on resistance to the HE White Paper

Since I posted on the HE White Paper and academic practice, I have been thinking about obstacles or resistances that could be placed in the way. In the post, I contended the following.

Revealing the ways in which the White Paper is part of a process of on-going expropriation and pauperisation, of everyday life, of academic autonomy, of care and love inside the classroom, of academic development, is a starting point.

What follows must describe and play-out the conditional development of the social productivity of academic labour, for an alternative set of values beyond the market and instrumental financialisation.

Here we might ask, what can we do in association to resist and refuse the disciplinary instrumentalism of the White Paper and the TEF?

What can we do in association with those struggling for labour rights like trades unions, or with cross-sector groups like the HE Convention/Campaign for the Public University?

What can we do in association to refuse the competitive urges of some university “leaders”?

What can we do in association to frame a counter-position that frames an alternative vision for higher education?

What can we do in association with other public-facing workers, in education, in health, in social care, and so on, to define an alternative vision for our collective work? Can we use this as a moment to define alternatives to the law of value as the organising principle for social life?

Part of this work needs to be situated against the fact that the UK context is one of low resistance to the logics of neoliberalism. Here there has been an acceptance that austerity is necessary or ethically-sound. In fact, the primary discussion has been whether policy can or should support economic expansion or whether (in its anti-Keynesianism) it catalyses contraction and therefore threatens job security. One of the issues in revisiting this discussion, as a precursor to opposition, is then the balance between: imperceptible opposition (mutterings); non-disruptive resistance (marches and demos); disruptive resistance (as a function of trade union actions); and militancy (occupations, withdrawal of labour, worker-co-option of workplaces).

The work of David Bailey and Saori Shibata on moving from defeat to obstruction, highlights that in low resistance States, for substantial impact on any proposed neoliberal policy, the sufficient conditions for a substantial impact (a roll-back) are that they need disruption and militancy. The recent Junior Doctors’ action is a case in-point, grounded in labour rights and the idea of the public, although it has not catalysed broader, NHS reinstatement action. However, in HE there has been high-levels of policy disengagement by much of the workforce (staff and students), in spite of the principled opposition by individuals and associations. For instance, UCU and Unison have focused energies on immediate issues of labour rights, rather than on developing alternatives.

Bailey and Shibata’s analysis focuses upon resistance: by engaging with a critique of the likely, negative outcomes of any policy (including sharing concrete examples of those outcomes in order to build solidarity); through developing the ‘weapons of the weak’; by highlighting and making central the entrenched interests of those affected by reform; through outright refusal; and by influencing the role of decision-makers and decision-takers. As such, refusals can take the form of non-compliance, enacting governance problems, or the direct prevention of the reform and its implementation.

As Danny Yee argues in his review of Peter Scott’s The Weapons of the Weak:

conformity is calculated, not unthinking, and beneath the surface of symbolic and ritual compliance there is an undercurrent of ideological resistance, just as beneath the surface peace there is continuous material resistance. Scott considers the consequences of all this for definitions of resistance. Four criteria have commonly been required for ‘genuine’ resistance: it must be collective and organised rather than private and unorganised; it must be principled and selfless rather than opportunistic and selfish; it must have revolutionary consequences; and it must negate rather than accept the basis of domination.

In terms of the HE White Paper, there is a need to think through the potential for waves of struggle, which demonstrate the solidarity between various groups of affected workers and others across society whom the reforms will impact. The points of solidarity include: the embodied toll that neoliberal restructuring and austerity takes on mental and physical health, including in families; the control of performance and activity; the reduction of life to work; and, the inability of the curriculum to manage issues of crisis concerning poverty, climate change, on-going colonialism and so on. The points of solidarity connect:

  • Academic staff who are subject to increased workload and performance management;
  • Academic staff whose workload requirements are marginalising the rest of their lives, as parents, carers, partners, friends, so that never-ending, entrepreneurial work dominates;
  • Students whose work is defined by debt as a commodity or purchased as a service, rather than being regarded as work that should be reimbursed through a wage;
  • Students whose education is solely predicated on productivity and employability, with contributions to social or care work being marginalised;
  • Student of colour, who are protesting and refusing the on-going colonisation of the curriculum;
  • Precariously-employed graduate teaching assistants, or those for whom tenure is becoming an impossibility;
  • Professional services staff for whom the restructuring of back-office functions entails outsourcing or an attrition on labour rights, and amplifies forms of social dumping;
  • Graduates saddled with increasing amounts of debt and weak job prospects, in the face of automation, on-going recession, and so on;
  • Teachers in Primary and Secondary Education, whose work is covered by the Educational Excellence Everywhere White paper, which promises the privatisation and data-driven commodification of pre-HE education;
  • Teachers in Primary and Secondary Education, whose work is also affected by the Small Businesses, Enterprise and Employment Act (2015), which enables metrics and longitudinal data to be collated about individuals to drive the production of economic value;
  • Community groups fighting for social justice, for instance in refugee, housing or gender rights; and
  • Workers in notionally public-facing industries, where ideas of public service or the public good (contested as those terms are) are being lost, and for whom the realities of austerity are disciplinary (such as the campaign for an NHS Reinstatement Bill).

Here there is a need to redefine the terms of resistance as cross-sectoral, acting communally or socially, precisely because those communal or social aspects of our identities are being marginalised or reduced, as work and productivity becomes our everything. I have written about this, in terms of HE and the oppositional possibility of social strikes, as a moment of refusal of increased teaching intensity. This is situated through the definition of directional demands. As I argue against teaching intensity:

common struggle is critical in refusing the precepts of the [White] 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.

In this approach there is a need to disrupt the circuits of educational production that are wreaking further violence on higher education, and thereby wreaking violence on our home and social lives. Without such disruption, the ways in which we reproduce ourselves will become increasingly precarious.

Forms of resistance then take the form of moments of solidarity that contest and disrupt the bases of material power. Part of this might be managed through local and national solidarity campaigns between student, academic and professional services trades unions, as long as those unions do not subjugate collective bargaining to economic recovery that is predicated on austerity. Mechanisms must be found to block the circuits of capital accumulation, and the imposition of the rule of money inside education. Part of this is to find moments of radical solidarity, for instance in a focus on debt-free education, and in support of debt jubilees, or the strike debt movement. Part of this is to discuss the importance of time, and in particular of working time and the intensity of the working day. Finding ways to resist overwork are critical, especially between academics, students and precariously-employed staff. Part of this is to find ways to refuse the generation of mental and physical ill-health inside the University and across communities, by refusing to accept the impact and implementation of policy.

Finding spaces for dissent, and for remembering that we each have identities beyond work that are being ruptured, which need recording and sharing as forms of solidarity, are crucial moments in generating energy for alternatives. Finding the time and space to slow or to stop the University are also important. In part this is to support the activities that are being marginalised, like caring and loving and living. In part it is to support capacity-building for alternatives. In part it is to support forms of communal or educational governmentality that are rooted in an alternative imagining of HE, like that to be proposed by the Second Convention for HE. Here the autonomous imagination of staff, students, parents, community groups and graduates might enable us to shape what Dinerstein envisages as a concrete utopia.

The role of time is central in this. Time shapes productivity, intensity, and the creation of value. Disrupting and reclaiming time is a revolutionary act because it is about claiming that time for ourselves and our humanity. Reclaiming time in the face of the HE White Paper is a deeply pedagogic act. Perhaps the most radical pedagogic act we can imagine, because it is an intervention in the ways that we have been taught to experience or reproduce the world. Reclaiming time with others is potentially a way of enacting a slow-motion exodus from austerity and subsequently the domination of capitalist social relations. At issue is whether some form of horizontal organising through general assemblies, radical and collective research, and work done in public, can converge with vertical organising through trade unions and political parties, in order to reframe our collective and individual desires away from being willing slaves of capital. Or is it all we can do to drag our feet?

Here the logics of action must be more than our identities solely defined as teachers or students. They are rooted in class, identity, community, and social rights. They situate specific issues like indentured study or performance management or workload monitoring, against wider policies of austerity. Rather than waiting of an alternative political economy to emerge, the logics of action require an on-going rupture that is constantly reshaped by struggle and which is formative in that it emerges from below. In this way it is more likely to be representative of our humanity, rather than our increasingly cybernetically-controlled existence where our lives are routinely managed.

A key issue is where does our limited energy go in all this? Resisting on all fronts is an exhausting impossibility. Resisting whilst we try to live is also potentially exhausting. Can we resist where we have a lack of agency or control? How do we push back against the normalisation of metrics that feeds into the violence of aspiration, or the internalised desire to optimise our personal and familial outcomes, as they are set by the market?

  1. How do we work collectively inside and across institutions, and between teachers and students, to refuse the TEF? Or must we simply attempt to occupy and recompose the TEF?
  2. How do tenured academics connect to the concerns of precariously-employed staff, alongside indentured students and their families?
  3. How do we build and disseminate stories of the impact of the policies of austerity, in order to build the movement and the alternative?
  4. How do workers’ unions inside and across institutions, including students, academics and professional services staff, disrupt capital accumulation, and divert space and time to the idea of the public?
  5. How do we build a movement against standardised testing and metrics-driven education? How do we recover our humanity through connection to other campaigns?
  6. How do we connect our work inside institutions to other, concrete and local, social campaigns against austerity?

on the HE White Paper and academic practice

I

As I read the White Paper and the technical consultation on the TEF, I realise that I have spent so much time protesting the UK Government’s assault upon the collective, academic labour of the staff and students who work in higher education. I remember that I think of this as collective, associated labour, and yet the Government’s assault is driven by the human capital that can be accumulated and circulated by individuals and their families, or by universities as competing capitals. There is a different shape or form to the view of social relationships inside the university or inside the classroom that is articulated by those of us who see education as an act of love, as opposed to those who can only articulate it through the market and modes of incentivisation. And much of the White paper scopes a regressive space that wishes to marketise love and care if it must, or to marginalise them so that teaching intensity and student outcomes and data on future earnings can be optimised.

I remember that I wrote against learning gain and the ways in which data is used to kettle academic labour.

I remember that I wrote against the HE Green paper, situated through the Treasury’s Productivity Plan, in its obsession with teaching intensity.

I remember that I wrote some notes on saying no to the TEF, and then about the noose of student choice contained in the HE Green Paper.

And for a while I have been considering this in terms of the on-going proletarianisation of the University, in particular as it then relates to academic overwork.

And it is exhausting being against this wide-ranging assault on academic labour, academic practice, academic development, and academic identity. It is exhausting realising that their assault on the fabric of what we might refer to as public or social, and then later as a good, is the dismantling of the spaces that we once regarded as autonomous. Equally, it is exhausting bearing the brunt of their anger about our social, cultural, intellectual or oppositional capital. Knowing that their anger kettles our academic practice as staff and students. Knowing that their anger reshapes the funding, regulation and governance of the space, so that what we do has to be restructured so that it performs. Knowing that the marketisation of the space and the on-going demand for competition will force managers inside universities to recalibrate these as places for the expansion of value, and the production of surpluses, and the production of educational commodities.

And as a result, any attempt to push-back, so that education becomes an act of care, or a form of wider moral, pedagogic responsibility beyond the market, and beyond human capital theory, becomes increasingly difficult. In this moment the White Paper reveals a dominant position that stipulates improvement and enhancement as a functional imperative, shaped by employment and future earnings data.

II

And we remember that there have been evaluations of teaching and learning enhancement that view academic practice as a developmental and pedagogical activity.

there is evidence of strong institutional engagement with the national Enhancement Themes as a driver for development in learning and teaching and associated staff development. While there remains a need to encourage wider and more consistent staff engagement in this area, staff who are involved affirm the positive impact of such engagement. The combined impact of revised promotion criteria, clearer career paths and more strategic approaches to staff development is positive, and is contributing to improved staff development provision to encourage greater engagement with pedagogical and enhancement-led initiatives.

