log in

Exposing the government’s attempt to transform higher education into a commodity for the market, The Assault on Universities documents last year's student revolt and provides a guide for taking the fight forward.

Michael Bailey and Des Freedman, eds, The Assault on Universities: A Manifesto for Resistance (Pluto Press 2011), 182pp.

A celebrated education reformer noted recently that ‘it is only when services are paid for that their beneficiaries really appreciate them and that their employees strive to perfect them. A world in which students pay for their own university education will be a world where the universities are better funded, intellectually freer and where economic justice ensures that the burden does not lie on the taxpayer but on graduates'[1]. Who issued this moving tribute to the market? Margaret Thatcher? Ronald Reagan? David Cameron? Nick Clegg? No, Terence Kealey, vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham (fees: approximately £9000 per year), the UK’s first private university and an institution that is ‘proud never to have accepted Goverment [sic] funding, favouring instead our academic independence'[2].

Kealey’s words are significant because they so clearly articulate the ConDem coalition’s devastating perspective on higher education policy as contained in the Browne Review on education funding and student finance and the government’s own legislative programme of 2010-11. This includes a commitment to withdraw most public subsidies for universities, shift financial responsibility on to students who are now to be treated as customers, increase tuition fees to a level that an emerging market can sustain, re-package student debt and loans as ‘deferred payments’ and re-designate universities themselves as sites of service provision, consumer activity and commodity exchange. The UK’s higher education system is to be transformed into a patchwork of academic supermarkets with, at one end, research-led Russell Group universities continuing to super-serve wealthier customers with a wide range of niche offerings while, at the other end, former Polytechnics in the Million+ group will be forced to clear their shelves of distinctive or idiosyncratic goods and to focus on those products for which there is already a clearly defined (mass) market. All shoppers, meanwhile, will have to pay higher prices.

This will be the state of British higher education in the second decade of the twenty-first century should the ConDem ‘reforms’ be fully implemented and internalised by universities themselves. It is a picture of renewed privatisation, intensive marketisation, rampant financialisation and a challenge to the very notion of the university as a mechanism for addressing social inequality and facilitating the circulation of knowledge whether or not it has immediate practical consequences. It is the substitution of private economic activity for robust public life. Of course universities are not, and never have been, pristine sites of autonomous intellectual labour – you only have to consider the close collaboration between many universities and the defence and security industries across the world. However, like many other publicly funded institutions which do not always live up to expectations (the BBC and the 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 democratising these institutions. This involves both imagining and campaigning for policies that best express the public interest and most effectively protect it against those who are determined to place all areas of human activity under the discipline of the market.

Responding to the attacks on higher education, however, also requires an understanding of the various contexts behind the ‘reforms’. According to the government, the most pressing challenge is the need to secure stable long-term funding for universities in the light of the budget crisis caused by what it describes as an unsustainable deficit caused by the previous Labour government’s profligacy. What this means in practice is a decision to shift the burden of paying for higher education from the state to individual students. This is not a victimless crime. Research conducted by UCU has found that the scrapping of all public funding for the teaching of arts, humanities and social science subjects (as part of an 80 per cent cut to the annual block grant to universities), together with cuts of over £1 billion that have already been announced, means that some 40,000 jobs and 49 English universities are at risk[3]. The most vulnerable institutions are those teaching-intensive universities, often former polytechnics with the highest level of working-class students, who do not have the international students, research contracts or established ‘brands’ to help them withstand the removal of public funding.

This is, of course, only one small part of the government’s neoliberal programme of privatisation and spending cuts which will see billions of pounds withdrawn from public services and welfare budgets as well as the devolution of power away from publicly accountable institutions to, for example, GPs in the running of the health service, academies in the provision of secondary education and housing associations in the management of social housing.

The current attack on universities, however, should not be reduced to a desire simply to address the UK’s current deficit, as many of the trends underlying the ‘reforms’ are far from new. Remember that it was a New Labour administration that first scrapped maintenance grants and introduced upfront charges in 1998; in 2003 then education secretary Charles Clarke insisted that ‘[a]s countries throughout the world have discovered, requiring students to contribute to the cost of their education is the only realistic alternative’[7]. Under New Labour, private sector activity in higher education grew from 32.3 per cent of all HE spending in 2000 to 64.2 per cent in 2007, well above the EU average of 20.6 per cent[8]. This huge increase in private finance was due not simply to the introduction of fees but to other initiatives such as the hundreds of millions of pounds of private investment under PFI schemes which were poured into capital projects on campuses, the government’s backing of ‘employer-led provision’ and the granting of degree-awarding powers to private companies operating outside of the nationally agreed framework for higher education.

