education is an outgrowth of the economy and that educational achievement is best measured in economic growth rates. Productive is made to collocate with education, representing a strangely quantitative view of education, and the text assumes that the principal contribution of education to society is making Ireland internationally competitive, innovative, and successful. The report, as a whole, purports to outline the way ahead for university education, but strikingly fails to mention what type of education is desirable or what its content should be. Instead, it settles for proposals regarding student recruitment, organisation, administration and management – as a breakdown of the frequency of certain words in this eighty-page report makes clear:
Word count: OECD Report/Higher Education Ireland

| | |
|R&D 42|research 293|
|competitive 27|student 179|
|change 23|learning 48|
|market 20|teaching 21|
|organisation 16|study 18|
|industry 15|learner 2|
|business 13|lecturer 2|
|manager 9|intellectual 2|
|competition 5|library 1|
| |private study 0|
| |literature 0|
| | reading 0|
| |tutorials 0|

Significantly, the words used most frequently are research and R&D and, despite their quite different connotations, they are used interchangeably. For example:

…[A] number of measures need to be put in place to create a sustainable research culture which will provide the depth of resource necessary to attract overseas companies in far greater number than currently to invest in R&D in Ireland and to sustain and enhance indigenous industry….
OECD Report p 34 [my emphasis]

Repeatedly throughout the document, the slippage between the two terms blurs so that referring to one becomes referring to the other. One sentence from the report reads:
…Ireland will need to translate its investment in niche research areas in universities into a broadeR&Deeper (sic) research culture before one or more of those universities can be classed as a ‘world class’ research university.

The identification between disinterested research carried out by an academic or academics and corporate R&D activities which are aimed at the market are conflated, which reveals how much the thinking of its authors is industry orientated and market-driven. This nonchalant overlap is further proof how swiftly and silently universities are being colonised by corporations (Monbiot, 2000, p.283). The OECD itself is a think-tank whose history and committee composition, represents neither a disinterested team of ‘experts’, as it claims, nor is it ideologically neutral. OECD membership is limited ‘by a country’s commitment to a market economy’ . Policy reports from the OECD, in the Irish context, despite becoming informally government policy, do not see their contents discussed or voted on in any legislative chamber. Like other transnational bodies, such as the IMF and WTO, the members of the OECD Education Committee are not elected and some are CEO’s in transnational companies involved in private higher education . This is corporate speak because its authors are part of the corporate world and thus the lexical identification between research and R&D comes quite naturally to them and, being who they are, they do not stop to think twice about it.

The influence of these international documents is such that soon after their appearance, strategic plans of universities adopt their framework, policy and language. Indeed, documents produced by these international organisations and think tanks amount to ‘multinational’s English’ at work. In the case of this particular document, its focus on funding mechanisms and the market becomes quickly echoed in education institutions themselves. Academic discussion becomes prefaced by ‘resource implications’ and academic decisions become primarily market- driven, sometimes to the frustration of the academics involved. The tone of this extract from one particular university discussion document highlights the degree to which academics feel they have been taken over by the ‘ budget’.

In a situation where we know budget cuts are coming it is extremely difficult to plan …unless we make some attempt to set priorities we will be at the mercy of the accountants who are not interested primarily in academic or pedagogical considerations … Our department has been dogged by the University’s accounting system which gives us little recognition in terms of SCRs (Student Credit
Ratios )

Humanities discussion document, DCU, February 2003

Resistance to neo-liberal thinking is often deep-seated and widespread, if not always publicly articulated. Fairclough makes the point that neo-liberal speak and the discourse of management has not been appropriated by academics even after some twenty years of its imposition in Britain (Fairclough, 2002 p.195). Often, it suffices to raise the issues for open opposition to surface.

Last year my own university’s Handbook proclaimed:

You, the student, are our ‘customer’.

Dublin City University Student Handbook, 2002-3

Student equals customer is, on the face of it, highly seductive. It seems to imply that the student’s interests are being put first; after all, isn’t the customer always right? Who but an authoritarian lecturer could quarrel with the student being at the centre of things? Furthermore, appearing in the student’s handbook seemed to give it the cachet of representing students’ concerns.