QAA. 2011. Learning from ELIR 2008-11 Staff development: Developing, sharing and recognising good practice, p. 1.

However, as a note on the WonkHE coverage of the White paper, Where is the ‘teaching excellence’ in TEF? argued, developing national enhancement themes or reflective practice is silenced. Or treated with silence, and silenced in the process.

This morning’s White Paper, though ostensibly focused on “teaching excellence”, will not attempt to support academics in developing their own teaching practice – there will be no research projects into HE teaching at a local or national level, and no attempt to understand or collate what makes for excellent teaching, either generally or subject by subject. The TEF is a stick to draw teaching into compliance with institutional and sector norms, not a carrot to encourage the sector to examine in an evidence based manner whether these norms are the right ones.

Today’s White Paper talks at length about teaching excellence, but it won’t support excellent teachers. Neither will it develop excellence in teaching.

This is a central point made by the Second HE Convention in their open letter (NOTE: which is still open for signatures):

Students are supposedly ‘at the heart of the system’, yet the quality regime proposed – the Teaching Excellence Framework – includes no direct measures of teaching quality. Rather it is designed to facilitate increases in fees,

As Andrew McGettigan argues, the White Paper distils the Government’s animus to the established higher education order, in order to focus on student/family choice and the role of challenger institutions, in disrupting complacent or ‘coasting’ institutions. This is its sole relationship to teaching quality, the learning environment and student outcomes.

‘The primary goal is to raise quality’ and the idea is that this is best achieved by having weaker institutions end provision, and stronger institutions replace them (this also applies to individual academics. Hence there is no mention of methods to help individuals improve).

The only issue apparently is to ensure that current students are protected: previously solutions to this conundrum included ideas about ABTA-style bonds, and the Green Paper cycled through a series of options: “an insurance policy, a bond, reserve funds, or Escrow accounts.”

There is no focus on academic practice or enhancement. There is only the signal that academics need to maintain their own career-ready capital, by becoming more entrepreneurial in retrofitting their work to the labour market outcomes of their students. As I note elsewhere this deterritorialises and then creatively destroys both the classroom and the relationships that exist within it.

It is impossible to reconcile the central conditions of the [White] 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.

As McGettigan notes of the context for the White Paper:

it’s hard to give any credence to these market reform measures if they are meant to advance quality: there is no explanation as to what they will be and what evidence supports them. We seem to be asked to ‘feel the radical commitment’, but it all seems rather to express an astonishing level of resentment against the history and autonomy of the established sector. BIS and the Treasury seem to have lost any perspective on what problems there might be in the sector and how they might be solved constructively.

III

So what is left for institutions, in navigating their way through this morass? The TEF assessment criteria on pp. 13-16 of the technical consultation, are outcomes-driven and functional, and leave limited space for reflective practice by individuals or teams. In fact, they will tend to catalyse a range of additional educational services that will affect academic workloads, related to mentoring, personal tutoring, employability, technological innovation, alongside the outsourcing or insourcing of others, such as study skills. These will become increasingly critical because they help delineate graduate work-readiness beyond the content of their degree, thus helping employers overcome issues of ability-bias and signalling (people who exhibit characteristics that the labour market values like a strong work ethic or sense of conformity tend to get more education. They will therefore underpin future metrics.

Further, as UCU have noted, the precarious and insecure nature of academic employment is a painful issue, in terms of developing careers and reward/recognition, and engagement with teaching quality and professional development. Increasingly, institutional context will matter here, because as the White Paper notes throughout, competition is the pivot for reform. Yet inside the system, this will be defined through competition and appeals to the choices made by students and their families.

By introducing more competition and informed choice into higher education, we will deliver better outcomes and value for students, employers and the taxpayers who underwrite the system (p. 8)

So academics and subject teams need to get their story straight for students/families, institutional managers, and for risk-based quality assurers

There are strong arguments to encourage greater competition between high quality new and existing providers in the HE sector (p. 8)

They need to do this as self-exploiting entrepreneurs because the White Paper notes

We must establish a robust framework for gathering the information to measure teaching in its broadest sense (p. 10)

TEF judgements will be made against agreed criteria by an expert peer review panel including employers and students, and based on a combination of core metrics and short institutional submissions (p.19)

Here the section on metrics in Chapter 3a and Annex C from p. 45 in the TEF Technical Consultation are key to the ways in which academics and institutions who wish/need to play along, can then respond.

The emphasis in the provider submission should be on demonstrating the impact and effectiveness of teaching and its outcome (p. 28).

This response is likely to shape any institutional/provider narrative (the short institutional TEF submissions) that enables competitive edge to emerge. And this is the critical moment in this White Paper – that the Government wishes to catalyse a higher education terrain solely defined by work/human capital and the production of value. Thus, the institutional context that will form part of the regulatory landscape will be shaped by this. How will academic teams or institutions describe to students/families and the sector how they “meet expectations”, are “excellent” or “outstanding”?

How they answer this will relate to the place of pedagogical or enhancement-related innovations inside institutional culture: as imposed and functional (training), or as developmental and reflective. This will then inform the renewal or restructuring of academic careers rooted in teaching, such that outcomes- and risk-based refocusing recalibrates progression through Post-Graduate Certificates, internal teaching excellence awards (including applications for readership/professorship by pedagogic practice), and then potentially national awards (if they still exist), alongside an institution’s relationship to the UK Professional Standards Framework. How will this outcomes- and risk-based refocusing, rooted in competition, connect to teaching innovation funding and projects? How will the professional identity or professionalism of academics be supported, rather than eroded as the University is proletarianised?

IV

The White Paper notes the complexity in trying to measure the effectiveness of teaching.

Other important aspects include weighted contact hours and teaching intensity. There is strong evidence that such factors make a difference to students: the HEPI/ HEA 2015 Survey showed that contact hours correlated with both student satisfaction and perceptions of value for money. However, we recognise that these are difficult to measure, if we are to capture the complexities of digital delivery, peer assisted learning and the difference made by both varying class sizes and the status of those carrying out teaching (p. 48)

Yet, in order to drive productivity academics and their managers are coerced into conformity, in order to reinforce hegemony. What we see is that the raft of proposals is an attempt to subsume academic life, so that it becomes more productive, competitive, entrepreneurial and atomised.

The real barrier of capitalist production is capital itself. It is that capital and its self-expansion appear as the starting and the closing point, the motive and the purpose of production; that production is only production for capital and not vice versa, the means of production are not mere means for a constant expansion of the living process of the society of producers. The limits within which the preservation and self-expansion of the value of capital resting on the expropriation and pauperisation of the great mass of producers can alone move — these limits come continually into conflict with the methods of production employed by capital for its purposes, which drive towards unlimited extension of production, towards production as an end in itself, towards unconditional development of the social productivity of labour. The means — unconditional development of the productive forces of society — comes continually into conflict with the limited purpose, the self-expansion of the existing capital. The capitalist mode of production is, for this reason, a historical means of developing the material forces of production and creating an appropriate world-market and is, at the same time, a continual conflict between this its historical task and its own corresponding relations of social production.

Marx. Conflict Between Expansion Of Production And Production Of Surplus-Value. Capital, Vol. 3.

Revealing the ways in which the White Paper is part of a process of on-going expropriation and pauperisation, of everyday life, of academic autonomy, of care and love inside the classroom, of academic development, is a starting point.

What follows must describe and play-out the conditional development of the social productivity of academic labour, for an alternative set of values beyond the market and instrumental financialisation.

Here we might ask, what can we do in association to resist and refuse the disciplinary instrumentalism of the White Paper and the TEF?

What can we do in association with those struggling for labour rights like trades unions, or with cross-sector groups like the HE Convention/Campaign for the Public University?

What can we do in association to refuse the competitive urges of some university “leaders”?

What can we do in association to frame a counter-position that frames an alternative vision for higher education?

What can we do in association with other public-facing workers, in education, in health, in social care, and so on, to define an alternative vision for our collective work? Can we use this as a moment to define alternatives to the law of value as the organising principle for social life?


Re-engineering higher education: the subsumption of academic labour and the exploitation of anxiety

With Kate Bowles, I have an article coming out in volume 28 of Workplace: A Journal for Academic Labor, entitled:

Re-engineering higher education: the subsumption of academic labour and the exploitation of anxiety

The article looks at the psychological impacts on academics and students of the re-engineering of HE, and of concomitant academic overwork. It undertakes this from a transnational perspective, with a focus both on anxiety amongst academic workers including students, and on the idea of the University as an anxiety machine. The article is in a special issue that employs Marx and Engels’ critical categories of labor, value, the commodity, capital, etc. in reflexive ways which illuminate the role and character of academic labor today and how its existing form might be, according to Marx, abolished, transcended and overcome (aufheben). Our focus is on the concept of subsumption.

The abstract is appended herewith.

This article analyses the political economy of higher education, in terms of Marx and Engels’ conception of subsumption. It addresses the twin processes of formal and real subsumption, in terms of the re-engineering of the governance of higher education and there-production of academic labour in the name of value. It argues that through the imposition of architectures of subsumption, academic labour becomes a source of both overwork and anxiety. The article employs Marx and Engels’ categorizations of formal and real subsumption, in order to work towards a fuller understanding of abstract academic labour, alongside its psychological impacts. The article closes by examining whether narratives of solidarity, in particular from marginalised voices, might help academics and students to analyse and then move beyond their alienated labour.


Dismantling the Curriculum in Higher Education

With Keith Smyth I have a new article out in a special edition of the Open Library of Humanities journal on The Abolition of the University. Our article is titled: Dismantling the Curriculum in Higher Education.

Abstract

The higher education curriculum in the global North is increasingly co-opted for the production of measurable outcomes, framed by determinist narratives of employability and enterprise. Such co-option is immanent to processes of financialisation and marketisation, which encourage the production of quantifiable curriculum activities and tradable academic services. Yet the university is also affected by global socio-economic and socio-environmental crises, which can be expressed as a function of a broader crisis of social reproduction or sociability. As the labour of academics and students is increasingly driven by a commodity-valuation rooted in the measurement of performance, the ability for academics and students to respond to crises from inside the university is constrained by the market. This article argues that in understanding the relationship between the university and society, and in responding to a crisis of sociability, revealing the bounded nature of the curriculum is central. One possible way to address this crisis is by re-imagining the university through the co-operative practices of groups like the Dismantling the Masters House community and the Social Science Centre. Such an exploration, rooted in the organising principles of the curriculum, asks educators to consider how their curriculum reproduces an on-going colonisation by Capital. It is argued that such work enables a re-imagination of higher education that is rooted in a co-operative curriculum, and which might enable activist-educators to build an engaged curriculum, through which students and academics no longer simply learn to internalise, monitor and manage their own alienation.

Keywords: community; curriculum; praxis; sociability; university


notes on social mobility and hierarchy in HE

This is a long post. It was written whilst listening to Springsteen’s Nebraska, which somehow became Springsteen’s The Rising, before I noticed.

ONE. Open intensity.

Elsewhere I have argued against teaching intensity that

The [Treasury Productivity Plan] places universities squarely in the frontline of [] restructuring around service redesign, workforce [efficiencies], and technology/data. Here the key is productivity that emerges from a freeing up of the market, so that capital and labour can flow between sectors or across sectors, and so that new associations of capitals or businesses emerge. Here service redesign is a function of HE providers working in partnership with hedge funds, publishers, technology corporations, and so on, so that capital can be reallocated. Productivity also emerges from efficiencies that emerge inside and across existing providers, whereby human capital might be reallocated. Critically, for the health of the economy as a whole, the Plan supports

disruptive innovators and ensures competitive pressure on the tail of low productivity firms. This requires an open economy with flexible and competitive markets, where expanding firms can access the labour, land and finance they need (p. 81).

