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The Assault on Universities is a defence of the social purpose and value of universities in the face of the coalition government’s destructive policies for higher education, outlining also the means and nature of the resistance needed, argues Marienna Pope-Weidemann.

The Assault on Universities: A Manifesto for Resistance, eds. Des Freedman and Michael Bailey (Pluto 2011), 194pp.

The Assault on Universities was written at a time of considerable argument within the left on its struggle against the corporate agenda. The final months of 2010 saw a remarkable ground-up mobilisation against the ConDem government. Hundreds of thousands marched and occupied up and down the country. On 9th December 2010, the day of the tuition fee vote, Parliament Square was swarming with people. However, perhaps in part due to violent intimidation from police and the passing of the vote, which articulated the ConDem’s complete indifference to the will of the people, ‘Day X’ seemed to nudge something in the collective memory.

After that, people were talking about the Poll Tax Riots under Thatcher, and identifying the same corrosive influence at work in the British Government today. More than ever before there was a will to opt out of traditional party politics and avoid this perpetual pendulum swing between two dominant parties (now three) who maintain the same neoliberal ‘logic’ and consistent disregard for the demands of ordinary people. We ‘were asking fundamental questions about society: the neutrality of the police and the media, who has access to education and the best jobs, and the nature of parliamentary democracy’ (p.130).

Despite the loss of the vote, the student movement of 2010 broadened the debate and challenged the trade unions to match its vigour. But in the New Year the movement lost direction, due in no small part to their own NUS’ failure to meet that challenge. With treachery afoot in the NUS, no success in changing the ConDemn course, no voice in the mainstream media and the apocalyptic vocabulary of the Eurocrisis drowning out calls for social justice with screeching complaints about the FTSE 100, the student body experienced a crisis of faith. It was in this atmosphere of frustration that the contributing lecturers and academics compiled The Assault on Universities.

As its subtitle suggests, The Assault on Universities comprises a comprehensive manifesto declaring political principle and pragmatic intent. Accessible and well-researched, it marks out for the reader the trail blazed by the student movement for system-wide resistance. It is not just that we object to the inequality entrenched by rising fees: the student body is at present surrounded by the dying breath of the institutions in which they chose to invest crucial years of their lives. They see waiting for them on the other side of this ‘restructuring’ a greyscale political culture and the crushing conformity of market-based mantras, and it has stirred a deep rage in defence of social-democratic culture itself. The corporatisation of the university threatens more than educational access, and the fight against it amounts to nothing less than the fight for the survival of art, social study, intellectual freedom and democratic participation. Do not doubt we will be living in a very different Britain if we fail.

What happened to the University?

According to UCU, the 80 percent cut to public funding (make that 100 percent for arts, humanities and social sciences) combined with the £1 billion cut already announced, threatens 40,000 jobs and 49 English universities with extinction. The UK already spends only 0.7 percent of its GDP on Higher Education (HE), well below the EU average, putting us behind Mexico and Hungary in this respect. It is also interesting to note that according to data issued by the Bank of Mexico, the average public expenditure among developed economies to prop up our unsustainable financial system in 2010 has been 24.8 percent. The UK has devoted over 80 percent of its 2010 GDP to this purpose.

This restructuring of HE in accordance with the cult of privatisation was steadily perpetuated under New ‘Labour’ long before the Condems got their dirty paws on the budget. Let us not forget it was Blair who introduced tuition fees and allowed private sector activity in HE to double to 64 percent. Our Millionaire Coalition has galvanised this corporate takeover exponentially. ‘In spite of being discredited by the economic recession of 2008 ... the Gilded Age has come back, with big profits for the rich and increasing impoverishment and misery for the middle and working classes... [and] relentless attempts to normalise the irrational belief in the ability of markets to solve all social problems’ (p.145).

Employing the logic of TINA (There Is No Alternative), New Labour, followed by the Condem Coalition, have been extremely successful in depoliticising structural reforms, portraying our economic system as if it were some divinely-inspired or natural law beyond human control. This is essential for the maintenance of a thin veil of legitimacy over neoliberal policy within and beyond the education sector. Of course, such a comprehensive disinformation campaign would not be achievable without almost complete complicity from the mainstream media. Nick Stevenson astutely observes parallels ‘between a new wave of entrepreneurial programming on British television, the emergence of academy schools and the championing of upward mobility’ by New Labour (p.74).

It is the pseudo-scientific justification of TINA which strives to justify bank bailouts and corporate corruption in a nation of staggering and increasing inequalities. Inequality of opportunity in British education was already chronic before the onset of the current reforms. Jon Nixon explains that of the top 100 British schools, 83 are independent fee-paying schools and just one is a state-funded comprehensive. The figures at university level are similar: of the top 100 schools for admission to Oxbridge, 78 are fee-paying and none is a state-funded comprehensive (p.64). Such structural inequality sacrifices any notion of social citizenship in an already stratified society.

The corporate University

All this has paved the way for an HE framework in which the Linkedin business website rankings factor into staff recruitment and pedagogue-student relationships are given up for a pay-per-hour slot machine system. A framework in which international students are treated at best as cash cows and at worst as ‘terror suspects’ who, according to Kirsten Forkhert (p.168), are now routinely spied upon by their own universities for the Home Office. Meanwhile, the syllabus for British universities is to be restricted to our ‘comparative advantage’ in the economy which, according to the government, has nothing to do with the arts, humanities or social sciences.

