For the communal university in the face of debt and polyarchy


The rule of money as the prime motive force in UK higher education after the White Paper of 2010 led Natalie Fenton to write that

“The brutal enforcement of market principles into every aspect of higher education is a direct attack on equality and the value of public education for all. It is a turn away from equality of opportunity and a rush towards students as units of revenue and departments as profit centres” (p. 110).

Fenton positions cash, value and the market as a set of objects within a clear ideological space, and then links this space to a process of separation and individuation of education. This ideological attack sits against what might be categorised as liberal, humanist values like equality of opportunity (or occasionally equality) that in turn chime with our collectivised hopes for a better type of capitalism; a better capitalism that mixes growth and employability, sustainability and living wages, fair pensions-for-all and development grants.

The brutality of the separation that underpins the UK Coalition Government’s educational austerity is revealed as the enclosure and asset-stripping of education as a process, and its dismantling into components from which rent or surplus value or profit can be extracted. These components might be measureable inputs like student feedback, or outputs like employability, the effects of which we have been desensitised to over a number of years through the strategic agendas of previous Labour Governments, or they might be sector-wide dislocations like de-regulation/privatisation through student number controls and changes to degree-awarding powers, or re-regulation over the role of HEFCE or the place of Key Information Sets. As a result Des Freedman, writing with Fenton, has argued that

“Universities are being encouraged to think and act like private providers and the White Paper is designed to facilitate a wholescale cultural shift in which all universities need to think of themselves now as part of a competitive marketplace.”


Richard Murphy argues that this cultural shift is predicated upon the rule of money, enabled through a “policy designed to provide the financial markets with a new form of collateralised debt obligation that they can trade now that mortgages are not available to meet the demand for such products.” Murphy argues that we are witnessing a clear attempt to break the intergenerational contract, which links social relationships and access to resources access to socialised goods like education, healthcare and pensions. In this view, by forging artificial scarcity of, or indentured access to, resources, we risk the marketisation of our common wealth, of goods held in common, at a point when socio-environmental dislocations demand a retreat from the treadmill logic of the market.

Murphy’s solution focuses upon corporate wealth rather than individual income, and ties education to the workings of a capitalist economy. He argues “that companies should pay an additional tax to provide university education for all those wishing to participate, and that they do so from payment of an additional corporate tax payable only by large companies in the UK”. This is, of course, a hope for a better or less rapacious capitalism, and one that might create a compact between private, shareholder wealth and public, stakeholder value. However, it doesn’t help us to escape from the internal logic of capitalism, which demands the expanding valorisation of value as its own life-blood. It has embedded within it the same need for growth, for the extraction of surplus-value, for the subsumption of labour under capital, for the commodification of everyday experience. It is not a full-stop in the face of the contradictions of capital.

Our inability to imagine any kind of existence, or any form of value as the mediation of our lives, beyond the logic of capital and the rule of money is being extended to the University and the student experience. In this the Times Higher Education reports that “A number of universities are at risk of a financial contagion crisis similar to that in the eurozone.” That this report comes from banking analysts demonstrates the power-shift emerging in educational policy and practice, furthering Murphy’s contention that the HE sector is seen as a vehicle for the expansion of finance capital and the use of risk as a tool for the extraction of value. The report highlights how this underpins increasing competition and marketisation of the education sector: “Stewart Ward, head of education sector at RBS Corporate and Institutional Banking, which currently directly lends about £1.25 billion to the sector, told Times Higher Education that in the past six months the spread in the price of borrowing for higher-ranked institutions and those lower down the league tables had widened.”


No longer are individual Universities embedded in a web of socialised goods, underpinned by a public policy that welcomes and nurtures an intergenerational or inter-institutional compact. No longer is this web bounded by negotiated practices and governed in the public interest. No longer is the health of the sector the main issue; the key concern now is the financial power of individual universities in a competitive environment. Thus, we see a second Times Higher report on the farrago at the University of Wales, which “was brought down by [quality issues in] validation, its money-making machine… [and] how others might be stopped from putting cash before quality.”

In this revealing of the rush to monetise higher education, the havoc being wrought on the sector leads to two comparisons, one related to football, the other to the failure of national politics. In both we see the subsumption of politics as descriptions of the forms of our everyday life, to outsourced, unaccountable economic power, and more specifically to transnational finance capital.

  1. The possibility that the HE sector may come to resemble the English football league post-1992 following the deal made to form the Premiership, which lead to: the league being ruled by the power of money (witness the power of BSkyB, the influx of transnational capital in the form of hedge funds and corporates in club governance); the ossification of success/competitiveness (witness the limited number of clubs capable of sustaining challenges for the League or for Cups); the growth of indebtedness and administration (in particular where clubs chase access to the Premiership/TV deals); and the need for special pleading for/activism by supporters (in terms of fan ownership, supporter democracy and the rising costs of attending games).
  2. That the HE sector may now become subject to the same transnational governance logic that places bankers in charge of national Governments in order to implement austerity packages and quieten the markets (witness the anti-democratic take-over of Greece in the name of the markets). As financial risk, collateralised debt obligations and individualised indenture enters HE, and the value of the sector to finance capital grows, why will politicians and banks leave management of the sector to academics?