Open intensity. A productive life. Life as work. The new normal.

What then followed was the proposed structural adjustment of HE to meet the needs of the Treasury’s Productivity Plan, as articulated through the HE Green Paper and the proposed TEF. This was rooted in the need to drive productive labour and entrepreneurial activity by institutions and individuals/families, in the generation of their own social and cultural capital. However, it was also grounded in the need to overcome ability bias that affects the decision made by employers (of the work-readiness of graduates), and the ways in which market/marketable signals are transmitted between individuals, HE providers and employers. Here the State’s ability to sponsor privatisation by opening up access to, and flows of, its aggregated data (in loan-books, tax data), is crucial.

Information about the quality of teaching is also vital to UK productivity. In an increasingly globalised world, the highest returns go to the individuals and economies with the highest skills. However, the absence of information about the quality of courses, subjects covered and skills gained makes it difficult for employers to identify and recruit graduates with the right level of skills and harder for providers to know how to develop and improve their courses. (p. 19)

TEF should also prove a good deal for employers and the taxpayer. The aim is to improve the teaching that students receive, which in turn should increase their productivity and help them secure better jobs and careers. It should enable employers to make more informed choices about the graduates they recruit… (p. 21)

This deterritorialises and then creatively destroys both the classroom and the relationships that exist within it.

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.

And Warwick for Free Education also called this out.

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.

TWO. Variable human capital and the rule of money.

The market-driven possibilities have been crystallising since the Browne Review. The desire for comparisons between academic abilities, and to evidence how participation in higher education contributes to human capital development, is almost overwhelming. However, comparisons between individuals, courses, institutions on a national and global scale reduce our pedagogy to their financialised data. For some time now, we have been informed that the market will decide, once the market has the data, grounded in student outcomes (learning gain), learning environment and teaching quality (excellence/intensity).

Learning gain measures… can also be used to support accountability, promote transparency and enable comparability of the outcomes of higher education (pp. xii-xiii)

Changes in financing of higher education have also served both to underline the importance of quality in higher education, and position student choice as a key concern for the sector. Students’ expectations in terms of their course and experience are increasingly becoming a concern of universities and policy makers, and institutions have sought to provide more information to prospective students on the value of degrees… (p. 2)

McGrath, C..H., Guerin, B., Harte, E., Frearson, M. and Manville, C. 2015. Learning Gain in Higher Education. Cambridge: Rand Corporation.

As McGettigan argues this is translated into policy that seeks to parasitise the idea of higher education by hyper-financialisation:

the transformation of higher education into the private good of training and the positional good of opportunity, where the returns on both are higher earnings. Initiation into the production and dissemination of public knowledge? It does not appear to be a concern of current policy. Such an anti-vision of higher education – let the market determine what should be offered – unfortunately meshes with a stratified higher education sector which mirrors an increasingly unequal society. (p. 2)

Potential applicants to colleges and universities will in future benefit from information on the ‘employability and earnings’ of each institution’s alumni and alumnae. I quote:

[The measures] will also help to create an incentive and reward structure at universities by distinguishing the universities that are delivering the strongest enterprise ethos and labour market outcomes for their students. (pp. 2-3)

If different degrees from different institutions result in very different levels of earnings for students with similar pre-university qualifications and from similar socio-economic backgrounds, then this might affect both student choice and policies designed to increase participation and improve social mobility. (p. 3)

McGettigan, A. 2015. The Treasury View of HE: variable human capital investment. Goldsmiths: PERC.

THREE. Towards the quantified curriculum

This offers some context for this week’s Institute for Fiscal Studies report (Britton et al.) on How English domiciled graduate earnings vary with gender, institution attended, subject and socio-economic background. The report highlights its own methodological constraints, and these are noted by Louisa Darian: the researchers only explore institutional differences across Russell Group universities that agreed, [and] had sufficient sample, to analyse (19 out of the 24 total); the researchers did not ask universities outside of the Russell Group if they would participate; the research covers a sample of just 10 per cent of all borrowers since 1998 and cannot control for the location that the graduate is now located (important given local labour market variations); it doesn’t take account of those who drop-out of university, and excludes the 15 percent of students who don’t take out a student loan; it is unable to capture which graduates in the study undertook further education or training after graduation; it is unclear how less selective institutions, that pride themselves on the support they provide students to succeed in employment, compare against more selective ones; and there is limited exploration of the lower earnings of Creative Arts students.

However, the IFS’s research demonstrates a critical moment in developing a methodology to explore, and potentially further monetise, the connections between Government-owned student loan book data and income tax records, through an emerging connection to subject of study and institution, as well as demographic data about students. In this way it develops the work proposed by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (DBIS) in its Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Act: Education Evaluation fact sheet. Thus, Britton et al. argue that:

For the first time we use these administrative data to characterise the properties of earnings for sub-populations of borrowers (graduates) and shows how they vary by gender, degree subject and higher education institution.

This second approach can be used to provide a conditional estimate of the earnings of graduates from different institutions or taking different degree subjects, after controlling for differences in some key characteristics of the individual or the institution and is our approximation of a value-added measure of the university by subject. We are mindful however, that selection into degree courses will mean that our estimates are not going to tell us about the causal impact of a particular degree on earnings. Further we do not have detailed information about the education achievement or other characteristics beyond gender and age of non-graduates and hence, whilst we can compare graduate earnings to non-graduate earnings, we cannot calculate a formal rate of return on a particular degree. Instead we focus on measures of variation in graduates’ earnings that are themselves of considerable value.

Britton, J., Dearden, L., Shephard, N., and Vignoles, A. 2016. How English domiciled graduate earnings vary with gender, institution attended, subject and socio-economic background. Institute for Fiscal Studies, pp. 3-4.

As Liz Morrish notes elsewhere about the DBIS Education Evaluation Fact Sheet this approach enables policy-makers to display

a discursive masterstroke, with a chaining of ‘learning outcomes’, ‘performance data’, ‘accountability’, ‘interventions’, and then serving the whole salad up as a solution to ‘social mobility’. And [this] re-designates universities as mere factories for the production of labour inputs…

Morrish, L. 2015. It’s Metricide: Don’t Do It.

However, as Britton et al. highlight, the next step is to differentiate between such factories, and their value-added contribution. A critical issue is one of unintended consequences in that policy-making that is allegedly about the interrelationship between human capital and social mobility may tend to reinforce establish hierarchies and dominant positions.

researchers have not thus far been able to assess adequately how graduate earnings vary according to the university attended. Theoretically we would expect that different institutions may add different amounts of human capital value and hence influence students’ success in the labour market.

the current information available to students strongly under reports the diversity of graduate earnings across subject and institutional choices. This is likely to be more damaging for students who come from families and communities who are less informed about potential HE choices.

Britton, J., Dearden, L., Shephard, N., and Vignoles, A. 2016. How English domiciled graduate earnings vary with gender, institution attended, subject and socio-economic background. Institute for Fiscal Studies, pp. 6, 5.

A second issue is one of ability bias and signalling (people who exhibit characteristics that the labour market values like a strong work ethic or sense of conformity tend to get more education). Havergal highlighted the importance of getting better data on the relationship between education, earnings and ability bias, in order to enable employers to make more informed judgements about who exactly had work-ready skills, rather than those who merely signal the possibility.

The generic, non-subject-specific exams will be trialled by the Higher Education Funding Council for England to evaluate whether they could be used to measure undergraduates’ “learning gain” – the improvement in skills and competencies made by students during their time at university.

The results of any nationwide standardised test could also be used to compare institutional performance, and may form a key metric in the planned teaching excellence framework.

Havergal, C. 2015. HEFCE to pilot standardised student tests. Times Higher Education.

As Britton et al. note, this matters because:

Estimating the causal impact of education on earnings is challenging, due problems with ability bias driving degree choice and the difficulty in separating the productivity value of education from its signalling value.

Britton, J., Dearden, L., Shephard, N., and Vignoles, A. 2016. How English domiciled graduate earnings vary with gender, institution attended, subject and socio-economic background. Institute for Fiscal Studies, p. 5.

What is required in order to modernise higher education is more than the quantification of the student, in her relationship with their institution and course, but the quantification of her whole social and educational life history, so that her productivity/learning gain, and work readiness can be made available to prospective employers. A knock-on is the quantification of the curriculum, including the labour that flows through it and from which derives the surplus value (and profitability or productivity) of the institution.

One step that would be particularly helpful would be to link HMRC data to the National Pupil Database and data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency to enable us to compare students with identical school achievement who come from higher/lower income households and reduce ability bias. With this additional data will we be able to estimate models that better control for the individual’s own level of pre higher education achievement.

Britton, J., Dearden, L., Shephard, N., and Vignoles, A. 2016. How English domiciled graduate earnings vary with gender, institution attended, subject and socio-economic background. Institute for Fiscal Studies, p. 56.

FOUR. Social mobility as self-exploiting entrepreneurial activity

The social capital of the family, as the purchaser of educational services commodified as a positional good, is central to the development of policy that asserts the importance of social mobility. This means more transparency over the flows of data about individuals and their own performance, and access to those data by service innovators and entrepreneurs. These latter include the individual student and her family, which needs to build its own social and intellectual capital, in order to succeed in an increasingly competitive market. This is not just the cognitive skills that HE provides, but is also the work-ready skills that are not measured by HE.

Over and above differential access to different types of HE, individuals’ socioeconomic background may also continue to have an effect on their labour market outcomes after graduation. This might be because students from more advantaged backgrounds have higher levels of (non-cognitive) skills (see for example Blanden et al. (2007)) skills that are not measured by their highest education level, or by their degree subject or institution. Alternatively, advantaged graduates may earn more because they have greater levels of social capital and are able to use their networks to secure higher paid employment. The literature on this is quite limited in the UK but does suggest that graduates from more advantaged backgrounds, particularly privately educated students, achieve higher status occupations and earn a higher return to their degree.

Britton, J., Dearden, L., Shephard, N., and Vignoles, A. 2016. How English domiciled graduate earnings vary with gender, institution attended, subject and socio-economic background. Institute for Fiscal Studies, p. 7.

In order to succeed, the student and her family must become ever-productive, self-exploiting entrepreneurs.

This appears to be especially the case for women. In comparing Cambridge, Warwick and Southampton, it was noted that:

graduates from the University of Cambridge have the highest earnings for the upper part of the earnings distribution, with more bunching across institutions at the 50 percentile level. There is much more variation at the higher quantiles. The gaps between the universities seem more pronounced for men than for women…, an effect which we will see holds up for a wider set of [Russell Group] HEPs.

Britton, J., Dearden, L., Shephard, N., and Vignoles, A. 2016. How English domiciled graduate earnings vary with gender, institution attended, subject and socio-economic background. Institute for Fiscal Studies, p. 27.

With caveats, Britton et al. then uncover emergent findings related to the following.

