You have not been paying attention: putting students at the heart of the system

*Originally posted at Learning Exchanges on 29 June 2011

Nervously, and without any real need whatever, Franny pushed back her hair with one hand. ‘I don’t think it would have all got me quite so down if just once in a while — just once in a while — there was at least some polite little perfunctory implication that knowledge should lead to wisdom, and that if it doesn’t, it’s just a disgusting waste of time! But there never is! You never even hear any hints dropped on a campus that that wisdom is supposed to be the goal of knowledge. You hardly ever even hear the word “wisdom” mentioned! Do you want to hear something funny? Do you want to hear something really funny? In almost four years of college — and this is the absolute truth — in almost four years of college, the only time I can remember ever even hearing the expression “wise man” being used was in my freshman year, in Political Science! And do you know how it was used? It was used in reference to some nice old poopy elder statesman who’d made a fortune in the stock market and gone to Washington to be an adviser to President Roosevelt. Honestly, now! Four years of college, almost! I’m not saying that happens to everybody, but I just get so upset when I think about it I could die.’

J.D Salinger, Franny and Zooey

It’s the devil’s way now/There is no way out/You can scream and you can shout/It is too late now/Because you have not been/Payin’ attention

Radiohead, 2+2=5 (The Lukewarm)

Preamble: the rule of money

We have already seen a rush to dissect the Coalition Government’s White Paper for Higher Education in the UK, interestingly entitled “students at the heart of the system”.

  1. David Kernohan has picked up on both assumption-based risk management and government funding exposure, in order to highlight inconsistencies or concerns that underpin the detail of the proposals in terms of costs.
  2. The Campaign for the Public University has focused on the public/private binary and has argued that “A public higher education system that is internationally acclaimed for its excellence is being dismantled”.
  3. This public/private focus has been nuanced in a Times Higher report on the benefits to ‘for-profit’ institutions, as “all providers, regardless of their status, would be subject to the same oversight if they have loan-funded students.”
  4. The Education Activist Network has taken a more trenchant stance highlighting “increased interference from government, on the one hand, and exposure to the caprices of the market on the other, this cynical, morally bankrupt move by the government threatens to dismantle the H.E. system and tender it out to the highest bidder”.
  5. Research Fortnight Today has argued that the Coalition has used off-quotas, the place of for-profits, de-regulation, efficiency etc. as wedges to drive HE to the market: “the government’s ambitions may be important for the long-term development of the sector and the further market-oriented reforms that may follow”.
  6. In his White paper fury, Plashing Vole states that “It’s not the private sector coming to the rescue of the public sector: it’s the taxpayer being forced to hand over money to the private sector (just like the banking bailout) with the students as collateral damage.”

What is clear from these analyses is the rule of money in higher education, with this White Paper standing as a marker for what will follow. This marker focuses upon for-profit-maximisation, competition, the removal of state subsidies for shared, public goods, individualisation of experience, and commodification of learning. The Times Higher has gone on to claim that this is a half-cocked plan, and yet planning is not the issue: ideology is at the heart of the paper, with detail to emerge in practice later. Consumption and the rate of profit are central to this structural readjustment policy, and the crises that this approach will provoke, allows capital to further subsume our public goods into its cycles and circuits. [Note that marketisation will not be questioned by the Labour Party – Higher Ambitions in 2009 taught us this, and I note the lack of HE news on their site.] The threat of subsumption is therefore a critical moment in civic society, for as John Holloway argues:

As long as money rules, injustice and violence prevail – money is the breach between the starving and the food, the gap between the homeless and the houses. As long as money rules we are trapped in a dynamic that nobody controls and that is visibly destroying the possibility of human existence.

We are systematically disciplined

In the ethos and idea of the White Paper all of our social relationships for learning are commodifed. This is a world of quotas, margins, efficiency but above all of consumption and of business. We now know that it is now the economy that drives our learning, and that our learning must be exchanged as a specific use-value in the economy. There is no space and no time for developing and nurturing and experiencing wisdom. That is the cold, brutal, disciplinary logic of the Coalition’s HE White Paper. Your learning, whether you regard it as a process or not, is now a thing; it is an object, with a clear and explicit link to future earning capacity. Your learning and your future are objectified for sale. Your-self is an object in a market where your learning, akin to the downloads Neo receives in The Matrix, are simply imparted to you through training mechanisms. This is higher education as system, not higher learning as struggle and process.

This is the outcome of a process of systemic corporatisation within the public sphere described by Williams in the USA:

Universities are now being conscripted as a latter kind of franchise, directly as training grounds for the corporate workforce; this is most obvious in the growth of business departments but impacts English, too, in the proliferation of more ‘practical’ degrees in technical writing and the like. In fact, not only has university work been redirected to serve corporate-profit agendas via its grant-supplicant status, but universities have become franchises in their own right, reconfigured according to corporate management, labor, and consumer models and delivering a name brand product.