Lakoff tells us how metaphors play not only a very significant role in determining what is real for us but also how metaphors, particularly ideological ones, can hide aspects of reality (Lakoff and Johnson, 1980). However attractive the student/customer identification may be, it is a metaphor, which masks a good deal. As it happens, degrees are not simply bought and acquired like goods – payment of registration or tuitition fees do not, either, guarantee the awarding of the degree. The student is not always right, for it is someone else who decides whether their work is good. University does not have ‘customers’ because education cannot be said to be a commercial transaction. The metaphor obscures these constraining factors and stretches the consumer experience – disingenuously – to include students. Therein lies its ideological nature. This semantic stretching takes us further into the market view of education as it simplistically identifies educational exchange with a commercial one and thereby turns education itself into a commodity. The use of customer also connotes, at another level, that the market is the only guarantor of quality, whatever the human activity. These ideological underpinnings behind the simple student/customer equivalence pull us into the world-view of neo-liberalism.

However, in our example, an awareness that the semantic field of customer does not dovetail neatly with that of education is made clear by the authors of the handbook. They have placed customer inverted commas. Hesitancy is expressed as to how appropriate the metaphor is. Presumably they judged that, on balance, students would see the identification with customer favourably but they are also taking their distance from the aptness of this particular application of the metaphor. Here, in a sense, the ideological process is being caught mid-stream – between questioning and

Others are not as wary. Customer has come to be used everywhere. Astonishingly, even the chill dictates of immigration policy are wrapped in customer terms. The Irish Office of the Refugee Applications Commissioner, in its Customer Service Action Plan includes everybody in its designation of ‘customers’ -‘ asylum seekers, dependents of asylum, seekers, refugees who are seeking reunification with family members, legal representatives, the Government, the Dept. of Justice, other government department, the general public, non-governmental organisations, the UN high Commission for Refugees, the staff of the office’. All these, as the brochure itself admits, constitute a highly diverse, varied and large ‘customer base’ (Office of the Refugees Commissioner 2002). The notion that governments are equal customers alongside individual asylum seekers is ridiculous enough. When, however, it is borne in mind that only 4% of asylum seekers to Ireland gain refugee status, these are strange ‘customers’ indeed and with very poor levels of customer satisfaction. The
unexpected use of customer here points to the highly charged ideological nature of the asylum issue. In the Irish context, the asylum debate has often centred on the poor treatment potential asylum seekers have received at the hands of the Refugee Application Office. No doubt, the production of the Customer Service Action Plan brochure itself is an attempt on their part to defend their record and quell further complaints. However, this is where the ideological process comes into play because, of course, inserting ‘customer’ into the equation does little to change the situation. It becomes a rather too obvious attempt to smooth over unequal power relations and the exclusionary practices of the asylum seeking process.

Linguists have told us, there is often a no clear divide between ordinary usage and metaphorical usage (Aitchison, 2001). Whether a word is a temporary metaphor, a conventional metaphor or a permanently changed meaning is often unclear. For example “time is money” was coined when work patterns changed in the industrial revolution with all the attendant social discipline that the metaphor conjured up. Its acceptance as a conventional metaphor and with it a new perception of time and a changed meaning was mediated by society itself and ideology. “Human resources” which developed from the “ labour is a resource” metaphor is another more recent example, replete with its dehumanising overtones, as Lakoff and Johnson point out (Lakoff and Johnson 1980:236). The “customer” metaphor – applied not only to students and asylum seekers, but to patients and passengers, and many more – is of the same order and with the same constraint to our lives because it degrades human experience, by reducing it to the cash nexus.

Gramsci made the point that ideas appear as common sense only for as long as they are not challenged (Gramsci 1971:423-424). There has been a common sense acceptance of much of the neo-liberal ideology, exemplified by people working in Higher Education who seem to have obligingly altered their use of language to the trend. However, the process has often brought with it smouldering levels of resentment, which can turn into open challenging of the neo-liberal framework. For example, when the “student as customer” metaphor example cited was questioned no academics leapt to its defence and it was dropped from the subsequent student handbook . Harman tells us that in Australian universities where the move to “a more commercial environment” has been quite sweeping, “many feel a strong sense of frustration, disillusionment and anger”. Phd students have negative views of the new university ethos and see no attraction in working in such a pressurised business-type environment (Harman, 2003). Jones points to the popular rejection of the neo-liberal agenda in France and Germany and indicates that there the privatising agenda in education have the potential to be political bombshells (Jones 2003). Perhaps we should conclude, following Williams, that today’s neo-liberal keywords “contain both continuity and discontinuity, and also deep conflicts of value and belief” (Williams, 1981, p.23), and begin to tease out those contradictions to the full.

