notes on the proto/rollback/rollout phases of the co-operative university

Stephen Ball writes of three stages of neoliberalism. The first is proto, and refers to the intellectual genesis and maturation of the project. This is the cultural attack on the everyday reality of the public and of the State, and lays the groundwork for building a consensus around the value of the market in defining the production of everyday life. It lays the groundwork for the market as the primary social arbiter. It also creates a set of spaces inside and against which the State can be reconfigured to deliver a policy structure that enhances marketization. This is the doctrinaire new normal.

The second stage is rollback, during which social life that was hitherto experienced negotiated as public or social, like the post-war Keynesian consensus, and which included free-at-the-point-of-delivery healthcare or education or social services, is broken-up or refused or denied. As a result, those services are enclosed and marketised. In this stage there is a clear interplay between the doctrinal, intellectual underpinnings of neoliberalism and the undermining of the State or of public services as inefficient. This then connects to the third stage, that of the rollout of the new neoliberal normal, through: public policy that enables the privatisation of public spaces; the insuring or indenture of access to public goods like pensions and healthcare; the individualised nature of social services; the opening-up of access to public data for private gain; the use of public policy to catalyse associations of corporations or capitals that can extract or accumulate value; and so on.

Inside English higher education these three interconnected phases of neoliberalism have played out in an increasingly indistinct manner. There has been a limited intellectual project about what higher education should be, or of the idea of what the University might be. In fact, we are left to seek out Coalition Government proposals from analyses of ministerial pamphlets like David Willetts’ Robbins Revisited, or in analyses of the Higher Education White Paper that never became an Act of Parliament, or in analyses of the relationships between Ministers and finance capital (like Goldman Sachs) in the running of symposia about the future of higher education, or in analyses of the role of private finance and global publishers (like Pearson Education).

Elsewhere we witness a policy space that is driven by secondary legislation focused upon: student debt and university funding; leveraging the role of finance capital and the bond markets in institutional debt/refinancing; using student number controls, funding for core and marginal numbers, and deregulation to catalyse competition; the use of key information sets; the monetisation of the student loan book; and so on. Moreover, the institutional response to this recalibration of a funding space has been that of competing businesses, akin to those of the English Football Pyramid, where the health of the league is secondary to the value of the individual clubs. Thus, in order to compete, individual universities restructure through the bond markets, or rebrand themselves for international markets using engagement in on-line projects like FutureLearn, or assault labour rights through zero-hour contracts and casualization and outsourcing, or drive strategies for entrepreneurialism or social enterprise, or engage explicitly in corporate partnerships with publishers and finance capital that pivot around the production of value. Here the proto phase of the marketization of higher education meets the rollback of State funding and regulation, and the rollout of opportunities for marketization and accumulation, in a messy and contested set of spaces. This mess leaves those employed in the university contested and contesting, and dissonant and dissociated, and frayed.

Thus, we see Ball’s transnational activist networks that form geographies of neoliberalism playing out in the recalibration of individual universities as global associations of capitals. Increasingly it becomes impossible to understand the emerging role of the University without developing a critique of its relationships to a transnational capitalist class that is restructuring the University, and which consists of academics and think-tanks, policy-makers and administrators, finance capital and venture capital and private equity, educational publishers, and philanthropists. The aim is to regulate the State and the institutions that are structured by it, like universities, for the market, for enterprise, and for-profit. Critical here is that the proto, rollback and rollout phases are increasingly playing out together in real-time, so that the room for manoeuvre for individual institutions is restricted and so that they are increasingly kettled through competition for an increasingly scarce resource (student debt, research funding, international markets etc.).

One of the issues for those driving policy and practice from this increasingly kettled perspective is that they are unable to evolve strategies beyond a narrative of economic growth. As Michael Roberts highlights, this is an issue because:

Despite a large devaluation of sterling as a response to the financial crash, exports have not made much progress and the UK’s deficit on trade with the rest of the world remains very high. The UK’s government budget deficit is still the highest among the G7 economies. The real joker in the pack for the message that the UK economy is heading for 3%-plus real growth this year and next is that, just as in the US, the capitalist sector is not investing. In the activity indexes, it was notable that investment goods orders slowed.

Roberts goes to argue that in the face of poor investment, exports and productivity, the UK’s rentier economy is left exposed and increasingly reliant on earnings from rent (property), interest (often from abroad), cheap credit and foreign capital flows. Moreover, it is also increasingly framed by precarity amongst those who have limited access to that rentier economy. Thus, a secondary impact is the growth in self-employment, which universities feed-off through consultancy and outsourcing, and stimulate through pedagogies for entrepreneurship. Roberts continues:

One of the features of the employment market in the UK in this ‘boom’ has been the huge rise in self-employed workers. The number of firms with fewer than ten employees has swelled by 550,000 since 2008. While in mid-2013, there were 5.7m people working in the public sector, only 18.8% of total employment, the lowest since records began in 1999. Indeed, the self-employed will outnumber those working in the public sector in four years, once the government has completed its slashing of public sectors jobs and services.

