Turn the light out say goodnight, no thinking for a little while
Let’s not try to figure out everything at once
It’s hard to keep track of you falling through the sky
We’re half awake in a fake empire
The National. 2008. Fake Empire.
I wrote this as I listened to Ones and Sixes, by Low.
ONE. A smokescreen
In an important echo of the academic labour protests of 2010-11, the collective Warwick for Free Education argue On the Politics of Consultation that “The Green Paper consultation is a charade… serving as a smokescreen to conceal the upward redistribution of wealth operationalized by market mechanisms.” In particular, they provide a mirror to the idea that the Green Paper realises ‘student choice’ as a socially-useful driver. In fact, what is shaped by the Green Paper is a reductionist, rationalist view of the student as a purchaser of educational services-as-commodities. This shaping has remained relatively unchallenged across the sector by established positions and hegemonic groupings (such as UUK, university mission groups, competing vice-chancellors and so on), although there has been meaningful dissent and the definition of alternatives from inside academic communities.
What this focus on student choice in the Green Paper then highlights are the asymmetrical power relations that exist in this struggle over both the shape and the soul of higher education. Those who work within the sector (fractions of the total population of both students and staff) are faced down by global networks of policy-makers, finance capital, the purveyors of educational services, alongside those working inside the sector who believe that there is no alternative, and that this employability strategy or that consumerisation policy will save us. Even worse, in these asymmetries too many of us remain blind to the painful realities of precarity and debt that infect our academic society. Moreover, this is all framed by national/transnational regulation, for instance through the competition and markets authority (CMA) and the impending Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).
And the noose of student choice tightens.
Student choice’ is rendered little more than a token appeal and performative platitude within this context: which in truth reflects not an autonomy to manoeuvre within Higher Education as one wills, in pursuit of passions, creativity and personal flourishing, not a democratic control over the content of one’s education, but an ability to differentiate a selection of University options from a range of sophisticated branding and varying fees, functionalized by a value-for-money, career prospects oriented calculation.
Warwick for Free Education. 2016. On the Politics of Consultation.
As a result, we are left with a vacuous academic politics that has its forms and content hollowed out, in a moment where national attempts at collective refusal lack the energy that erupted post-Browne (although strands are maintained by the Campaign for the Public University, UCU, the Campaign for the Defence of the British University and so on), so that finding collective spaces to push-back becomes difficult. Finding the energy to push-back is then constricted because academic labour increasingly faces struggles on a local level as university bureaucracies recalibrate institutions as competing businesses. This includes disciplining the workforce through new workload agreements, absence management policies, and the use of technologies that increase the consumerisation of the student experience and that reduce academic-agency. It also includes performance-management through increased metric-stress (NSS, TEF, REF) and the devolved responsibility for league table positions that internalises innovation-overload. One of the results is increased anxiety and an inability to respond to the myriad harms that are inflicted on the sector, like the removal of the disabled students’ allowance, the removal of bursaries for student nurses, or the increasingly precarious employment terms for many staff.
In the face of such local and national redefinition of the terrain on which higher education operates, the Green Paper presents a world that appears lost because there is no space for any alternative, except at the margins. As a result the proposed consultation is at best “technical” in nature.
[T]he entire façade of consultation is unravelled as little more than a superficial tapping in to the already most privileged voices within a policy framework fixed in principle and intention but malleable on some technicalities. It is an ostensibly equitable process of debate which is situated on the terrain and terms of the powerful. Again, the language of ‘choice’ betrays itself here, never entailing the determination and formation of our education in accordance with student voices, but simply the expression of those voices by proxy through the market and elite figures, borne out by the patronising assumption that we as students do not know what is in our best interests, but that those decisions are best rendered by the (unstable, destructive, prone-to-crisis) market.
Indeed, there is little opportunity or capacity to raise an opposition in principle or totality to the Green Paper, to challenge the essential notion of the market provision of education. Instead the questions are leading, inaccessible, naturalising of market mechanisms, and intended to advantage voices already situated within positions of power.
Warwick for Free Education. 2016. On the Politics of Consultation.
Power. Always asymmetrical.
I find myself increasingly disabled from responding, and I feel anxious about this. I feel that I do not wish to waste my energy, or to legitimise their acts of destruction by co-operating with them and their political theatre. However, the very act of refusal has to be reinforced through acts of creation, in engagement with work on the Co-operative University or with local, alternative educational projects, or through solidarity between student unions and trades unions, or by direct work with trades unions on campus, or at the Second Convention for Higher Education.
