Do Universities Care Enough About Students?

I am speaking on a panel at the London Festival of Education on Saturday 17 November, 2012. The panel is covering the question Do Universities Care Enough About Students? I take care to mean a positive perception of assistance that enables the person who is cared about to cope with emotional issues and to perform mental or cognitive activities.

My argument will cover the four points that follow and which have all been made elsewhere on this blog over time.

FIRST. On spaces for caring about students.

The British Child Psychologist Donald Winnicott argued that care was predicated on the value to the individual of an enabling environment where s/he can be held whilst making sense of the world. This act of holding is based on trust and engagement within a secure space that is engaging and not so fragmented as to overwhelm the individual. Both the environment and the relationships have to be good-enough to enable the individual to make sense of themselves and what they feel and want to achieve.

There are connections here to Vygotsky’s social constructivism, and it is important to note Vygotsky’s Marxism. This was captured by Mike Neary as “A key issue for Student as Producer” where it highlights that “social learning is more than the individual learning in a social context, and includes the way in which the social context itself is transformed through progressive pedagogic practice.” Vygotsky argued for a understanding of a progressive environment that might be described as caring in that it enables the individual to make sense of her/his world and act in it.

The environment is the source of development of these specifically human traits and attributes, most importantly because these historically evolved traits of human personality, which are latent in every human being due to the organic makeup of heredity, exist in the environment, but the only way they can be found in each individual human being is on the strength of his being a member of a certain social group, and that he represents a certain historical unit living at a certain historical period and in certain historical circumstances. Consequently, these specifically human characteristics and attributes manifest themselves in slightly different ways in child development than do other traits and attributes which are more or less directly conditioned by the course of prior historical human development. These ideal forms which have been refined and perfected by humanity and which should appear at the end of the development process, prevail in the environment. These ideal forms influence children from their very early beginnings as part of the process of mastering of the rudimentary form. And during the course of their development children acquire, as their personal property, that which originally represented only a form of their external interaction with the environment.

The interplay between cultures and norms, practices, environments or contexts, scarce or abundant resources, relationships and technologies, unfolds as issues of power, identity, coercion and consent inside the University, as the student attempts to emerge more fully into the world. It is in this emergence that the idea of care is negotiated and situated.

SECOND. On the relationship between the University and students, and the idea of the student-as-entrepreneur.

Higher education is part of a regime of capitalist power that directs the consumption and production of our lives, both as we labour and as we relax. As Ellen Meiksins-Wood argued in 1997: “we’re living in a moment when, for the first time, capitalism has become a truly universal system…. Capitalism is universal also in the sense that its logic – the logic of accumulation, commodification, profit-maximisation, competition – has penetrated almost every aspect of human life and nature itself”. Debt and forms of indentured education that can be driven by information and data flows, and accelerated through the transfer of risk to the individual, are central to this logic. Even where it is shown that educational subsidies like EMA are efficient in recouping their costs they are scrapped because they are beyond the logic of debt. For, as Michael Gove argues debt is now a way of life, and a way of marketising humanity: “Anyone put off… university by fear of… debt doesn’t deserve to be at university in the first place”.

This is amplified in David Willetts’ speech to the spring 2011 conference of Universities UK, in which he made plain a view of: privatisation; cost reduction; consumption as pedagogy; closing-off teaching in “undesirable” subjects; and anti-humanism.

Let me start this morning with our broader vision for HE – it is a simpler, more flexible system which gives students better value and greater choice. That means a more diverse range of providers should be able to play a role. It means funding for teaching should follow the choices that students make. And it means empowering students to make their own choices based on better, more transparent information.

It is from within this space that debt becomes a pedagogic tool, focused upon the consumption of knowledge and lifestyles, of uncriticality, of employability and skills, of business and not economics, of STEM and not humanities. It is about recalibrating the University as a site where, rather than coming to understand the objective conditions that exist inside capitalism, students pay to develop the individuated skills of the entrepreneur. The risk in the separation and individuation of students-as-entrepreneurs is that the responsibility for failure is handed to the individual rather than being collectively/socially negotiated and owned. Thus, future roles/status or the very idea of a meaningful future is indentured and disciplined through the prevalence and amount of debt. Debt becomes a pedagogic tool, and recalibrates the structures, meanings and relationships of the University, as against the humanistic lesson that the university traditionally proclaimed. This is hardly resilient.

We are being taught a lesson that as the state transfers the social value of a university life to the individual via debt, higher education is no longer immune from the logic of the market, and is no longer able simple to call upon the mantra of the public good. Thus we enter a world where graduates face paying back double their student loans as debt charges rack up, and where Universities are disciplined by funding shortages into providing what their students as customers, disciplined by debt in a specific market, demand of them. There is no space for common deliberation about the purpose of an education in a world that faces massive socio-environmental disruption. There is only space for discussion of employment and debt repayment, pivoting around the entrepreneurial self. The logic of capitalist accumulation through debt, and the treadmill necessity of finding spaces for the re-capitalisation/investment of surplus value shackles higher education to the hegemony of consumption for capitalist growth.

