Notes on education-as-gaslighting

It is also popularly believed to be possible to “gaslight” a perfectly healthy person into psychosis by interpreting [her] own behavior to [her] as symptomatic of serious mental illness. While “gaslighting” itself may be a mythical crime, there is no question that any social attitude which interprets a given behavior or experience as symptomatic of a generalized incompetence is a powerful creator of shame…

Anthony Wallace. 1961. Culture and Personality.

Education and radical subjectivity

The materialist doctrine that men are the product of circumstances and education, that changed men are therefore the products of other circumstances and of a different education, forgets that circumstances are in fact changed by men and that the educator must himself be educated.

Karl Marx. 1845. Theses on Feuerbach.

For the proletariat can only be liberated from its dependence upon the life-forms created by capitalism when it has learnt to act without these life-forms inwardly influencing its actions. As motive forces they must sink to the status of matters of complete indifference. Needless to say, this will not reduce by one iota the hatred of the proletariat for these forms, nor the burning wish to destroy them. On the contrary, only by virtue of this inner conviction will the proletariat be able to regard the capitalist social order as an abomination, dead but still a lethal obstacle to the healthy evolution of humanity; and this is an indispensable insight if the proletariat is to be able to take a conscious and enduring revolutionary stand. The self-education of the proletariat is a lengthy and difficult process by which it becomes ‘ripe’ for revolution, and the more highly developed capitalism and bourgeois culture are in a country, the more arduous this process becomes because the proletariat be-comes infected by the life-forms of capitalism.

The need to establish just what is appropriate to revolutionary action coincides fortunately-though by no means adventitiously-with the exigencies of this educational task.

Georg Lukács. 1920. History and Class Consciousness: Legality and Illegality.

Education and substantive equality

Black and Third World people are expected to educate white people as to our humanity. Women are expected to educate men. Lesbians and gay men are expected to educate the heterosexual world. The oppressors maintain their position and evade their responsibility for their own actions. There is a constant drain of energy which might be better used in redefining ourselves and devising realistic scenarios for altering the present and constructing the future

Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches

The academy is not paradise. But learning is a place where paradise can be created. The classroom with all its limitations remains a location of possibility. In that field of possibility we have the opportunity to labour for freedom, to demand of ourselves and our comrades, an openness of mind and heart that allows us to face reality even as we collectively imagine ways to move beyond boundaries, to transgress. This is education as the practice of freedom.

bell hooks. 1994. Teaching to Transgress. Education as the practice of freedom, London: Routledge.

Choose life

Going to university is still a big decision, and it’s a choice which more and more of you are making. We want that decision to pay off, to set you up for life, and our reforms will make sure universities do just that.

Jo Johnson. 2016. Open Letter to Students.

What if we’re actually not crazy? What if wanting to work one full-time job and have the ends not only meet but actually overlap a little is NOT an entitled pipe dream?

The sheer stress of existing in today’s world is enough to give anybody an anxiety disorder. Add the fact that we’re told over and over again how we need to just bootstrap it, because generations before us handled life just fine, and you have a recipe for disaster. The generations before us could afford college tuition on minimum wage and didn’t have bosses who expect us to be tied to our devices at all hours.

Born Again Minimalist. 2016. The gaslighting of the millennial generation.

the job wasn’t yet on offer to me. I was wanted for another trial shift on Thursday, and perhaps the weekend, to see if I could keep up on a busy night and then I’d get paid for any time over the unpaid 2 hours of each shift at the weekend when they pay all staff weekly, cash-in-hand, avoiding tax and, of course: no sick pay, no set hours.

So far, so exploitative. But the part of the conversation that most stood out was the guy’s pathetic attempt to make me beg for this below-minimum wage kitchen porter job. “You have to show us that you really want this,” he challenged me, like he was an X Factor judge and I the contestant desperately seeking his endorsement. “Do you just want the work, to earn your money and go home? Or do you want a career here?” I had to repress laughter at this point. The guy clearly didn’t even believe in this spiel, it’s just the kind of crap that he was supposed to say but he was awful at it. Perversely, I almost felt sorry for him for being such a shit capitalist.

The point here is that you’re not just supposed to be paid nothing and get treated like garbage, you have to act like this is all part of your career plan. The demand here is a performative one. I had to “show him that I wanted it” – a demand that is largely unquantifiable but nevertheless psychically demoralising, designed perhaps to differentiate the boss from their staff affectively, even morally, in an industry of surprising equality of immiseration between the ostensible capitalist and the worker.

Michael Richmond. 2016. Unpaid Trials & Self-Exploiting Entrepreneurs

Choose dissonance

Sometimes people hold a core belief that is very strong. When they are presented with evidence that works against that belief, the new evidence cannot be accepted. It would create a feeling that is extremely uncomfortable, called cognitive dissonance. And because it is so important to protect the core belief, they will rationalize, ignore and even deny anything that doesn’t fit in with the core belief.

Franz Fanon. 1952. Black Skin, White Masks.

If providers are unable to provide courses that students want in a financially sustainable way it is in the long-term interests of students and the taxpayer that they close down. This is of course compatible with government subsidies of certain courses, such as STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), that are deemed necessary for economic growth.

Andrea Coscelli. 2016. Competition in higher education is in the interests of students

For choice and competition to work, students need access to reliable and comparable information on HE courses. Changes made to the provision of information must not undermine students’ ability to make choices.

Like you, we consider that the TEF should be made as effective as possible in supporting student choice and providing incentives for providers to compete on quality. Students choosing between courses at different institutions are likely to be most interested in the quality of the specific course for which they are applying, rather than the institution generally, and as such are likely to derive significantly more value from a TEF award that relates to specific disciplines. We therefore welcome your proposals to run “disciplinary pilots” of the TEF, and we recommend that you move to a disciplinary level TEF as soon as practically possible.

Andrea Coscelli. 2016. CMA recommendations on the Higher Education and Research Bill.

Choose excellently

Perhaps it’s just that the government doesn’t actually want to measure teaching excellence. Maybe we really want to measure learning outcomes and someone got the name wrong. Maybe teaching excellence is just one of a myriad of things that we want to measure, and TEF was just the catchiest acronym. Either way, I think it’s time that we ask ourselves, “what is it that we actually want to measure?”

Collette Cherry. 2017. Why my friend’s dog will never be Professor of Economics at Oxford, and other problems with TEF

For there to be any confidence in TEF, there must be acceptance that the metrics, their benchmarks, and the weight attached to them give valid results. We have heard that the TEF assessment panel will operate with all the  necessary contextual information, which gives some comfort. But what is in the metrics, what is benchmarked, and what is flagged are crucial.

Jackie Njoroge. 2016. Three important questions about TEF metrics.

Choose what you internalise and re-produce

as billions of young people based in least developed countries might encounter much greater difficulty than the 1970s- 90s generation in integrating into the global economy. In a world of ‘declining returns on humans’ having too many young people might be a recipe for social and political dislocation rather than growth, even if the business climate is improved. In our view, it is quite likely that when historians examine the last one hundred years, they would classify 1950s-1990s as the ‘golden age’. Although there would be inevitable academic disputes about exact boundary (i.e. whether the golden age ended in 1980s or whether there were two golden ages, i.e. 1950s-mid 1960s and 1980s-90s), however, as an overall period, we think it was time of increasing opportunities and generally rising returns on human capital. However, 2000-2030s will likely be classified distinctly differently.

Macquarie Research. 2016. What caught my eye? v.61 ‘Lumpenproletariat’ & deglobalization.

If there is no price signal, complex reforms have to be put in place to replicate its function or the market is no more efficient as an allocator of resources than an alternative form of organisation such as central planning. And there would be no point in engaging in extensive reforms to university funding.

The Teaching Excellence Framework is best understood then as an effort to create a proxy signal to indicate quality to potential students and rival institutions through its gold, silver and bronze badges. (In contrast to this consumer intervention, the Research Excellence Framework is a public procurement tendering exercise where future research is funded on the basis of past results).

As a concluding aside, if ‘neoliberalism’ is to be more than a shibbloleth when discussing HE reforms, then its more substantive meanings are to be found by understanding why markets are desired and what impediments there are to their implementation. This then makes the contours of future struggle clear – only by eroding the subsidy in student loans can tuition fees (as they rise and differentiate) become the prices they are so obviously meant to be.

Andrew McGettigan. 2017. Why undergraduate tuition fees are not prices when backed by SLC loans.

on the HE and Research Bill as a terrain of alienation

ONE. Universities as tools of economic progress and social mobility.

The HE Bill reaching the Lords has catalysed a fresh discussion around ideas, first, of the University itself, and second, of academic freedom. These are the perceived form/purpose and content of our higher education system. Lord Wolf’s first amendment to the proposed Bill sought to specify what a university is understood to be, and attempted to stitch into this an idea of autonomy and freedom.

UK universities: functions

(1) UK universities are autonomous institutions and must uphold the principles of academic freedom and freedom of speech.

(2) UK universities must ensure that they promote freedom of thought and expression, and freedom from discrimination.

(3) UK universities must provide an extensive range of high quality academic subjects delivered by excellent teaching, supported by scholarship and research, through courses which enhance the ability of students to learn throughout their lives.

(4) UK universities must make a contribution to society through the pursuit, dissemination, and application of knowledge and expertise locally, nationally and internationally; and through partnerships with business, charitable foundations, and other organisations, including other colleges and universities.

(5) UK universities must be free to act as critics of government and the conscience of society.

Contestation in the Lords, and between Lords and Commons, reveals the extent to which policymakers are struggling to make higher education fully subservient to the needs of the wider economy. Moreover, it reveals the constrained position of the opposition to the Bill within this dominant, economic narrative. This is a moment in which education as a fulfilling life-activity, or a process of emancipatory self-actualisation is subsumed and then transformed, precisely because that wider economy has been stagnating for almost a decade, with low levels of profitability and investment, and as a result weak growth and productivity. Moreover, it risks further contraction in the face of Brexit.

As the economic base of society weakens, the infrastructure that emerges from it and which helps shape it is damaged. The on-going (historical) narrative that seeks to re-engineer (materially) universities/higher education by subsuming them explicitly under processes for generating economic growth was re-emphasised by Jo Johnson, Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, in his response to the first Committee day in the Lords.

[T]here is an urgent need for innovation, particularly in the form of flexible programmes with strong employer engagement offering faster routes into work than the traditional three-year residential degree programme.

For too many high quality new institutions able to do just this, however, the path to degree awarding powers is blocked by inherently anti-competitive requirements that force them to find a competitor who will ‘validate’ their provision before they can issue their own degrees.

This Bill will make it easier for a new generation of institutions to cater to the aspirations of a new generation of learners and deliver the skills necessary to keep our economy globally competitive, while maintaining the high standards that underpin its international reputation.

It will also ensure that ensure that our universities are delivering for the students and families who invest so much in a university education. Those paying £9,000 per year deserve value for money and this Bill will deliver it.

We will not tell universities what or how to teach, but we will demand that their teaching delivers good outcomes, in the form of students who complete their degrees and progress to highly skilled employment.

One thing, though, will not change through these reforms and that is our commitment to institutional autonomy and academic freedom, the essential attributes for the enduring success of any system of higher education.

This Bill is no grab for control of an autonomous sector.

This is a Bill that consistently recognises and protects that autonomy. And it does so while removing a regulatory system from a bygone era, and replacing it with framework that can truly respond to the challenges of the 21st Century.

Jo Johnson: We must break open the higher education closed shop. Conservative Home. 10 January 2017.

