The Assault on the Universities

This is a lightly edited version of my  review of Michael Bailey and Des Freedman’s edited collection of essays, The Assault on Universities: A Manifesto for Resistance, which was first published in Radical Philosophy 172 (Mar/Apr 2012). Parts of this discussion were also presented at a seminar on ‘Unsentimental Education: The Assault on the Universities and the Refunctioning of Pedagogy’ (1st December 2011) that I was invited to give by The Centre for Social and Political Thought at the University of Sussex.

I’ve been developing the theoretical contrast between Nietzsche and Brecht raised at the end of this piece in some more recent talks. What interests me here, when thinking about the various and important kinds of ‘resistance’ put forward in the left-wing defence of the University, is the extent to which a private/public distinction might itself be a red herring (as discussed in this previous post) but also how any maximum cap on students places should be a focus of attack itself, alongside broader demands for a free and polytechnical higher/further education system.


AssaultOnUniversitiesThe conceptual poles that orient the collection of essays edited by Des Freedman and Michael Bailey in The Assault on Universities are, on the one hand, an insistence on higher education as a public good, with public benefits and to be supported as a public service, and, on the other, a governmental policy – partially initiated prior to the current coalition government, but now pursued with an unprecedented speed, aggression and intensity – set on the thoroughgoing privatization of that sector. These poles are schematized in Freedman’s introduction as the ‘reformers’ towards privatization versus a campaign of ‘resistance’ that seeks to defend what is most progressive about the existing public education system.

That many of the essays in this book are marked by the ferocity of the transformations we are experiencing is a testament to the speed and collaborative effort (involving students, researchers and academic staff) in accordance with which these essays were written and edited. Almost a third of the contributors work at Goldsmiths, whose staff and students both played an integral role in the student demonstrations at the end of last year and courageously defended the protesters – where other unions dared not – against the widespread media-led fenesteria in the wake of the attack on Millbank Tower.

The Assault on Universities is thus a timely work in several senses. Across its pages, the government’s justifications for the necessity of teaching cuts and fee hikes and its recourse to the logic of market competition are mercilessly dissected. Freedman rejects the rhetoric of austerity as counterproductive to economic recovery, and contextualizes the wider attack on public services in terms of the growing intrusion of the private sector in these services over the last decade, underpinned – as Nick Couldry points out – by Milton Friedman’s seemingly anachronistic ideology of market liberalism. As John K. Walton notes, this infects the public sector with the representatives and values of corporate capitalism: the McKinseyist business model (things that cannot be measured have no value) of a new and often semi- or non-academic managerial class. This transformation is also usefully contextualized in relation to a growing dependence on the exploitation of a workforce of precariously employed teaching staff or graduate students (highlighted in detail in Marc Bousquet’s How the University Works: Higher Education and Low-Wage Nation), to the history of the student movement, and to international changes in higher education in insightful essays by Natalie Fenton, John Rees and Marion von Osten.

The voices raised here are also historically suspended, poised between an enthusiasm for the student movement that took to the streets in November 2010, disappointment over the Commons passing of the motion to raise the tuition fee limit that December, and a hopeful uncertainty over the direction and resilience the ‘resistance’ would take over the course of 2011 and beyond. This foregrounded timeliness is imposed not merely by the temporal conditions under which the work was published, but also by the conceptual terms of regressive ‘reform’ and progressive ‘resistance’ that to a large extent set the agenda of its debate. The collection’s subtitle, A Manifesto for Resistance, expresses this apparently jarring mix of temporalities: a performance of futural intent towards making something manifest, directed here towards preserving and retaining a past institution, the public university.

Of Course… However….

‘Of course universities are not, and never have been, pristine sites of autonomous and intellectual labour’, notes Des Freedman in the introduction.

However, like many other publicly funded institutions which do not always live up to expectations (the BBC and NHS spring to mind), a strong defence of the principle of public provision carries with it the possibility not only of ‘holding the line’ but also of invigorating and democratizing these institutions.

Examples of this backward/forward looking ‘Of course… However’ defence of the public abound across these essays. This may be strategically useful – even necessary – but it may simultaneously be indicative of what, in an essay on ‘Achievements and Limitations of the UK Student Movement’, Ashok Kumar singles out as ‘the failure of the movement to draft an alternative to the existing system’. I don’t mean to suggest we’ve simply neglected to draft such an alternative, but that the difficulty of even Alain-de-Bottonattempting to do so is symptomatic of a general political impasse, within which education (as the perennial site for problems of political transition) becomes overinvested as the sphere in which these problems are re-transposed, reduplicated and intensifed. There is something miraculous in thinking that education – as one of the privileged reproducers of class inequalities – in itself harbours the germ of a resilient and assertive future citizenship, inhabited by intellectual truth-tellers as ‘a cornerstone for the realization of an educated democracy’, and the resources required for the reconstitution of the public good fora cosmopolitan global governance. The admission for entering into such a defence of higher education must be a frank, historical appraisal of the extent to which UK universities have competed against each other within a system of academic selection or even been capable of producing engaged, public intellectuals.