NOTE: Should you wish to engage, then details of the consultation are available here, and Martin Eve’s principled and robust response has been openly licensed so that you can hack it and repurpose it. If you want to read more on the Green paper, then there I started a job lot of links, although they are not up-to-date.
In my own struggles to engage, I feel parallels with Carl Death’s work on climate change summits as theatre and exemplary governmentality. He argues that:
the symbolic, performative and theatrical roles that summits play in persuading global audiences that political elites are serious about issues such as sustainable development or climate change are a crucial element of their continued prominence. In this sense, they are a key technique through which ‘advanced modern capitalist consumer democracies try and manage to sustain what is known to be unsustainable’ through ‘the performance of seriousness’ and symbolic politics (Blu¨hdorn and Welsh 2007, p. 198).
Consultation must be seen to be done, in order to legitimise power, and as a result it becomes a very specific form of performance. Thus, engagement with consultation risks reinforcing dominant hierarchies and hierarchical relationships, and concomitant established privileges and rationalities. As Death continues:
These dangers include their questionable efficacy in addressing some of the structural and discursive power relations which have produced the contemporary crises of environment and development, as well as their reliance on a highly individualised model of political agency, the sidelining of more democratic and collective forms of politics, and the disciplining of political participation towards norms of consensus and cooperation.
Critical, dissenting and conflicting forms of engagement are less valued or useful within this rationality of government, and protestors are, therefore, likely to be marginalised and criminalised.
My own position on the Green paper was developed in the immediate aftermath of its publication, and focuses on the specific amplification of productivity and teaching intensity, which appear to have received little attention elsewhere. I am Against teaching intensity.
We are therefore pushed towards the acceptance of further state-sponsored privatisation of HE. This is not re-imagining the university through learning, teaching or pedagogy, but an unmaking of the university in the name of service redesign, workforce restructuring/efficiency and global, high-tech enterprise. This is HE deterritorialised for productivity, so that only those [academics, students, institutions] ‘that innovate and present a more compelling value proposition to students will be able to increase their share’ (p. 54). As a result what emerges from the Green Paper is an assault on collective work: the collective work of students unions; and of the collective work of students and staff as academic labour. Instead we are forced into asymmetrical relationship to the reality of our fetishized and rugged individualism in the market. Here our pedagogic decisions and the relationships that flow from them are to be governed by the TTIP, the CMA and the proposed Office for Students.
I argue that it is increasingly important to situate the revolutionising of higher education by successive Governments socially, against wider and increasingly desperate attempts to generate productivity and to stave off crisis. In this, I ask whether the concepts of social strikes and directional demands might enable us to refuse our subjugation under consultations that are smokescreens.
to situate the restructuring of HE against other social strikes and directional demands, forms one means of pushing-back against the ideas of teaching excellence intensification and of staff/students reduced to human capital… common struggle is critical in refusing the precepts of the Green Paper. Such common struggled would join with those who are calling for refusal of TTIP, beyond education and in terms of other social goods like healthcare. It would connect intergenerational refusals of debt and indenture, which are shackling families with debt so that they become competitive rather than co-operative. It would connect with others who are precariously employed, in order to work-up moments of refusal and negation, and to demonstrate alternatives.
This doesn’t negate extending refusal to the terrain of higher education, and for revealing the reality that
It is impossible to reconcile the central conditions of the Green Paper and the [HM Treasury] Productivity Plan to non-marketised/financialised pedagogic relationships. This is the prescribed direction of travel that frames the classroom economically though relations of production that subjugate people, as human capital that can be made productive through discipline.
At issue is how to connect opposition to teaching intensity and learning gain, to rent strikes and labour relations/rights inside the University (including those of students), alongside the fight for living wages and pension rights for professional services staff, and then beyond to the complex and heterogeneous global struggles for liberation. This means that ‘a lot of things need to be changed on the ground in order for a massive economic and political transformation to be possible’ (Steven Shaviro). But we have to begin somewhere.
THREE. Something more urgent.