This is a call for re-engineering the terrain of higher education by: innovating in the creation of new academic commodities through which students and their families, operating as firms, can invest in their own human capital (as self-exploiting entrepreneurs); speeding-up the circulation of those academic commodities by overcoming practices that are inherently anti-competitive; connecting the purpose of higher education and universities to the realities of the global economy, and hence of monopoly finance capital; and focusing teaching on good outcomes, as defined by degree-completion and progress to highly skilled employment. Johnson’s claim to recognise and protect institutional autonomy can only be situated inside these political economic realities, which are themselves shaped by an on-going (secular) crisis of capitalism.

One of the manifestations of that economic crisis is how it continues to leach (toxically) into the politics of higher education, and the social relationships that define the university and its perceived autonomy. Those who argue for maintaining academic autonomy, in terms of the management and governance of standards, regulation and quality, situate that plea against a diverse ecosystem of providers that “can create, develop and teach an incredibly wide range of courses that meet the needs of over 2 million students and responds to the workforce needs of the country.” A struggle over standards and regulation, as mediations of autonomy, is a struggle over power and is a political manifestation of an economic reality that grounds the university in the production, circulation and accumulation of capital. Thus, Lord Stevenson, shadow higher education minister in the House of Lords, argued that:

Universities across the world have multiple and complex roles in society – something from which we all gain. They are at their best when they are autonomous independent bodies, with the freedom to develop a range of missions and practices. While at the same time being public institutions, although not in the public sector, they serve both the knowledge economy and the knowledge society, and are tools of economic progress and social mobility.

Moreover, he then situated academic freedom against that reality of universities as tools of economic progress and social mobility. Stevenson went on:

Universities also use the precious safe harbour of academic freedom to seek for truth wherever it is to be found, and publish it for all to see and discuss. They transmit and project the values of openness, tolerance, enquiry and a respect for diversity that are key to civilisation in our increasingly globalised world.

TWO. Objectification for-profit

Those values that universities allegedly transmit and project stand on shaky ground (witness struggles and occupations on campuses that protest: first, labour rights, casualization and precarity; second, the implementation of the TEF; third, rent hikes; fourth, cops on campus; fifth, Rhodes Must Fall; and so on). Those same values of openness, tolerance, enquiry and a respect for diversity are framed within a specific capitalist formulation and re-production of the world, which has a limited toleration for dissent. This is made starker as the overall (lack of) profitability of the economy defines what can be tolerated.

This is amplified by a further amendment to the Bill in the Lords. As Andrew McGettigan notes, the second amendment “on the establishment of universities – opens with two clauses that will hurt the government further with their bar on profit.”

(1) UK universities must be bodies corporate, primarily located in the United Kingdom, and established on a not-for-profit basis.

(2) UK universities are public bodies, contributing to society through the pursuit of education, learning, and research at high levels of excellence.

Johnson continually fudges the main issue – access to public funding. What the new providers want is subsidies for their profit-making.

In the wider political economic realities inside which higher education and universities are reproduced, the first two amendments are inextricably linked. What can autonomy and freedom possibly mean inside organisations that are themselves objectified for-profit, and inside which the logic of money (as debt, surplus, external income, consultancy, spin-off or spill-over and so on) is so dominant?

this process of objectification in fact appears as a process of dispossession from the standpoint of labour or as appropriation of alien labour from the standpoint of capital.

Marx, K. 1993. Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy. Penguin: London.

The values of openness, tolerance, enquiry and a respect for diversity, and the potential for autonomy and freedom, and their social potential rather than their fetishized position inside objectified institutions, ought to aim at the enrichment of the human being, for her inner, socialised wealth rather than her private enrichment.

The need for money… the true need produced by the modern economic system, and it is the only need which the latter produces.

Marx, K. 1844. Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844.

Increasingly money replaces the real object and dominates the subject. In it needs and powers coincide in an abstract way: only those needs are recognized as real needs by an alienated society which can be bought by money i.e. which are within the reach and power of money.

Mészáros, I. 2005. Marx’s theory of Alienation. Merlin: London, p. 179.

What is hidden, or revealed, depending on the level of analysis is the idea/purpose and content of the university as it is structured through its (academic) labour. As István Mészáros notes in his work on Marx’s theory of Alienation, as capitalistically-structured activity, labour is the ground of all alienation, structured through human activity, the division of labour, commodity exchange and private property. The socio-historical mediations of private property – commodity exchange – division of labour infect the university just as they do any other firm, and education as they do any sector of the economy. What the HE and Research Bill seeks to do is to amplify this process of objectification, such that academic labour is increasingly alienated.

Many of the rebuttals of the proposed Bill are manifestations of moments of alienation, through which productive activity (and hence the development of self-consciousness) is objectified. Thus, Warwick for Free Education stated: “We are at a truly pivotal moment for higher education. This government is set to usher in the full marketisation of the sector, with devastating consequences for both students and staff.” In announcing the NUS’s NSS boycott, Sorana Vieru argued:

there’s one more myth that has to be busted – that this government cares about students. In parliament on Monday, pushed on the link between TEF and fees, Jo Johnson MP said that he had heard no voices in the education sector speaking out against the link between TEF and fees. Either Johnson can’t hear our voices, has forgotten meeting us to talk about the TEF or he doesn’t see us as part of the system.

Not content with dismissing our existence, Johnson has also conceded that these metrics are not perfect and are instead part of a “pilot”. If this doesn’t tell you everything you need to know about this government’s attitude to students I don’t know what will. An experiment with our education, warned against by experts, which will skyrocket fees, change the face of the education sector and potentially close institutions down.

Cares, attitudes and needs are shaped by productive activity, in the form of academic labour, which produces an alienated consciousness that reflects alienated activity. It reflects our labour’s self-alienation.

Thus, throughout much of this discussion there is an idealisation of the abstract (economic, productive, entrepreneurial) individual. As Mészáros argues (ibid., p. 81), ‘In place of man’s [sic.] “consciousness of his species” we find a cult of privacy and an idealization of the abstract individual.’ This idealisation is rooted in the governing mediations of private property – commodity exchange – division of labour, through which, first the university is being re-engineered (subsumed), and second, the cares, attitudes and needs of students and staff (as forms of autonomy) are further alienated. Overcoming these alienated mediations and transcending, overcoming or suppressing alienation depends not on abstracted ideals of academic freedom or institutional autonomy, or fetishized values locked inside institutions that are being made unsustainable, but concrete practices aimed at:

The supersession of alienation through the abolition of “alienated mediation” (i.e. from capitalistically institutionalized second order mediation) through the liberation of labour from its reified subjection to the power of things, to “external necessity”, and through the conscious enhancing of man’s “inner need” for being humanely active and finding fulfilment for the powers inherent in him in his productive activity itself as well as in the human enjoyment of the non-alienated products of his activity [sic.]

Mészáros, I. 2005. Marx’s theory of Alienation. Merlin: London, pp. 91-2.

Or as Lenin argued (General Works, Vol 38), this work aims at transforming the practically alienated relation of man to his objective essence, revealed though private property – commodity exchange – division of labour.

THREE. Paradise lost

So our responses to these processes are the revelation of the objectification and alienation of our work as they are intensified through capitalist crisis. Our screams of outrage at the lack of attention to our cares or needs are a function of the enclosure of this field of possibility. Such enclosure is described for the natural sciences in the process of industrialisation by Mészáros, and we might also reflect on how this academic life is subsumed inside the circuits of capitalist reproduction.

The role of social needs and preferences in scaling down the infinite to the finite is extremely important. However – and this is the point Marx is making – in an alienated society the process of scaling down itself, since it is “unconsciously” determined by a set of alienated needs, is bound to produce further alienation: the subjection of man to increasingly more powerful instruments of his own making. The structure of scientific production is basically the same as that of fundamental productive activity in general (all the more because the two merge into one another to a considerable extent): a lack of control of the productive process as a whole; an “unconscious” and fragmented mode of activity determined by the inertia of the institutionalised framework of the capitalistic mode of production; the functioning of “abstractly material” science as a mere means to predetermined, external, alienated ends. Such an alienated natural science finds itself between the Scylla and Charibdis of its “autonomy” (i.e. the idealisation of its “unconscious”, fragmentary character) and its subordination as a mere means to external, alien ends (i.e. gigantic military and quasi-military programmes, such as lunar flights). Needless to say, the subjection of natural science as a mere means to alien ends is by no means accidental but necessarily connected with its fragmented, “autonomous” character, and, of course, with the structure of alienated productive activity in general. Since science develops in a fragmented, compartmentalised framework, it cannot conceivably have overall aims which, therefore, have to be imposed on it from outside.

Mészáros, I. 2005. Marx’s theory of Alienation. Merlin: London, pp. 102-03.

This lack of control, fragmentation and abstraction of possibility, through which capital defines and repurposes autonomy as alienated activity (private property – commodity exchange – division of labour) is contrasted with the ‘twofold alienation of the sphere of speculative thinking’, such as philosophy. Here we might think of the ways in which autonomy and freedom are constricted through the fragmentation and abstraction of disciplines and institutions, under the iron law of competition. Thus, alienation extends:

(1) from all practice – including the, however alienated, practice of natural science – and (2) from other theoretical fields, like political economy, for instance. In its speculative “universality” philosophy becomes an “end in itself” and “for itself”, fictitiously opposed to the realm of means: an abstract reflection of the institutionalised alienation of means from ends. As a radical separation from all other modes of activity philosophy appears to its representatives as the only form of “species-activity”, i.e. as the only form of activity worthy of man as a “universal being”. Thus instead of being a universal dimension of all activity, integrated in practice and in its various reflections, it functions as an independent (“verselbständigt”) “alienated universality”, displaying the absurdity of this whole system of alienations by the fact that this fictitious “universality” is realised as the most esoteric of all esoteric specialities, strictly reserved for the alienated “high priests” (the “Eingeweihten”) of this intellectual trade.

Mészáros, I. 2005. Marx’s theory of Alienation. Merlin: London, p. 103.

Thus, as described for the natural sciences and philosophy under industrial production, so we might analyse the entrepreneurial university and the teaching excellence of fragmented disciplines. As a result, we see the private property of intellectual or cognitive capital, made productive through commodity exchange, and reinforced through the division of labour that is reproduced as precarious employment or performance management or teaching-only contracts. The lack of a theoretical position taken by those who practice academic labour (and the general lack of praxis that emerges inside universities except in specific, exceptional circumstances) leaves discussions over autonomy, freedom, and the values that universities allegedly transmit and project as a form of academic labour’s self-alienation.

If the “abstractly material” character of the particular natural sciences is linked to a productive activity fragmented and devoid of perspectives, the “abstractly contemplative” character of philosophy expresses the radical divorce of theory and practice in its alienated universality. They represent two sides of the same coin: labour’s self-alienation manifest in a mode of production characterised by Marx and Engels as “the unconscious condition of mankind”.

Mészáros, I. 2005. Marx’s theory of Alienation. Merlin: London, p. 103.

This position is reinforced because the form of private property – commodity exchange – division of labour that is reproduced through academic labour reinforces what Marx called ‘Movable property’s civilised victory’. This is the uncontested truth that the increasingly globalised world, shaped by transnational competition and dominated by monopoly finance capital, demands the production and circulation of material and immaterial commodities as the pure expression of capital. Marx argued that this process reveals capital’s strong points (beyond its weak ones, such as its surface immorality like the reduction of student life to employability) but that in the process of its becoming fully-developed labour is more fully estranged or alienated.