Customised Talking

The ideology of neo-liberalism is not only visible in semantic shifts in English. It is also discernible in various models of speaking and listening. They are diffused through the ballooning networks of verbal communication in telecommunications, service providers and marketing services.

Cameron, investigating this phenomenon, has shown how transnational corporations have attempted to standardise styles of speech. Certain forms of speech are promoted and employees asked to mould their speech accordingly (Cameron 2002). Styles previously reserved for personal communication – the use of first name, affirming and encouraging, closing social distance – have shifted into public discourse. The
“ colonisation of interpersonal interaction” (Fairclough 1995), is apparent in many market arenas. Service providers, selling face to face or on line adopt what is conventionally considered to be the discourse of interpersonal relationships in an effort to establish stronger affective links with their customers. These listening skills are presented as if they are general language skills, which are needed as part of good communication skills. Indeed some of these manuals tell us that we don’t know how to listen, even that we listen at a 25% level of efficiency (Cameron, 2002, p.77). Of course, such an assumption for a proficient user of a language is a little absurd. What it masks is that this is not listening to understand the client or even listening in the normal sense of the word. This is listening to sell.

Call centres – or Business Process Outsourcing as they prefer to be known – take the inculcation of speaking styles in their employees very seriously. One such international provider based in Dublin, with its motto ‘We Think like a Customer’, requires its multicultural workforce to do the same. Their customer care training sessions ask them to think of their own good and bad experiences as a customer and then to describe business-friendly techniques in dealings with customers. Everything is in the language, the tone and the “way you listen”, as the extracts from one such learning module makes clear:

Listening for customer clues

_ Understanding and being understood
_ Be Business friendly
_ don’t get desensitised
_ don’t argue; solve the problem
_ Smile
_ Show empathy

Three goals of listening:
_Hear the customer
_Understand the customer
_Relate to the customer

The “ASAP” technique –
_ apologise sincerely and follow up with action
_ Show empathy with the customer
_ Accept ownership
_ Prepare to help

Some of the instructions given are useful pointers to accurate listening. One non-native speaker who worked in the call centre in question (which cannot be named because employees are asked
keep training modules strictly confidential, on pain of dismissal) found the instructions quite useful from a language point of view. However, the acceptance that the customer category applies equally to us all, that customers in a market demand absolute subordination to their needs and that call centre assistants must be moulded into that attitude – all these mark a departure in the selling business. Previously, it might have been assumed that individual employees could let common sense and their own personal skills determine exactly how customers were dealt with. Today’s careful preparation for the market world is explicitly ideological. Trainees are asked to identify with their customers in a way that converts the employee/ customer relationship into a horizontal, harmonious one, indeed into a fundamental social relationship. No detail is spared in the objective of successful selling, down to actual words to be used. Interestingly, these language directions apply to native and non-native speakers alike.


Avoid “Trigger” phrases

| Instead, say……. |
|“ I’m sorry but …” |_ “What I/we can do is…” |
|“I don’t know…” |_ “That’s a good question. I’ll find out for you.
May I put you on hold while I get that
information?” |
|“ It’s company policy, sir/ma’am” |_ “That’s a tough one. Let’s see what we can
do.” (Avoid using “ sir” or “ ma’am”) |
|“You should have….”. |_ “I have updated information for you” |
|“I suppose I can but that would require too much paperwork |_ “I’ll need a couple of minutes to help you
with that.” |
|“That’s incorrect. Someone gave you the wrong information. Who told you that?” |_ “The person who helped you before must not
have had the complete information
available.” |
|“I can’t do that.”
|_ “The best way for me to help you is to put
you in touch with/direct you to…” |
|“I’m not responsible for what other people promise.” |_ “Thank you. I appreciate you feedback on
what we’ve been doing right ….and
wrong.” |

The smiling face symbol underlines the message to be learnt, distinguishing good from bad in its own inimitable branding style.