The differences between institutions are expected when we account for the differences in the background variables that influence earnings. Mean differences in earnings across most institutions are not sizeable once we take account of the fact that different types of student sort into different institutions. (p. 35)

The quantity of variation in graduates’ earnings within an institution. (p. 35)

The figures also illustrate the large gender gap prevalent for many institutions, particularly at the top end of the earnings distribution. (p. 35)

The very low earnings of graduates from most institutions at the 20th percentile of the distribution, although this low earning share is lower than we see in the non-university population. (p. 36)

A major issue for those concerned with improving social mobility is the extent to which students from lower income families are disproportionately likely to be found in these groups of much lower earning graduates. (p. 36)

Some very locally focused institutions may struggle to produce graduates whose wages outpace England-wide earnings, which include those living in London etc. (p. 36)

There are subjects where institutions matter a great deal in immunises the student against low earnings through their subject choice. For some institutions, subject choice really does matter, while for others, less so. (p. 38)

Within institutions, subject group choice is important, especially for higher earners, with LEM (law, economics and management) graduates having higher earnings than graduates in STEM or in OTHER subjects. (p. 39)

Although institutional effects are large in these data, institution choice does not fully insure people against low earnings. (p. 39)

Subject choice matters a lot in some cases, but much less so in others. Medicine and Economics stand out in particular in terms of their higher earnings (both are subjects with relatively few graduates), while graduates of Creative Arts and – to a lesser extent – Mass Communication tend to go on to achieve lower earnings. (p. 41)

The differences in earnings across subjects get compressed once we take account of the fact that graduates with different characteristics take different degree subjects at different institutions. (p. 45)

We conclude that there is clearly less variation in graduate median earnings by institution group once one takes account of student characteristics and degree subject. (p. 47)

Darian highlights three implications for policy related to: funding (the market responsiveness of institutions in subjects offered with implications for RAB charges); student choice (the information available through the TEF and Key Information Sets as a proxy of teaching quality and value-added); and social mobility (the role of social and cultural capital, disadvantage, and admissions policies). It also appears that there are class-based implications that intersect with issues of gender, ethnicity (and racial discrimination), and regional labour market disparities (see, Britton et al., pp. 48-52).

NOTE: the class-based implications that intersect with issues of gender and racial discrimination, feed into issues like UCU’s work on gender pay gaps and the work of collectives like Rhodes Must Fall. It is here that issues of hierarchy and hegemony need to be challenged as hyper-financialisation exacerbates social injustice in the university and the curriculum.

Higher education does not therefore appear to have eliminated differences in earnings between students from lower and higher income backgrounds… while the impact of coming from a high income background is strong right through the distribution, in particular it helps protect against low earnings, and provides much greater opportunity for much higher earnings. We reiterate that our approach here does not allow us to necessarily assign causality to these relationships, due to unobservable characteristics we are unable to control for, such as intelligence or degree classification. However, on the other hand, we believe our crude measure of parental income almost certainly biases the impact down.

Britton, J., Dearden, L., Shephard, N., and Vignoles, A. 2016. How English domiciled graduate earnings vary with gender, institution attended, subject and socio-economic background. Institute for Fiscal Studies, p. 52.

This process of reinforcing hierarchy and hegemony and the individual, family, subject and institutional levels, is an echo of the warning of Wilsdon et al., in terms of research metrics. In particular, where institutions are competing for fine margins in income through selective student recruitment (a form of signalling), the indicators used to separate them may drive changes in academic supply and discipline academic labour with unforeseen circumstances.

[T]he use of such indicators is felt by many to risk reinforcing a hierarchical system of institutions that may lead to simplistic comparisons. Such comparisons are hard to justify when aggregate scores show statistically insignificant differences – indeed, an over-emphasis on a small set of indicators risks encouraging perverse behaviour within and across institutions. Comparisons between institutions may lead to an unhelpful focus on the ‘top’ universities worldwide and foster a narrow definition of excellence; such a focus is not likely to be relevant to the institutional goals of universities, where the balance of research and teaching, the geographical focus and disciplinary distinctiveness may vary considerably.

Wilsdon, J., et al. 2015. The Metric Tide: Report of the Independent Review of the Role of Metrics in Research Assessment and Management, pp. 75-6. DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.1.4929.1363

FIVE. The disciplining of academic labour

The labour rights of those who work in HE (students as well as staff) for whom earnings-related data further quantifies the curriculum through performance management, is becoming the defining issue inside the university. Britton et al. make a clear point in summary about supply-side issues and the flexibility of the academic labour market.

[I]nstitutions preferring to offer more places for lower cost courses since fees do not typically vary by subject. Staffing creative arts degrees is likely to be much cheaper than staffing degrees in Economics, Law and Maths and Computer Science. These findings have implications for our understanding of the nature of subsidy of higher education. Given the relatively low earnings of graduates with degrees in some subjects, the level of public subsidy for these graduates is likely to be greater than for other graduates in other subjects, such as economics, even given the lower costs of provision for some subjects as compared to others. Making this explicit when considering the shape of higher education and in particular where any further expansion might take place would seem important.

Britton, J., Dearden, L., Shephard, N., and Vignoles, A. 2016. How English domiciled graduate earnings vary with gender, institution attended, subject and socio-economic background. Institute for Fiscal Studies, p. 55.

This brings us back to the DBIS Education Evaluation Fact Sheet, which noted that the process of linking datasets would enable “a much richer understanding of the impact of education and family income on labour market outcomes and develop a better understanding of social mobility”, alongside broadening “the range of information available to parents and students”. Crucially:

The measures will enable information on earnings and employability to be evaluated more effectively which will inform student choice. This data, presented in context, will distinguish universities that are delivering durable labour market outcomes and a strong enterprise ethos for their students.

DBIS. 2015. Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Act: Education Evaluation fact sheet

This signals the subsumption of academic labour under a barrage of new public management techniques for internalising control and producing value. This catalyses ongoing sets of research outcomes that are predicated on, and which further predicate, the financialisation of education, through the ongoing market-orientation of pedagogic practice. This foregrounds the generation of a bureaucracy for impact, learning gain, teaching excellence, underpinned by strategies for enterprise and employability, with new forms of quality assurance rooted in those same predicates.

The issue then is whether teachers accept the enforced internalisation of value-added related to employability and enterprise. A risk here is that academics are led towards learning gain, and fail to notice the noose of financialisation that is being prepared, and that our hopes for enriched learning outcomes form the market’s means of hedging against future performance. Equally, there is a risk that they are disabled in addressing the ongoing reproduction of hierarchies across society and within the HE sector. Here the ramifications that HE reinforces dominant positions that are gendered, racialized and class-driven needs to be confronted. Against this, existing and emerging corporate work on learning gain, productivity and value-added, enterprise and employability, and teaching excellence, underpin the process of hyper-financialising education. If they fail to address this fact, academics risk forgetting that this is about the labour rights of students as well as themselves.

This matters because, as McGettigan notes

the coming wave of ‘education evaluation’, threatens to supplant traditional understandings of universities as communities advancing public knowledge. Current regulations governing the awarding of degrees aver that standards are maintained and safeguarded only by the critical activity of the academic community within an institution. It will be harder and harder to recall that fact

McGettigan, A. 2015. The Treasury View of HE: variable human capital investment. Goldsmiths: PERC, p. 7.


openness and power

I have an article published on SpringerLink, as part of the Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory, edited by Michael Peters. The article is on openness and power. The full article is available here. I’ve appended the introduction below.

Openness as a set of practices has received less attention from practitioners and researchers than the specifics of producing and distributing open educational resources (OERs) or engaging in open education through innovations like massive online open courses (MOOCs). As a result, openness as a philosophical position and its relationships to power inside and outside formal educational contexts has also remained relatively undeveloped to date. However, it is possible to identify key arguments that enable the relationship between openness and power to be framed.

  1. Who defines openness, and what remains open or closed, inside and outside formal educational contexts? This includes the relations of power between transnational bodies, state agencies, education providers, corporations, and individuals.
  2. How does the political economics of openness reveal relations of production that are themselves rooted in power? This includes work on ideas like the commons, the public university, MOOCs, open data, information justice, and free culture.
  3. These associations also map onto discussions of openness, in terms of scholarship, authentication, publishing and access, data, and so on. How do these commodities of openness relate to social relations of power?
  4. The associations between openness and power map onto a number of terrains grounded in the self, including: the rich history of open education in community, cooperative, adult, and workers’ education; pedagogic research focused upon personalization, collaboration, and networks; critical or radical pedagogy around emancipation and self-actualization; Marxist critiques of education as it is restructured through processes of commodification and valorization. Can these terrains be brought into relation?
  5. Is it possible to scope a future for openness as it relates to power? In particular, how does current research and practice enable thinking about openness in terms of utopias or dystopias?

This entry will pick up on each of these areas in turn, in order to frame the social nature of openness in educational contexts. As a result, its relationship to concerns of democracy, social justice, and freedom, through processes for knowledge consumption, production, and distribution, will be developed.


notes on academic overwork and surplus value

I

In a presentation at DMU today Bahram Bekhradnia of the Higher Education Policy Institute argued that research inside universities was being conducted at the expense of teaching. His evidence for this was not academic staff workload data, but student study time. The latter emerges from his reading of HEFCE’s REFLEX project on flexible working plus the HEPI/Which? Student Academic Experience Survey from 2013. Student study time is lowering, therefore the value of degrees was lowering (as less labour was embedded in them), and therefore staff could refocus on research.

I remain unconvinced by this apparent correlation between variability in the average student study time and reallocation of time by academics between research and teaching. In particular, I do not think that it adequately reflects issues of workload stress and overwork in the sector, which have been highlighted by UCU, and in countless narratives about quitting higher education, and to which I referenced in my recent post about overwork. A counter-narrative is that the amount of surplus-labour being undertaken by both academics and students, and accumulated as surplus-value by institutions is growing. This is not a zero-sum game between research and teaching. Rather it is on-going and constant expansion of the research/teaching system, rooted in the search for absolute and relative surplus-value. It is the incorporation of everyday life as working time, so that academics extend their working day/days, so that they can increase their research and teaching and administrative outputs.

II

It is important to see this work of teaching and of research in terms of absolute and relative surplus-value.

The goal of capitalist production is not value, but the constant expansion of surplus value – the amount of value produced per unit time above and beyond that required for the workers’ reproduction. The category of surplus value not only reveals that the social surplus is indeed created by the workers, but also that the temporal determination of the surplus implies a particular logic of growth, as well as a particular form of the process of production.”

Barbara Brick and Moishe Postone (1982). Critical Pessimism and the Limits of Traditional Marxism,Theory and Society, 11(5) 636.

Inside all sectors of the economy, and now revealed inside higher education, growth is connected to ongoing processes of proletarianisation. These processes are catalysed technologically to promote consumption, production gains or to increase the rate of profit. The logic of innovation is for productivity gains, or for workplace monitoring and surveillance and management and stratification, or to catalyse the creation of value by opening up/harnessing new markets, or by stimulating innovations that further valorise capital. Thus, Christopher Newfield highlights three different types of knowledge or skill, which we might usefully relate to the expansion of capitalism through the generation of surplus-value (through the disciplining of labour and the utilisation of labour-power as a commodity).

Type C is ‘commodity skills’, which are ‘readily obtained’ and whose possessors are interchangeable. This category includes most ‘pink collar’ work that involves skills like ‘typing and a cheerful phone manner’.

Type B is ‘leveraged skills’, which require advanced education and which offer clear added value to the firm that hires such skill, and yet which are possessed by many firms. Computer programmers or network administrators are examples of essential employees who worked long and hard to acquire their knowledge, and yet who are relatively numerous. Ironically, they may have entered the field because it was large: its size may have signalled to them when they were picked a major in college–and to their stability-minded parents–something like ‘the high-tech economy will always need computer support specialists’. Yes, but not any particular computer support specialist, and not at a very high wage.

Type A consists of ‘proprietary skills’, defined as ‘the company-specific talents around which an organization builds a business’. The knowledge manager must nurture and cultivate only the skills that directly contribute to the firm’s propriety knowledge, and stamp out (or radically cheapen) the first kind of knowledge worker, whose skills are interchangeable commodities. Only the star producers–those who create proprietary knowledge–enable the firm to seek rents, and only they are to be retained, supported, cultivated, and lavishly paid.

In an indentured world focused on economic growth above all else, not everyone will enjoy the life-styles of those who produce proprietary knowledge. Through global labour arbitrage, businesses including universities ensure that commodity and leverage skills are outsourced/mechanised and that their costs are driven down. Conversely the hunt is always on for new knowledge to be valorised through exchange or transfer or through entrepreneurial activity, spill-overs and incubation.