This underpins the possibility of overcoming such an estrangement from what it means to be human, in particular where alienation is revealed as ways of living that are being made unsustainable. This might include the increases in student debt, the increase in precarious employment or casualization, the reduction in costs (wages) of teaching at the expense of investment in capital infrastructure and buildings, the intolerance of dissenting positions on campus, and so on. For Marx, this reveals the tensions between marketised, economised existence that is predicated on the ‘increasing value of the world of things’ at the expense of the ‘devaluation of the world of men’. The questions are whether that world can be superseded, and what is the role of the University in that overcoming?

FOUR. Sociality: overcoming a terrain of alienation?

Human nature (“sociality”) liberated from institutionalized egoism (the negation of sociality) will supersede “reification”, “abstract labour”, and “imaginary appetites”. it is not difficult to see that as long as competition is the governing power of production, or in other words, so long as “cost-effectiveness” is the overriding principle of productive activity, it is quite impossible to consider the worker as a man at the various stages and phases of the cycle of production. Human activity under the conditions of competition is bound to remain wage-labour, a commodity submitted to the “natural law” of the objective, independent needs of competition. Similarly, it is easy to see the relevance of the supersession of competition to the achievement of the human requirements of the self-fulfilling activity (as opposed to “abstract labour”, the negation of sociality) and to the elimination of “imaginary appetites”.

Mészáros, I. 2005. Marx’s theory of Alienation. Merlin: London, pp. 149-50.

The life of the university is increasingly regulated and governed as coerced activity. It is against this reality that thinking of academic freedom or university autonomy becomes meaningless through its particularity rather than its universality. This is because projecting such states or values into a wider society that is itself grounded in coerced activity is meaningless. Moreover, what is being projected into society is the value of abstract labour (for entrepreneurship or employability or knowledge economy) rather than concrete, human activity (to tackle crises of social reproduction like climate change or poverty). The key is less fetishized autonomy and freedom inside universities, and more a struggle for universal overcoming ‘in the political form of the emancipation of the workers’ (Marx).

Freedom, academic or otherwise, needs to be focused on a transcendence of alienation in social practice, and a recognition that achieving freedom or autonomy can only be derived from sociality constructed through social processes and activities. This is our common ability to do and our comprehensive social practice. It is only by overcoming the mediations of private property – commodity exchange – division of labour across a social terrain, rather than in the objectified setting of reified academic practice, that something more socially-useful might be enacted. This means opening-up a terrain for directional demands and the social strike, rooted in association and negating the idea that freedom is either transcendental or exists by the grace of another human being. What we strive for here is the ‘self-mediated being of nature and of man’ (Marx).

This self-mediated being stands against the mediations of private property – commodity exchange – division of labour.

‘privatization’ means abstracting (in practice) from the social side of human activity. If, however, the social activity of production is an elementary condition for the human existence of the individual (with his increasingly complex and socially embedded needs), this act of abstracting – whatever form it might take – is necessarily alienation, because it confines the individual to his ‘crude solitariness’. Society is man’s ‘second nature’, in the sense in which the original natural needs are transformed by it and at the same time integrated into an enormously more extensive network of needs which are all together the product of socially active man. To abstract therefore from this aspect of man in the cult of the self as opposed to social man amounts to the cult of an oversimplified alienated self, because the true self of the human being is necessarily a social self, whose nature is ‘outside itself’, i.e. it defines itself in terms of specific and immensely complex interpersonal, social  relations.

Mészáros, I. 2005. Marx’s theory of Alienation. Merlin: London, pp. 174-5.

This is defined through forms of sociality that refuse the spiritual and physical dehumanisation of commodity production. Here the praxis of those who labour in higher education (staff and students) matters because the space needs to open-out to bleed into society beyond the commodity production for the knowledge economy, the fragmented division of academic labour and the subsumption of academic life inside private property and intellectual property. This is a practical task of generating and sustaining self-conscious human activity, as opposed to alienation from our work, its products, nature and the world, our species-being or our peers, and ourselves.

the fight against alienation is the struggle to rescue humans from ‘the extension of products and needs falls into contriving and ever-calculating subservience to inhuman, refined, unnatural and imaginary appetites.’ This alienated state which is characterized not only by the artificial ‘refinement of needs’ but also by ‘their artificially produced crudeness’, makes a mockery of man’s desires to extend his powers in order to enable himself to realize human fulfilment, because this increase of power amounts to the ‘extension of the realm of the alien powers to which man is subjected’.

Mészáros, I. 2005. Marx’s theory of Alienation. Merlin: London, p. 179.

For Mészáros , teaching is central to this project of becoming self-mediating because it expresses a specific relation to a specific, historically concrete alienated object. The practice of teaching, and enabling anyone to teach, raises consciousness (as opposed to alienated consciousness of commodity production) as a human society. This is not the consciousness of a negation (of alienation) but of a positivity (of human nature divorced from the mediations of private property – commodity exchange – division of labour).

At the moment the realization of academic freedom as academic purpose is impossible because it is simply the means to an abstract, financialised end. Overcoming this is rooted in forms of sociality that are grounded in social wealth and the ‘rich human being’ and ‘rich human need’. This is a totality of life-activities, the realisation of which exists as an inner necessity, as need (Marx). This is also the integration of the private and public in ways that resist objectification and alienation, in order to overcome ways of being that are made increasingly unsustainable through hegemonic economic directives. This is a world for:

the real human individual and the unity of opposites (public/private, production/consumption, doing/thinking, means/ends), without which there can be no overcoming of alienation. Private life has to acquire the practical consciousness of its social embeddedness, but also that personal life has to be personalised; also creative/productive/enriching consumption, and enjoyable production; subjectless, abstract having must acquire a concrete being; practical thinking related to the real (non-alienated) need of humans; doing that has lost its unconscious coercive character and become self-conscious free activity.

Mészáros, I. 2005. Marx’s theory of Alienation. Merlin: London, pp. 185-6

It is here that the struggles for university autonomy or academic freedom matters because education is the critical terrain for self-mediation. Such self-mediation embraces and relates first, activities that give life meaning across a social context, and second, the needs, attitudes and cares that reinforce that meaning as self-consciousness. This takes the form of self and social educating; it is the overcoming of the domination of externality (private property – commodity exchange – division of labour). Thus, these struggles matter where they are related to social forms of autonomy and freedom as universal self-mediation. They matter where they are the beginning of a refusal of private property – commodity exchange – division of labour, rather than an affirmation.

notes on HE finance: nothing is sustainable

<for some to succeed, some have to fail>

The government is trying to create a market in the education system. This … is the right track for reform, but at the moment there’s a risk that we’re building in the potential for market failures too. A functioning market needs enough genuinely new entrants to challenge existing providers, enough capacity for competition to be meaningful, enough information for providers and users alike, ways of breaking up failing or monopolistic providers, and exit points for providers that aren’t doing a good enough job. The direction of travel is the right one, but there’s a lot that still needs to be done.

Nick Timothy. 2016. Talk at the Centre for the Study of Market Reform of Education.

<higher education and market downgrades>

Moody’s considers that policy predictability and effectiveness of economic policy-making — an important aspect of institutional strength – might be somewhat diminished as a consequence of the [Brexit] vote. The UK government will not only need to negotiate the UK’s departure from the EU but will likely also aim to embark on significant changes to the UK’s immigration policy, broader trade policies and regulatory policies. While we consider the UK’s institutional strength to be very high, the challenges for policymakers and officials will be substantial.

As a consequence of the weaker GDP growth outlook and institutional strength, the UK’s public finances will also likely be weaker than Moody’s has assumed so far. In Moody’s view, the negative effect from lower economic growth will outweigh the fiscal savings from the UK no longer having to contribute to the EU budget.

Moody’s changes outlook on UK sovereign rating to negative from stable, affirms Aa1 rating

“We would downgrade the UK’s sovereign rating if the outcome of the negotiations with the EU was a loss of access to the Single Market as this would materially damage its medium-term growth prospects”, said Kathrin Muehlbronner, a Moody’s Senior Vice President and the report’s co-author. “A second trigger for a downgrade would be if we were to conclude that the credibility of the UK’s fiscal policy had been tarnished as a result of Brexit or other reasons.”

Moody’s: UK sovereign rating would be downgraded if the UK was unable to conclude an agreement with the EU that protected core elements of its access to the Single Market.

Overall, the forecasts demonstrate a continuation of the themes raised in previous analysis.

<financial capital, volatility and competition>

a. The latest forecasts, for the period 2015-16 to 2018-19, show a widening gap between the lowest- and highest-performing institutions and increasing volatility of forecasts in the sector.

<tightening margins>

b. Sector surpluses are projected to be between 2.3 per cent and 4.3 per cent of total income in the forecast period; these are relatively small margins in which to operate. However, at institutional level, these range from a deficit of 28.6 per cent to a surplus of 21.5 per cent in 2017-18, equivalent to a range of 50.1 per cent (compared with 30.4 per cent in 2014-15).

These are relatively small margins in which to operate, and mean that even small changes in income or costs could have a material impact on the financial performance of institutions and the sector.

<a looming crisis of liquidity and debt>

c. The trend of falling liquidity (cash) and increasing sector borrowing continues in this forecast period. Borrowing levels are expected to exceed liquidity levels in all forecast years, by £49 million at 31 July 2016, increasing to £3.9 billion at 31 July 2019. This trend of increasing borrowing and reducing liquidity is unsustainable in the long term.

Strong liquidity is particularly important given the growing level of uncertainty and risk in the sector and wider economy.

<the rule of recruitment, retention and progression>

d. The sector is projecting fee income from non-EU students to rise from £3.7 billion in 2015-16 to £4.8 billion in 2018-19 (equivalent to 14.9 per cent of total income). Increasing competition from other countries and proposed changes to student immigration rules suggest these projections may be difficult to achieve. This would have a significant adverse impact on the sector’s financial projections. However, the weaker pound may assist the recruitment of overseas students.

e. The sector is projecting high levels of growth in numbers of total home and EU students (10.3 per cent over the forecast period). This level of growth may be a challenge given the decline in the 18 year-old English population, uncertainties over the impacts of Brexit and increases in alternatives to undergraduate courses, such as degree apprenticeships.


f. Significant increases in capital investment are projected. At over £17.8 billion, this represents an average annual investment of £4.5 billion (2015-16 to 2018-19), 51 per cent higher than the previous four-year average. Despite this, nearly a quarter of HEIs in the sector are planning to reduce capital expenditure over the forecast period.

<never-ending fixed capital lulz: surplus, investment, competition>

g. Investment in infrastructure is particularly important given that, in July 2015, the sector estimated that it still needed to invest £3.6 billion into its non-residential estate to upgrade it to a sound baseline condition.

At a time of lower public capital funding, institutions must deploy more of their own resources or raise finance through external borrowing in order to maintain and enhance their infrastructure. This places greater pressure on HEIs to generate higher surpluses to maintain their sustainability.

<tightening of liquidity/access to capital>

h. The uncertainties faced by the sector as a result of the UK’s decision to leave the EU, coinciding with increasing competition in the global HE market, will lead to a greater focus from investors on the underlying financial strength of HEIs. Consequently, any fall in confidence levels could restrict the availability of finance in the sector and put significant elements of the investment programme at risk. Falling confidence levels are also likely to lead to a rise in the cost of borrowing.

It is also important to recognise that the forecasts assume that the capital markets continue to have confidence in the sector, which depends upon their risk assessment of the sector and individual HEIs.