THIRD. The legitimacy of caring about students.

As Paul Mason noted in 2011, about why it is kicking off everywhere, “At the heart of it all is a new sociological type: the graduate with no future”. In Athens, Oakland, Santiago, Quebec, University College London, Dhaka, Taveta and Wundanyi in Kenya, UC Berkeley, and in countless other places and spaces, students have led the protests against the legitimacy of austerity, and the limitations of a commodified educational experience. They have recalibrated their environments to cope with emotional issues and to perform cognitive tasks.

In this process of protest, students have used a range of deliberative techniques to uncover what is legitimate, and to reveal what they are collectively willing to bear in the name of freedom. To care about themselves and each other appears important. What they are willing to bear has to be negotiated communally, through a process that re-legitimises the politics of both the form and the content of the University. This demands trust and consent rather than coercion, a discussion that is more vital to the idea of the University in a world that faces not just economic austerity but socio-environmental crisis. For it may be that we risk enduring a semi-permanent state of exception if we do not find the courage to deliberate the reality of our world. EP Thompson recognised this courage emanating from a radicalised student collective, and saw in it a glimpse of redemption beyond economic growth:

We have been luckier than any of us had the right to deserve in the quality of our students. They took the initiative. They asked the right questions. They began to understand the answers. They stood firm against rhetoric, against threats, against the special pleading of those with large interests to lose. They have – by now in scores – put their academic careers at risk. It is they who have reasserted the idea of a university. They may well need help.

In response to the spread of the state of exception into the space of the University, student occupations have reminded us of the courage that we share in debating what is legitimate, who is marginalised, and why power is wielded. Students have asked who is to be cared about? They have also reminded us that the University is reproduced inside a broader, global set of relationships and political contexts, and this set both enables/disables the use of labels and interpretations about people and practices. This labelling comes in the wake of power, and affects who is scrutinised and which technologies are used to coerce and prevent, and for whom do we impose exceptional circumstances. Through critique we might work to push back against the University’s role in this reproduction of states of exception, and to re-politicise the forms of our University life, against meaningless, enclosed and universal narratives of justice and democracy. To take care of ourselves in society.

FOURTH. A care full University life.

The University develops meaning as it enables working and living in public. The work of the University must be public, knowable and fair, and it must be care full or full of care. How we demonstrate our care is a crucial question. As we answer it, we might consider how we enable our students’ dreams to outlive our fears, and how we collectively develop the courage to keep trying. We might usefully consider the realpolitik of University life. Inside capital and in the face of the rule of law and the market, what is the role of the University? How does the University help us to understand what we are willing to bear in the name of freedom?

We might try, therefore, to understand how the University can help us to be against force and enclosure, in order to become a space for deliberating rather than judging, and for developing an avowedly political response to the collective punishment meted out as austerity and marketisation. In taking this view, we demonstrate that the University cares very publically about a world that is socially-defined for collective ends rather than privatised of value extraction. This is important in overcoming what Christopher Newfield calls “subsidy capitalism”, which “means that the public, directly or indirectly, does not participate in the investment, research, and development decisions that remake society year in and year out. It hands over resources and all decision rights at the same time.” Newfield goes on:

There is a profound cultural limitation at work here: American leaders see the agencies responsible for social benefits as categorically less insightful than the financially self-interested private sector, even though the latter are focused entirely on their own advantage. As it is now, the future emerges in erratic bursts from the secret development operations at companies like Google (e.g. this radio report on the sudden appearance over Silicon Valley of The Cloud). We are having an increasingly difficult time imagining a collective future that emerges from common activity.

In defining a collective future that is against the poverty of the thinking behind the student-as-entrepreneur, we might develop an idea of the kinds of enabling environments where s/he can be held whilst making sense of a world that faces significant socio-environmental and political disruption. As a result we might focus on three different sets of questions that attempt to enable the person who is cared about inside the University to cope with emotional issues and to perform mental or cognitive activities.

  1. What sorts of relationships between people are we encouraging? What are our negotiated roles/responsibilities in the curriculum and beyond?
  2. What sorts of knowledge/understanding do our students need to be effective agents in a society that faces stresses of climate change, peak oil and liquid energy availability, and austerity?
  3. Can the University work equally well for a mixed demographic, with some networked and mobile learners, operating in information-rich environments and preparing for highly-polarised workplaces? If not how do we respond? Is a resilient education part of this mix?

3 Responses to Do Universities Care Enough About Students?

  1. Pingback: Do universities care too much about students? | Richard Hall's Space

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