speaking of universities

Stefan Collini offers a robust critique of the neoliberal academy, but we need an oppositional university as an alternative, argues Oliver Eagleton


Stefan Collini, Speaking of Universities (Verso 2018), 304pp.

Since the coalition government increased tuition fees in 2010, Ulster University (the largest higher-education institution in Northern Ireland) has closed its modern-languages department, drastically reduced its number of teaching staff, and turned its student common room into a corporate dining suite. It has also told academics that they cannot keep books in their offices, since this would compromise the university’s all-digital, tech-friendly brand image. This erosion of intellectual integrity – which Ulster University emblematises, but which has been afflicting British higher education for more than a decade – cannot be explained by fee rises alone.

Rather, the £9,000 price tag for an undergraduate degree is itself symptomatic of an insidious attempt to transform the university into a neoliberal instrument: an attempt started by Thatcher, sustained by New Labour, and ramped up under Cameron. As Stefan Collini’s Speaking of Universities illustrates, we cannot understand Britain’s decaying academic culture until we grasp the intricacies of this marketising process.

Collini’s book foregrounds the history of current education policy. In 1989, the University Funding Council was founded to make higher-education funding more responsive to the demands of the market, with many of its members drawn from the world of business and finance. Over the following decades, responsibility for university funding was delegated to various councils and ministries until it was absorbed by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills in 2009. The same year, Gordon Brown established a seven-person committee comprised of businessmen, bankers and economists, whose suggestions on education finance formed the basis of the Tories’ subsequent reforms. Both Thatcher and New Labour therefore restructured investment in higher learning to reflect the needs of business, with predictable results for students and researchers: the humanities were drained of resources, vocational degrees proliferated, and academic institutions reoriented their activities towards promoting ‘economic growth’.

For Collini, the tuition-fee hike is another insertion of market ideology into this sphere. While government money is steadily withdrawn from universities, or concentrated in areas where it will benefit the business sector, the resultant funding gap must be closed by students, which means that universities are forced to balance their budgets by competing for applicants. Defenders of the reform claim that this will increase quality, as institutions must provide an education whose quality justifies its cost.

The business model of education

Collini offers a twofold rebuttal of this thesis. First, he dismantles the government’s underreported ‘core and margin’ policy, which aims to promote competition between universities. Under this system, the state guarantees each university a fixed or ‘core’ number of entrants each year. The ‘margin’ is the additional students whose fees ensure the university’s financial solvency, but who are liable to be snatched up by rival institutions. Students in this margin must either have A-level grades above AAB or attend an institution whose average fee is below £7,500. Therefore, writes Collini, the competitive structure is rigged to help prestigious institutions with high entry standards, or for-profit providers whose fees are typically lower. More students (and, by extension, more resources) will accrue to universities that are already well-established and well-resourced, or to those that use their fees to line the pockets of private shareholders. The ‘consumer choice’ model will not enhance education. It will enrich institutions and individuals that are already wealthy: a ‘naked example of using the power of the state to entrench hierarchy in the name of “market principles”’ (p.102).

Collini’s second criticism of this market logic is its reliance on the dubious assessment mechanisms designed to ensure that applicants can gauge the ‘quality’ of their prospective degree programme. Through the Research Excellence Framework and the Teaching Excellence Framework, the government has drawn up an elaborate metric which will supposedly quantify the value of each university department’s activities. Students, on whom these departments are financially reliant, can use the Frameworks to decide which courses they apply for: an arrangement which, for Tory policymakers, will increase the performance of academics and the satisfaction of pupils.

Except that the criteria set out by the REF and TEF are rarely indicative of academic merit. Indeed, Collini demonstrates that the completion of tiresome performance-management exercises has substantially weakened teaching and scholarship. This is because the areas in which universities are expected to excel include the societal ‘impact’ of their work and the salaries of their graduates. Both of these reflect an economistic view of education that, yet again, equates market utility with intellectual value. Under the new programme, universities have gotten better at teaching employable skills and calculating the short-term impact of their work; but this does not mean they’ve gotten better.

Meanwhile, the administration of these meaningless assessments has facilitated the rise of a parasitic managerial class, who are paid vast sums to maintain an unnecessary and punitive system of surveillance; one which assumes that, without constant the oversight of bureaucrats, professors would simply neglect their students and abandon their research. The diversion of resources towards the Frameworks, and away from academic work, diminishes the educational quality which they purport to measure and maintain.

Market fundamentalism

The cost of these reforms is significant. By 2046 there will still be £191 billion worth of outstanding student-loan debt, and the REF cost £246 million to administer in 2014 alone. Though the coalition reforms were painted as an attempt to balance the budget, it is unclear whether they will generate any returns in their current form. Yet to see this as a policy failure is to ignore the ideological motivation for the Tories’ education overhaul, which recasts students as consumers, learning as a product, and universities as businesses which prepare people to work in other businesses.

For market fundamentalists, this transformation of the academy is worth any expense. Althoutgh, as Collini notes, the government will eventually cut costs by ‘monetizing the loan book’. That is, selling off student debt to private companies who are permitted, under the present legislation, to raise interest, lower repayment thresholds, change the repayment schedule and axe the debt forgiveness clause in order to maximise profit.