<contexts for labour arbitrage>

i. Aside from the challenges associated with income generation, the sector will face inflationary pressures on costs, particularly staff costs, operating costs and capital investment costs. j. Pension liabilities are expected to increase from £4.9 billion at 31 July 15 to £7.2 billion at 31 July 2016; an increase of 45.8 per cent. This is due to FRS102 which requires liabilities relating to the deficit recovery plans for multi-employer pension schemes to be reflected in institutional balance sheets. However, the latest estimated valuation of the sector’s largest pension scheme, the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), indicates a significant worsening of the deficit, implying further increases in liabilities are likely

<stranded capital and market exit: thanks for playing>

The significant level of uncertainty in the HE sector and UK economy, as well as the need to sustain a higher level of capital investment to respond to growing competition, will require institutions to aim for higher surpluses in future.

This uncertainty is likely to lead to continued volatility and growing variability in the financial performance of institutions, together with a widening gap between the lowest and highest performing HEIs.

HEFCE. 2016. Financial health of the higher education sector: 2015-16 to 2018-19 forecasts.

<de-regulated and beholden to the financial markets>

The report is damning, and the irony won’t be missed that it comes at a time when the role of the funding council in safeguarding the financial sustainability of the sector is being replaced by a ‘let the market decide’ approach. While the government has its oen [sic.] logic for this approach and is implementing some measures to protect students in the case of ‘market exit’, it will come as a shock to universities that the oversight, guidance and practical – financial – support previously offered by HEFCE may no longer be available in their hour of need.

Indeed, it is new for HEFCE to use such strong and foreboding language about the overall state of HE. Previous iterations of these forecasts have been far more positive about the sector’s financial situation and have smoothed over cracks with reasonable rhetoric. But HEFCE is either no longer willing, or no longer able, to spin such a rosy picture.

The HEFCE report shows the grim state of affairs in which universities find themselves: the short-term diagnosis is one of stability – the 2014-15 numbers were healthy enough – but the prognosis is poor. Expect a need for some serious remedial action in board rooms across the land.

Bagshaw. A. 2016. Getting worse: HEFCE’s bleak prognosis for university finances.

<global labour arbitrage>

Insecure working practices now permeate every section of our society. Although students probably don’t realise it, most of them are taught at some point, perhaps even for majority of their time at university, by people on insecure casual contracts. Some universities have been accused of trying to ape the worst practices of the likes of Sport Direct.

The exploitative use of casualised contracts – including hourly-paid, part-time and even zero-hours ones – breeds insecurity and stress, and forces people to work long hours for poor pay. Many work for more than one university to make ends meet. It cannot be right that the people teaching our students are constantly anxious, not knowing from year-to-year, term-to-term, or even month-to-month, whether they will have a job or how much they might earn.

Inevitably, casualisation has an impact on education. US research demonstrates that students who take large numbers of courses with teachers employed on insecure contracts, or who are in institutions with large numbers of non-permanent staff, tend to graduate at a lower rate and are more likely to drop out of college.

Hunt, S. 2016. Tef: dump the pointless metrics and take a hard look at casualisation.

<fuck college>

as the terms innovation and disruption become mainstream there are still pockets of discovery value for investors in the world today. From curing cancer with the cloud to solving space to creating an alternative to fossil fuel in lithium, opportunities abound for those willing to look beyond today’s headlines. The world is changing as a new generation (Gen-Z) is poised to take the mantle from Millennials while the payback for college becomes harder to justify.

The average return on going to college is falling. For the typical student the number of years to break even on the cost of college has grown from 8 years in 2010 to 9 years today. If current cost and wage growth trends persist then students starting college in 2030/2050 will have to wait 11/15 years post college to break even. 18 year olds starting college in 2030 with no scholarship or grants will only start making a positive return when they turn 37.

Graduates studying lower paying majors such as Arts, Education and Psychology face the highest risk of a negative return. For them, college may not increasingly be worth it.

<enterprising human capital>

Corporates may have to do more themselves and develop their own talent identification systems. New entrants and business models are emerging to meet some of these challenges.

the vacancy rate does imply that the increased need for specialization is a factor and that the labor market is moving faster than education can respond. Arguing against this is the threat from artificial intelligence to pattern recognition and human decision making jobs (47% of total US employment is at risk from computerization according to a recent Oxford University study). This hollowing out of the labor market risk makes future-proofing very difficult, but there is a clear growth opportunity in professional training.

When it comes to money and finances, Gen-Z and Millennials hardly resemble one another. While Millennials are often cast as the “follow your dreams at all costs” generation, Gen-Z appears acutely focused on the financial consequences of their decisions. TD Ameritrade’s 2nd Annual Generation Z survey, for example, revealed that 46% are worried about accruing student loan debt while a study by Adecco showed that Gen-Z’ers are more concerned about the cost of education than Millennials. Meanwhile, sixty percent of Gen-Z believes that “a lot of money” is evidence of success, while only 44% of Millennials believe the same (Cassandra Report).

In combination with their financial conservatism, Gen-Z is also entrepreneurial.

Boroujerdi, R.D., and Wolf., C. 2015. Themes, Dreams and Flying Machines. Goldman Sachs Equity Research.

<against the stagnation of immobile capital>

We’ve written before that despite the protestations of academic insiders, MOOCs have real promise—not just as supplements to brick-and-mortar degree programs, but as viable alternatives for large numbers of students. And a “new system of signaling and talent identification” is sorely needed. A national exam system, in particular, would help level the playing field for students who didn’t want to attend an elite college, or couldn’t afford to.

The current American higher education regime is not working for a huge number of students, and, as this report suggests, those who continue to cling to the status quo are in denial. The system has to change, and it will.

The American Interest. 2016. Goldman Sachs: Higher Ed Ripe for Disruption.

notes on the abolition of the #realworldacademic

ONE. The mobilisation of neo-liberalism

In ‘Remaking the World’: Neo-liberalism and the Transformation of Education and Teachers’ Labour, Susan Robertson argues that the roll-back of education and the expertise of the teacher, in order to roll-out private sector alternatives is key to the development of neoliberalism. She writes (p.2):

the mobilisation of neo-liberal ideas for reorganising societies and social relations, including the key institutions involved in social reproduction, is a class project with three key aims: the (i) redistribution of wealth upward to the ruling elites through new structures of governance; (ii) transformation of education systems so that the production of workers for the economy is the primary mandate; and (iii) breaking down of education as a public sector monopoly, opening it up to strategic investment by for profit firms. To be realised, all three aims must break down the institutionalised interests of teachers, teacher unions, and fractions of civil society who have supported the idea of education as a public good and public sector, and as an intrinsic element of the state-civil society social contract.

What we might see then in the current assault on experts and expertise is also attrition on the idea of the intellectual, or of public intellectualism, operating at the level of society is a possibility. This is precisely because of the ways in which the key traits of liberalism are distilled inside the neo- form that gives us rational utility maximisation, namely: individual agency and independence from others; a libertarian view of responsibility for and development of the individual’s human capital; the pre-eminance of market relations in the organising and governing principles of society; and the rule of private property. As Roberston argues (p. 3) ‘In other words, supreme value is given to individual autonomy, agency and property.’ In this moment what space is there for accepting the human capital of other (experts) with whom we vie for precedence in the market? What space is there for arguing for public or shared expertise that sites beyond ideas of common sense that shape how society functions through reductionist and determinist narratives?

Of interest here is Steve Fuller’s idea that renewed leadership is central in our collective (academic, student, scholarly, public, social) resistance to this reductionism. This resistance relates both to the form of academic work, and the denial of its content as public intellectualism:

the university as an institution is doomed without academic leaders who defend the university as a distinctive institution on its own terms—which is to say, not simply a set of revenue streams from tuitions, grants and patents, but as an organic unity dedicated to systematic inquiry as a public good. The only people with the knowledge, authority and power to defend this ideal are not the rank-and-file academics but the university’s senior administrators. For this reason, I have supported the idea that any aspiring to run a university should receive academic certification. 

What’s Left of the Academy? Leadership, Intellectuality and the Prospects for Mass Change, Steve Fuller interview with Mike Neary

Fuller argues that the roles of academics as disciplinary leaders or public intellectuals, in coding specific fields of study, and the splitting that takes place between teaching and research, all serve to weaken the ability of academics to engage publically. When folded onto the range of sectoral differences that exist between tenured and non-tenured staff, fractional and precariously employed staff, debt-ridden undergraduates, unemployed and under-employed post-graduates, it becomes clear that there is no shared moment of solidarity across the sector that enables a refusal or push-back against the idea that academics are disconnected from reality, or that the conception of social or public goods with which their work engages might be defined outside of the market.

Personally, never thought of academics as ‘experts’. No experience of the real world.

Glyn Davies MP.

Nothing more irritating than academics rubbishing the efforts of those operating at the sharp end, without facing up to the hard decisions.

Glyn Davies MP.

For Fuller, one of the issues in managing this debate is the disconnection of academics with the institution, so that disconnection then spills-over into the relationship between functions and disciplines.

[T]hey care more for their discipline or, more to the point, their research network than the university that employs their labour and affirms their status. On the surface, this behaviour may look conformist because it does little to stop the inertial tendencies (call it “new public management”) that these academics nominally oppose. However, it amounts to a radical disengagement with the university as an institution.

What’s Left of the Academy? Leadership, Intellectuality and the Prospects for Mass Change, Steve Fuller interview with Mike Neary

In this moment it is necessary to ask what are the ramifications of such disengagement for the civic role of the academic? How does this disengagement enable academics to respond to everyday performance management? What are the ramifications for the role of the university in civil and political society, and in our collective response to innovations like the Teaching Excellence Framework?

TWO. The #realworldacademic

It strikes me that in this moment of responding to Davies’ attack on the idea of the #realworldacademic, we might push back in terms of (for instance):

However, in responding to the anti-expert position of Davies and others, we might also refocus our work on what this reveals about the nature of intellectual work or academic labour. What does it say about the form and content of that labour? What opportunities are opened-up for generating an alternative narrative about academic work at the level of society, as a form of mass intellectuality or as a deeper connection between the academic and her communities both inside-and-outside the University?

This strikes me as being important for three reasons.

First, because it speaks to issues of (the lack of) solidarity in the academic project, which is being conditioned by the acceptance and amplification of the rule of money, for example through institutional performance management and student-debt. This conditioning is being articulated inside the university and across the sector in a transnational, associational phase of capital. Here there is an interrelationship between commercial and money-dealing capital and productive capital. Those who direct the University for the market are not simply Vice-Chancellors, but include associations of policy makers, private equity fundholders, credit rating agencies, technology firms and publishers, and, indirectly, fee-paying students, who form a deterritorialised network. Here, the expropriation of surplus value from producers by merchant capital is a primary source of profit, and in educational production it is leveraged through the use of finance capital and credit to increase the rate of turnover of specific educational commodities and services-as-commodities. This is achieved through the on-line production and circulation of curriculum resources, and the competitive pressures of open education, MOOCs and learning analytics. The management and sale of the student loan book and corporate engagement both in the funding of research centres and knowledge exchange, and the outsourcing of physical and technological infrastructures, complement these strategies.

