A philistine defence of the university

They’re more than happy to fight a fantasy left-wing crusade against the ‘ConDem’ government, yet defenders of higher education lack a sense of what they're actually defending.

Tim Black

Tim Black

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With the Browne review in one hand and the Lib-Con coalition’s Higher Education White Paper in the other, the barbarians are at the gates of UK universities. Their intention is clear: they want to turn these hallowed public institutions, these engines of social mobility, these atriums of free-wheeling radicalism, into private enterprises, to be financed by an admixture of corporate partnerships and fee-paying students. And what of these students, these budding scholars? They are to be turned into little more than customers, their education a commodity to be first bought from a university and then, if the economy hasn’t completely collapsed, sold on the labour market.

This desperate situation is now coming to a head. Everything that has been so patiently built up over the past 50-odd years, from the massively expanded number of students to the diversity and wealth of institutions, is about to be knocked down by a government ideologically intent on waging a war on the Big State.

This at least is the portrait of the crisis currently afflicting UK universities painted by two recent publications. The first is an essay collection-cum-manifesto called The Assault on Universities: A Manifesto for Resistance, and the second is a document, In Defence of Public Higher Education, signed by myriad UK academics. Both in their very different ways capture the key problem with the current rearguard action in defence of UK higher education. The idea of the university they want to defend has become indefensible. It is all very well defining the university’s purpose in terms of its social usefulness, its ability to right the wrongs of an unequal society, but if this instrumental rationale no longer holds, then what?

This is not to say that either The Assault or the Defence are without merit. The Defence, in particular, reasserts a principle that does indeed need to be at the heart of the debate over universities – namely, the academic autonomy of the university. That is to say, the university as an institution ought to be governed by the imperatives, not of business or politics, but of knowledge. As the Defence puts it, universities are ‘communities of scholars and researchers engaged together with issues of truth and validity’. From this, other insights follow: ‘Training in skills is not the same as a university education. While the first is valuable in its own terms, a university education provides more than technical training.’ And: ‘The government presents higher education as simply training for employment and turns its back on the wider purpose of education.’

Likewise, The Assault, when its authors hold fast to the principle of academic autonomy, is also capable of addressing degrading trends in the contemporary university. So, in arguably the best essay in the collection, John K Walton’s ‘The Idea of the University’, the author’s awareness of the extent to which the older, nineteenth-century notions of the intrinsic worth of knowledge and culture (embodied in JH Newman’s The Idea of the University and Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy) have been usurped by a purely utilitarian, economic notion of the value of knowledge and culture, allows Walton to attack the relentless measuring and quantifying of academic activity. Now, remarks Walton, if you can’t measure it, it must be worthless.

And to measure academic activity, whether it is teaching or research, is to subject it to criteria external to truth and knowledge, be it the specious Watchdog-style category of student satisfaction revealed in the National Student Survey, or the quantity of publications captured by the Research Excellence Framework. As Walton notes: ‘Since 1998, especially, with the introduction of the “Transparency Review”, followed in short order by time Allocation Surveys and (from 2005) the allocation of “Full Economic Costing” to research projects, government-driven attempts to quantify, cost and compare all aspects of academic activity have proliferated.’ His conclusion is gloomy: ‘As [the utilitarian ethos] invades universities, it drives out the spirits of Newman and Arnold, and intrudes the infelicitous calculus of Jeremy Bentham and Edwin Chadwick.’

Unfortunately these insights, these principles – the very things that might be worth defending here – are too often lost to the agendas at work in both The Assault and the Defence. In The Assault the contributors’ particular agenda becomes apparent all too quickly. Almost every page contains at least one use of the word ‘ConDem’ (for the coalition government) or ‘neoliberal’ (for the coalition government’s ideology). According to Alberto Toscano, we are in the throes of both a ‘zombie neo-liberalism’ and a ‘neoliberal counter-revolution’. Which sounds terrifyingly reactionary. Elsewhere, Natalie Fenton reckons that ‘student choice’ has the distinct sound of ‘neoliberal ideology’ about it. And one student occupier was clearly showing off his syllogistic prowess when he wrote: ‘The rejection of neoliberal education was for many students a rejection of neoliberalism itself.’ But the most adept at deploying ‘neoliberal’ like so much anti-capitalist chaff has to be Henry A Giroux. Having identified the threat to universities as ‘neoliberalism, or market fundamentalism as it is called in some quarters’, he decides, for reasons known only to himself, that far from being synonyms the two terms can work together as an incredibly powerful explanatory tool. ‘Neoliberal market fundamentalism’, he writes, that’s the problem.

