The preface to Andrew McGettigan’s new book The Great University Gamble: Money, Markets and the Future of Higher Education begins with a frank admission:
In 2010 a series of events brought me to the realisation that I knew hardly anything about what was happening in English universities, despite having been around them as a student, lecturer and employee for the best part of 20 years.
The main catalyst was the decision by Middlesex University to close its highest rated research department, the Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy…
My own research on education began in the spring of 2009 with a talk on ‘The Life of Students Today’ that I had been invited to give to the Middlesex student Philosophy Society, but the subsequent project was also largely catalysed by the events at Middlesex. Andrew and I both spoke at the same workshop on ‘The Humanities and the Idea of the University’, which had been organized by Christian Kerslake in the aftermath of those events. My initial attempts there to think through a critical theory of education in response to both the emerging assault on the humanities and what I regarded as the critical paucity of the responses to it were similarly informed by a sense of ignorance about Higher Education in England; for me, in particular, its history and philosophy.
As one commentator blogged at the time, the Middlesex campaign itself was at times guilty of retreating from the more interesting materialist assessment that ‘The University is a Factory’ to a problematic educational idealism. With regard to claims concerning “research excellence” this may have been tactically justified (especially in countering the rationalizations for the closure in the more mainstream media), but broader claims about the (direct or indirect) political significance of academic thought that accompanied the emerging defence of the humanities in the events that followed seemed to me, then and now, to be mistaken.
Of course, to the extent Gilles Deleuze was correct in pointing out the ways in which the disciplinary space of the factory has given way, under certain mutations within capitalism, to the post-disciplinary terrain of the corporation (‘and the corporation is a spirit, a gas’) a comparison with the industrialized factory already begins to appear anachronistic. Consideration of the way these new corporate spaces become increasingly preoccupied with providing perpetual training for a flexible workforce alongside – as Carl Cederström and Peter Fleming’s Dead Man Working analyses – lessons in self-motivation, creativity, and “re-humanization” for its previously mechanized staff, we might be tempted, in light of this simultaneous blurring of work and education, to invert the slogan and declare that ‘The Factory is a University’ (cf. The EduFactory Collective’s writings on their great blog). What is remarkable, for example, in Douglas Spencer’s examination of the new architectural spaces of Ravensbourne College and the Central Building for the BMW plant at Leipzig – and we might speak here of a process of the corporatization of education and the pedagogization of the corporation – is just how similar they look.
As Andrew suggests in the quote above, events like the closure of philosophy at Middlesex have often forced those involved in higher education to redirect the theoretical resources of their disciplines upon the politics of education itself. We might say, in the language of educational theory that accompanies this corporatization, that this pedagogical turn in theory is one of the unintended “learning outcomes” of the assault on the humanities. Or, as Andrew concluded in an article for Radical Philosophy:
Our habits of thought are inappropriate for understanding and contesting these developments: new forms are required.
The discussion below was my contribution to a news report first published in Radical Philosophy 162 (Jul/Aug 2010) in immediate response to the events of that summer. I’ve omitted the closing sections of the original, anonymously published article, which were written by another contributor. The CRMEP and its postgraduate students transferred to Kingston University later that summer, leaving behind the undergraduate students and two members of staff, Christian Kerslake and Mark Kelly. In March this year, Christian posted a final message on the ‘Save Middlesex Philosophy’ website:
…Middlesex Philosophy department is no more. Thank you to everyone for their support during the critical times of 2010-11. Some of the execs responsible for the closure of the department have moved on, the Trent Park campus pictured on this website no longer exists, and the university has a new badge, a coat of arms with a crown and three swords. Here we are, in an absurd reality where it costs £9000 a year to go to university. The student protests of 2010-11 will be remembered as a blast of collective common sense before lunacy prevailed.
The End of Philosophy at Middlesex?
On 26 April, the Dean of the School of Arts and Education announced the decision to close recruitment to all undergraduate and postgraduate programmes in Philosophy at Middlesex University, London, including research degrees in the highly regarded Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy (CRMEP) – the top research-rated unit in the University. News of the announcement quickly generated a widespread outpouring of concern and support. Within days an online petition demanding the reversal of the decision had already received several thousand signatures, whilst a ‘Save Middlesex Philosophy’ Facebook group set up by students had begun attracting members, garnering messages of solidarity from other departments and institutions – notably, in the UK, from similar campaigns at Sussex, Essex and King’s College London – and organizing campaign meetings. At the time of writing (9 June), the group has over 13,500 members and the petition has in excess of 18,000 signatures.
The press attention provoked by the closure began with an article by Nina Power published on 29 April in the CommentIsFree section of the Guardian online. This placed the recent events within the context of wider threats to Philosophy departments across the UK, but also took care to single out the particular intellectual and political concerns at stake in terminating Philosophy at Middlesex, with its critical emphasis upon European philosophy and political thought and its place within a post-92 university. The same day the New Statesman’s ‘Cultural Capital’ website attacked the decision as a more general ‘Assault on the Humanities’ which lacked any ostensible rationale or justification. The Times Higher Education website picked up the story on 1 May, and followed up five days later in its weekly edition with a more detailed analysis of the underlying relationship of the announced closure to the strategic promotion of business, scientific and vocational subjects – at the expense of the humanities – by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE)’s funding banding system. It also published a letter – signed by thirty leading international academics, including Badiou, Balibar, Butler, Hardt, Negri, Rancière, Spivak and Žižek – calling on the University to ‘reverse this damaging and ill-judged decision’ and ‘to renew its commitment to widening participation in education and to excellence in research’.