Thus, in order to develop alternative, concrete realities it is worth re-thinking how merchant, credit and finance capital affect the inner workings of education, in particular as universities are being reconstructed inside the equivalent of joint-stock companies, subject to the coercive logic of competition for research grants and student numbers. What is the impact of the coercive role of money as it is insinuated inside educational practice? To what extent does this process reinforce the reification of the student, the entrepreneurial academic, or specific technologies? How does the politicisation of these roles relate to the reproduction of capital? The market, defined by corporate entities operating as commercial capitalists, is divorced from the realities of educational production as a social activity, and is recalibrated around the individual production and consumption of educational services and products. Thus, students/academics are recalibrated not as social learners/teachers but as individual entrepreneurs able to access/produce educational services and products in a global market. Is this abstracted reality a meaningful way to deal with concretes crises of the environment, carbon, access to water, social dislocation, the politics of austerity, and so on, in the real world?

Second, Davies’ anti-academic assertion and the #realworldacademic responses reveal an on-going fetishisation of academic work, rather than an attempt to overcome the alienating realities of academic labour (that impact staff and students). One of the central issues for academics is that, as they labour under the structural domination of commodity capitalists, they have to vie for a place on the market. This makes them vulnerable to crises related to: futures-trading; access to means of production; overproduction; market-saturation; an inability to access credit; or the more general, societal access to debt. This tends both to restructure institutions and to reduce the points of solidarity for academic labour, including with students whose debt they increasingly rely upon.

What might be added to debates about the #realworldacademic is a meaningful discussion about the value of academic labour as social work/activity, rather than as reified exchange-value. What is its use-value as work/activity for society, as opposed to its price as a commodity/as academic labour-power? It is against the tyranny of exchange-value that the value of academic labour, in the costs of its labour-power, the research/teaching products that it creates, and the relationships that it enables and maintains, might usefully be discussed and re-evaluated. What is currently being enacted through global labour arbitrage, outsourcing and precarious employment, is the alienation of academic labour through the enclosure and commodification of its products and relationships. Realising the capacity of academics and students as scholars to see their labour in common, in order to think and to act co-operatively, and to overcome that labour, moves us beyond concerns over the fetishised production and atomised ownership of academic labour. 

Third, as Gramsci notes in Workers’ Democracy, at issue is who validates and controls our social wealth:

the social life of the working class is rich with institutions, it articulates itself in multiple activities. Precisely these institutions and these activities need to be developed, organized together, connected in a vast and flexibly articulated system which absorbs and disciplines the whole working class.

The focus on experts/expertise and the lamentation for attacks on the idea of the academic, raises issues of what defines and constitutes common sense? Who carries the idea of public intellectualism, and who judges its validity? Does rhetoric lead academics to occupy disciplinary spaces and organisations that are devoid of any analysis of academic labour? Or does it lead us to re-focus our real-world activities in the competitive logics of student-as-purchaser or teaching/research excellence? Because how can we both share and develop solidarity, and work to develop expertise at the level of society, inside such a competitive environment? Can we only define solidarity actions through staff and student trades unions, or can these enable directional demands across sectors?

THREE. The political content of the #realworldacademic

This raises the importance of the #realworldacademic working politically to situate her work across sectors, in order to dissolve the boundries between those sectors, so that previously-fetishised knowledges, skills and capacities can be shared. Key here is to understand how the #realworldacademic and the university in which she works both support the ways in which neoliberal capitalism intentionally designs, promotes and manages forms of democracy and governance that complement its material objectives, limit participation and power-sharing, and support coercion. Thus we might question how our work enables the rhetoric of student-as-consumer and the marketisation of the sector, in order to open its resources up to the dominant or hegemonic order, and to manufacture consent for its practices. Manufacturing this consent depends upon coercion of the political cadre of organisational leaders. However, it is critical that once economic and productive power has been extended into the educational space, that domination then extends to the political, social and class-based relations in that space, through the implementation of ideological control throughout the mechanisms/institutions and cultures of civil society [including the ideas of open, open data, open education, open educational resources, and openness].

Here there is no potential for stepping beyond the controlling logic of the rights of consumers, which is framed as anti-academic and by extension anti-intellectual. Orwell echoed this dystopian logic; this despairing logic; the logic of anti-hope and anti-humanism; the logic that is their power-to reproduce the world in order to maintain their power-to reproduce the world; the logic of scarcity and not abundance; the logic of the use of technology and information to create a harmonious society.

In the end the Party would announce that two and two made five, and you would have to believe it. It was inevitable that they should make that claim sooner or later: the logic of their position demanded it. Not merely the validity of experience, but the very existence of external reality, was tacitly denied by their philosophy. The heresy of heresies was common sense. And what was terrifying was not that they would kill you for thinking otherwise, but that they might be right. For, after all, how do we know that two and two make four? Or that the force of gravity works? Or that the past is unchangeable? If both the past and the external world exist only in the mind, and if the mind itself is controllable — what then?

The individual narratives of the #realworldacademic are a testament to the impactful work that is helping to shape and re-shape communities, and to provide solutions to a range of real-world problems. However, it needs to be reconnected to a political economic analysis of the form and content (abstract and concrete) of academic labour, as a means to overcoming/abolishing its fetishisation. Mechanisms for pushing-back focus upon the development of co-operative alternatives that situate expertise socially, rather than in the individual. Whether academics can develop alternative methods of liberating knowing and knowledge and organisation that are beyond the space-time of value production and accumulation then becomes critical.

Our responses are conditioned by the structural domination of wage labour, and the reality that the [co-operative/social/public] space has to exist inside the totalising relations of production of capitalist society. However, responses might act as critical sites in a struggle for mass intellectuality where they: first, contribute to the reclamation of public, open environments that enable the globalised, socialised dissemination of knowledge; second, connect a global set of educational commons rooted in critical pedagogy; and third, develop governance structures that ground, critique and disseminate the community-building of alternative educational settings like student occupations, co-operative centres or social science centres.

FOUR. On self-abolition

The anti-expert, naïve and dangerous misreading of academic-engagement with the real world (whatever that is) demonstrates a wilful, political antagonism. In my own context, my research is on alternative forms of higher education, with a Marxist flavour. I have worked in academic environments since 1994, writing, speaking, researching and managing projects that engage staff, students, public and private sector partners. However, crucially there is a flow between my engagement inside the University, in higher education, and across the curriculum, and my engagement outside the sector. There is no way that the essence of each can be distilled, because they have developed together and each has infused the other. These engagements outside are detailed here.

However, the point is that in my work inside/outside I am trying to dissolve the boundaries so that new flows of knowledge, skills and capabilities enable the abolition of fetishized roles. Without finding ways to abolish the #realworldacademic we will struggle to overcome our alienation from the things we produce, the relations inside which we produce the, from others and the environment and from ourselves. The point is not to maintain the abstraction of the #realworldacademic but to overcome it through abolition.

The transformation, through the division of labour, of personal powers (relations) into material powers, cannot be dispelled by dismissing the general idea of it from one’s mind, but can only be abolished by the individuals again subjecting these material powers to themselves and abolishing the division of labour. This is not possible without the community. Only within the community has each individual the means of cultivating his gifts in all directions; hence personal freedom becomes possible only within the community. In the previous substitutes for the community, in the state, etc., personal freedom has existed only for the individuals who developed under the conditions of the ruling class, and only insofar as they were individuals of this class. The illusory community in which individuals have up till now combined always took on an independent existence in relation to them, and since it was the combination of one class over against another, it was at the same time for the oppressed class not only a completely illusory community, but a new fetter as well. In the real community the individuals obtain their freedom in and through their association.

Marx, K. (1845). The German Ideology, Chapter 1.

We have already shown above that the abolition of a state of affairs in which relations become independent of individuals, in which individuality is subservient to chance and the personal relations of individuals are subordinated to general class relations, etc. — that the abolition of this state of affairs is determined in the final analysis by the abolition of division of labour. We also shown that the abolition of division of labour is determined by the development of intercourse and productive forces to such a degree of universality that private property and division of labour becomes fetters on them. We have further shown that private property can be abolished only on condition of an all-around development of individuals, precisely because the existing form of intercourse and the existing productive forces are all embracing and only individuals that are developing in an all-around fashion can appropriate them, i.e., can turn them into free manifestations of their lives. We have shown that at the present time individuals must abolish private property, because the productive forces and forms of intercourse have developed so far that, under the domination of private property, they have become destructive forces, and because the contradiction between the classes has reached its extreme limit. Finally, we have shown that the abolition of private property in the division of labour is itself the association of individuals on the basis created by modern productive forces and world’s intercourse. 

Marx, K. (1845). The German Ideology, Chapter 3.

notes on the reserve army of academic labour

In his mid-40s, John had worked as a casual university tutor since finishing his PhD in philosophy 15 years ago. Passed over a few times for tenured jobs, he was a long-term member of the academic reserve army, the members of which perform around half of the undergraduate teaching in Australia’s universities.

But this semester no offer of work came through from any of the universities he had worked for over the years. Without income to pay the rent, and deprived of institutional anchorage for his vocation, we can see now that his predicament was dire.

As a casual you inhabit the zombie zone beyond the ivory towers – never fully asleep, nor awake – a temporary colleague at best.

Morgan, G. (2016). Dangers lurk in the march towards a post-modern career. The Sydney Morning Herald.

I am of the opinion that you are struggling to fulfil the metrics of a Professorial post at Imperial College which include maintaining established funding in a programme of research with an attributable share of research spend of £200k p.a and must now start to give serious consideration as to whether you are performing at the expected level of a Professor at Imperial College.

Over the course of the next 12 months I expect you to apply and be awarded a programme grant as lead PI. This is the objective that you will need to achieve in order for your performance to be considered at an acceptable standard

Please be aware that this constitutes the start of informal action in relation to your performance, however should you fail to meet the objective outlined, I will need to consider your performance in accordance with the formal College procedure for managing issues of poor performance.

Email sent by Martin Wilkins to Stefan Grimm, 10 March 2014.

One of my colleagues here at the College whom I told my story looked at me, there was a silence, and then said: “Yes, they treat us like sh*t”.

Email from Stefan Grimm to various associates, 21 October 2014.

ONE. Academic overwork as competitive edge

A while back I wrote about academic overwork, in relation to the desperate, competitive fight for surplus value (monetised, financialised, marketised) across the higher education sector of the global economy. I wrote about how overwork is revealed through academic quitlit, in narratives about bullying, in discussions of mental health and academia, and, shockingly, through reports of suicides. These narratives and histories enable academics and students to be classified as precarious or without status, or lacking human (cognitive) capital, or even lacking emotional resilience. In this focus on academic overwork there is an intersection between academic ego-identity, control of the human capital that is the life-blood of the reproduction of the University as a competing business, and the internalisation of performance management/anxiety.

I note that what emerges, through the social relations of higher education “is an academic arms-race that we cannot win.” This 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, means 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, the domination of our academic clock-time by productivity becomes a means through which academics and students internalise 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.

TWO. The reserve army of academic labour

Overwork is a filament that enables us to reveal the everyday excesses of academic labour. However, it is also a surface reality that enables us to analyse what is happening to the academic labour market, and in particular the production of a reserve army of academic labour. This reserve army of precariously employed, sessional or casualised staff, or those who have become unemployed or under-employed, conditions the work of those who remain employed inside the University. They also condition those who labour in those sectors where university qualifications are becoming normalised as gateways to positional employment.

Marx argued that overproduction, or the accumulation of unsalable inventories, affected those who work both as labourers and who are the bearers (or sellers) of labour-power as a commodity. Universities require an abundant supply of appropriately-skilled labour-power as a means of production, in order to address issues of demand in the delivery of teaching, scholarship, research and knowledge transfer. The key to increasing the rate of valorisation of capital is the ability to generate surplus value, in its absolute or relative forms, and employing labour-power as cheaply as possible is crucial. This then requires a level of overpopulation or a reserve army of labour that can be used to drive down costs (including wages, staff development costs, pensions and so on).