Speaking of Universities is a powerful and engaging indictment of these policies which describes their ruinous effect on academia. It also illustrates a paradox of neoliberal governance which transcends the university debate. To create a fully-marketised environment in which the state’s role is diminished, the state must greatly intensify its involvement in higher education: directing degree programmes, monitoring teaching and research, and stepping in to avert disaster when the market doesn’t deliver.

Free enquiry or progressive struggle?

Collini’s most eloquent moments come when he subjects government reports to detailed literary analysis, observing the telling insecurity at work in phrases such as, ‘Putting financial power into the hands of learners makes student choice meaningful’, whose ‘empty, relationship-counselling cadence’ signals the vacuity of the dogma it promotes (p.105). Yet one of the features which Collini criticises in such documents is ‘mechanical repetition’ – and here we find a contradiction which hints at the limits of his argument.

For Collini’s book is itself tirelessly repetitive, scattering identical phrases and critiques across its several chapters (the sixth time we read that universities should ‘extend and deepen human understanding’ we begin to feel a little queasy). The author appears to be at least partially aware of this, as he dedicates a section to defending previous writers who have championed the university as a site of ‘free inquiry’, no matter how tedious or reiterative their work seems. So, for Collini, there is bad repetition (found in the government’s facile management-speak) and good repetition (which indefatigably reaffirms the ‘ideal of the university’). What gets lost in this world of clashing repetitive discourses is the prospect of a new, more progressive image of the academy.

Collini is content to restate the case for a grand, noble, autonomous academic institution along the lines of Oxbridge, in which scholars are free to inquire with no telos and no political purpose. He rejects any notion of the university as an ‘oppositional’ formation with a duty to advance societal critique, for this impedes the scholar’s necessarily ‘open-ended’ mode of study. In one way, Collini is right that the compulsion to perform a social function, whether radical or reactionary, is intellectually stifling. Theorists who believe that academia must always drive political progress are instrumentalising education as much as their neoliberal opponents. But, given that the most worthwhile features of higher learning are under sustained assault, it is uncertain whether a breathless reaffirmation of the ‘scholarly ideal’ will produce concrete effects. If, as Collini argues, the space for ‘free inquiry’ is being systematically closed, can we arrest or reverse this process by harking back to a mid-twentieth-century image of the idle Oxbridge don? Or must we rather envision an academy which is equipped to resist its neoliberal debasement, even if that means adopting a (temporarily) oppositional stance?

The oppositional university

It is, of course, both hollow and dogmatic to say that the university is inherently oppositional; but if Collini’s analysis of marketisation is correct, then the university as an autonomous entity is antithetical to our current political climate, whether we like it or not. In which case, it is better to embrace this oppositionality than to pine for a nostalgic ideal. Collini writes that ‘more is to be gained, by everyone, if universities explain in their own terms the character of what they do and why it is significant’ – a convincing appeal to shirk the values of ‘impact’ and ‘efficiency’ pedalled by Whitehall (p.200). But there is a difference, unappreciated by Collini, between adopting the enemy’s vocabulary and updating our own. In fact, one could argue that neoliberal discourse cannot be defeated unless we develop an alternative that is more engaged, more combative, and less beguiled by fantasies of the languid and luxuriating scholar.

What would this alternative look like? Joseph North’s excellent Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History (Harvard University Press 2017), offers a suggestion. Instead of seeing English departments as tools to accumulate and transmit knowledge, he writes, we should recalibrate them as spaces to cultivate a subjectivity that is at odds with neoliberal culture. Through close attention to literary texts, we should foster a critical and aesthetic awareness which can be used to challenge the economic order. The field of literary studies should move away from ‘free inquiry’ (in the sense of acquiring information about a particular author for no pregiven end), and towards an explicitly ideological attempt to develop instincts and capacities which clash with capitalism.

North points out that the type of research which Collini valorises – independent, uncommitted, open-ended – can be convenient for a system which wants to marginalise and repress the subversive potential of the humanities. Yes, the REF asks academics to quantify their ‘impact’, but the government’s bizarre and monetised definition of ‘impact’ ensures that truly influential scholars rarely ace their assessments. What this political moment requires is a culture of academic ‘interventionism’ (to use North’s term) – a weaponisation of the academy to face down its adversaries – rather than an aloof disdain for impact.

As I see it, this reimagination of the university would not dispense with open, non-programmatic scholarship; it would simply acknowledge that the conditions for such research must be created by a concerted political effort. Its pedagogy would be unashamedly ideological, yet it would strive towards Collini’s ideal of non-instrumental education. Unsurprisingly, Collini himself is dismissive of such a project, standing by his liberal conviction that we must repeat ‘the ideal’ until those in power accept its righteousness.

When Collini reviewed North’s historical survey for the London Review of Books, he presented it as a work of infantile Marxism whose proposals are impracticable. He may be right. But North’s instinct that a defence of education requires an attack on neoliberalism seems more pragmatic and less utopian than Collini’s pacifistic register. The latter provides an unmatched account of our present situation, while the former conjures a vision of the future which is inspiring if imprecise. Leftists who are serious about saving the university must take Collini’s critique in new and imaginative directions.

Oliver Eagleton is a journalist living in London.

Oliver Eagleton

Oliver Eagleton is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in Jacobin, Novara and openDemocracy, as well as Counterfire.