In terms of teaching and research this bears some further analysis, especially related to the strands of teaching that enable proprietary skills to develop. These might emerge from the use of a teaching excellence framework as a gateway to drive data around teaching quality, learning environment and student outcomes/learning gain, which can be commodified so that new services can be exchanged. A side benefit is that these data then enable a medium-term justification for raising fees rooted in the competitive edge that can be generated from innovations in the production and circulation of education-as-a-service. This echoes the research terrain shaped around impact, which generates forms of proprietary knowledge.

III

Crucially, the distinctions between absolute and relative surplus value are important in engaging with the forms and content of academic labour, and an understanding of overwork (and its health-related impacts). A starting point here is a recognition that the academic working-day forms: first, the necessary labour required to enable the academic-as-labourer to re-produce her costs as wages: and second, the surplus-labour that can be materialised as profit (surpluses). In more under-developed capitalist production processes, like nascent teaching excellence processes or fee-driven contexts like that in English higher eduction, the search by universities is primarily to increase the absolute, social amounts of surplus-value that can be produced and accumulated. This happens by extending the working day, or by locating new international or lifelong markets from which to accumulate. Here the more limited returns available, plus the underdeveloped market/financial mechanisms, mean that there is less innovation that can reduce socially necessary labour time. A teaching excellence framework is situated against that, in order to generate productivity gains (and overwork).

However, competitive advantage can be gained by those universities that can innovate their academic production, so that they teach/assess/research in less labour time than that which is generally socially necessary. These universities have the possibility to produce more surplus-value relative to those with which they compete, in part because of the new capability and in part through increased capacity (generated by efficiency savings). As a result, these universities can then revolutionise the relations of production through new labour relations and working conditions. Thus, we see new management methods, workload agreements, absence/attendance management policies, and so on.

In terms of teaching, which has been weakly marketised and financialised, potential crises of underconsumption and weak profit/surpluses are offset by extending the working day, so that just-in-time teaching can take place or assessment turnaround times can be met, or so that new teaching technologies can be deployed. This process of searching for absolute surplus-value generates overwork, but it also reaches limits, in terms of the length of the working day or limited academic skillsets. As a result, universities see the application of more productive technologies or techniques that restore competitive advantage and relative surplus value. The search for relative surplus value attempts to make superfluous any academic labour (teaching, assessment, scholarship, administration, research) that is unproductive.

There are clearly contradictions between the commodity, leverage and proprietary skills of academic labour for teaching and those for research, and their relation to the generation of profit/surpluses, and as a response to sector-wide competition. The result is not research at the expense of teaching. It is the movement of absolute and relative surplus-value across the terrains of teaching and research, as a response to crisis. A further contradiction is revealed between, first the university’s need to reduce the costs of the academic labour-power that drives commodity production and exchange value (the socially-necessary labour time), and second the university’s need for new, entrepreneurial and creative concrete labour of academics in teaching and research. This underpins the constant revolutionising of the forces and relations of production, and the demand for constant reskilling and overwork. As Meyerhoff et al. Note, these contradictions flow throughout the university.

Even radical faculty who seek to enact transformations outside the university find themselves performing within the university as managers not only of their own labor, but of that of their students and their colleagues, designing curriculum and imposing regulations that require students be physically present and adopt a certain performative attitude during class time through the coercive metrics of attendance and participation grades.

Meyerhoff, E., Johnson, E., & Braun, B. (2011). Time and the University. ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies, 10(3), 493.

The ramifications of these contradictions for universities, and the compulsion to generate both absolute and relative surplus-value, emerge from David Kernohan’s Summary of HE-related implications of 2016 Budget.

The digital revolution is transforming the world of work. As working lives lengthen and jobs change, adults will need more opportunities to retrain and up-skill. This Budget announces that, for the first time, direct government support will be available to adults wishing to study at any qualification level, from basic skills right the way up to PhD. During this parliament, loans will be introduced for level 3 to level 6 training in further education, part-time second degrees in STEM, and postgraduate taught master’s courses.

To promote retraining and prepare people for the future labour market, the government will review the gaps in support for lifetime learning, including for flexible and part-time study. The government will bring together information about the wages of graduates of different courses and the financial support available across further and higher education to ensure that people can make informed decisions about the right courses for them.

The government will continue to free up student number controls for alternative providers predominantly offering degree level courses for the 2017-18 academic year. The best providers can also grow their student places further through the performance pool.

Here is the investment in human capital that drives personal, debt-fuelled investment in education, connected to data-driven marketisation and financialisation, and further privatisation. This is education as the lifelong search for absolute and then relative surplus-value, through individual and institutional competition, grounded in the market and finance.

IV

At issue is what is to be done? One route for the generation of alternatives is to analyse the content and forms of academic labour in terms of social labour. This seeks to abolish the fetishised role of the academic whilst retaining the intellectual content of its labour at the level of society. Thus, intellectuality/intellectual activity would become a communal good, and its social development would stand against overwork.

Now if this assumption is made, the general character of labour would not be given to it only by exchange; its assumed communal character would determine participation in the products. The communal character of production would from the outset make the product into a communal, general one. The exchange initially occurring in production, which would not be an exchange of exchange values but of activities determined by communal needs and communal purposes, would include from the beginning the individual’s participation in the communal world of products… labour would be posited as general labour prior to exchange, i.e., the exchange of products would not in any way be the medium mediating the participation of the individual in general production. Mediation of course has to take place.

Karl Marx. 1986. Grundrisse. London: Penguin, p. 108.

Joss Winn quotes Peter Hudis in his analysis of this passage, with ramifications for this discussion of absolute/relative surplus-value, and individualised overwork, in the context of alternative, communal activity that is defined socially rather than abstractly.

First, Marx acknowledges that labour would have a ‘general’ character in a new society. However, its generality would be radically different from what exists in capitalism, where discrete acts of individual labour become connected to one another (or are made general) through the act of commodity-exchange. In contrast, labour becomes general in the new society prior to the exchange of products, on the basis of the ‘the communal character of production’ itself. The community distributes the elements of production according to the individuals’ needs, instead of being governed by social forms that operate independently of their deliberation. Labour is general insofar as the community directly decides the manner and form of production. Marx is not referring here to the existence of small, isolated communities that operate in a world dominated by value-production. As noted above, Marx never adhered to the notion that socialism was possible in one country, let alone in one locale. He is pointing, instead, to a communal network of associations in which value-production has been superseded on a systemic level. Labour is therefore directly social, not indirectly social.

Second, Marx acknowledges that exchange of some sort would exist in a new society. However, exchange would be radically different from what prevails in capitalism, which is governed by the exchange of commodities. Instead of being based on exchange-values, prices, or markets, distribution would be governed by an exchange of activities that are ‘determined by communal needs and communal purposes’. The latter determines the exchange of activities, instead of being determined by the exchange of products that operate independently of it.

Third, Marx acknowledges that social mediation would exist in a new society. However, mediation would be radically different from that under capitalism, where it has an abstract character, since ‘mediation takes place through the exchange of commodities, through exchange value’ and money. In socialism, in contrast, ‘the presupposition is itself mediated, i.e., communal production, community as the basis of production, is assumed. The labour of the individual is from the outset taken as [directly] social labour’.

See Joss Winn. 2015. Communism In Practice: Directly Social Labour.

(Hudis, P. (2013) Marx’s Concept of the Alternative to Capitalism, Leiden: Brill. pp. 110-113.)

In overcoming overwork revealing the processes for the generation of absolute and relative surplus-value through academic labour are central. This is not a trade-off between research and teaching. This is addressing a culture of overwork and illness that is being structurally imposed as teaching intensity, learning gain, teaching excellence, and which is manifested as anxiety and illness. Only in this way can a discussion of meaningful, communal alternatives situate intellectual work at the level of society, rather than fetishised and exploited academic labour at the level of the market.


notes on academic overwork

This post was written whilst listening to Sharon van Etten’s Glastonbury set from 2015.

One: Preamble

This is a post about the proletarianisation of the university. This is a post about the exploitation of our labour-time. This is a post about how the political economics of higher education determine the annihilation of our souls because the very humane values we believed that we would live by have become fragmented and restructured by competition. Have become fragmented and restructured for value. This is a post about how our tears matters because they are the way in which our souls express solidarity with ourselves and those of others. This is a post about how we may lament that it was otherwise, when instead the abolition of the present state of things is our only alternative.

  • I have written about the proletarianisation of the University, in terms of the subsumption of academic life, through competition and financialisation, here.
  • I have made some notes about the [inevitable] proletarianisation of the University, in terms of student and staff narratives of dehumanisation, here.
  • I have written about Academic subordination to abstract time, here.

TWO: Broken

There is a different tenor of narrative emerging. Sets of narratives about how our whole, academic existence bleeds our souls in the name of value. Performance anxiety that bleeds our souls in the name of value. And so Liz Morrish has described how

This week I chose to open up to students about the relentless stress faced by academic staff in universities. Enough of the omerta, the conspiracy of silence.

What made me do this? Well, I have watched one after another of my colleagues taking sick leave, seeking help from the occupational health service, reporting loss of sleep or just looking exhausted.

I see the quitlit of academics daily. It is everywhere. I see the recounting of how the ongoing pain of academic reproduction, the constant reinvention of the academic Self in Student Satisfaction scores, relentless research publication and scholarship, entrepreneurial activity and knowledge transfer, workload management, performance management, is obliterating a meaningful life. This is overwork that obliterates the possibility that the academic might reproduce herself socially, because there is no time for care of the Self. That time is academically unproductive; unproductive for a life that is for work. And yet it also demands a level of productivity that is never enough. That can never be good enough. As Siobhan O’Dwyer argues

When your ongoing employment hangs on the outcome of a fellowship application that has a less than 20% success rate, it’s easy to abandon self-care in favour of working nights and weekends to increase your chances. When moving interstate or overseas is the only way to pursue your vocation, it’s hard to maintain a relationship or a sense of self. Almost every academic I know is either overweight, living with a mental illness, or has an autoimmune disorder. Those who’ve been lucking enough to avoid these things tend to be single, childless against their will, or in unhappy marriages. Almost all are financially worse off than their same aged, non-academic friends.

And this vocation is parasitic on the souls of staff and students, so that, as Liz Morrish continues, it enforces internalised overwork that then manifests itself as illness.

I told [my students] you could work 60 hours a week, never take a holiday or weekend off, have internationally regarded publications – lots of them, write textbooks, be a great teacher, and managers will still ask for more. And more.

I told them you are measured only by what you have not managed to achieve, not what you have achieved, never mind how valuable or prestigious.

I told them about the effects of long-term stress on the mind and body.

And Plashing Vole has outlined what this looks like in his 13 hour day. And a millennium ago, or so it seems, I explained how, in spite of and because of deteriorating mental health, I just had to keep on being productive. And Siobhan O’Dwyer argues that

you’ll understand why I put everything I owned in boxes and got on a plane when I was offered a permanent academic position in the UK. Although the move will set me back financially and require me, once again, to build a life from the ground up, it’s a small price to pay for certainty and the opportunity to pursue my passion for research and education at an international level.

Just look at what they make us give.

THREE: movements

I wonder how these narratives, which illuminate solidarity between staff and students, become more than moments of solidarity? How do they become movements of solidarity? As Kate Bowles argues academic narratives are important:

because our role is to educate, it really matters how we manage our own working. Whatever we speculate in marketing or curriculum about the future of work, the practice we model to students everyday is how we occupy our own jobs now.

If the expectations of academic pace and productivity are making work unsafe for some, shouldn’t we look harder at the values of the institution that causes these pressures to seem reasonable to anyone?

And the dissonance between values and pressures underscores protests by students at the University of Reading about their current Professional and Administrative Services Review of non-academic roles, as the University responds to a £14.8m deficit. As Niall Hamilton reports:

Today students and staff from University of Reading united in solidarity against job cuts happening across campus. Management at the University of Reading, under the PAS review, is currently targeting over 1,500 crucial but non-academic jobs.