This systemic corporatisation is embedded in the White Paper. Whilst its title is “students at the heart”, DBIS are very clear that “The White Paper comes as part of the wider government agenda to put more power in the hands of the consumer.” Let’s repeat that:

 The White Paper comes as part of the wider government agenda to put more power in the hands of the consumer.

Thus, one might argue that it is student-as-consumer that is at the heart of the system, and not student-as-human. Higher education is opened-up as a training and development space for business, and for economic growth. As the White Paper reveals, HE “should evolve in response to demand from students and employers, reflecting particularly the wider needs of the economy.”

Higher education is explicitly a commodity now. It is explicitly open to market forces and for-profiteering. This exposes it to risk, hedging, venture capitalism, and the treadmill of competition. This means that all of the social relationships we develop and nurture within higher education are subject to the rule of money. There is no outside this exchange mechanism that frames how we relate, as Capital turns back in on what it terms ‘the developed world’, in order to accumulate [our mutual futures] by dispossession through debt-driven consumption. As a result, and amongst other issues:

  • our sustainability agendas and Green IT projects are subject to the rule of money and the market;
  • our focus on student-as-producer is subject to the rule of money and the market;
  • our engagement in social inclusion and widening participation is subject to the rule of money and the market;
  • our use of technologies for social learning is subject to the rule of money and the market; and
  • our nationally-negotiated pay and conditions are subject to the rule of money and the market, and indeed we are now threatened by the casualisation of our labour within the Coalition’s “system”.

Moving the previous Government’s privatisation agenda forward, Vince Cable notes that “Higher Education is a successful public-private partnership; combining Government funding with institutional autonomy.” This is a public-private partnership that is now for-profit. This is the enclosure of higher learning within the calculating logic of capital’s need to increase the rate of profit through financialisation. As Simon Clarke notes “The sense of a world beyond human control, of a world driven to destruction by alien forces, is stronger today than it has ever been”. This is why the Coalition’s White Paper might be seen as a flag in the ground for further marketisation of our higher learning. There is no turning-back. The end-game is structural adjustment and the discipline of the shock doctrine throughout our lived, public experiences, whether imposed by the IMF and the EU in Greece, or by the Coalition’s austerity agenda.

Vesuvius/I am here/You are all I have/Fire of fire/I’m insecure/For it is all/Been made to plan/Though I know/I will fail/I cannot/Be made to laugh/For in life/As in death/I’d rather be burned/Than be living in debt

Sufjan Stevens, Vesuvius

Cybernetics, order and risk

We might usefully note the cybernetic imagery embedded in the technocratic, informatic use of language in the White Paper, and in particular its view of HE and University life as a system. This highlights the dominant view that Universities are now tools of capital, which must use information flows and dashboards, alongside embedded, corporate technologies, to predict, manage and commodify performance and risk in learning. This system is funded by individualised debt, in order to discipline our lives and livelihoods for economic growth and efficiency. Thus, David Kernohan has analysed the White Paper as a form of assumption-based risk management, where technocratic strategies prompt Universities to engage in hedging risk, and there are ties here to the neoliberal focus on using cybernetics to manage risk and impose order as a prerequisite for capitalist accumulation. This is exemplified in both Adam Curtis’s All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace (episode 1), and Paul Mason’s Meltdown, which demonstrates the financial system’s structural inability to control risk through mechanisms like credit default options, fiscal modelling (based on societies in which order and law have been imposed), and market deregulation. As Mason notes:

technologies led to automated models that excluded possibilities of crisis and so amplified risk-taking, so that higher stakes and higher outcomes are taken based on assumptions of order and control of information flows.

This hedge-based position in the finance sector is being extended into the sphere of public goods, including higher education. Just as there is no critique of this position from within Parliament, there is limited critique from within the sector’s own associations, which have generally been subsumed within the broader neoliberal definition of what is required of higher education. Here there is no space for alternatives to be created and implemented.

It is only Million+ that criticizes, noting that there is “absolutely no evidence that the competition Ministers are trying to inject will actually improve the quality of the student experience.” Moreover, this focus on business-as-usual is echoed by organisations like DEMOS, whose libertarian choice agenda does not reflect on the evidence that ‘choice’ as a concept linked to consumption of goods and services is contested, whether as part of broader public policy or NHS reform, and that it tends to undermine mutualism, co-operation and trust.

In the face of competition and a lack of mutuality, I don’t wish to restate my position here on the place of higher education in developing resilient approaches to global disruption, but it is worthwhile noting the broader economic context for the White Paper. The input-output model is broadly debt-incentivised education and training based on higher incomes, in spite of declining real wages since 1980 and an on-going attack on labour rights. Both Zerohedge and The Automatic Earth are clear that the global economic recovery is at best fragile and at worst a myth. When we factor in issues over energy availability [witness the International Energy Agency’s reports on liquid fuel] and resource depletion [increasingly around water], guaranteed economic growth and a real return on investment for graduates is a risk that may need hedging in some way. Even those who are less fatalistic, like Faisal Islam and Paul Mason, demonstrate how the politics of austerity makes for an uncertain future. This uncertain future is one that is individualised, non-co-operative and driven by debt.