By this point, students had grown impatient with the University management’s refusal to justify their decision or to address these concerns. On 4 May, when the only meeting the management had called with them to discuss the implications for their ongoing study was cancelled at short notice, students protested by converging outside the office of the Dean of Arts and Education, who had recommended the closure, and electing to wait for him there. The wait lasted two days. At which point a rally was held outside the building, joined by supportive staff and students from other universities (including Étienne Balibar), and the sit-in expanded in terms of number of participants and space, from the boardroom and administrative corridor to a full occupation of the main ‘Mansion’ building on the University’s Trent Park campus. When, on 6 May, the deferred meeting ended with the management’s refusal to enter into any negotiations concerning the reversal of their decision, students returned to the occupied building and declared it an open space for workshops, reading groups, presentations, poetry and film screenings. Over the following ten days a busy schedule of events was attended by researchers, teachers, students, artists and others sympathetic to the students’ cause. This culminated in a rally outside the occupied ‘Mansion’ at which Tariq Ali, an editor of New Left Review, spoke of the need to resist what he called ‘Kentucky Fried Education’: ‘you swallow it, barely digest it, then excrete it’. The last students left the occupation on 15 May under the threat of a High Court injunction that the management had served the previous day. During this period their action had generated a number of articles in the British press, including further comments in the Guardian and THE, as well as the Observer and London Review of Books and a brief discussion on the BBC World Service’s Sunday News Hour.
A perfect storm
Even more significant, perhaps, and indicative of the way in which contemporary political organization has sought to exploit the immediacy and mass reach of the Internet and social-networking sites as effectively and creatively as the corporations and institutions they are often poised against, is the way in which the campaign took root and proliferated online. Countless online journals and blogs sought to dissect and diagnose the events and their underlying causes, typically with more critical acumen and insight than the press itself: most notably, the comments appearing on the influential Leiter Reports blog and John Protevi’s article on ‘Why Middlesex Matters’ for the US-based website ‘Inside High-Ed’. Meanwhile, the campaign’s Facebook group has provided a virtual space in which solidarity and encouragement could be publicly passed on to the occupying students in the form of messages of support and assembled videos and artworks, whilst organization and collaborative action could be collectively discussed and delegated.
This intensifying loop of real-world protests, social networking and blogging, and predominantly online journalism with its ‘reader’s comments’, has nonetheless been triggered by what John Protevi has described as a ‘“perfect storm” of academic resistance’. In many ways, however, it is the University management’s own ambiguity concerning the rationale for the closure that has allowed this storm to grow. The Dean initially explained the decision as ‘simply financial’, emphasizing the low recruitment to the single-honours undergraduate programme. However, this explanation contradicted the strategy, previously endorsed by managers, to concentrate recruitment on postgraduate programmes and research degrees. The postgraduate community had flourished, with 48 MA students in 2009–10 (the largest cohort of Philosophy MA students in the UK) and 15 PhD students (with 5 PhDS awarded last year). The financial viability of the combined programmes had been strengthened by significant annual Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) income and external research funding, including a recent large AHRC project grant, 2006–09. Consequently, staff had been confident their subject group could meet the required contributions demanded by the University. One of the ironies of the situation turned out to be that it was the CRMEP’s success in generating RAE income that had made it prey to the short-term ‘asset-stripping’ of its financial resources, which will be collected by the university from HEFCE until the end of the funding cycle (2014, at the earliest) in the absence of the very researchers who generated the funding.
As many commentators have pointed out, notably in the THE, the ‘financial’ imperative behind this decision is closely tied to a prematurely enacted anticipation of changes in the HEFCE’s funding streaming, an important source of revenue per student. HEFCE provides different levels of funding per student depending on the subject band, providing the most to what it perceives as more expensive training-based courses (the highest band being clinical medicine), and the least to classroom-based subjects such as those in the humanities. This difference is intended to reflect the higher level of spending necessitated by the course of study, yet many commentators have understood the closure of Philosophy at Middlesex as part of a wider strategy to generate additional income by switching from humanities to more vocational, training-based subjects without matching the increased spending expected of such degrees. This is taken by many as a symptom of a disturbing trend in the funding and management of universities, which takes place against the backdrop of an imminent Tory–Liberal emergency budget seeking to make £200 million in spending cuts to university budgets and provide 10,000 fewer university places than announced in Labour’s last budget. Such measures can only bolster the threats being made by the elite Russell group of universities to the government that if the cap on tuition fees is not removed they should expect a wave of privatizations by the prestigious universities, which threatens in turn regressively to transform the study of the humanities once more into the preserve of the privileged few.
What is most telling about the decision to close the philosophy programmes at Middlesex is the Dean’s claim that the department’s reputation made no ‘measurable’ contribution to the university; indeed, that reputation has ‘no financial value’.
During ‘Who’s Afraid of Philosophy?’, an event hosted on 19 May by the Institute of Contemporary Arts in support of the campaign, Peter Osborne, Director of the CRMEP, spoke of Middlesex as the ‘current focal point for an intensifying attempt to get rid of philosophy, in particular, and to reduce the humanities in general’ across a whole segment of UK universities. There is an existential dimension to this phenomenon, he argued, whereby philosophy has become the ‘temporary resting place of a capitalistic dread’ of the unmeasurable. This anxiety is held at bay by the precisely quantified commercial outgoings of the managers who are closing down Philosophy departments upon branding exercises, marketing and consultancy fees, and the swelling of their own bureaucratic regimes. At Middlesex, £3.5 million was spent on consultants and external advisers in 2008–09 alone. And whilst the number of academic staff has been falling, that of ‘administrative’ staff (which includes managers) has been increasing – the ratio is now 733 : 860 – and senior managerial staff earning in excess of £100,000 a year have almost doubled.