About the same review, Nathan Hyde comments that:

The controversial £36 million review has prompted the university to adopt a new centralised operational model for administrative services and streamline those services by altering hundreds of job roles, offering voluntary severance packages and making redundancies.

Meanwhile at the University of Birmingham, values and pressures collide where there are ongoing threats of redundancies, in spite of surpluses being generated.

Dr Roland Brandstaetter , said: “We cannot see an end of this avalanche of proposed redundancies. Every few months, the University adds another unit. While we are negotiating on the avoidance of redundancies more and more individuals are added to the list of proposed dismissals. We are exhausting all negotiation options and soon we will have no other choice left than to ballot for industrial action. The stress levels staff members are exposed to are not acceptable any longer. I am seriously worried about the wellbeing of staff at the University of Birmingham.”

Is there a potential for a movement against exhaustion that might spill-over national boundaries? There are reports of 100 redundancies at Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen. And the Teachers’ Union of Ireland is concerned that the enforced mergers through the proposed Technological Universities Bill will damage staff.

We remain gravely concerned about the potential consequences of this Bill given the current crisis of underfunding, understaffing and precarious employment in the institutes.

I wonder if it is possible, in the face of this assault on academic identity that is enacted through time and performance, to imagine a more general transformation of social relations. To work for the abolition of the academic labour that we fetishize as much as our managers. To work for this abolition as we work for the abolition of wage-labour in general.

FOUR: the rule of money

And we know from our reading of McGettigan, and our reading of Universities UK assessments, and our reading of the HE Green Paper, that the rule of (value for) money dominates our academic existence. And I remember what Engels wrote on the Condition of the Working Class in England:

I have never seen a class so deeply demoralised, so incurably debased by selfishness, so corroded within, so incapable of progress, as the English bourgeoisie; and I mean by this, especially the bourgeoisie proper… For it nothing exists in this world, except for the sake of money, itself not excluded. It knows no bliss save that of rapid gain, no pain save that of losing gold. In the presence of this avarice and lust of gain, it is not possible for a single human sentiment or opinion to remain untainted.

Frederich Engels. 1845. The Attitude of the Bourgeoisie to the Proletariat.

The instantiation of money for our social relations drives competition between academics, between academics and professional services staff, between academics and students, between subject teams across universities, between higher education institutions, and so on. Competition for students, over scholarly publications, and most importantly, over time, so that we have no control over the surplus time that the University demands from us, and that the university seeks to manage though workload planning, absence management, performance management, teaching/research excellence. As a result, their domination of our academic clock-time becomes a means of internalising entrepreneurial activity.

Competition is the completest expression of the battle of all against all which rules in modern civil society. This battle, a battle for life, for existence, for everything, in case of need a battle of life and death, is fought not between the different classes of society only, but also between the individual members of these classes. Each is in the way of the other, and each seeks to crowd out all who are in his way, and to put himself in their place. The workers are in constant competition among themselves as are the members of the bourgeoisie among themselves. The power-loom weaver is in competition with the hand-loom weaver, the unemployed or ill-paid hand-loom weaver with him who has work or is better paid, each trying to supplant the other.

Friedrich Engels. 1845. Competition.

I remember from my reading of Capital that the technological and organisational innovations being enforced on higher education are a desperate outcome of the logic of competition, which itself demands the development of the productive power of labour and an attrition on the costs of labour. We witness an increased technical composition of an individual capital or business, like a university, as a response to the need to increase surpluses (as a form of accumulation). This puts further pressure on the demand for labour, as investment in physical and virtual estates, and technological innovation in services, rise. As a result, there is a flow between:

  • the need for universities to compete and to remain productive through technological and organisational innovation;
  • the ability of universities to drive down the labour-time for assessing/teaching/publishing compared to competitor institutions, so that it can maintain competitive advantage;
  • the concomitant rise in casualised or precarious employment, because by driving down labour costs university senior managers buy a greater mass of labour power or ‘progressively replaces skilled labourers by less skilled, [and] mature labour power by immature’;
  • changes in the technical conditions of the process of academic production (through digital innovation, new workload agreements, and so on), which enable new accumulations of surplus academic products to become additional means of production. This drives new markets, or internationalisation or digital learning strategies, and offers the possibility of throwing academic labourers from one sphere of production (the university) into new ones (private HE providers or alternative service providers);
  • the ability to sustain surpluses, as concentrations of accumulated wealth, in part by forcing academic labour to set in motion more means of production, in order to reduce the relative size of its labour costs, and even worse to become self-exploiting entrepreneurs;
  • the ‘accelerated accumulation of total capital’ required to absorb new (early career) academic labourers or even those already employed, through the constant revolutionising of the means of production and the search for new markets for expanded cycles of accumulation; and
  • the drive to centralise and monopolise the production, circulation and accumulation of academic value (through league tables, enabling market exit, and so on), which changes the composition of capital by increasing the constant, technical parts (the estate) and reducing the variable costs of labour).

These [academic] labourers, who must sell themselves piecemeal [in their teaching, assessment, feedback, research, scholarship, knowledge exchange], are a commodity, like every other article of commerce, and are consequently exposed to all the vicissitudes of competition, to all the fluctuations of the market.

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. 1848. Communist Manifesto.

As Marx notes, this tends to create a surplus, precarious population.

it is capitalistic accumulation itself that constantly produces, and produces in the direct ratio of its own energy and extent, a relatively redundant population of labourers, i.e., a population of greater extent than suffices for the average needs of the self-expansion of capital, and therefore a surplus population.

Karl Marx. 1867. Progressive Production of a Relative surplus population or Industrial Reserve Army.

FIVE: overwork

Increasingly abstract time dominates academic labour: the 50-minute hour; the four-week turnaround for feedback on work; being always-on through tethered technologies; the production of journal articles and books; the production and circulation of learning materials; the production and circulation of assessments and feedback; the exchange of ideas as commodities; the governance of production and circulation by intellectual property, patent and copyright law. A value-chain that is real and virtual, and governed by abstract time whilst its temporalities are regulated by the cultural space/time of student-as-consumer.

Abstract time dominates the life of the University as academic labour is really subsumed and recalibrated by capital. As the products of academic labour are re-constituted as commodities, academic labour is disciplined by impact, performance management and internalising league tables and satisfaction scores. The focus becomes less the concrete labour that produces a journal article or a podcast or a report, but the value that can be extracted from those products as they are exchanged through research funding or knowledge transfer or the fees that accompany student retention, and then realised through the accumulation of wealth.

Amongst others, Adam Price asks How much do our academics work? and highlights that some staff are keeping and sharing informal tallies of their time on task, as evidence of academic overwork. And yet we need to be careful because managers need evidence of time spent on task in order to drive down the socially-necessary labour time for specific activities. Because, if they can evidence that she can turn scripts around in 15 days, why do you take 16? Or if they can evidence that we can turn scripts around in 15 days, why would you wish to study somewhere it takes 16?

And as a result of this domination of abstract time, and of the compulsion of managers to drive down socially-necessary labour time, overwork redefines academic life.

The overwork of the employed part of the working class swells the ranks of the reserve, whilst conversely the greater pressure that the latter by its competition exerts on the former, forces these to submit to overwork and to subjugation under the dictates of capital. The condemnation of one part of the working class to enforced idleness by the overwork of the other part, and the converse, becomes a means of enriching the individual capitalists

Karl Marx. 1867. Progressive Production of a Relative surplus population or Industrial Reserve Army.

In the academy, overwork is a function of, first the threat of cheaper labour, be it international or domestic and precarious, and second senior managers’ demands that we become perpetually efficient. That we are able to reinvent ourselves over-and-over, to do the teaching, preparation, assessing, feedback, knowledge transfer, curriculum design, scholarship, and so on, of multiple academics. To internalise the academic division of labour, that demands superhuman, entrepreneurial possibilities, or our reduction to cheapened, precarious teaching or research assistant, or project manager, or whatever. And we know that in the latter case, where the academic is unable structurally or personally to deliver superhuman capabilities, their labour risks becoming simplified and worthless.

And in the attempt t become superhuman, we generate and offer-up our own surplus labour time to the university. This is a desperate attempt to remain on-side, and the university as business, as competing capital, takes this as central to its model for grounding growth and competitive edge through exploitation.

Let us assume that the average necessary labour time = 10 hours, and that the normal surplus labour = 2 hours, hence the total daily labour time of the worker = 12 hours. Now assume that the capitalist sets the worker to work for 13 hours a day during 6 days of the week, hence 1 hour over the normal or average surplus labour time. These 6 hours amount to 1/2 working day in the week. Now one has to take into consideration more than this surplus value of 6 hours. In order to appropriate 6 hours of surplus labour, the capitalist would under normal conditions have had to employ 1 worker for 3 days or 3 workers for one day, i. e. he would have had to pay for 30 (3 × 10) hours of necessary labour time. With this daily extra hour of surplus labour he obtains half a day of surplus labour a week, without having to pay for the 3 days of necessary labour time he would have had to pay for under normal conditions, so as to appropriate the 6 hours of surplus labour. In the first case a surplus value of only 20%; in the second, one of 30%; but the last 10% of surplus value do not cost him any necessary labour time.

Marx’s Economic Manuscripts of 1861-63. Absolute Surplus Value by Karl Marx: Advantageof Overwork.

They need our overwork. Our surplus labour time. Our exhaustion. Our internalised precarity. Our anxiety. In the face of the threat of restructuring and redundancy, they need us to internalise and reproduce their exploitation. To make their exploitation our means of academic reproduction. So that we truly become self-exploiting entrepreneurs. Because in such a high-status game, what could be worse than becoming worthless? And the double-bind is, for all the narratives of academic distress and quitlit, for all the stories in search of solidarity, that our overwork is a function of their marketised and financialised competition. It reduces us so that academic competes against academic, in order to reduce socially-necessary labour time, and to immiserate academic labour conditions further.

Furthermore, to the same degree in which the division of labour increases, is the labour simplified. The special skill of the labourer becomes worthless. He becomes transformed into a simple monotonous force of production, with neither physical nor mental elasticity. His work becomes accessible to all; therefore competitors press upon him from all sides. Moreover, it must be remembered that the more simple, the more easily learned the work is, so much the less is its cost to production, the expense of its acquisition, and so much the lower must the wages sink – for, like the price of any other commodity, they are determined by the cost of production. Therefore, in the same manner in which labour becomes more unsatisfactory, more repulsive, do competition increase and wages decrease.

The labourer seeks to maintain the total of his wages for a given time by performing more labour, either by working a great number of hours, or by accomplishing more in the same number of hours. Thus, urged on by want, he himself multiplies the disastrous effects of division of labour. The result is: the more he works, the less wages he receives. And for this simple reason: the more he works, the more he competes against his fellow workmen, the more he compels them to compete against him, and to offer themselves on the same wretched conditions as he does; so that, in the last analysis, he competes against himself as a member of the working class.

Wage Labour and Capital. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1847/wage-labour/ch09.htm

Saying no. Refusing work. Working to rule. How else to demonstrate solidarity?

SIX: social reproduction

And the stories are worse, because we know that academic overwork damages our wider social relationships. Our overwork squeezes the space and time available for the reproduction of the Self. It distorts the ability we have to care for ourselves. To clean, feed, love, nurture ourselves and those around us. So that, time-poor, we outsource so many of our needs or those of our families. So that work and accumulation colonises our care as well, and our souls are more fully lost to us in this ‘brutalising condition’ (Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England). As Sylvia Federici states

while production has been restructured through a technological leap in key areas of the world economy, no technological leap has occurred in the sphere of domestic work significantly reducing the labour socially necessary for the reproduction of the workforce.

