The co-operative university against indenture

Martin McQuillan has argued that the Coalition Government is placing borrowing at the heart of the UK’s higher education system. He notes that:

Against all expectations George Osborne’s Autumn statement announced that the cap on student numbers in England would be abolished from 2015-16. As an interim measure an additional 30,000 places would be made available for the next academic year 2014-15. The initial numbers would be available for universities; private providers would be able to access the unlimited market from 2015. This expansion, costed at £700million per year, would be funded by the estimated £12billion sale of income-contingent repayment loans taken out between 2003 and 2010, before the Coalition’s reforms.

For McQuillan, as for so many of us who struggle with this neoliberal, entrepreneurial turn, this has given a green light to further private involvement in the delivery and assessment of higher education, alongside the Russell Group’s increasingly aggressive lobbying for the removal of the cap on fees. This is education as bourgeois consumption for an elite that sits asymmetrically against those driven towards universities which are forced to compete via riskier, more volatile engagements in the finance (bond) markets. A life predicated on and disciplined by personal or institutional debt; the socialisation of production for the market rather than for society through debt and indenture; education indentured forever.

Either way, McQuillan argues that:

It would seem that Osborne has decided that it is more important to secure the ideological legacy of the Coalition’s reforms by creating an unlimited market funded by borrowing than by balancing the BIS budget.  However, with UCAS reporting that university applications are currently 4% down on this time last year, it is not entirely clear that the demand exists for increased higher education provision at £9,000 per year.

Andrew McGettigan has also been very clear about the balance between risk, demand and volatility in the near future, and the (deliberate?) unsustainability of current Coalition policy. He argued that:

How will the planned expansion of undergraduate places will be funded after 2015/16? We don’t have the details yet: setting out policies using gross, rather than net, proceeds is incompetent. If you sell the loans, you no longer receive the associated income stream. That should be obvious.

Beyond 2019/20, there are no more sale proceeds, but income will continue to be £1billion lower than previously estimated. What happens then? This is hit-and-hope policy making.

Higher Education deserves better – a clear, sustainable financing solution without gimmickry.

Hit-and-hope, gimmickry, or ideology posing as evidence-based policy. It is worth watching McGettigan at the House of Commons BIS Committee (17/12/13), not only for the points made about volatility and the sustainability of funding mechanisms when linked to marketization, but also for the notable absence of the Minister, David Willetts MP, and the Select Committee’s apparent lack of clarity on the detail of the mechanics of HE funding. Their questions to Toni Pearce of the NUS on why this matters for current students mapped out a terrain where indenture was seen by those in-power to be almost natural; almost a state of grace. So we witness complexity plus volatility plus risk plus hedging plus an inability to see beyond the inevitable shift of funding/risk from society to the entrepreneurial individual. This is the critical point that Pearce made at the start of her evidence to the Select Committee. This is the fundamental rupture between the market and the entrepreneurial individual, and the possibilities and hope that emerge from socialised, co-operative practice.

This is the ideological rupture that is everywhere to be seen.

On challenging this on the terms of money capital, or the rule of money, the Times Higher Education reported the Institute for Fiscal Studies, stating that current short-term policy-making based on secondary legislation:

“[] may work in the near-term fiscal numbers, but economically it makes little sense”.

“Selling the loan book will be broadly fiscally neutral in the long run, bringing in more money now at the expense of less money later on. Lifting the cap on numbers will cost money every year.”

Carl Emmerson, deputy director of the IFS, said that scrapping the cap on student numbers will increase the “long run cost to the public finances of student loans”.

The transfer of the risks of failure, debt and indenture to the individual in her contract with private providers raises the spectre of debtors prisons, like these in Colorado, or these in Alabama, or in this report from Harvard about student debt, where:

somebody literally asked the internet if they could go to jail to pay off their debts. That’s desperation. And I’m neither laughing nor impressed.

And we might collectively look at what is happening to our social relationships in this ideological quickening. As we read reports of students saddled with debts and whose assumed incomes have not met expectations or the assumptions made by their Colleges or peers. The collapse in real wages and the rise in inflation; the full economic impact of devaluation as the realities of paying down quantitative easing bite; the exponential growth in student debt as an investment vehicle in the face of the falling rate of profit; the lack of growth in de-developing nations like the UK; each of which impact these real-life student stories of debt-ridden hell.

These real-life stories of an indentured life covered in the project on student debt, and in 5 stories on student debt, and in Australia, and in South Africa, and in transnational banks targeting students in India, or the complex interrelationships between debt and mental health and well-being. As Marx wrote in Volume 3 of Capital, these stories reveal how interest-bearing capital is the most fetish-like form of social relations. Marx wrote:

In interest-bearing capital, therefore, this automatic fetish, self-expanding value, money generating money, are brought out in their pure state and in this form it no longer bears the birth-marks of its origin. The social relation is consummated in the relation of a thing, of money, to itself. Instead of the actual transformation of money into capital, we see here only form without content.

Thus we get the fetish form of capital and the conception of fetish capital. In M — M’ we have the meaningless form of capital, the perversion and objectification of production relations in their highest degree, the interest-bearing form, the simple form of capital, in which it antecedes its own process of reproduction. It is the capacity of money, or of a commodity, to expand its own value independently of reproduction — which is a mystification of capital in its most flagrant form.

In its capacity of interest-bearing capital, capital claims the ownership of all wealth which can ever be produced, and everything it has received so far is but an instalment for its all-engrossing appetite.

Debt, money and time, inextricably linked and inextricably dislocated from the realities of production of commodities, labour-power, and humanity in the present, in order to inexplicably subsume the future.

And what we are left with inside higher education are a set of keywords that enclose/describe the time and space, and space-time, of the University: debt; indenture; financialisation; hedge; entrepreneurship; consumer; customer-service excellence; securutisation; policing; competition; privatisation; marketization; organisational development; performativity; impact. These keywords in this space-time represent the chronic failing of intellectual leadership.

It is in the spirit of recovery then that Joss Winn has written about a co-operative universities mailing list, as one tactic in arguing for an alternative, and in defining an alternative set of keywords that might hold us as we work for something different. As we try to write and think about what it means to be co-operative, in-and-against a higher education that is increasingly kettled, we urgently need a conversation about the organising principles for collective work and for social solutions rather than for coercion and competition.

We need to talk about a university-life that is not framed by debt but by justice, and that is against business-as-usual in the form of indenture. As Joss notes:

If you are interested in discussing, researching, keeping up-to-date and even creating a co-operative university, there is a mailing list you can join.

The list was first set up by a group of us who attended the Co-operative Education Against the Crises conference earlier in the year. Since Dan Cook published his report and the Institute of Education hosted a seminar, people have been in touch via this blog, Twitter and email, asking me how to stay involved.

Please join the mailing list and introduce yourself.

The mailing list is hosted by Mayfirst/People Link, a politically progressive member-run collective of technologists.

One Response to The co-operative university against indenture

  1. Pingback: On co-operation and radical democracy in/for education | Venturing beyond

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