I am also anxiously aware both of what is missing from the Green Paper, and of our inability to recover those missing strands, and this also makes me recoil from the consultation. In particular, COP21 followed closely on the Green Paper’s publication, having been signalled for months as a critical moment in the global struggle for a habitable ecosystem/ecology/metabolism/planet. Yet, the idea that higher education might contribute to a response to socio-environmental crises is nowhere to be seen. Here the smokescreen prevents us from seeing the catastrophe unfolding, because we can only respond to the parameters set by learning gain and teaching excellence intensity.
Our obsession with economic productivity and competition, alongside the invisible hand, student choice, and academic performativity, disables the core functions of higher education to contribute solutions to anthropogenic forcing. This is notwithstanding the research and scholarship that goes into the work of the Inter-Governmental Panels, alongside projects like Making Science Public, the actions of academic activists, and so on. At our core, what is our response to James Hansen’s articulation that “[The Paris Agreement is] a fraud really, a fake. It’s just bullshit for them to say: ‘We’ll have a 2C warming target and then try to do a little better every five years.’ It’s just worthless words. There is no action, just promises. As long as fossil fuels appear to be the cheapest fuels out there, they will be continued to be burned”?
The core of our labour inside higher education matters, because as Johanna Oksala notes in The Paris Climate Deal: Just Words?
To get to the promised 1.5°C would require either sucking back green house gases already in the atmosphere with technologies that are, for all practical purposes, non-existent, or achieving a near-complete decarbonization of the world economy in the next couple of decades. This would mean no gasoline-fueled cars, no oil-fueled ships or planes, and no coal-fired power plants by 2050.
How can higher education respond to this proposed re-engineering of the economy, when the only frame of reference we have is competitive rather than co-operative? How can higher education respond to COP21’s recognition of the need to divest from fossil fuels when its core business is predicted on consumption and future carbon emissions? There is no alternative to the acceleration of business as usual. In a depressing echo of the Green Paper’s obsession with the market as arbiter of the allocation of resources, including people, Oksala notes:
It doesn’t even matter much what governments do; what matters is how the markets behave. The Paris deal is essentially an attempt to stop the climate change with the same means that are responsible for causing it: free-markets and their superior ability to provide information and allocate resources in a way that no political process ever could. The optimism of the Paris deal is grounded on the redemptive power of the invisible hand.
Debunking this myth has to be the real target of our criticism. The capitalist world economy is structurally reliant on constant economic growth and cutthroat competition between companies and nations. Giving up cheap energy, cheap food and cheap raw materials is fundamentally against its logic. If we are genuinely going to tackle climate change in a way that has at least some semblance to justice on a global scale we can no longer afford to have economic growth as the goal of good government in the overdeveloped countries, but have to fundamentally restructure our capitalist economies. We have to make a controlled transition to degrowth and promote the accompanying expansion of activities not governed by the pursuit of maximum economic productivity and profit.
While we would all love to believe that stopping climate change implies exciting innovations and creates new jobs, realistically, the transition to decarbonized societies cannot be presented as an option motivated by the economic opportunities it affords. The hard truth is that it necessitates real costs, sacrifices and painful choices, at least in the global North. The most serious hypocrisy represented by the Paris deal is not the empty promises, but the fact that no politician is prepared to admit the inherent connection between constant economic growth and climate change.
If climate change is a systemic problem rooted in the production, circulation and accumulation of capital (or human activity), then how we decide and reproduce its infrastructure, how we use available resources (energy and carbon), and how we consume the world is critical. This includes the role of higher education and the place of universities in that definition. Yet the political options inside the Green paper give us no boundaries for alternative, collective, social practices, or alternative, co-operative ways of reproducing the world. It offers us no collective hope. Even worse it cannot do so because education is folded inside multilateral trade agreements such as the TTIP.
And I reflect on the fact that Alberto Saldamando argues that
The Paris accord is a trade agreement, nothing more. It promises to privatize, commodify and sell forested lands as carbon offsets in fraudulent schemes such as REDD+ projects. These offset schemes provide a financial laundering mechanism for developed countries to launder their carbon pollution on the backs of the global south. Case-in-point, the United States’ climate change plan includes 250 million megatons to be absorbed by oceans and forest offset markets. Essentially, those responsible for the climate crisis not only get to buy their way out of compliance but they also get to profit from it as well.
Those responsible for the climate crisis not only get to buy their way out of compliance but they also get to profit from it as well. How does the Green paper enable us to address this, in its acceleration of our productivity, and the amplification of our obsessions with entrepreneurial activity, employability, internationalisation, metricide, and the market?