For some this is a clarion call for entrepreneurship and certainly connects into University agendas for promoting entrepreneurial activity amongst students, or start-ups, or resilience. However, as Roberts argues, this is simply preparing students for a precarious work-bound existence fuelled by insecurity, low real wages and debt.

the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor statistics show that the proportion of new entrepreneurs in the UK driven by valuable opportunities has fallen – from a high of 61 per cent in 2006 to 43 per cent in 2012. And ONS figures show that a falling number of self-employed people employ other workers, suggesting that the rise in self-employment is not translating into new, thriving businesses. Researchers at the University of Warwick found that, in less prosperous areas of the UK, policies to increase firm formation had a negative impact on long-term employment, as those who started new companies had low skills, few other options, and poor market prospects.

What is really behind the increase in self-employed is not ‘entrepreneurial spirit’ but the loss of benefits and the ability of self-employed to claim tax credits under the government ‘welfare reforms’. As Richard Murphy at Tax Research has pointed out, the self-employed now account for 14 percent of the employed workforce but 19 percent of working tax credit claimants. In other words, those working for themselves are more likely to be claiming tax credits than those in employment. Actually the self-employed, like the employed are earning less than they did before the slump. In 2007-08, 4.9 million self-employed earned £88.4bn, but in 2011-12, 5.5 million self-employed earned £80.6bn. Indeed, the Resolution Foundation found that that self-employed weekly earnings are 20% lower than they were in 2006-07, while employee earnings have fallen by just 6%. As a result, the typical self-employed person now earns 40% less than the typical employed person.

This precarious reality is where the fissures between the proto/rollback/rollout phases of neoliberalism meet the University. Moreover, they restructure our everyday educational and pedagogical realities. In the Enigma of Capital, David Harvey has spoken about the ways in which technologies and forms of organisational development reveal these realities through: our forms of production, exchange and consumption; our relations to nature and the environment; the social relations between people; our mental conceptions of the world; our labour processes; our governance structures; and how we reproduce society. If we apply these concepts to the neoliberal University, we are able to ask the following questions.

  1. How do the university’s managers, staff and students produce, exchange and consume, in terms of commodities, knowledge and value? What is the role of financialisation and the market in those processes, and whom do they benefit?
  2. What is the relationship of the University to nature and to the environment? What is the impact of the productive activities of the university on the environment, including its reinforcement of the idea that economic growth is the only option?
  3. What does the production and the reproduction of the university as a marketised and competitive space mean for the social relations between people, including between staff, between academics and students, between managers and unions, and between academic labour and the public?
  4. What does the production and the reproduction of the university mean for our mental conceptions of the world? What does the higher education mean in terms of commodified knowledge or economic growth, or for co-operative, social solutions, or for the development and dissemination of knowledge through society as mass intellectuality?
  5. How does the university as a competing business represent and reproduce casualised and precarious labour processes, amongst staff and students? What does the entrepreneurial turn inside the university mean for the autonomy of academic labour?
  6. How does the marketised university affect our understandings of democratic, social governance? What forms of cognitive dissonance affect the role of the academic in making sense of the recalibration that is enforced through the proto/rollback/rollout phases of the neoliberal university?

In making sense of this process, I am reminded of the need to address Marx’s response to Feuerbach that: “All social life is essentially practical. All mysteries which lead theory to mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice.” Comprehension and solution underpins and is informed by a critical pedagogic project. Joss Winn has made this point when connecting Mike Neary’s work on student-as-producer. Winn quotes Neary focusing on productive pedagogic structure and agency related to the work of Vygotsky:

For Vygotsky, in the factory of the future the labour process takes on a pedagogic function and the student merges with the worker to become: the student-worker; the pedagogic function does not teach the student-worker various skills, but rather enables the student-worker to understand the overall scheme of the production process, within which they will find their own place and meaning, as a process of learning and development. By situating themselves within a pedagogical process, whose meaning and purpose they understand, the production of knowledge is revealed not as something that is already discovered and static ( i.e., dogmatism), but is uncovered as ‘ the dynamic context of its own appearance’ (Vygotsky, 1997). (Neary 2010)

This is not the valorisation of specific entrepreneurial practices that make the individual student resilient or employable or a commodity-skilled labourer inside the market. It is situated, democratic productive activity. This also offers a mirror to the co-option of academic labour in the current proto/rollback/rollout phases of the neoliberal university. This co-option is of both academic staff and student labour, in order to discipline those populations for the market. These are potentially value-laden social forces that the processes of indentured study and precarious, competitive labour relations are dominating inside formal higher education. As Harry Cleaver argues, this is the transnational, secular control over the material reality of everyday life, and which is reinforced pedagogically, and which we can interpret as posing questions for the organisation of the university and its curriculum.