It reads like some strange form of Tourette’s suffered by wannabe radicals. What it does not read like is analysis. And little wonder: as Theodor Adorno, a one-time bane of 1960s student radicals, wrote over 50 years ago, an indifference to form is an indifference to content.

Yet the problem with The Assault is not just an indifference to the real content of universities’ problems. It is a wilful attempt to re-imagine those problems as part of some Manichean conflict between lefties and righties, socialist revolutionaries and neoliberal capitalists. According to this fantasy class-war narrative, the eponymous assault on universities is born of an attempt by neoliberals to crush the thing that an institution infused with Enlightenment virtues gives rise to – namely, the radical impulse. This is why, argues Neil Faulkner, postwar British universities, rendered accessible to an increasing number of working-class students, were a breeding ground of revolutionary sentiment during the 1960s and 1970s. And this also explains why the ruling class wants to destroy the traditional university: ‘The neoliberal counter-revolution of the last generation has involved sustained attempts to block off this kind of educational experimentation, and to reimpose top-down control over schools, colleges, and universities.’ What Cameron, Clegg and their ConDem cronies are trying to do, according to The Assault, is to ‘insulate’ two million higher-education students from ‘subversive theories of the kind which real universities have an unfortunate tendency to foster’.

That you don’t need to go to university to read Marx, or that universities are neither the source nor the engines of socially transformative politics, seems to have passed by the authors of The Assault. Admittedly, Marx himself was initially an academic, churning out a doctoral thesis on that proto-communist firebrand, er, Epicurus, but the movements, the social forces, that gave his copious non-university work its force, were not academic. They were the workers he met in Paris in the early 1840s, from whom he learnt more about human fraternity than he could in a thousand books. They were the Chartists in whom he saw the self-organising, self-determining political potential that would give his theory its revolutionary practice.

But so powerful is the determination to see the coalition government’s universities policy as part of some unchanging class conflict that historical reality barely features. In its place stands political fantasy. Nowhere is this more evident than in the prevailing attitude among The Assault’s contributors towards the student protests of November and December last year. These were not displays of irritated entitlement; they were the politics of the past struggling to be born. That was not a posh boy dropping a fire extinguisher off a tall building or an even posher boy taking a swing on the Cenotaph; that was the mollusc becoming a man. These were not the August riots in embryo; they were the revolution in the making. ‘The student movement that spread across Britain towards the end of 2010’, reflects one contributor proudly, ‘will be remembered for igniting the fightback against the ConDem government’. Another contributor even goes so far as to imagine that what began in November 2010 can achieve what the events of May 1968 never could: ‘The students can… cause a crisis into which workers, organised and unorganised, are drawn.’ As another concludes, students were ‘setting an example for workers inside and outside the university’.

In part, the excited revolutionary proclamations can be explained by the fact that many of the contributions were no doubt written at the beginning of this year. The enthusiasm had yet to be undercut by the reality of a protest movement that was neither a coherent movement nor, as it turned out, that interested in protesting. But it is an explanation that only works in part. For the other underpinning to this wilful form of political projection, with the neoliberal ConDems on one side, and the incipient student revolutionaries on the other, is the attempt to dress up the defence of a huge, state-subsidised university sector as something really, really left-wing.

In defending the university system in its current form, albeit with a few tweaks – its ‘progressive legacy’ as one contributor put it – The Assault tends to reproduce the very instrumental, utilitarian justification for universities that, since the economic crisis erupted, has proved their undoing. So, in his introductory essay, Des Freedman attacks the prospective ‘marketisation’ and ‘privatisation’ of universities on the grounds that these processes undercut ‘the university as a mechanism for addressing social inequality’. That is, the expanded, state-funded university sector is valuable because, by supposedly allowing more and more people to get better jobs, society becomes less unequal.