We are then witnessing the very real possibility that academic practice and scholarship will be further kettled/enclosed and brutalised by the rule of money. The metaphor of kettling academic practice is important here because it focuses upon controlling, subduing and ultimately criminalising protest. It is about techniques and mechanisms for subjugation, and the discourses of debt, the rights of consumers and the market are key structures for ensuring subjugation.


The question then becomes how to respond. However, responses tend to be unable to see beyond the politics of power that are revealed inside capitalism. Thus, we see clarion calls for a better capitalism, or for equality of opportunity or for equality, without a critique of our history of labour-in-capitalism from which these values emerge. As we are unable to take a systemic view of the crisis, we are unable to separate out how we define our humanist values from our need to create value as the primary form of social mediation within capitalism. Our values are predicated on liberal democracy, on tropes of equality or liberty, or on often ill-defined practices/qualities like respect or openness. Even inside the University, we are unable to think the unthinkable; to imagine a different form of life.

In attempting a more meaningful critique we might seek to locate the University inside the emerging critiques of polyarchy and network governance. Polyarchy is an attempt to define an elitist form of democracy that would be manageable in a modern society. It focuses upon normalising what can be fought for politically, in terms of: organisational contestation through free and fair elections; the right to participate and contest offices; and the right to freedom of speech and to form organisations. This forms a set of universal, transhistorical norms. It is simply not acceptable to argue for other forms of value or organisation without appearing to be a terrorist, communist, dissident or agitator. Within the structures of polyarchy it no longer becomes possible to address the structural dominance of elites within capitalism, or its limited procedural definition of democracy inside capitalism. Compounding this political enclosure is the control of the parameters of discussions about values or value-relationships like democracy and equality, or power and class, or as George Caffentzis argues over the morality of student loan debt refusal.

Key here then is to understand how the University supports the ways in which neoliberal capitalism intentionally designs, promotes and manages forms of democracy and governance that complement its material objectives, limit participation and power-sharing, and support coercion. Thus we might question how the rhetoric of student-as-consumer enables the market to penetrate the sector, in order to open its resources up to the dominant or hegemonic order, and to manufacture consent for its practices. Manufacturing this consent depends upon coercion of the political cadre of organisational leaders. However, it is critical that once economic and productive power has been extended into, for instance, the educational space, that domination extends to the political, social and class-based relations in that space, through the implementation of ideological control throughout the mechanisms/institutions and cultures of civil society. We are simply not allowed to step beyond the controlling logic of the rights of consumers.

Part of the response might be shaped by a critique of network politics and power inside counter-hierarchies. Gramsci, whilst accepting the base-superstructure relationships of Second International Marxism, saw these relationships as a fluid interplay of forces in which different power and political configurations were possible, and where new hegemonies could emerge from the interplay between political and civil society. Developing these new counter-hegemonies or alternative spaces both for organising civil society and for imaging new forms of value, depended not upon the market or the rights of consumers, but on human consciousness and human relationships.

Thus, any focus on networks as decentralised political spaces, or as participative, democratic alternatives has to be placed inside and against a critique of power and political economy. Those networks are themselves not the response to crises of political society, riven as they are with issues of power, social capital and hierarchy. What they offer is a new set of spaces for the construction of revolutionary potential, especially where they are underpinned by a communication commons that resists the reincorporation or normalisation of communicative action and dissent by capital. It might be argued that this is a key element to the occupy movement, that it incorporates diverse educational spaces for testing the truisms of civil society, and for re-imagining the world that is against and possibly beyond capital. This is not to reify what is offered as free on the web but which is circumscribed and embedded within capitalist social relations and which therefore offers no transformatory potential.

In recovering the possibility of overcoming socio-environmental dislocations, new forms of resistance that are against polyarchy and precription in education are needed. In the past we might have imagined these emerging from incubation inside the University. The obsession with free content, revealed in the clamour for openness or open or free, distracts us from the revolutionary need for general assemblies as democratic potentialities within education, for militant research strategies and for undertaking educational activity in public. Now we might have to imagine new forms of University life inside the Commune, where we can reveal the transnational nature of the attack on our educational lives, which uses procedural control over values like democracy and equality in order to kettle our existence and extend the rule of money. The question then is how to turn that Communal University into meaningful counter-hegemonic practice that can resist, push back against and overturn the rule of money.