FOUR. Saying and doing “no”.
Because I want to say no. There is something more urgent. I want to let the Green paper through my fingers and to revisit the IPCC’s Climate Change 2014 Synthesis Report Summary for Policymakers. I want to revisit the realities of business-as-usual (the constant revolutionising of production and consumption) in light of this reality
Anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions have increased since the pre-industrial era, driven largely by economic and population growth, and are now higher than ever. This has led to atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide that are unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years. Their effects, together with those of other anthropogenic drivers, have been detected throughout the climate system and are extremely likely to have been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century. (p. 4)
I want to question whether the core business of precarious and indentured productivity and teaching intensity in higher education can continue given that:
Continued emission of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and long-lasting changes in all components of the climate system, increasing the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems. Limiting climate change would require substantial and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions which, together with adaptation, can limit climate change risks. (p. 8)
Anthropogenic GHG emissions are mainly driven by population size, economic activity, lifestyle, energy use, land use patterns, technology and climate policy. (p. 8)
I want to question how our internationalisation strategies and our coming subsumption under TTIP enables us to adapt to the reality that:
Climate change will amplify existing risks and create new risks for natural and human systems. Risks are unevenly distributed and are generally greater for disadvantaged people and communities in countries at all levels of development. (p. 13)
How does re-gearing higher education around productivity and teaching intensity enable us to adapt to “[r]ising rates and magnitudes of warming and other changes in the climate system, accompanied by ocean acidification, [that] increase the risk of severe, pervasive and in some cases irreversible detrimental impacts”? (p. 13) How does the Green Paper enable us to recalibrate higher education around solutions to mass extinctions, food (in)security, unequal or limited access to natural resources and water, health problems, and population displacement? Is there an alternative use-value for higher education that refuses its reduction to exchange?
How does the Green paper enable us to re-think higher education for both adaptation and mitigation, as “complementary strategies for reducing and managing the risks of climate change.” (p. 17) Crucially, the IPCC Synthesis Report states that
Adaptation planning and implementation at all levels of governance are contingent on societal values, objectives and risk perceptions (high confidence). Recognition of diverse interests, circumstances, social-cultural contexts and expectations can benefit decision-making processes. Indigenous, local and traditional knowledge systems and practices, including indigenous peoples’ holistic view of community and environment, are a major resource for adapting to climate change, but these have not been used consistently in existing adaptation efforts. Integrating such forms of knowledge with existing practices increases the effectiveness of adaptation. (p. 19)
Given the Government’s decisions to cut funding for domestic energy efficiency, to withdraw support for the Green Sky project (on green fuels), and to ditch engagement in carbon capture and storage projects, this is no surprise. In fact, Benny Peiser, writing in The Spectator, injects some hegemonic realism in stating that “This voluntary agreement also removes the mad rush into unrealistic decarbonisation policies that are both economically and politically unsustainable.”
NOTE the use of “mad” as derogatory, uneconomic, marginalised, and othered.
Here the IPCC offer some points of departure that might form directional demands.
Many adaptation and mitigation options can help address climate change, but no single option is sufficient by itself. Effective implementation depends on policies and cooperation at all scales and can be enhanced through integrated responses that link adaptation and mitigation with other societal objectives. (p. 26)
Adaptation and mitigation responses are underpinned by common enabling factors. These include effective institutions and governance, innovation and investments in environmentally sound technologies and infrastructure, sustainable livelihoods and behavioural and lifestyle choices. (p. 26
Here, educational options are framed as potential approaches for managing the risks of climate change through adaptation. These include: awareness raising & integrating [awareness] into education; gender equity in education; extension services; sharing indigenous, traditional & local knowledge; participatory action research & social learning; knowledge-sharing & learning platforms. (p. 27) But where are the potential spaces for such activities in a Green paper that is situated to deliver productivity gains through learning gain and teaching excellence, driven by intensity of activity?
The Green Paper offers us little then, in term of shaping educational behaviours and cultures that might influence energy use and associated emissions with a high mitigation potential. It’s obsession with capital and human intensity that change consumption patterns and emissions through complementary technological and structural changes. I think this is the root of my refusal to engage. The anxiety over my “No”. The reality that I need to say “no”. That my saying and my doing should be something other than their political theatre.