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Higher education is finding itself increasingly defined by modes of competition, marketisation and privatisation. Richard Hall disentangles the web of social relations in which the university exists and asks what alternatives to the neoliberal model are possible? He finds that academics may need to consider whether a more activist, public and social role is necessary in the face of the restructuring of universities as competing capitals. 

In a post from September 2011 on academic activism, boundary-less toil and exodus, I amend a quote from John Holloway to argue that “academics need to consider their participatory traditions and positions, and how they actively contribute to the dissolution of their expertise as a commodity, in order to support other socially-constructed forms of production”. The amended Holloway quote is as follows.

In reality, what the [University] does is limited and shaped by the fact that it exists as just one node in a web of social relations. Crucially, this web of social relations centres on the way in which work is organised. The fact that work is organised on a capitalist basis means that what the [University] does and can do is limited and shaped by the need to maintain the system of capitalist organisation of which it is a part. Concretely, this means that any [University] that takes significant action directed against the interests of capital will find that an economic crisis will result and that capital will flee from the [University] territory.

I then go on to argue that:

Whether or not we agree with Holloway’s point about the state’s implications in the maintenance of a capitalist order, we have seen capital’s increasing control over higher education in the United Kingdom through the Coalition Government’s shock doctrine. The ideological, political drive towards, for instance, indentured study and debt, internationalisation, privatisation and outsourcing means that the University has little room for manoeuvre in resisting the enclosing logic of competition and in arguing for a socialised role for higher education. This means that the internal logic of the University is prescribed by the rule of money, which forecloses on the possibility of creating transformatory social relationships.

I have been reminded of this by Steve Smith’s [vice-chancellor of the University of Exeter] acceptance of the politics of austerity and his focus on the rule of money in defining a UK higher education that is predicated on competition and marketisation. This reminds me that the leadership we might crave for an alternative form of higher education that is against student-as-consumer and the extraction of value from previously socialised goods like education, is highly unlikely to come from University Vice-Chancellors. Gurminder Bhambra provides a salutary reminder of that fact in her comment piece on the Sussex privatisation protests, and the disciplinary reaction of University leaders to peaceful campus protest. It is worth re-visiting the demands and calls for dialogue of those involved in that protest, in order to reflect on the courage it takes to stand-up for collective forms of higher education in a set of spaces that are being increasingly enclosed and commodified, and against the cultural space that is increasingly described by business leaders like Smith.

So the question of how to address the realpolitik of neoliberalism, becomes what is to be done in the face of the politics of austerity? What alternatives are possible in the face of the insistent mantras of the rule of money, other than, as Andrew McGettigan does so ably, to follow the money and to show what we risk losing as we enclose and commodify the historic value of a higher education that was constructed socially? In light of the leadership revealed in Smith’s comment piece I return to my posting from earlier this week on memory, profitability, disruption and socialised alternatives:

At issue are the ways in which knowledge and forms of knowing that are created inside the University, MOOC, disruptive-wherever can be liberated or repatriated for global knowing, and against enclosure and commodification. What forms of knowledge, what skills and practices, what ways of knowing, what mechanisms for analysing global problems, can be emancipated and used to define alternative, socialised value forms? To where can they be liberated or repatriated so that they can be used against-and-beyond their private accumulation for profit? How and where do we ignite critical, political pedagogic practices that enable the democratic production and consumption of knowledge and knowing? These are the questions that ought to frame the idea of (disruptions to) higher education, and its contributions to our collective responses to global crises.

In contesting the enclosure and commodification of the university and higher education there is a need to connect the work of protests like those at Sussex, to the work of trades unions, and to alternative spaces like the Campaign for the Public University and to live projects like the Social Science Centre. Possibilities for refusal and for pushing back on issues of both institutional governance and operation are critical. As McGettigan argues, we need to think about the public funding, regulation and governance of institutions and the sector, and to make connections to other educational spaces like the Workers Educational Association and the Co-operatives movement. However, we also need to consider whether a more activist, public and social role for academics is necessary in the face of the restructuring of universities as competing capitals. We might, then, consider how and where students and teachers can dissolve the symbolic power of the University into the actual, existing reality of protest, in order to structure a process of meaningful social transformation? At issue is the autonomy of the University in helping to define such an alternative when its world is increasingly shaped by the polyarchic constraints of money/commodity and market-based consumption.

This was originally posted on Richard Hall’s personal blog and is reposted with permission. For more on higher education and the UK Government’s austerity agenda, see Richard’s follow up piece, “The University and the secular crisis“.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Impact of Social Science blog, nor of the London School of Economics.  

About the Author

Richard Hall works at De Montfort University in Leicester, UK, where he is the Head of Enhancing Learning through Technology (ELT), based in the Directorate of Library and Learning Services. He manages the Centre for ELT and is responsible for the academic implementation of ELT with the aim of enhancing the student learning experience and underpinning a resilient curriculum. 

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