Block sees this process as part of what the American sociologist Ritzer calls the McDonaldization of society, in which people world- wide are becoming more Americanised, over-rationalized and dehumanised – packaged with efficiency and maxim output. In similar vein, ‘McCommunication’ is the streamlining of language for a particular purpose. The model has seeped into methodology in English language teaching, and communication repackaged as “exchange of information” are either successfully or unsuccessfully carried out along the customer/service provider model. Block argues that task-based learning is based on this view of communication (Block, 2002).

The role of language in global markets today, some have argued, means that language itself has become a central part of economic production. Hardt and Negri (2005) argue that language maintains social hierarchies in three ways: firstly, within each linguistic community as signs of social superiority and inferiority; secondly, among linguistic communities through the dominance of English; and thirdly, within technical languages “as a relationship between power and knowledge” (205,132). They argue that language has become part of what they call immaterial production which has become internal to labour – by creating new means of collaboration – and external to capital -because it outside direct production processes (2005,147). It is tempting to see language in this way when so much of today’s production requires highly sophisticated linguistic and communications and competencies. But their claim that language and communication have become production in their own right skirts over the fact that advertising, branding, call centres, styles of selling, customer care service while highly influential, are nevertheless conducted in the service of actually selling something – a product or good. To this extent language is less external to capital than, sometimes used for it, one might say. Such a distinction is important because it places the seeming autonomy of language into perspective. Even if new forms of highly sophisticated communication – both electronic and verbal – develop between employees, their overall collaborative work cannot be said to take on a life of its own. It is organised very tightly – as our customer care training modules show – under the control of capital.

This is not to say, as Seabrook illustrates, that in call centres in India, the process of market indoctrination is passively accepted, despite the significant scale and degree of inculcation. In the hundreds of call centres in Kerala, Karnataka or the periphery of Delhi, according to Seabrook, “ cyber-coolie labour” (paid only 40% of UK wage rates) is told to keep up with the latest episode of Coronation St. or East Enders to make their customers believe they are speaking from around the corner rather than another continent. But this acute alienation in itself breeds hate and resentment. Seabrook relates how one call centre, worker, Tushar, a 27 engineering graduate, lets loose some of the anger bubbling under the surface:
“You feel high. The salary is good and you feel part of the modern world, but you don’t realise how much working in a foreign language takes it out of you. You try not to miss a single word of what people are saying. They expect you to be familiar with their culture but they don’t care a damn about yours. It is racist. In the end you get to resent it, and you hate them”
(Quoted Seabrook 2003)
The employee expresses his dislike of the set up in a language very different to the “nicespeak” of their training. For him, English is a second language but, like Shakespeare’s Caliban, if he has been taught a language he has also been taught to curse. While the linguistic and cultural styles in call centres demand absolute surrender to the dictates of customer satisfaction, it is mistaken to believe that this makes call centre workers a new breed of particularly passive workers. Like any assembly line work, just because it involves complete uniformity does not mean that it is accepted more willingly. In the Dublin call centre quoted above, some employees were quite cynical about management and their advocacy of customer loyalty, particularly when the company had threatened several times to close down and open up under another name. What the language promoted in call centres proves is that talking styles in English promoted for one thing can be used in other unexpected ways. Language has the potential to be highly ideological but it does not have its speakers either caught in its web or even formed ideologically in any predictable way. The Indian scholar, Ahmad has described the complexity of the English language in the Indian context and pointed out like railways it can be used for many purposes and not always those envisaged by their engineers (Ahmad 1992). The same could be said for the language of call centres – it may just end up overturning the very submission it sought to engender.