UCU members, however, will have to win not just ballots but support amongst other campus staff and students for their actions. This involves breaking down existing sectional barriers as far as possible (between professors and visiting tutors, between staff and students, between academics and support staff) through organising together, holding joint meetings and running united campaigns. Virtually every protest action in the last few years at Goldsmiths, for example, has been backed by both UCU and the Students Union including campaigns against INTO’s proposal to recruit and teach international students, management’s plans to set up a local Trust school free from local authority control and, of course, UCU’s current industrial campaign against the attacks on pensions, jobs and pay. We run an annual teach-in together in which staff and students come together to discuss pressing themes – commodification, ‘alternatives’, the idea of a ‘future’ – and hold regular rallies sponsored by staff and student unions. The more we are encouraged to think of ourselves in the current circumstances as either service providers or customers, the more such unity will be essential in building successful campaigns.

But we also ought to go above and beyond trade union action that is often (and necessarily) defensive to consider ways in which we can use the site of the university as a space in which to consider and press for radical responses to the privatisation of higher education. Partly, this will help build union militancy but it is also an important way of legitimising our concerns and strategies inside the university itself. After all, why should discussions about the need to stand up to marketisation and rationalisation be kept off the agendas of departmental meetings? Who benefits from the separation of ‘industrial’ and ‘political’ issues apart from the employers? At Goldsmiths, when the tuition fee increases and spending cuts were first mooted in 2010, we held a series of emergency departmental meetings with students in order to voice our concerns and to listen to theirs; we have since launched the ‘Radical Goldsmiths’ initiative, backed by several academic departments as well as campus unions, which will host a series of events and also attempt to rediscover the now nearly-forgotten radical past of the university through oral history interviews and archive research.

We also need to recognise that the movement has thrown up a vast number of imaginative forms of struggle that can help to foster a mood of resistance and to draw in ever greater numbers. The occupations of the National Gallery and Sothebys by members of Arts against Cuts seeking to demonstrate the intellectual vandalism of ConDem policies were inspired by the dozens of occupations that swept campuses in 2010 (see Chapter 12). At the time of writing, students are occupying the London School of Economics in protest at the university’s acceptance of £1.5 million from the Libyan regime, with one student arguing that ‘LSE has the most market-driven fund-raising model there is in the UK. Has that model reduced them into a simple gun for hire?’[11] Activists from the University of Strategic Optimism have followed the example of the UK Uncut campaign in occupying banks and holding public meetings about the origins of the debt, while thousands of university and school students are preparing to engage in the next day of action against the tuition fee rises.

This is a disparate, energetic, passionate and at times confused movement and yet one that has most visibly highlighted the mood for resistance that exists throughout the UK. The ConDem’s assault on universities has triggered a more general anger about the legitimacy of the government’s spending cuts and a real concern about their impact on the future of jobs, public services and welfare provision. Those of us who work in universities or who are prospective or current students are faced with the prospect of being part of a much broader coalition of resistance against the government’s determination to shrink the state and, following the turmoil of the financial crisis, to restore profitability and confidence to their friends in business. But we also have another responsibility: to defend the idea of university education as a public good that is reducible neither to market values nor to instrumental reason. Attack is often the best form of defence, and this book is a contribution not simply to thinking about how best to preserve what we have in higher education but to demand much more. We may well need industrial action, rallies, marches, occupations, teach-ins and teach-outs to defeat the transformation of our campuses into cost centres and ideological supermarkets. But we will also need a clear vision of what the university should be: a public service, a social entitlement, a space for critical thinking and a place of discovery.


[1] Terence Kealey, Independent, 16 February 2011.
[2] University of Buckingham website, available at http://www. buckingham.ac.uk/admissions/fees [accessed 21 February 2011].
[3] UCU, Universities at risk: the impact of cuts in higher education spending on local communities (UCU: London, 2010), p. 3.
[7] Charles Clarke, HoC Debates, 22 January 2003, column 305.
[8] OECD, Education at a Glance, table B3.2b.
[11] Quoted in Ian Cobain et al., ‘Leader’s LSE-educated son no longer a man the west can do deals with’, Guardian, 22 February 2011, p. 6.

Special offer for Counterfire readers. To order The Assault on Universities for only £9.99 including free UK P&P simply visit: http://bit.ly/pluuni

Des Freedman

Des Freedman

Des Freedman is Professor of Media and Communications in the Department of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is the author of 'The Contradictions of Media Power' (Bloomsbury 2014), co-editor of 'The Assault on Universities: A Manifesto for Resistance' (Pluto 2011), Vice-President of Goldsmiths UCU and former Chair of the Media Reform Coalition.


Help boost radical media and socialist organisation

Join Counterfire today

Join Now