This justification rests on precisely the economic rationale for universities propagated by countless UK governments since at least the 1980s. And it is the reason why there was such a concerted attempt to funnel increasing numbers of young people through universities: both the economy and the individual’s wage packet would apparently benefit. In The Assault, Aeron Davis acknowledges as much: during the 1980s, with the political class content to see manufacturing (and the trade unions) wither, it focused on the UK’s ‘perceived strengths’: ‘raising graduate numbers, developing new technologies, and expansion of the service, IT and financial sectors’. Right from the start of the university’s transformation into a giant skills factory, with the odd arts and humanities graduate on the side, the motivation was political. In search of a political and economic vision, the political class used education and universities as the elixir of economic growth and social progress.

The effect of this university-philia was striking. From around the 200,000 mark in the 1960s, the UK’s student population had risen to 600,000 in 1990, before a rapid increase under John Major’s Conservative government – yes, that’s right, the Cons – saw student numbers reach 1.6million in 1996. Under Tony ‘education, education, education’ Blair’s New Labour government, student numbers rose to just under two million. The role and purpose of the university was seemingly vouched safe: it lay at the heart of socio-economic development, lifting the less well-off into the category of the better-off, while spurring the economy on in their wake. As the 1997 Dearing report put it, ‘Higher education has become central to the economic wellbeing of nations and individuals’.

The Defence is similarly full of Dearing-like talk of higher education’s contribution to the economy, its central role in combating social inequality. ‘There is scarcely an area of economic life in which higher education does not make a major contribution through research and teaching’, its authors write. Their reasons for writing so are understandable: they have a vital interest in preserving the university sector as it is. Why, they ask us, is the government ‘planning fundamental changes to the system that it has itself recognised is not broken’? Why, they ask further on, is ‘the government… putting its faith in the idea of market competition to improve a system that is already effective’?

And the reason, unfortunately, is because the system is not effective. And it is broken. The oft-trumpeted panacea to economic stagnation – education, education, education – is no such thing. There was certainly a correlation between the massive expansion of UK student numbers over the past 20 years and the credit-fuelled bubble of semi-growth in the economy that accompanied it. But there was no causation. As soon as the debts had to be repaid, the steel-and-glass front of the enriched, expanded and emboldened university sector looked like a grand folly. And with that, the university’s new-fangled reason-to-be evaporated.

But rather than wrestle with this crisis of purpose – a crisis of the very idea of the university – The Assault and especially the Defence cling on to the moth-eaten brocade of education-equals-growth. Hence one of the lengthiest propositions in defence of a public higher education is that the university ‘ameliorates’ social inequality and promotes ‘social mobility’. This makes no sense. Because just as the myth that education fuels economic growth has been exposed, so the associated argument that universities combat social inequality stands similarly unveiled for what it is: nonsense on stilts. How do we know this? Because the authors of the Defence keep telling us. ‘As at the start of the twenty-first century’, they write, ‘inequality of incomes in Britain is greater than at any time in the last 40 years’. That is, a relatively unprecedented inequality of incomes has coincided with an absolutely unprecedented level of student numbers. How can this be so? How can the very ‘mechanism’ by which social inequality is combated have proved so singularly unable to combat social inequality. In fact, given the correlation, you could just as well argue that the expanded university system is the cause of social inequality.

And in that failure, that undermining of the modern university’s putative purpose, to grow the economy and combat social inequality, there now exists the profound question as to what the purpose of the university ought to be. If not socio-economic, then what? In a piece that practises the critical thinking the other contributors to The Assault are content merely to preach, Ashok Kumar acknowledges ‘the failure of the [student] movement to draft an alternative to the existing system [of higher education]’. And no wonder. The barbarians not only entered the university long before the ConDems came to power, they have long since been embraced by the ConDems’ opponents.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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