Although a range of viewpoints is represented in these essays, a reluctance to offer an explicit defence of the university outside the existing, largely liberal-democratic formulations of higher education must be confronted, as both indicative of a deliberate, attractive and by no means ineffective political strategy, and a framing and fixing of the debate at the level of ideology critique and the crisis of a democratic political culture that might itself be problematic. The real risk of desiring to build a ‘counterculture’ defending the ideals of classical liberalism on the model of Wendy Brown’s ‘counter-rationality’, or Amartya Sen’s Freedom and Rationality, or Axel Honneth’s concept of recognition – even if constructed on the basis of the kind of knowing ‘counter-ideology’ proposed by Ronald Barnett (Beyond All Reason: Living with Ideology in the University, 2003) – is that of precluding precisely the broader kinds of inclusivity and relevance that the authors insist be built.

This fixing of the focus of debate is reflected in the list of demands made upon government and university management at the conclusion of the book, which quite reasonably focuses on increases to public expenditure on higher education, including nationally agreed terms and conditions for staff negotiated by trade unions and a commitment to the Living Wage even for outsourced services, to be offset against increases in corporation tax and the highest levels of personal taxation, and by fixed salary scales for VCs and senior staff. These are the kind of ‘non-reformist reforms’ (André Gorz) that Alberto Toscano points out are nonetheless derided as impossible, and more difficult to achieve than the fleeting experiences of democracy afforded by the organization of protests and occupations. It is right that they form the starting point for a ‘resistance’ around which the broadest coalition can be organized. But they should not preclude bolder, deeper, more unsettling questions about the very concept of public education.

Untimely Meditations

In an occasionally sneering review of The Assault on Universities in Spiked magazine, Tim Black argues that to cling to the idea of the university as lever of social-economic mobility is now indefensible, given the rise of inequality that has accompanied the ‘masssification’ of higher education. In its place there ‘now exists’, he insists, ‘the profound question as to what the purpose of the university ought to be’. Black’s answer clings to an even older idea of academic autonomy and Newmanesque ‘in-utility’, singling out for praise Walton’s essay on ‘The Idea of the University’ because it returns to a secularized version of the ‘older, nineteenth-century notions of the intrinsic worth of knowledge and culture (embodied in J. H. Newman’s The Idea of the University and Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy)’. But on what basis is it possible to discard so easily Newman’s commitment to the transmission of Catholic truth, once regarded as central to universal learning, whilst insisting on the impossibility today of a university without philosophers? In the liberal-democratic defence of the Idea of the University, are those disciplines deemed essential – is disciplinarity itself – to be immured from historical transformation?

This touches on the larger theme of the ‘massification’ of the university and raises the question of the economic, social and technological transformation of education, especially in the last two decades. Neil Faulkner argues that ‘the expansion of the universities in the 1950s and 1960s created mass higher education for the first time’, whose central contradiction (between intellectual holism and social inclusivity) produced a crisis that was ‘dramatically Friedrich_Nietzsche-1872revealed by the student revolt of November–December 2010’. From even a cursory historical materialist perspective, however, the central issue would still have to be confronted: to speak more generally of a ‘resistance’ on behalf of the public university would suggest the possibility of a non-contradictory harmonizing of these concepts, rather than any kind of dialectical transformation of the terms involved. A similar contradiction runs through the heart of Nietzsche’s transitional essay ‘On the Future of our Educational Institutions’, and in the name of producing a higher culture premissed on the independence of the university, he is happy to discard the ‘massification’ of higher education and its corrosive association with the state as mere philistinism. It is at the same crossroads that Black’s defence of the university finds itself unwittingly conjoined to that of the coalition government as a counter-revolution against the modern demand for accessibility and participation in the name of preserving the integrity of an older vision of academic autonomy (which will, we must imagine, be preserved in its current form by the coalition government, if only for the privileged elite).

The best of the essays in this collection remain alive to this contradiction and to the inversion of the perspective of ‘resistance’ it suggests. Its spectre haunts Toscano’s contribution (which in many ways stands in sympathy with, but also as a critical response to, Kumar’s demands), which asks at the outset, ‘Is it possible to democratize the university?’, and does not shrink from the difficulties involved: ‘And when autonomy, maturity and critical reasoning are components of the ideology of an institution (today we could perhaps add creativity, innovation, and even radicalism), it is not surprising that some of its inhabitants “over-identify” with them.’ In doing so, Toscano inverts the timeliness of a Manifesto for Resistance. Of course, he might have written, ‘a “transitional programme” for a democratic university would certainly need to table collective measures against the kinds of managerial power that acts as a crucial transmission belt for the implementation of government policies on education.’ However, he might add, issues of democratic content (what is to be done?) must take precedence over the fetishizing of democratic forms as solutions in their own right (how should we proceed?).

These questions come to bear on the function and possibility of the public university. If cuts to the public sector and the services they support are merely ideological (the result of choices about taxation versus welfare), it is assumed there is no underlying contradiction between the social-democratic ideal of the mass, public universities of the future and the systematic functioning of late capitalism. If, as Nick Stevenson argues, the ‘third way’ emphasis upon democracy and civil society sought to mask the extent to which the class structure and capitalism were inhospitable to these ideals, we must therefore go further than Nick Couldry’s insistence that neoliberal democracy is a paradoxical oxymoron and confront the possibility that a fundamental contradiction exists between capitalism (and not merely its neoliberal version) and a mass, modern and public higher education system. It may be untimely to formulate the experiment ahead in such starkly Brechtian terms, but if the concept of ‘higher education’ can no longer be applied to the thing transformed into a commodity, we may have to eliminate this concept with due caution but without fear, lest we liquidate the function of the very thing as well.


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