Resisting neo-liberalism – language from below

The awareness that language and linguistic signs are contested, disputed and reinterpreted by speakers themselves touches on what Eagleton has called the “porous” nature of language (Eagleton, 1995). No sooner has meaning stabilised than it readjusts mainly because language is essentially a dynamic social product in constant state of flux. From this point of view a language even if it is a dominant language like world English can never be a straitjacket, unlike the sometimes cruel conditions of its imposition. Many of the critics of the role of English in the world would disagree with this. Ngugi and Phillipson, to name but two, have very convincingly argued that the legacy of English is part and parcel of the legacy of colonialism and imperialism, is tainted with the oppressor and should be rejected as such (Ngugi, 1985; Phillipson, 1992). Phillipson has extended the concept of linguistic imperialism beyond post-colonial situations and US economic dominance. He argues that in the European context, “linguicism is rife” and that there is a need to counter this with”ecology of languages paradigm” (Phillipson, 2003). Without question, language rights are systematically ignored in the US and Europe particularly, but perhaps nowhere on any continent is there a truly multilingual policy. However, minority languages have not always been pushed out by English and minority languages themselves are not without their own exclusionary practices (Holborow, 1999:79). Phillipson is sympathetic to Esperanto as a means of establishing an alternative to English but this, I believe, leads us away from the nub of the problem.

It is too easy to assume that the strident promoters of English – the multinational corporations and the global brand names for the products that they promote – is the main identification that people have with English. Phillipson stresses that the hold of English is a “synergy between top-down and bottom -up processes” in the overall association of English with “ success, influence, consumerism and hedonism” which, he claims, “consolidates English at grassroots level” (Phillipson, 2003). This is, perhaps, to place too much emphasis on the linguistic choices available. Speakers of language mainly select their language, not because of its image or its supposed lifestyle, but because the social world in which they live requires them to speak it. Where there may be some attraction to English over and beyond social necessity, even this is not necessarily the consumerist image promoted by the multinationals that are the most popular. Alternative culture in English also constitutes a badge of identity and in the wake of war, and popular mass movements, US Inc. may not be quite as ‘cool’ as it was. Over the past five years many in all corners of the world have questioned the pillars of the neo-liberal world order and this has been reflected sometimes in English.

Pennycook has shown that rap music makes use of English in ways that incorporate a specific cultural identity that is a long way from world English as some mythical, overarching “international community”. He investigates the dynamic between the global spread of English and popular culture by examining Japanese rap and sees it as both a global and at the same time a Japanese expression: “Japanese rap in English is part of Japanese language and culture”(Pennycook 2003). Gray also makes the point that the Internet is used as much to subvert as to affirm the system. It is not only global capitalism takes to the Internet but also the Zapatistas in Mexico. Their website, for example, gives a flavour of the scope and resolve of their opposition to the neo-liberal order. In a wide embrace of a world that has become uniform for those at the bottom as well as the top, it is addressed without apology to “the people of the world”:

During the last year, the power of money has presented a new mask over its criminal face. Above borders, no matter race or color, the power of money humiliates dignities, insults honesties and assassinates hopes. Renamed ‘Neoliberalism’ the historic crime [is] in the concentration of privileges, wealth and impunities, democratises misery and hopelessness…
[B] y the name of ‘globalisation,’ they call this modern war which assassinates and forgets.
(Quoted Gray 2002:154)

This is not Standard English but a certain variety of English with its own style and rhetorical devices, and not without it own striking effect. A new “world English” is being used against the dictates of neo-liberalism in interesting, new ways, as the above excerpt makes clear. We should also note that the Internet has been put to wide radical uses, first in the anti-capitalist and then in the anti-war global movements. While it is true that Internet access is still fairly restricted in terms of the whole world, nevertheless it has historically speaking a reach not seen before in English and for purposes maybe entirely different for which it was invented. It is interesting to note how English is being used. On some sites originating in the US- for example Znet – it is taken for granted that English is the language used . On other European and South American sites, a commitment to genuine multilingualism also forms part of the revolt against the Washington consensus. For example, the World Social Forum website, which proclaims that is “ An open meeting place for reflective thinking, and the democratic debate of ideas” does so in five languages and often switches freely between them. Similarly, the Brazilian Porto Alegre World Social Forum 2003 website contains English only after Portuguese . The European Social Forum, on its websites and at its gatherings, adopts the simultaneous multilingual principal to a degree that makes better funded other international conferences – including TESOL and IATEFL – seem obstinately monolingual. Its website speaks in five languages . These websites show the beginning of a process at the heart of language change – turning English on its head and making language respond to pressures from below.