In his analyses of Neary’s work on student-as-producer, Winn points to the idea that co-operation might offer an alternative critique that in-turn enables the formation of a lasting alternative.

  • The basis for transforming institutions of higher education is the transformation of the role of the student. For Vygotsky, the student becomes the student-worker.
  • The role of the student is not simply that of becoming a ‘collaborator’, or the learner of skills, but as an active contributor to the labour process of the university (i.e. the production of knowledge), within which they find their own purpose and meaning.
  • The division of intellectual and manual labour is overcome through the recognition of education as a form of productive labour itself.
  • By revealing the organising principle of knowledge production, the university becomes grounded in the productivity of its students.
  • Through the transformation of the student and subsequent transformation of the organising principle of higher education, science and technology can be employed to transform society. The student becomes the subject rather than object of history – they make history – and humanity becomes the project rather than the resource.
  • Teaching begins from the student’s experience in a particular social context “so that the student teaches themselves” and are no longer alienated from the production of knowledge. So that students “recognise themselves in a world of their own design.” (Debord)

This is important because it connects to Marx’s argument in Capital Volumes 2 and 3, that it is in this associational phase of capital, that the opportunities for co-operative labour might emerge. These opportunities are global in scope, and are based on co-operative and democratic engagements in civil and political society that include the market, the State, the Commons, voluntary organisations, and the environment. This reflects the work of Bauwens and Iacomella on creating a co-operative, pedagogical project that might reveal alternatives: to the idea of endless growth and material abundance linked to debt; to the idea of immaterial scarcity framed by, for example, the Trans-Pacific Partnership and global intellectual property law; the pseudo-abundance that encloses and destroys the biosphere. They argue for a global alliance, between movements based on open and copyfarleft, ecology and social justice, and global emancipation. Here we might usefully ask, what activities are we collectively willing to bear and how might they be determined, governed and regulated? What is the role of the university and of academic labour in addressing those activities and their governance? How do we use the university as a means for the production and liberation of alternatives? How do we create a liberation pedagogy?

Here I come back to my earlier question based on Harvey’s analysis of Capital:

What does the production and the reproduction of the university mean for our mental conceptions of the world? What does the higher education mean in terms of commodified knowledge or economic growth, or for co-operative, social solutions, or for the development and dissemination of knowledge through society as mass intellectuality?

The work emerging around the new co-operativism, and the intellectual underpinnings of pedagogies like student-as-producer, and of organisations like the social science centre offer us a way of framing and reconceptualising the proto/rollback/rollout phases of a co-operative alternative to neoliberalism. They are a way of challenging the reality of the competitive restructuring of public higher education, and the idea that the university is for-profit and valorisation. Here it is the spread of ideas across transnational activist networks of co-operators that might enable a reconnection of academic labour as labour across society, in a form that enables it to support mass intellectuality rather than private gain.

In part this is a reconnection rather than a disconnection or dissonance, through the recognition that marketization increases our collective alienation and that the desire to be other than alienated is to be cultivated socially. This is then about generating layers of democratic engagement and co-operative property rights held and secured in common, so that the knowledge and skills that make up our reality are less outsourced and more rooted in society. I am reminded that a while ago I wrote about this in terms of co-operative possibility.

Thus, we might analyse the idea of the University, inside-and-against the organisational and technological innovations that drive the speed-up or acceleration of turnover time of educational services and commodities in a global market. These innovations include the subsumption of the University inside associations of public/private capitals, in order to secure their competitive place. These innovations also tend to reduce the friction caused by distance and localised working practices. We might then ask what is the popular response to this process? Does the Social Science Centre offer one such popular response? It states that:

while there are fewer existing networks of solidarity than might exist in larger cities, there is also an intimacy and a proximity that provide possibilities for associational networks that might be diffused in larger cities. Most of us work full-time and cannot give the time to the SSC that we would like to. Without the material basis on which to work and study full-time at the SSC, we have to think creatively about the form and nature of education practised within the SSC.

As a response, educators might question how we work through association or co-operation with the geographical and spatial-temporal implications of a critique of higher education policy and practice. We might highlight the dynamics of accumulation and the need to expand markets in established economies and to create new markets as a new form of imperialism (with privileged rights to sell goods via intellectual property laws). We might ask, how does higher education policy and practice demonstrate the flows of capital between the global North and “emerging markets”, in an attempt to allow production in the former to grow, whilst supporting the creation of competitor-economies? We might ask, where is it possible to find the courage to push-back?


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