We are brutalised through the compartmentalisation and fragmentation of ourselves as academics or teachers or researchers, which reduces our humanity, and which is a result of our desperate urge to be socially productive. And so we help to conjure up new forces of production, through technology and organisation and innovation, which in turn further our exploitation and reduce our ability to take care of our social reproduction. This is an academic arms-race that we cannot win.

[T]hey mutilate the labourer into a fragment of a man, degrade him to the level of an appendage of a machine, destroy every remnant of charm in his work and turn it into a hated toil; they estrange from him the intellectual potentialities of the labour process in the same proportion as science is incorporated in it as an independent power; they distort the conditions under which he works, subject him during the labour process to a despotism the more hateful for its meanness; they transform his life-time into working-time, and drag his wife and child beneath the wheels of the Juggernaut of capital. But all methods for the production of surplus-value are at the same time methods of accumulation; and every extension of accumulation becomes again a means for the development of those methods. It follows therefore that in proportion as capital accumulates, the lot of the labourer, be his payment high or low, must grow worse.

Karl Marx. 1867. Different Forms of the Relative surplus population. The General Law of Capitalistic Accumulation.

And here the terrain of the personal narratives noted above connects in-part through academic time. These narratives open-up the possibility that we might discuss a reduction of academic competition and overwork, in relation to academic time and the socially-necessary labour time of academic work, and the abolition of wage labour and exploitation itself. As Jehu notes:

Since the competition within the working class is over who will sell her labor power to capital, as a practical matter a reduction of hours would reduce the competition within the working class. But it could not reduce working class competition without also reducing capitalist profits. The working class thus not only must overcome competition within its ranks to reduce its hours of labor, the reduction of competition within the working class makes possible the end of wage labor itself. The reduction of hours of labor is just the periodic expression of the movement to end wage labor in its entirety.

Because the flipside is the need to internalise and incorporate the kind of employability bullshit that focuses on depersonalising (dissociating?), picking yourself up, brushing yourself off, and generating your own internal value (moving forward). Or, as Siobhan O’Dwyer notes, generating uncertainty as an acceptable form of academic post-traumatic stress disorder.

But here’s the thing: I still don’t feel certain. Twelve years of uncertainty and instability has taken its toll. Multiple moves have taught me never to get too comfortable; to not recycle the packing boxes but instead keep them at the back of the closet. As a result of the unpredictable mix of fellowship successes and rejections, I have internalised the message that I am not good enough. Too many ‘down to the wire’ moments –  in which I was forced to wait until just a few  weeks before a contract ended to find out if I would have another – have made me question my worth. And so I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop. I keep wondering why they hired me. I hesitate to buy new clothes or appliances, knowing they’ll max out the 30kg luggage allowance if I have to move again. I was genuinely confused when my new boss suggested I spend my first few weeks “just getting to know people.

Perhaps, as Amy Wendling notes, academic time appears to be our everything and must be made nothing. No thing at all. Our fetishized academic existence annihilated, so that we might return to some alternative form of intellectual, physical and humane existence.

[I]n the communist future, which is not subject to the calculus of value, time must diminish in importance. When we extrapolate Marx’s visions of free time, therefore, we must not only envision the lengthening of the disposable hours the worker marks between short stints of productive labor. We must instead imagine a modern life freed from time, or at least modern life freed from time’s abstract and alienating dominations. (p. 199)


notes in support of Rhodes Must Fall

I

My two most recent articles have referenced Rhodes Must Fall. The first, “Re-engineering higher education: the subsumption of academic labour and the exploitation of anxiety” (with Kate Bowles), argues that narratives of solidarity, in particular from marginalised voices, might help academics and students to analyse and then move beyond their alienated labour. It develops a point that I have been trying to articulate about the process of abolishing academic labour. The second, “Dismantling the Curriculum in Higher Education” (with Keith Smyth), argues that the university is reproduced by global socio-economic and socio-environmental crises, which can be expressed as a function of a broader crisis of social reproduction or sociability. One possible way to address crisis is by decolonising and then re-imagining the university through the co-operative practices of groups like the Dismantling the Master’s House community.

In both instances I have been trying, with my collaborators, to imagine what educational repair might look like. The idea of educational repair is critical because it focuses on liberating the curriculum as a social use-value, through a critical questioning of the received canon and the pedagogic practices that reinforce or reproduce hegemonic, social positions. One reading of educational repair is that by revealing and then challenging the racialized nature of the curriculum, it becomes possible to enable repair as a form of social justice. Just as the dominant social goals of education enact forms of violence against specific groups by marginalising or silencing them, more progressive pedagogic practices enable repair to the fabric of society and education. This is one of the key reasons why I support Rhodes Must Fall.

II

A range of campaigns by students and staff of colour have emerged as critical, transnational and local movements and moments in the struggle against power and capital in the university. These include: Rhodes Must Fall; the work of Cambridge students to get the Benin Cockerel statue returned to Nigeria; Dismantling the Master’s House at University College London, and related campaigns around #whyismycurriculumwhite and #whyisntmyprofessorblack; the campaign at Jawaharlal Nehru University in India, #StandWithJNU; and the campaign to get the Harvard Law School to drop its shield because it incorporates the crest of Isaac Royal Senior, who built much of his wealth through slave labour.

As Azad Essa argues:

From Delhi to Addis Ababa to Durban, students have recognised that a grand collusion of capital and state is in the process of destroying their futures. The status quo is untenable.

In India, the rage manifests itself against caste inequalities, misogyny, communalism, and rising Hindu authoritarianism that hides itself under an agenda of “development” and “Make in India” or “India shining”.

In South Africa, the rage seen over the past six months over tuition fees and outsourcing, is a refusal to accept continued economic apartheid that excludes the majority of black South Africans under the guise of the “rainbow nation” and “non-racialism”.

[D]issent is not just restricted to education fees – students are demanding a decolonisation of syllabus, language, and the very ways in which knowledge has become a tool to keep people from thinking.

Azad Essa. #StandWithJNU and #FeesMustFall: The reemergence of the student movement.

I read these campaigns inside the university through a deeper connection with the work of those fighting for Black Lives Matter, and in particular its focus on restorative justice across society.

We are committed to collectively, lovingly and courageously working vigorously for freedom and justice for Black people and, by extension all people. As we forge our path, we intentionally build and nurture a beloved community that is bonded together through a beautiful struggle that is restorative, not depleting.

The guiding principles of the Black Lives Matter campaign, focused upon intersectional empathy and justice, might be the organising principles for a deeply pedagogical, alternative social form.

The collective work of students/staff across higher education matters because the university is a critical node inside which the intersection of societal injustices, through class, gender and race are revealed. For instance, campaigns like 3cosas demonstrated the asymmetrical impact on women of colour of the disparity between university and contract workers, in terms of sick pay, holidays and pensions. Injustice is also revealed through the governance and regulation of the university, and in the definition, design and delivery of its curricula. In particular, as a recent ContestedTV round table on What has and what will #RhodesMustFall achieve?, the movement is detonating issues that flow from the symbolism of artefacts (be they statues or the curriculum) inside and beyond higher education. These include the following.

  • The role of knowledge production in the heart of the historic British Empire, as an ongoing process for the transnational, colonial production/reproduction of capital. This does not accept the premises on which the curriculum and the university are built, namely dispossession. The legacy of Rhodes is the legacy of corporations and vested interests that despoil the planet continuing to enact their legitimacy through philanthropic work inside HEIs. This forces us to question how we conduct ourselves today, and how our educational cultures, curricula and organising principles enact violence in contemporary society
  • The hegemonic cultural context of knowledge production, scholarship and research, which reiterates the white voices that are to be heard and those (non-white) that are silenced. As a result, the power that is reinforced in the classroom defines who speaks/listens/assesses and on what terms. Importantly, the curriculum is often presented as neutral, in spite of its context.
  • That the construction of the curriculum and its assessment enforce differentials in attainment that then form the reproduction of racialized inequalities. Wider societal inequalities are amplified inside the university.
  • Control of the curriculum ensures that political knowledge and therefore political activism is limited. Cybernetic forms of control, through the reduction of the curriculum to a system prescribed by functions, feedback, analytics, and degrees of control, then tends to naturalise assumptions about performance. This risks creating ghettos inside-or-outside the curriculum.
  • The thinking led us into this wider crisis of sociability, which infects political economy and our global socio-environment, is not that which will liberate us. Moreover, the trans-historical nature of this thinking, rooted in neo-colonial, capitalist discourses, is provincial and racialized.
  • What is required is a decolonisation of the hierarchy of knowing/doing, inside the university, which then pushes back against fetishized university knowledge both in terms of its content and organising principles. This work sees the university as a node for the intersection of protest, where links to local communities emerge against a reified academia in response to concrete issues.
  • This movement of decolonisation cannot be created through university diversity manuals, which sidestep the everyday realities of silencing and political activism, and which ignore the intersection of race, gender and class. As Tadiwa Madenga notes “I also think it’s important to recognise the word that they will never use, which is decolonisation. They will always only ever use diversity. There is a reason they don’t want to even touch that word.”
  • Symbols, like statues and curriculum, remind us of the systematic violence on which much of higher education is built; they form reminders of accumulation by dispossession. They force us to interrogate domination. This is a process of decolonising our minds that is a reference point in the creation of counter-hegemony in the movement to abolish power.
  • The movement to decolonise or dismantle the university in its current form is one of disrupting the function of Empire, primarily in support of decolonising the global South (the former colonial/neo-colonial world). This is an entry point into a wider discussion about decolonialism and structural forms of racism.

When probed about what they mean by ‘history’, many of our critics actually reveal a deep ignorance of Africa, and Rhodes. What they really express is a desire to preserve infantile fables that reinforce their identities. History is not as simple or static as colonial apologists want it to be: removing the statue from its current position would itself mark the moment at which Oxford entered a more honest present. We should not be so overawed by history that we are afraid to make it.

By calling for the removal of the Rhodes statue, RMF wants to show just how far Oxford will go to defend the indefensible. Just how unwilling it will be to look itself in the mirror. Just what reflexes still dominate its systems of power.

Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh. Rhodes Will Fall.

III

Support for Rhodes Must Fall is immanent to academic activism, and the refusal of instrumental, conservative ideological positions that stress the exchange-value of higher education over its social, use-value. This forces us to question our engagement with the heart of the university, as a functional, technocratic space dominated by business cases for growth that are rooted in new markets rather than reparation. As Giroux argues, this is never enough.

In an age of overwhelming violence, war, and oppression, universities must create formative cultures that allow students to assume the role of critically engaged citizens, informed about the ideologies, values, social relations, and institutions that bear down on their lives so that they can be challenged, changed, and held accountable

Thus, intersectional, intergenerational movements that refuse the violent imposition of hierarchies onto our lives enable alternative infrastructures to be imagined. Student activism against such imposition has been, and continues to be, met with state-sanctioned violence. In the accelerated implementation of neoliberalism within the UK, opposition is branded as outlaw or is brutalised in the kettle. As societies are disrupted by climate change, debt, food production and energy availability, there is a quickening of the transformation of the state towards an iron cage of control, in the name of business-as-usual, growth and capital. And all this is a world where, as Žižek argues, our liberal aim is “to democratise capitalism, to extend democratic control to the economy by means of media pressure, parliamentary inquiries, harsher laws, honest police investigations and so on.” Žižek queries whether it is enough that “the institutional set-up of the (bourgeois) democratic state is never questioned.” We might argue that very set-up is demarcated by gender, race and class, and is framed by the failure of liberal democracy to humanise in the face of the State’s oppression and antagonism.

And so Rhodes Must Fall resonates for me with something I noted a long time ago:

what is needed is our co-operative conquest of power as a step towards the abolition of power relations. At this point we are able to re-inscribe a different set of possibilities upon the world. At this point we are able to move beyond protest about economic power and occupations of enclosed spaces, to critique how our global webs of social relations contribute to the dehumanisation of people, where other humans are treated as means in a production/consumption-process rather than ends in themselves able to contribute to a common wealth… As the everyday is folded into the logic of capital, and the everyday is subsumed within the discipline of debt and the apparent foreclosure of the possibilities for an enhanced standard of living for us all, then the everyday becomes a space in which revolt can emerge.