In this brave new world, where the student is at the heart of the system, the academic is missing, and this represents their functionary status, which will increasingly be driven by precarity. The dominant logic is attrition on labour rights, decreased real wages, performance-related pay, increased contact hours, techno-surveillance, efficiency, more-for-less, and attrition on trust, openness and sharing. In this cybernetic system there is no ‘us’. There is no ‘you’ and ‘me’. There is only value and profit. Thus, perhaps trades unions are key as this becomes more-and-more about capital/labour and the extraction of surplus value. It is possibly this real subsumption of our public, non-commodified spaces to capital and its exploitation, where staff are subsumed within the logic of consumption, that offers us a crack for an alternative narrative around commons, co-operation, sharing, and openness, which is not framed by the separation and alienation of money, price, quality, and competition.

What is to be done?

In a recent blog posting, Tony Hirst wrote about ‘Public understanding – data on whose terms? Understanding on whose terms?’ He argued that dialogue between the public and academics is essential in developing meaningful public policy. In a second posting on academia and demand education Hirst argues for “a consideration of how academics can make content available to the media to add depth and deepened engagement to a story”. This is about academic activism in the public space, away from the spectacle and academic performativity, and towards a dialogue and a critique of the problems we face. For Hirst this is around policy, for others this may be about networked activism and informal politics.

This approach to public engagement has been amplified by Bob Brecher is his attack on the AHRC and their involvement in the neoliberal takeover of the academy, through their engagement with the Coalition Government’s ‘big society’ agenda. Brecher argues that this attack on the autonomy of academia, placing its agendas at the heart of government policy, demands the following.

  1. Critique of the ideological impulse of the government’s attack on universities [that is not] sidelined by the cost-cutting disguise;
  2. Students, administrators and academics need to take themselves seriously as members of a university and to join forces with all the other workers, paid and unpaid, whom the fundamentalists around the Cabinet table regard as so much dross.
  3. Most pressingly of all, academics have to understand, realise and use the power we have. We must refuse to act as the self-interested egoists too many of us have become and whom the neo-liberals would have us all become; refuse to compete with one another within and across institutions, or with other groups of workers; and make a new reality of what was once known as solidarity.

This is a clarion call for academic activism, which itself is Gramscian in tone and sentiment. Detailed critique is important but it needs a history that enables alternatives to be developed in public and with a range of partners organisations. It demands that we move away from playing on the Coalition’s public/private turf. There is no public. There is no private. Universities have been both-and-more forever. We need to quit the outsourcing of our hope and expectations to politicians or sector-wide groupings, whose demands are based on power. This is not about resetting the clock. It is about taking action to recast and re-create something different in the public sphere. This is as much about what the University has become as what it might be.

Gramsci argued that to achieve ongoing domination a social class had to complement its material and political power with the power of ideas: ideological power. In this, both political and civil society are battlegrounds – the former in imposing order and law, the latter in exposing the wider public sphere to cultural hegemony. The role of organic intellectuals is to process ideas in the public sphere through a scholastic programme that enables those ideas to become accepted as general conceptions of life. Thus hegemony can lead to exploitation and alienation through ideological manipulation and domination, and in our neoliberal world, through cybernetic regimes.

Thus, what is key for us now is the role of academics as organic intellectuals in enabling a new form of consciousness either within or beyond the academy, in the battle of ideas. In developing a counter-hegemony that challenges the dominant, neoliberal ideological codes. Transformation demands alternative ideas framed by critique. In delivering those in practice, whether in a social science centre, an autonomous centre, a free university or a commune, we need the courage to act.

  • This activity must take place within the University: in struggling for content and curricula that are a form of production against the neoliberal turn in our lives.
  • This activity must take place within the University: in struggling for technologies and processes and systems that are not outsourced but which are mutually described.
  • This activity must take place within the University: in struggling for open engagement with communities of practice against business ethics.
  • This activity must take place within the University: in struggling for a narrative that is not public/private and which is not driven by the rule of money, but which is framed by higher learning in the face of global disruption.
  • This activity must take place within our higher education communities of practice: in struggling for association and opposition to governmental interference in teaching and research agendas.
  • This activity must take place beyond the University: in struggling for higher learning in the fabric of society in the face of global disruption.

We must remember that capital struggles to shackle and control labour, within its cycles and circuits. We need to focus on co-operation against the rule of money. In the face of the discipline of debt and the kettle, this is tough, but what is the alternative? There is no fairy-godmother. There is no political white knight on a charger. There is only struggle for the alternative.

In the right light, study becomes insight/But the system that dissed us/Teaches us to read and right/So called facts are fraud/They want us to allege and pledge/And bow down to their God/Lost the culture, the culture lost/Spun our minds and through time/Ignorance has taken over/Yo, we gotta take the power back!

Rage Against the Machine, Take the Power Back


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