There are a series of processes that can drive costs down further, and maintain competitive edge in a global market. Universities might become more capital-intensive, by investing in technology and organisational development (restructuring, new workload models and so on). This increases the organic composition of capital, by increasing the ratio of constant capital to variable capital that is deployed. Clearly, this leads to problems in the production and accumulation of surplus value, which can only be generated through the exploitation of people as workers. As more constant capital or means of production (e.g. in terms of technology) are set in motion by an individual labourer, there is a pressure to economise on labour-power (as a commodity) or to discover new markets. If the higher education sector were to maintain employment as a constant, universities would need to expand (to generate a larger capital to support employment) or a higher rate of accumulation (of surpluses) would be required. Yet as more rapid accumulation has concomitant increase in the organic composition of capital, this produces a “relatively redundant working population” which is underemployed or becomes unemployed. As a result, there is an increasing set of pressures on labourers to remain employable in businesses and sectors that are increasing their organic composition, and this is manifest in the need to demonstrate perpetual entrepreneurialism.

One result of these pressures on organisations and individuals is increased proletarianisation, through precarious employment, or employment that is stripped of its intellectual content (for instance where that content is outsourced or managed on-line, or where staff-student relationships are mediated technologically), or employment that carries limited social security or welfare benefits, or through excessive performance-management and performativity. Over time, and certainly across a sector like higher education that operates on a world market, these processes that are driven by intense competition accelerate this proletarianisation.

In Capital, Marx articulates the formation of the reserve army of labour as a necessary component of the relationship between the forces and relations of production.

in all spheres, the increase of the variable part of capital, and therefore of the number of labourers employed by it, is always connected with violent fluctuations and transitory production of surplus population, whether this takes the more striking form of the repulsion of labourers already employed, or the less evident but not less real form of the more difficult absorption of the additional labouring population through the usual channels.

Marx, K. (1867). Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume 1.

The increases in productivity catalysed through processes of subsumption enable the search for both absolute and relative surplus value, and alter the composition of social capital as well as the scale of the terrain over which it functions (witness the competition for international markets amongst universities and the wailing over immigration related to students). Moreover, these changes in productivity draw in “a number of spheres of production” such that the university becomes a node in a wider, transnational association of capitals or joint venture that is seeking out surpluses. In terms of higher education, the labouring population of academics and students produces both the accumulation of capital, and through capital-intensive activities, “the means by which it itself is made relatively superfluous”. As Marx notes, economising and developing the forces of production interrelates with the relations of production, which for many academics and students becomes increasingly precarious. As a result contingent, flexible or part-time labour, and the disciplinary effects of performance management, signals the generation a new, growing relative surplus population that emerges on a global scale. Moreover, this global surplus population conditions those in work to overwork or to reduced labour rights, because there’s always someone cheaper to be exploited.

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).

However, crucially, for Henryk Grossman, the issue is not borne of the organic composition of capital, rather it is a function of imperfect valorisation.

[T]he formation of the reserve army, is not rooted in the technical fact of the introduction of machinery, but in the imperfect valorisation of capital specific to advanced stages of accumulation. It is a cause that flows strictly from the specifically capitalist form of production. Workers are made redundant not because they are displaced by machinery, but because, at a specific level of the accumulation of capital, profits become too small and consequently it does not pay to purchase new machinery and soon profits are insufficient to cover these purchases anyway

Grossman, H. (1929). Law of the Accumulation and Breakdown.

THREE. Academic overwork and the reserve army of academic labour

It is in Marx’s analysis of the composition of the relative surplus population that we see the impact on academic labour through three forms of the relative surplus population. First, the floating or those who are precariously employed, and whose employment is affected by cyclical fluctuations in recruitment or funding, or by the deployment of innovations, or the employment of cheaper (younger) workers. Second, the latent form refers to those whose work is easily transferred across sectors, such as those with menial or leverage skills. Third, the stagnant form consists of very irregular employment on very bad terms. Crucially for Marx is the idea that these three elements of the reserve army of labour, alongside paupers and the lumpenproletariat, in their relationship to the working class, then offer a theory of the internal differentiation of the working class.

One might see this in the status distinctions between tenured, non-tenured, contract and sessional teaching staff, or between institutional bureaucracies, academics and professional service staff, or between full-professors, associate professors, lecturing staff, research fellows and research assistants, and so on. However, one might also use these categories to analyse academic and student overwork in response to: first, the threat of more efficient labour that can attract research or teaching excellence funding; second, the threat of cheaper labour, be it international or domestic and precarious; and third, senior managers’ demands that they become perpetually efficient and entrepreneurial. Here the content of academic labour, the teaching, preparation, assessing, feedback, knowledge transfer, curriculum design, scholarship, and so on, is reinvented entrepreneurially. New forms of the academic division of labour are internalised, and where the academic is unable structurally or personally to deliver superhuman capabilities, their labour risks becoming simplified, worthless or made superfluous. Or their inability to mourn their lost academic egos becomes rooted in melancholia.

The attempt to become superhuman, in generating and offering-up surplus labour time, generates overwork just as it responds to and reinforces the surplus, reserve army of academics. In this process overwork or surplus labour, and the generation of a reserve army, enable universities to generate new models for performance and competition, and for engaging in financialised growth and market-based exploitation.

[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.

As Simon Clarke has noted, in order to compete and to stave off any crisis of accumulation, institutions tend towards technological or organisational innovations by:

  1. increasing the intensity of exploitation;
  2. reducing wages below the value of labour-power;
  3. cheapening the elements of constant capital (raw materials including those that are intellectual in nature and machines);
  4. stimulating relative over-population, such as the generation of a body of cheap workers (like graduate teaching assistants and post-graduates who teach); and
  5. stimulating internationalisation strategies, in order to enable exports and new markets for accumulation, as well as cheapening the elements of constant and variable capital.

What emerges in any discussion of the political economy of academic labour is that competition, as a function of the need to become productive of value and to accumulate surplus value or surpluses, worsens the position of the worker be she academic or student.

FOUR. Academic melancholia and the internalisation of failure

What appears worse is that the inability to survive in this increasingly competitive space becomes the fault of the individual who is to be made unemployed or underemployed. It is a moral duty to work and to remain employable, and never to draw down on social welfare. As Anselm Jappe notes:

The difficulty of living in a society dominated by value necessarily leads to the creation of all sorts of ideologies to explain the suffering caused by such a society and that enable the subjects of labour to project onto others the qualities that they are forced to expel from themselves.

Jappe, A. 2014. Towards a History of the Critique of Value. Capitalism, Nature, Socialism. 25(2): 11

Thus, the unemployed are workshy or lazy, or lack willpower, or they are stupid. The idea that unemployment is structural and secular, and that it is rooted in a specific form of  political economy, runs secondary to the individual failings that meant Stefan Grimm was unable “to fulfil the metrics of a Professorial post”, or which meant that John was forced to inhabit “the zombie zone” beyond HE.

NOTE: there are many accounts of the psychological and embodied damage caused to individuals in this hegemonic, structural narrative.

There is increasing understanding that individuals are placing themselves at risk of harm, where they are forced to respond to narratives of personal failings in relation to work, and where there is a recalibration of work around flexibility (in work and across markets) and competition. As Davies et al. argue, the increasing insecurity that flows from employment inside sectors and business that are responding to austerity negatively effects physical and mental wellbeing. Moreover, where agency or autonomy are low or are removed, for instance where performance management is enacted, stress and anxiety are higher.

There is a critical point here for Davis et al. about the internalisation of failings that results in melancholia about the Self rather than mourning for what has been lost. In academia the accumulation of melancholia is catalysed by performance anxiety.

There is an aspect of melancholia that is absent from mourning, an extraordinary reduction in self-esteem, a great impoverishment of the ego. In mourning the world has become poor and empty, in melancholia it is the ego that has become so. The [melancholic] patient describes his ego to us as being worthless, incapable of functioning and morally reprehensible, he is filled with self-reproach, he levels insults against himself and expects ostracism and punishment… He does not sense that a change has taken place in him, but extends his self-criticism to cover the past.

Freud, S. (2005). On Murder, Mourning & Melancholia. Penguin, pp. 205–206

Correctives to such a view are marginal, and certainly not to be found in the work of institutional occupational therapy or human resources departments that are focused upon emotional resilience or its relationship to the happiness industry. Such correctives again seek to elevate individual, qualitative narratives, and to stress the social and material causes of distress, and the value of solidarity and collective action.

[S]ocial inequalities that exclude or marginalise contribute significantly to the potential for distress. Poverty, impoverished housing and diet, threatening environments, limited resources, restricted choices, demeaning or poorly-paid employment, discrimination, oppression and scapegoating all cause distress… We are more likely to experience distress the more our experiences are invalidated and the more isolated we become from one another. Equally, the further we are from supportive, nurturing relationships, the more that invalidation and isolation will engender distress. People stripped of ameliorative influences such as a loving, supportive family and friends; comfortable, safe environments; and the trust, support and solidarity of others, are increasingly likely to experience diagnosable distress.

Midland Psychology Group. (2012). Draft manifesto for a social materialist psychology of distress. Journal of Critical Psychology, Counselling and Psychotherapy, 12(2): 96-7.

In response to the apparent suicide of precariously-employed John, Karina has argued the following.

We could begin an urgent conversation about the relationship between academic employer and long-term academic employee, no matter their employment status. We could forcefully ask for an end to the denial that casual work is the substance of the business model in universities, just as it is in fast food. We could ask universities to begin setting their highest standards for the care, support and development of all staff including those who work casually—not as an afterthought or an aberration, but because academics and others who work casually in universities are central to how universities stay open at all.

This means we could expect that in the near future, anyone thinking of working casually in a university should expect to be able to see some data on how that university is improving its care of staff, what resources are allocated to them, and what demonstrable impact this is having on their wellbeing. This information is widely collected, after all. Why not share it?

And we could go one step further, and lobby for higher education to treat the casualisation on which it depends as a ranking factor made publically available to students and their families. We could ask for casualisation to stop being higher education’s blocked drain and bad smell, and instead be some kind of higher aim: an indicator of institutional health, the management of risk, and a standard on which universities could openly compete to do better.

Karina. 2016. A few words. CASA: A Home Online For Casual, Adjunct, Sessional Staff and Their Allies in Australian Higher Education

There is a step beyond this, which for The Institute for Precarious Consciousness takes the form of “a machine for fighting anxiety”. They argue that we need to:

  • Produce new grounded theory relating to experience, to make our own perceptions of our situation explicit, recounted, pooled and public;
  • Recognise the reality, and the systemic nature, of our experiences;
  • Transform emotions through a sense of injustice as a type of anger which is less resentful and more focused, and as a move towards self-expression and resistance;
  • Create or express voice, so that existing assumptions can be denaturalised and challenged, and thereby move the reference of truth and reality from the system to the speaker, to reclaim voice;
  • Construct a disalienated space as a space for reconstructing a radical perspective; and
  • Analyse and theorise structural sources based on similarities in experience, to transform and restructure those sources through their theorisation, leading to a new perspective, a vocabulary of motives.

For Marx in The German Ideology this has to be addressed communally.