This echoes John Holloway’s work against power.

For what is at issue in the revolutionary transformation of the world is not whose power but the very existence of power. What is at issue is not who exercises power, but how to create a world based on the mutual recognition of human dignity, on the formation of social relations which are not power relations.

We cannot live in ignorance of the power relations that dominate our lives. As teachers we cannot teach in ignorance of the power relations that dominate our lives. As students we cannot learn in ignorance of the power relations that dominate our lives.

NOTE: Danica Savonick and Cathy Davidson have produced An Annotated Bibliography of Important Recent Studies of Gender Bias in Academe. It includes a growing range of analyses of the struggles that are being recounted in the university, including the following (chosen here for their focus on gender and race).

Chavella T. Pittman. 2010. “Race and Gender Oppression in the Classroom: The Experiences of Women Faculty of Color with White Male Students”. In Teaching Sociology.

Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs, Yolanda Flores Niemann, Carmen G. Gonzalez, and Angela P. Harris, eds, 2012. Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia. Boulder: University Press of Colorado. Available at: http://www.usu.edu/usupress/books/index.cfm?isbn=8695
https://www.facebook.com/PresumedIncompetent?ref=br_tf

Joan C. Williams, Katherine W. Phillips, and Erika V. Hall. 2014. “Double Jeopardy? Gender Bias Against Women of Color in Science”. The Center for WorkLife Law.

These might also be extended to focus upon the experience of precariously employed staff, the mental health of graduate students and staff, the labour conditions of professional services staff, and so on.

IV

The political economics of this struggle are also critical, and reinforce the position of the university as a node in the flows and reproduction of global capital, in its productive, cultural and intellectual forms. Reflecting on Holloway’s discussion of the constrictive nature of capital and that the only autonomy possible exists for capital itself, we might think about the relationship of the university and struggle inside the university to this system of domination.

The argument against this is that the constitutional view isolates the [University] from its social environment: it attributes to the [University] an autonomy of action that it just does not have. In reality, what the [University] does is limited and shaped by the fact that it exists as just one node in a web of social relations. Crucially, this web of social relations centres on the way in which work is organised. The fact that work is organised on a capitalist basis means that what the [University] does and can do is limited and shaped by the need to maintain the system of capitalist organisation of which it is a part. Concretely, this means that any [University] that takes significant action directed against the interests of capital will find that an economic crisis will result and that capital will flee from the [University] territory.

As Mike Neary notes: “The struggle is not for the University, but against what the University has become.” This includes the role of the University in processes of global labour arbitrage, which strengthen the transnational power of activist networks that are using education as a countermeasure against a global reduction in the rate of profit. Thus, the World Bank Education Sector Strategy ties educational innovation and the rights of the child to ‘strategic development investment’, with an outcome being a strengthening of those labour pools for privatised knowledge, innovation, and enterprise. The globalised deployment of technologies is critical in this process, and underscores the aims of organisations that sponsor capitalist development through philanthropy, as philanthro-capitalism. Moreover, educational technology becomes a fundamental strand of a strategy for commodity-dumping and value extraction from other arms of the globalised system, including the flow of skilled labour from the global South to the global North.

This matters in the context of Rhodes Must Fall because, as Michael Roberts argues:

the huge low wage proletariat that has emerged in the last 30 years is the key to the profits of imperialism, transferred from the South to the North… In 2010, 79 percent, or 541 million, of the world’s industrial workers lived in “less developed regions,” up from 34 percent in 1950 and 53 percent in 1980, compared to the 145 million industrial workers, or 21 percent of the total, who in 2010 lived in the imperialist countries (p103). For workers in manufacturing industry, this shift is more dramatic still. Now 83 percent of the world’s manufacturing workforce lives and works in the nations of the Global South.

Roberts quotes John Smith’s recent book on super-exploitation:

The wages paid to workers in the South are affected by factors that have no bearing on or relevance to the productivity of these workers when at work, factors arising from conditions in the labor market and more general social structures and relations affecting the reproduction of labor-power, including the suppression of the free international movement of labor and the emergence of a vast relative surplus population in the Global South. This knocks a large hole in the tottering edifice of mainstream economics.

The exploitation of labour has increased through a shift in both absolute surplus value through a longer working day and a surplus population, and in relative surplus value through technological and organisational innovation, which both reduce the value of labour-power. However, a raft of super-exploitative movements impact workers globally by driving wages below the value of labour power, through an attrition on labour rights, an assault on social care and pensions, zero-hours contracts and precarious employment, enforced entrepreneurship, and so on. Moreover, this super-exploitation is also cultural, and ignores the fact that much growth or GDP in the global North, including that which is produced inside universities, is predicated upon resources from the global South.

much of the value in, say, US GDP is not value created by American workers but is captured through multinational exploitation and transfer pricing from profits created from the exploitation of the workers of the South. GDP confuses value creating with value capture and so does not expose the exploitation of the South by the imperialist North: “GDP as a measure of the part of the global product that is captured or appropriated by a nation, not a measure of what it has produced domestically. The D in GDP, in other words, is a lie.” (Smith, quoted by Roberts, p278).

Moreover, for Smith there are critical questions that have ramifications for the organisation and reproduction of the higher education as a node in a global web of production, namely:

the exploitative character of relations between core and peripheral nations, the higher rate of exploitation in the latter, and the political centrality of the struggles in the Global South (p223).

At issue are the connections between super-exploitation in both the global North and South, and struggles to decolonise not just the academy but our minds, as we become aware of the intersecting domination of our capitalist system of producing life as it plays out in race, gender and class terms. As Roberts argues

There may well be more room for imperialism to exploit the proletariat globally and so counteract falling profitability again, for a while. There are still reserve armies of labour from the rural areas in many countries to be drawn into globalised commodity production (and yes, often at below-value wages). But there are limits to the ability of imperialism to raise the rate of exploitation indefinitely, not least the struggle of this burgeoning proletariat in the South (and still substantial numbers in the North).

How we connect local examples of historical, material and on-going super-exploitation and dehumanisation, that respect and emerge through campaigns like Rhodes Must Fall, is one step in a movement of abolition.

V

I want to think about this movement in the context of the abolition of academic labour, in particular through an intellectual (rather than fetishized and academic) mental inversion. This takes Rhodes Must Fall as prefigurative of an alternative form of society that is decolonising its racism and neo-colonialism, as a precursor to decolonising our minds from capital. Here intersectional forms of solidarity, between communities fighting for reparative justice in a range of contexts, is central. These are systematic problems that demand a systematic movement the constituent elements of which articulate collective solidarity, and that contribute practices to that wider struggle. These situate the university as a node in the flows of capitalist social relations, and as such it becomes a space that needs to be refused, abolished, overcome, and reimagined through a process of social transformation.

At present the reproduction of the university for value is underwritten by a social infrastructure that has been corporatized. Indenture, bonds, debts, precarious employment, ad so on each reinforce the domination of a specific, financialised view of life, which then squeezes the space for students and staff (let alone activists) to reproduce themselves beyond the market. What movements like Rhodes Must Fall may offer us is an idea of an alternative infrastructure that gives us the capacity to move consistently against forms of oppression and domination, both inside-and-outside the university. This inside/outside context is important where we recognise that they have weaponised social reproduction (how we find the resources to remake ourselves for the market), in its racial, gendered and class-based forms. In so doing, we may be able to generate serious alternative versions of reproduction, where more exclusive forms are increasingly closed to many of us through the State.

As Robin D. G. Kelley argues, a movement for imagining alternatives operates both inside-and-outside, and enables:

black students to choose to follow Stefano Harney and Fred Moten’s call to become subversives in the academy, exposing and resisting its labor exploitation, its gentrifying practices, its endowments built on misery, its class privilege often camouflaged in multicultural garb, and its commitments to war and security.

However, Kelley is sanguine about the political limits of such practices in the face of silencing and (de)legitimisation.

The fully racialized social and epistemological architecture upon which the modern university is built cannot be radically transformed by “simply” adding darker faces, safer spaces, better training, and a curriculum that acknowledges historical and contemporary oppressions. This is a bit like asking for more black police officers as a strategy to curb state violence. We need more faculty of color, but integration alone is not enough. Likewise, what is the point of providing resources to recruit more students of color without changing admissions criteria and procedures? Why do we stay wedded to standard “achievement” measures instead of, say, open admissions?

Here there is a connection to the reality that the university is constrained by its position inside a wider, transnational geography and topography of capitalist domination.

A smaller, more radical contingent of protesters is less sanguine about the university’s capacity to change. Rejecting the family metaphor, these students understand that universities are not walled off from the “real world” but instead are corporate entities in their own right. These students are not fighting for a “supportive” educational environment, but a liberated one that not only promotes but also models social and economic justice. One such student coalition is the Black Liberation Collective, which has three demands:

1) that the numbers of black students and faculty reflect the national percentage of black folks in the country;

2) that tuition be free for black and indigenous students;

3) that universities divest from prisons and invest in communities.

Kelley makes the key point that through diversity and equality legislation, universities will become marginally more welcoming for black students, but they are wedded to systems of production that are alienating. As a result they cannot deliver the social transformation that Marx sees as central to humanity.

Harney and Moten disavow the very idea that the university is, or can ever be, an enlightened place, by which I mean a place that would actively seek to disrupt the reproduction of our culture’s classed, racialized, nationalized, gendered, moneyed, and militarized stratifications. Instead they argue that the university is dedicated to professionalization, order, scientific efficiency, counterinsurgency, and war—wars on terror, sovereign nations, communism, drugs, and gangs. The authors advocate refuge in and sabotage from the undercommons, a subaltern, subversive way of being in but not of the university. The undercommons is a fugitive network where a commitment to abolition and collectivity prevails over a university culture bent on creating socially isolated individuals whose academic skepticism and claims of objectivity leave the world-as-it-is intact.

This work is grounded in political education and activism that takes place outside the university. This work reveals the tensions of existing and being reproduced both inside-and-outside the university.

Why black students might seek belonging and inclusion over refuge is understandable, given their expressed sense of alienation and isolation, combined with the university’s liberal use of the family metaphor. It also explains why students are asking the university to implement curriculum changes—namely, the creation of cultural-competency courses, more diverse course reading lists, and classes dedicated to the study of race, gender, sexuality, and social justice. They not only acknowledge the university’s magisterium in all things academic, but they also desperately wish to change the campus culture, to make this bounded world less hostile and less racist.

But granting the university so much authority over our reading choices, and emphasizing a respect for difference over a critique of power, comes at a cost. Students not only come to see the curriculum as an oppressor that delimits their interrogation of the world, but they also come to see racism largely in personal terms

Violence was used not only to break bodies but to discipline people who refused enslavement. And the impulse to resist is neither involuntary nor solitary. It is a choice made in community, made possible by community, and informed by memory, tradition, and witness. If Africans were entirely compliant and docile, there would have been no need for vast expenditures on corrections, security, and violence. Resistance is our heritage.

And resistance is our healing. Through collective struggle, we alter our circumstances; contain, escape, or possibly eviscerate the source of trauma; recover our bodies; reclaim and redeem our dead; and make ourselves whole.

This, for me, is a key moment in my support of Rhodes Must Fall. That it offers us this: the possibility to love, study and struggle (c.f. Kelley) for reparative justice. It therefore offers us the possibility of reconciliation that reject the borders of exploitation. In the face of global crises of sociability, it prefigures alternative, mass intellectual and conceptual possibilities.

It is a choice made in community, made possible by community, and informed by memory, tradition, and witness.