English as a language has absorbed some of the dominant ideology of neo-liberalism – in the ‘re-semanticisation’ of business and market terms by their use other fields and also through certain speaking styles which have been codified for the business of selling. Demystification of the language of neo-liberalism can reveal much about the workings of ideology, as I have shown here, and also highlight how uses of language are highly ideological. This is not something fixed or predictable but can be contested at different levels. As globalisation swells the numbers of people speaking English,
for reasons and in conditions not necessarily of their choosing, new channels of resistance to the new world order have also opened and sometimes these are in English.

The interconnections between ideology and language are important beyond the context of education and TESOL. In the neo-liberal world in which we live, crass marketisation and militarism has attempted to compel its logic on us all. Challenging that dominant neo-liberal consensus – its language, its educational practice, its ideological assumptions – is part of challenging the global order whose market fundamentalism and military exploits so many of us oppose.


As the above international comparisons show the development of Irish tertiary education is at a significant point of departure. It has achieved an improvement in the age participation rate in tertiary education which puts it amongst Europe’s leaders and it is beginning to invest significantly in research. All this was fuelled by a very fast growing economy, as well as being a signal contributor to that growth. The slow down in the economy, and the likely flattening off of the growth rate, was paralleled in the rate of expenditure on tertiary education. But this adjustment is not the only reason why a review of tertiary education is timely. The very full evidence, both written and oral, that we received suggests that there are a number of other major factors which put the tertiary education system at a crossroads:
Ireland’s determination to move from being a technology-importing, low cost economy to an innovation-based, technology-generating society requires that Irish tertiary education and research, and innovative indigenous enterprises, have to become the new drivers of economic development and of the country’s international competitiveness;
as the National Development Plan makes clear, Ireland is facing considerable pressure for increased public investment in a number of fields other than tertiary education, relevant to economic development, notably in health, transport and the environment as well as in primary and secondary education;
the birth rate, which at 23 per thousand population in the 1970s was about twice the European average, is forecast to decline to 13 per thousand by 2016. With the concentration of the entry into tertiary education being predominantly in the 18 to 20 age group (90%), this could lead to a decline in the annual cohort of second level school leavers from around 70,000 in 1990 to around 53,000 by 2015 unless school staying on rates improve considerably. HEA projects an increase in the age participation rate to over 66% by 2015 but this will require a significant improvement in the staying on rates of pupils from economically disadvantaged backgrounds;
the recognition that more needs urgently to be undertaken to widen participation in higher education (although not a task for tertiary education alone), to increase the mature entry and invest in lifelong learning as well as to address regional issues in line with the National Spatial Strategy;
the need to sustain investment in research and innovation and to address research infrastructure issues in a coordinated way so that the investment can be effectively and strategically managed;
the need to determine the future role in research and the status of the institutes of technology and to respond to the recommendations of the Cromien report on the responsibilities of the Department of Education and Science;
the evidence that present resource allocation approaches, financial management methods and accountability requirements are increasingly at odds with managing a productive higher education system;
the urgent need to modernise and rationalise the higher education system after a period when institutions have concentrated on very rapid growth so as to ensure that the system and the institutions are managed to achieve full effectiveness and value for money;
a perception that Irish tertiary education is not punching its weight, or achieving adequate recognition, internationally; and
the need to position Ireland to be internationally competitive, innovative and successful in the economic conditions of the next two decades.
pp 18-19


…[If] the Lisbon target of 3% is to be met not only will industry, which is lagging in R&D expenditure, need to invest another €1.600m over the period to 2010, but a corresponding increase of €800m in public funding is required. However, for these resources to be invested effectively, whether at the current level or at the level that would be required to meet the 2010 Lisbon target, a number of measures need to be put in place to create a sustainable research culture which will provide the depth of resource necessary to attract overseas companies in far greater numbers than currently to invest in R&D in Ireland, and to sustain and enhance indigenous industry which at the moment accounts for only a third of the current Business Expenditure on R&D (BERD) in Ireland. These measures include:
A clear distinction between the roles of institutes of technology and universities in research;
better coordination of funding for research (and research infrastructure), through research funding agencies under the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and other departments, and funding for university infrastructure through the DES and the new TEA;
a continuous investment in generic, or basic, research to sustain the flow of new research ideas, some of which, but not all, will lead to strategic ‘downstream’ R&D;
a much greater investment in postgraduate support with the aim of more than doubling the number of doctoral candidates by 2010;
implementing the reforms in HEI governance and management outlined in paragraphs -45 to 51 above; and
rationalising the number of resourcing bodies for research and producing an organisational structure better able to sustain a research strategy over a long period.
Coordination of research, research infrastructure and capital funding