The disciplines which once walked like titans in academia: sociology, history, politics, anthropology, and so on, are being left behind in Britain. Our efforts to achieve understanding through such disciplines do not meet the neoliberal definition of ‘value’, which they understand only as ‘for money’. The government does not expect higher fees to compensate for the shortfall created by its cuts, and has even advised universities against attempting such a strategy, encouraging instead a series of ‘efficiencies’, tantamount to the scaling down of the breadth, depth and quality of university education in Britain. More than stratification by university, for the elite and for the masses, this reform promises to stratify academia itself. As Stevenson points out, ‘it is not immediately apparent ... why poorer students who tend to be more fearful of debt would run the risk of going to elite high fee-paying universities’ (p.77).

Likewise, social study of the most salient and pressing issues in today’s world is less likely to reap a six-figure salary than a degree in business studies or one of the other semi-protected disciplines, the content of which are sufficiently subservient to the corporate world view. Courses unable to attract sufficient numbers of students will disappear; and through deprivation, not ‘choice’, we can expect this entire facet of higher education to disappear as well, leaving us in thirty years’ time with a populace far less able to interpret the world around them and identify their own interests as divergent from those of the City:

‘The obligations of citizenship have been replaced by the demands of consumerism, education has been reduced to another      market-driven sphere, pedagogy has been instrumentalised ... As public issues collapse into private concerns, it becomes increasingly difficult to engage what C. Wright Mills called “the sociological imagination”, defined as the ability to relate individual actions to a larger historical and relational totalities, to connect private issues to broader public considerations’ (p.150).

The transformation of universities into a ‘patchwork of academic supermarkets’ super-serving the rich at one end, while institutions at the other are systematically standardised and undermined (p.2), constitutes a very real threat both to democratic and intellectual freedoms.

The struggle

A considerable portion of The Assault on Universities is dedicated to the charting and evaluation of student-led mobilisation within and beyond Britain. Various contributors draw attention to different aspects of the struggle. John Rees places today’s student activism in the context of the longer history of student protest. Central to the present struggle, of course, have been the occupations, of which there were 46 by the end of 2010. Their significance is well explained by Feyzi Ismail, who dispels several myths generated by the media and university management in discussing how occupations have served as epicentres for political organisation, democratic process and alternative forms of learning. The NUS, as Ashok Kumar discusses, has failed miserably to provide a leadership role thus far, amplifying the importance of these grassroots alternatives. Alberto Toscano considers all this a lesson in contemporary alienation and appreciates that, ‘while collectively deprived of any meaningful power, and individually consigned to precariousness and anxiety’, students have mobilised en masse for demands which will not affect them personally (p.85). This a demonstration of enlightened self-interest beyond the narrow conceptualisations of the neoliberals’ rational choice theory.

The authors are united, however, in emphasising the singular importance of the student movement in the current context of institutional and managerial failure. The book maintains above all the need for continuous and cohesive student opposition to the ‘authoritarian forces circling the university, waiting for the resistance to stop and the lights to go out’ (p.154). Earlier, reference was made to the challenging time in which The Assault on Universities was written. Despite this, the writers, several of whom have many years experience in the HE sector, appear optimistic:

‘Perhaps in part because of their continued inheritance of strangely pre-capitalist and non-instrumentalist principles, universities ... have proven yet again to be incubators of a healthy indignation against the stripping of common and public resources to rescue an increasingly unequal, destructive and decrepit capitalism. It’s not a vanguard, but it’s a start’ (p.88).

Developments since its writing lend serious weight to these words: we have the truly transnational Occupy movement, which has dragged the elusive issues of corporate personhood and predatory capitalism into the light of day. In Britain N30 shows the massive potential for resistance across the board to the neoliberal agenda of austerity and privatisation.

On the most fundamental level, there is a disagreement on the function of education in society. The ConDem’s mass-produced and market-based approach reduces education to the production of so many cogs of each size and function to keep ‘the machine’ running. As The Assault on Universities makes clear, the Millionaire Coalition is trying to make instruments of us all:

‘The austere glass-and-concrete edifices of the Ages of Major and Blair stand testimony to the success of the neoliberal counter-revolution. Entombed within, breathing only the stale air of an “academy” from which all critique and counter-culture has been virtually eradicated, are the proto-proletarians of a digitised, “knowledge-based” capitalism ... So drained of intellect, culture, and politics are they that many of these places are the very negation of “universities”. There is nothing “higher” about them. They are skills factories turning out labour units in an environment that combines the clinical functionalism of Huxley’s Brave New World, the political conformity of Orwell’s 1984 and the bureaucratic absurdity of Kafka’s The Trial’ (p. 27-8).

The British university was conceived to play a different role, the importance, enduring relevance and systematic suppression of which is well chronicled by The Assault on Universities. The roots of the very word ‘university’ are implicitly inclusive, taken from the term universitas, meaning entire or ‘universal community of scholars’. It cannot bend itself to the stifling dictates of class or market and be called a university at all.

Marienna Pope-Weidemann

Marienna Pope-Weidemann

Marienna is a socialist writer and campaigner who studied Politics & International Development at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. She is a leading organiser of the Student Assembly Against Austerity. She currently works as a filmmaker for the Islam Channel.


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