The transformation, through the division of labour, of personal powers (relationships) into material powers, cannot be dispelled by dismissing the general idea of it from one’s mind, but can only be abolished by the individuals again subjecting these material powers to themselves and abolishing the division of labour. This is not possible without the community. Only in community [with others has each] individual the means of cultivating his gifts in all directions; only in the community, therefore, is personal freedom possible. In the previous substitutes for the community, in the State, etc. personal freedom has existed only for the individuals who developed within the relationships of the ruling class, and only insofar as they were individuals of this class. The illusory community, in which individuals have up till now combined, always took on an independent existence in relation to them, and was at the same time, since it was the combination of one class over against another, not only a completely illusory community, but a new fetter as well. In a real community the individuals obtain their freedom in and through their association.

Revealing the increased disciplining of social reproduction reveals the crisis of sociability that infects HE, and yet it also offers directions for alternatives. At issue is how to connect opposition to teaching intensity and learning gain, to rent strikes and labour relations/rights inside and outside the University (including those of students), alongside the fight for living wages and pension rights for professional services staff, and then beyond to the complex and heterogeneous global struggles for liberation. Here describing the relationship between overwork and the surplus population of academic labour is simply a starting point.

performance information and data-driven academic anxiety

I’ve just submitted a chapter for a book project being managed out of the University Estácio de Sá in Rio de Janeiro. The editors have four previous volumes entitled Education and Technology: Partnerships (although the original idea is a little lost in translation), published as yearly e-books that disseminate research conducted mainly in Brazil and Portugal. Previous material is available in their blog (in Portuguese)

In 2016, the editors plan to do something different through a special volume entitled Education and Technology: critical approaches. My chapter is titled Performance information and data-driven academic anxiety, and the abstract is given below.


This chapter argues that data is the bleeding edge of educational innovation. By following the traces and trails of data, it is possible to uncover where education is being cracked open for the production, circulation and extraction of surplus value. In part these processes of cracking are amplified by the on-going financialisation and marketisation of higher education that continue to kettle academic practices of teaching and research. By uncovering the flows of value, it is also possible to demonstrate the transnational associations of capital that are profiting as a result of the data-driven reimagining of higher education.

This uncovers mechanisms grounded in: enforced, public and open, educational data production; the enclosure and commodification of open and public data for-profit; the selling and re-selling of newly-commodified and technology-rich services back into open and public spaces; the generation of a rentier higher education economy rooted in high technology; the use of secondary legislation or policy related to employment and entrepreneurial activity, alongside primary legislation, to drive change; the exacerbation of debt and indentured study; and, the use of technology in performance management of academic labour.

The chapter articulates these processes in the context of global socio-economic and socio-environmental crises and their symptoms, and in particular the generation of academic anxiety. Such anxiety emerges against the on-going precarity described by students and academic staff through technologically-mediated performance management. As a result, the chapter asks what can be learned from counter-hegemonic projects, in order to describe alternative uses for educational data?

writing about academic labour

I have three things recently published or forthcoming that are about academic labour and its relationship to society. These pick-up on two themes that have been increasingly important to me: first, academic alienation and anxiety, or the idea that the University is an anxiety machine; and second, the potential for mass intellectuality as a form of liberatory praxis.

The first piece focuses on the processes of subsumption that are reshaping academic labour, and the resultant impact on individual’s subjectivity and health. Co-written with Kate Bowles, this takes the idea of the University as an anxiety machine, and is called Re-engineering Higher Education: The Subsumption of Academic Labour and the Exploitation of Anxiety. The abstract is as follows:

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 the re-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.

The article is published in a special issue of Workplace: A journal for Academic Labor, edited by Karen Gregory and Joss Winn, on Marx, Engels and the Critique of Academic Labor.

The second is a book chapter in a collection entitled The Philosophy of Open Learning: Peer Learning and the Intellectual Commons, edited by Markus Deimann and Michael A. Peters. My chapter is called Another World is Possible: The Relationship between Open Education and Mass Intellectuality.

This piece critiques the promise of open education through the concept of mass intellectuality that I have discussed elsewhere, and which is becoming increasingly important to me as a way of analysing the idea of higher education in an age of crises. In the chapter I connect open education to the proletarianisation of higher education, and go on to ask the following.

  1. How is it possible to re-imagine open education, in order to overcome proletarianisation through technologised, self-exploiting entrepreneurial activity?
  2. How might open education broaden the horizon of political possibility inside-and-beyond HE, as a pedagogic project?

My response is rooted in sharing and grounding collective practices for open and co-operative education through democratic pedagogy and organising principles.

The third is the book Mass Intellectuality and Democratic Leadership in Higher Education, which I have co-edited with Joss Winn. The summary, description and chapter/author list is given here. It’s good to see this work moving towards fruition, precisely because it’s a discussion of the potential for actually existing liberation.

Central to Marx’s conception of the overcoming of capitalism is his notion of people’s reappropriation of the socially general knowledge and capacities that had been constituted historically as capital. We have seen that, according to Marx, such knowledge and capacities, as capital, dominate people; such re-appropriation, then, entails overcoming the mode of domination characteristic of capitalist society, which ultimately is grounded in labor’s historically specific role as a socially mediating activity. Thus, at the core of his vision of a postcapitalist society is the historically generated possibility that people might begin to control what they create rather than being controlled by it.

(Postone, M. 1996. Time, Labor and Social Domination: A Reinterpretation of Marx’s Critical Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 373)

notes on peace education and indignation

On Monday I contributed to a panel discussion on Prospects for Peace Education in the Neoliberal Era, as part of the Adam Curle Symposium hosted by the Peace Studies Division at University of Bradford. I made the following points..

ONE. The essay I produced ahead of the event situates the historical context for Curle’s Education and Liberation against the collapse of the post-war Keynesian compromise. In the West that compromise had ushered in a view of the State as guarantor of the production and distribution of certain forms of socialised wealth, grounded in access to healthcare, welfare benefits, social housing and free education. Yet by 1973 that political moment was under stress, as issues of profitability that had affected the major economies since the 1950s led to Nixon decoupling the dollar from gold. This was a critical way-marker in the development of neoliberal governance and the hegemony of monopoly finance capital, framed by the petro-dollar. Maybe, as Jehu questions, this was the moment when we reiterated our choice of barbarism over socialism.

TWO. The collapse of the Bretton Woods agreement would amplify Curle’s criticism of a dominant, global system rooted in competitive materialism and belonging-identity (rather than awareness-identity). Instead, Curle argued for an education counter-system rooted in a societal counter-system that was borne of a different formation of social wealth. This focus on wealth is central to the argument of his book, because it is situated asymmetrically against value as the dominant structuring form of society that is reproduced under capitalism. Here John Holloway’s focus on the first sentence of Marx’s Capital is important because it emphasises how capitalist social relations abstract and corrupt our concrete world, including how we relate to each other and the values that we embody (such as peace, justice, trust, faith, tolerance and so on). The first line of Capital reads as follows:

The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself as “an immense accumulation of commodities,”[1] its unit being a single commodity.

Holloway argues:

It is easy to skip over the significance of the first sentence precisely because of what the sentence itself asserts. It is the very fact that wealth appears as a collection of commodities to us who live in capitalist society that makes us take this appearance for granted. We are used to seeing wealth in that way. When we think of wealth we usually think of material wealth, of the things that a person has, probably of money, the general equivalent of commodities. If we refer to someone as being wealthy, we generally mean that she or he has a lot of money, and can therefore dispose of an immense amount of commodities. In other words, the form in which wealth appears leads us to establish an identity between wealth and the immense collection of commodities, to treat them as being identical. And if this were so, then it would indeed be right to treat the first sentence as curtain-raiser, as a sentence that has significance only in leading us on to the central issue, the commodity.

However, wealth does not have to be thought of in this way. For English-speakers, this is perhaps easier to see if we go back to the original German term that Marx uses, Reichtum, which could just as easily have been translated as “richness”: in capitalist society, richness appears as an immense collection of commodities. There is certainly no sharp difference in English between the concepts of richness and wealth, but richness strikes us as having a broader meaning: a rich tapestry, an enriching conversation, a rich life or experience, a rich diversity of colours.

THREE. In the current moment this rich diversity of colours has been corrupted (like corrupt computer code) precisely because the history and materiality of our social and cultural lives has been distorted through the reality of economic crisis. I refer to this as a secular crisis of capitalism. Our enriching conversations are corroded through the toxicity of an on-going and immanent crisis of economic reproduction that catalyses debt, privatisation and financialisation, and the demonization of the powerless, whose lives are made precarious. The counter-measures that are required to maintain the system that Curle pushed against are not working, and they are delegitimising that system whilst they shore it up. This is the terrain upon which our ongoing cognitive dissonance, or even worse our dissociation, is borne.

NOTE: As a result we cannot face the ecological rift that has occurred in the metabolic relationship between humans and the planet: we are unable to do anything meaningful about carbon emissions as they breach 400ppm; we are unable to do anything meaningful about the assault on biodiversity and ocean acidification, or damage to the nitrogen cycle, the overuse of phosphates, and so on. How can we find peace when we are so embedded inside capitalism’s war on the planet?

FOUR. This war also threatens to become inter-generational. There is a looming disconnect between those who benefitted from the aftermath of Bretton Woods and millenials, although following Milton Friedman in The Role for Government in Education many of the arguments made in the global North now stress the importance of student debt being a family investment in human capital. Thus, the UK Government’s focus on future earnings and employability, and the Treasury’s explicit demand for tax data to be linked to student outcome/loan repayment data, de-territorialise and then re-territorialise the system through metrics, debt and risk. Here Curle’s fears around the development of competitive materialism and belonging-identity are realised as families become the very fabric of competition rather than of societal co-operation. And this is amplified because, as Oskar Negt states:

The labor power that capital can tie down by dint of Taylorism is markedly decreasing in both capitalist countries and Third World countries. More and more living labor power is slipping out of capital- ist production processes. This must have political consequences, which will also affect the formation of theories… Today, by comparison, we have a structurally growing industrial reserve army that is tending toward including the whole of society and, increasingly, threatening to cut labor power off from reality…

The fewer opportunities a subject has to appropriate these productive forces, the more often the latter turn into destructive forces. This is one of the core issues in our theory of labor power. It is not only that a growing number of work- ers—and also a growing number of labor characteristics—are unemployed in capitalist labor conditions; it is also that in the long term, these characteristics are being scrapped by being deobjectified.

We are forced to compete so that our alienation becomes more manageable.

FIVE. This secular crisis is political and economic and is rooted in an ideological position that has generated monstrosities in UK higher education like the White Paper’s proposed teaching excellence framework, and the obsession with teaching intensity and productivity in the Green Paper. As our educational lives are subsumed under the structuring realities of value, rather than alternative conceptions of social wealth, one outcome is the disconnection of our educational souls. As our curricula are restructured around performance management, progression, retention, student-as-purchaser, education commodified as a service, learning analytics, employability, and so on, our conversations with our students, our peers and ourselves are in tension with our desire to care. The rule of money places us in conflict with our desire to care, and so we dissociate, rage or employ cognitive dissonance as defences. For Curle, such a world was rooted in psychological alienation that itself emerges from social, political and economic violence. For Marx, in the German Ideology, such alienation was fourfold: from the process of production; from the things that we produce; from our society; and from ourselves. In the incorporation of all forms of education inside the production processes of capitalism, in the damaging realities of over-testing,  monitoring, permanent technological and organisational restructuring, precarious employment and so on, those very spaces that set out to be rooted in care, justice and peace are reproduced as anxiety machines.