Developing a research infrastructure to sustain a research intensive environment goes beyond the provision of appropriate capital facilities, however, and includes equipment, technician, library and IT support and the provision of appropriate career paths and remuneration packages for research staff so that expertise can be built up in research teams that is sustainable and where teams do not break up, if there is a temporary hold up in grant moneys or specialist staff leave. We are strongly supportive in this respect of Professor Downey’s Report Creating Ireland’s Innovation Society: The Next Strategic Step (2003). Again, if basic research provides the feedstock necessary to generate applications and innovation universities need to have built into their resources an element that can be allocated differentially and on a selective basis (see paragraph 49 above) to those areas of the institution that are research active (so that some departments may have considerably more favourable staff student ratios than others). Unless a university is able to fund academic departments so that they can pump prime new young lecturers to enable them to move into research immediately on appointment in a competitive research funding market it will be difficult for such staff to get started in research and may waste their potential. A university also needs to be funded so that it can encourage research on a broader basis than merely in those areas selected by national research bodies. A ‘dual funding’ system both offers the prospect of bottom up innovation and provides ‘floor funding’ to maintain an institutional research infrastructure. Ireland will need to translate its investment in niche research areas in universities into a broadeR&Deeper research culture before one or more of those universities can be classed as a ‘world class’ research university.
Postgraduate numbers

Comparative data suggest that Ireland must broaden its personnel base in R&D. The share of R&D personnel as a proportion of the labour force was 0.95% in Ireland as against an EU average of 1.39 with some competitor countries much higher: Finland, 2.60; Sweden, 2.43 and Denmark, 2.11. The number of PhD graduates per 1000 head of population aged 25-29 is at 1.8%, much lower than the EU average of 2.9 and far below countries like Finland and Sweden (5.8%) or Germany (5.5%). Postgraduate numbers have not grown as fast as might have been expected. For example, in science, numbers have only increased from 1,500 to 2,072 between 1991-2 and 2001-2. The average university postgraduate population stands at only about 25% (masters and doctoral students) and the current number of doctoral students at 3,000 is not much more than can be found at a single major research intensive university in some other countries in Europe. Overall, postgraduate numbers comprise only 16% of the student body in tertiary education and much of this is concentrated in Dublin (EDU/EC(2004)13). Three reasons that have contributed to this are the favourable job prospects for science graduates, the relatively low numbers of international students, and the failure to invest in enough postgraduate awards at competitive financial levels. There is an urgent need to increase rapidly the number of doctoral students for the following reasons:
The research investment currently planned and the additional that is necessary to match the Government’s strategy will require a dramatic increase in doctoral students to support the up scaling of the research that is envisaged;
a significant proportion of university staff are not research active and will need supplementation by a new generation of doctoral students;
with an academic staff which has expanded rapidly to match the rise in students numbers the replacement of retiring staff will require an increasingly large pool of candidates; and
industry, and perhaps particularly, young innovative science based companies need a steady flow of doctorally qualified staff if industrial R&D investment is to continue to expand to match the Lisbon target.
We believe that the lack of a sufficient supply of doctoral students – and this is not restricted to a comment on science and technology numbers – could be a significant bottleneck to the effective expenditure of the increased resources now available for research and could, in the future, seriously hinder Ireland’s aim to create a research intensive university system and stimulate much higher levels of industrial R&D. We recommend that immediate and comprehensive steps be taken to address the problem. In the meantime, we strongly support the moves reported to us to establish inter-university “graduate colleges” around particular research strengths to provide advanced training and intellectual support for research students.
pp 34-36

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