Debate: are Universities a public good?

*Originally posted at Learning Exchanges on 4 February 2011

Halfway through Wednesday’s DMU debate on whether Universities are a public good, a friend asked me if this was the right question. Doesn’t the answer have to be “yes”? Whether you are a neoliberal fixated on the privatisation of public assets, and driving forward market fundamentalism in the name of the knowledge economy, or a *liberal* for whom the University is about developing global knowing and inclusion, or a radical for whom the University is a space for re-imagining in the face of global disruptions, the answer has to be yes. The University is a space in which the focus can be on the economy, or on mending/remaking our social relationships, or on socio-technical solutions to crises of global political economy.

So is the question are Universities a public good meaningful? It depends on how that question and any solutions are to be developed. That question has to open up a crack in the dominant logic of our political economy, within which the University, as organisation as well as idea, sits. One of the issues I had with Wednesday’s debate was that it assumes, as Žižek argues, that our liberal aim is “to democratise capitalism, to extend democratic control to the economy by means of media pressure, parliamentary inquiries, harsher laws, honest police investigations and so on.” Žižek queries whether it is enough that “the institutional set-up of the (bourgeois) democratic state is never questioned.” Framed by this critique of the failure of liberal democracy to humanise, and in the face of the State’s oppression and antagonism, Mike Neary notes that we must question whether in education “The struggle is not for the University, but against what the University has become.”

This is where the debate risks becoming mired in the honest desire to remove us from the immiseration and alienation of capitalist work, towards the idea that we can have growth and pensions and fridges and shiny new iPads in a world that faces significant disruption revealed by energy and resource availability, climate change and massive, structural debt. The point was made that growth is a problem on a planet with fixed resources. But the dominant logic of capital is framed by growth. De-growth or no-growth is illogical in the face of debt, the market and an ageing population that needs social support through taxation. It is not possible to expand markets and grow, and cut carbon emissions – GDP and carbon are coupled. So we need a radical rethink. Unless we wish to give up, and finally accept that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is the end of capitalism.

The University’s place in this space is framed by the iron cage of control exerted by capital’s control of public funding for growth, and nothing else. The Coalition’s demand for higher education to commit to its economic agenda leaves little space for alternatives to emerge within a funding structure that demands all activity be shackled to growth or else, where our students and young people are brutalised in the kettle when they demonstrate opposition, and where the hegemonic, neoliberal discourse is challenged in a fractured way. So we focus on saving education, or saving disability living allowance, or saving day centres, or saving our national forests. We do not join this up into a set of (radical) alternatives for what our society might become. We abdicate all responsibility to the state that alienates us in the form of funding controls or a mantra of efficiency or through police batons.

And yet the University is a space in a set of communities that might offer the hope that we can create something different, in the face of climate change and peak oil and debt. It offers us a space to re-think our world beyond the subject discipline or single issue or single community. These arbitrary differences allow those in power to divide and rule, and thereby to stop meta-narratives or explanations of the reasons why we are in this crisis from emerging. So we need to ruthlessly critique the rationale behind the Coalition’s agenda, not just in education but across our communities, and with our communities. We need to move on from the outcomes of the debates around “Are Universities a public good?” to ask “what is the University for?”, in order to debate “how might the University be re-imagined in order to provide alternatives?”

Already there are spaces emerging where students and staff are re-imagining education, either in *organisations*:

or within *associations*:

These spaces engage a wide-range of activists in engaging with the question of are universities a public good, to assess the ways in which Universities are public goods and what are those goods for, in order to ask what is to be done? That is the end-point. We need to critique the place of the University in a world that faces significant disruption, to try to work out alternatives that support our communities. For DMU that is important in enabling our communities, at each scale (local, regional, national, international) to adapt to dislocations. Involving those communities in re-imaging the university, in re-inventing it, demands that we open up our places and ideas, that we engage people in the production of their lives or their life-world. In this way the university becomes resilient in adapting to change. In this way the university becomes a space for transformation.

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