SIX. Inside our anxiety machines, time is weaponised against us. We are forced to internalise the system’s demands around contact hours, workload planning, absence management, imposed deadlines for impact relating to teaching and research, and so on. As a result, both space and time are made unsafe for staff and students, who must also contend with the boundaries of relationships that at once appear to be rooted in care/contract and use/exchange. These are the contested qualities of being that are embodied in our formal educational institutions. We might then wonder what else we can set in-motion inside-and-outside the school or university that refuses this reality? Here, our learning is enriched through engagement with the struggles of campaigns against the ongoing re-colonisation of the university’s history and material realities, grounded in its organising principles, financing and curricula, like Rhodes Must Fall or Black Lives Matter. It is also enriched through the educational work rooted in co-operative values and organisation. These examples force us to consider how to frame a richness of life or experience, or how to stitch a rich tapestry, which prefigures the world we wish to see. Such prefiguration is educational, iterative and generative of new possibilities. However, crucially it is also inter-generational, open and public, radical in that it stresses the need to find alternative forms of value that works to create the society we would wish to live in, and democratic. Such prefigurative activity is borne of a realisation: that our current forms of social reproduction are in crisis; that new forms of solidarity across indebted generations and between those suffering in healthcare or education or social services or housing are needed; and, that these new forms of social solidarity might coalesce around directional demands, like the social strike that stops the system and forces conversations.

SEVEN. It is in co-operatively-negotiated, solidarity actions that peace might re-emerge as a possibility or as a guide to our direction of travel. For solidarity enables us to move across boundaries between contexts and disciplines to examine

the real object of knowledge, which is the social phenomenon as a whole.

Schmidt, A. (1968). On the Concept of Knowledge in the Critique of Political Economy, p. 93.

Yet peace is grounded in: individual and collective courage to act; faith in each other and ourselves; justice for the wronged, othered and alienated; and, hope for setting in motion a different world. Peace emerges through education as a form of social wealth that is against-and-beyond capitalist social relations. It emerges as indignation with the present state of things, where we recognise that it cannot emerge through private property and wage slavery, or through the State taking control of production. As Jehu argues:

We do need to think about how the immediate seizure of what we need to live (in places like the UK this would also mean mass non-payment campaigns) could open into new forms of social organisation; also about how import-export relations can be sustained in industries that are necessary to social reproduction once the power of capitalist owners has been annulled… Capital is vulnerable to radical approaches that emphasize real relations over material relations. Our approach should be guided by the desire to address issues in a way that does not make capitalist categories our starting point.

Only when we have recognised and held the tension of the values inside us, which are revealed as embodied or psychological illness, can we begin to be and to create anew, by prefiguring the world we wish to see. Prefiguring this world is situated against challenge and struggle.

We do need to think about this; but the question of how to re-organise the world market along ‘socialist’ or ‘communist’ lines is meaningless without an acceptance that mass movements can only succeed by making severe inroads into bourgeois property relations.

it is in the middle-term of active struggle that a movement against capital must necessarily arrive at the stage of greatest tension and uncertainty. It is a moment in which the most fundamental contradictions of class and ownership cannot be ‘knitted together’ into a woolly hegemony and then handed over to a ‘future’ which can scarcely mask its ingratitude.

De-Arrest Editorial Services (2016). Demeaning the Future.

Thus, peace is contingent on the development of mass intellectuality as a force for the production of Curle’s counter-system, rooted in new relations of production, where our co-operative engagement might recuperate the social brain from its co-option solely for the production and accumulation of value. We need to be disinhibited from seeing peace education as an on-going, day struggle, which is enacted at the level of society.

notes on education for a future of ‘declining returns on humans’

To set you up for life [in debt]

Going to university is still a big decision, and it’s a choice which more and more of you are making. We want that decision to pay off, to set you up for life, and our reforms will make sure universities do just that.

Jo Johnson. 2016. Open Letter to Students

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.

We intend to increase undergraduate tuition fees for home/EU undergraduate students in line with the inflationary increases allowed by government. You should therefore expect an inflationary increase in your fees in each subsequent academic year of the course, subject to government regulations on fee increases.

Exeter University. 2016. Tuition Fees

it is certainly not fit for the future

We all know that there is still a big debate to be had about the financial viability of the student loan system. This afternoon is not the occasion to rehearse the fragility of the Ponzi scheme that now underpins that system, but I often used to debate with the Minister’s predecessors whether Britain could look forward to a debt write-off of £70 billion or £80 billion. The basic message was pretty simple: the student loan system as currently set up is not fit for purpose, and it is certainly not fit for the future.

Liam Byrne. 2016. Higher Education and Research Bill, Second Reading

Peter Lampl and the Sutton Trust, who have championed that access for more than a decade, repeated their fears in their briefing on the Bill, including, specifically—this has been alluded to but the Secretary of State was unable to give an answer—the fact that English students have the highest level of debt in the English-speaking world. The figures are: £44,000 on graduation and over £50,000 for those requiring maintenance loans.

Gordon Marsden. 2016. Higher Education and Research Bill, Second Reading

We know that loans and more debt at a time of economic uncertainty are a luxury few in our society can afford. The biggest division in our society today is between those who are able to turn to the bank of mum and dad, and those who are not; university education and the possibility of higher fees is simply a bigger part of that picture of whether we may end up crushing talent, rather than developing it, if we do not act. Nothing in this Bill will change that. Nothing that this Government are doing will change that problem of all 18-year-olds being held back by not having the bank of mum and dad—I refer not just to those who want to go to university, but to those who have fantastic business ideas and those who want to go into FE. A truly socially mobile country would seek to work for 100% of 18-year-olds, not just 50% of them. It would recognise that the debt they might incur might affect not only their choice of whether to go to university, but their ability to get on the housing ladder and the ability for their families to look to the future at all. I say that as someone who represents too many families who have £10,000 to £15,000-worth of unsecured debt hanging over their heads as it is. If the Bill does not address that issue—indeed, if some of the changes it is making are making it even more likely that these people will incur higher debts—we will lose that talent, to the detriment of us all.

This is taking place in a country where a rising number of middle income families are now in rented accommodation because they simply do not have the savings even to begin to get on the housing ladder. We are asking them to take on more debt, and potentially to subsidise more debt for their children, and this will hold too many back.

Stella Creasy. 2016. Higher Education and Research Bill, Second Reading

The experiences of graduates in the labour market in their first six months after graduation were mixed and heavily dependent on the subject they studied and the institution they went to.

Degree subject and institutional type have a large impact on graduate earnings and there are clear gender inequalities in graduate pay.

We found that many of the attitudes graduates had last summer about the cost of their degree, its overall value, and their levels of student debt had not changed over time.

The freezing of the repayment threshold on student loans has undermined graduates’ trust and confidence in the student loans system.

Graduates are accumulating non-student debt and are carrying debt over from their time studying.

Graduates are struggling to afford life after university and are choosing to live back with their parents to save money.

Ultimately, the student loan system threatens to add to the increasing intergenerational unfairness. The concern over student debt and the rising consumer debt owed by graduates is creating a cash shortage for many, leading to expectations that home ownership and even a pension are out of reach. This is coupled with the issue of the varied graduate outcomes that the cohort have received. Poor job security and low wages are hitting many graduates, particularly those who are from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, which is compounding the impact of debt and creating a fairly grim outlook for the last of the millennial generation.

NUS. 2016. Double Jeopardy Assessing the dual impact of student debt and graduate outcomes on the first £9k fee paying graduates.

immiseration and the organic composition of capital

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.

The IFS working paper proposes an economic model in which firms choose between two organisational forms: the old, centralised form and the newer, decentralised one. Here, we think of the choice of organisational form as a choice of ‘technology’, just like IT is a kind of technology. The decentralised organisational form is more profitable if and only if the supply of graduates is sufficiently high. When the economy starts with a very low proportion of graduates, the traditional organisational form will dominate. As the relative supply of graduates increases, the relative wage will fall and, once it reaches a critical threshold, firms will begin to adopt the newer decentralised form of organisation. The relative wage will stay at that critical level until all the firms have switched to the new form. After that, the relative wage should fall if the supply of graduates continues to rise. Thus, there exists a transitional period when the relative wage of graduates is invariant to supply changes.

Hence, we believe future increases in the proportion of graduates in the UK will tend to reduce graduates’ relative wages, unless some other skill biased technology becomes available. And that technology has to be sufficiently general to be applicable in all sectors (like how the IT revolution and decentralised organisational form spread across the economy). But we do not expect a future UK higher education expansion to automatically generate such a new general technology. The decentralised organisational form was first implemented by US firms and US multinationals before it was adopted by UK firms. Now that the UK is surpassing the US in terms of the proportion of graduates, there is not another readily-available general technology that the UK can adopt from the US.

Blundell, R., Green, D. and Jin, W. 2016. The Puzzle of Graduate Wages. IFS Briefing Note BN185.

We estimate that our average teacher would have cleared his debt by age 40 under the old system, but would still have £37,384 of debt in 2014 prices under the new system and have £24,479 to be written off at the end of the repayment period (age 51). (The debt to be written off under the new system would rise to £42,247 if he had borrowed enough to cover a PGCE course as well.) By contrast, we estimate that our average lawyer would repay his debt in full under both systems, achieving this in his early 30s under the old system and in his early 40s under the new one.

savings at younger ages under the new system are offset by increased costs in later life. After the point at which graduates would have repaid their debt under the old system, most will end up paying substantially more per year for several years. These costs amount to around an additional £430 per year on average between ages 31 and 40 in 2014 prices (equivalent to around 1.6% of net earnings) and around an additional £1,090 per year on average between ages 41 and 51 in 2014 prices (equivalent to around 3.7% of net earnings). This may make it more difficult for affected individuals to meet ongoing expenses over this period.

Crawford, C. and Jin W. 2016. Payback Time? Student debt and loan repayments: what will the 2012 reforms mean for graduates? IFS Report 93.

what worries the strategists of capital

If the low economic growth of the past decade continues, the proportion of households in income segments with flat or falling incomes could rise as high as 70 to 80 percent over the next decade. Even if economic growth accelerates, the issue will not go away: the proportion of households affected would decrease, to between about 10 and 20 percent—but that share could double if the growth is accompanied by a rapid uptake of workplace automation.

These findings provide a new perspective on the growing debate in advanced economies about income inequality, which until now has largely focused on income and wealth gains going disproportionately to top earners. Our analysis details the sharp increase in the proportion of households in income groups that are simply not advancing—a phenomenon affecting people across the income distribution. And the hardest hit are young, less-educated workers, raising the spectre of a generation growing up poorer than their parents.

Dobbs, R., Madgavkar, A., Manyika, J., Woetzel, J., Bughin, J., Labaye, E, and Kashyap, P. 2016. Poorer than their parents? A new perspective on income inequality. McKinsey Global Insight.

At least as measured by GDP, the economy and society as a whole is 5% better off. But is it? The income of the already-rich has risen by just over 10%, while the income of the already-poor as fallen by 50%. Does the former really swamp the latter when it comes to the well-being of society?

This has been an uneven economic recovery, looking across regions, income and age cohorts. Large parts of the UK – many regions, those on lower incomes, the young, renters – have not experienced any meaningful recovery in their incomes or in their wealth.

it is clear that recovery has been associated with both the incomes and, more strikingly, the wealth of the least well-off having broadly flat-lined. Recovery has not lifted all boats, especially some of the smaller ones. This pattern may go some further way towards solving the recovery puzzle. Whose recovery? To a significant extent, those already asset-rich.

Haldane, A.G. 2016. Whose Recovery? Bank of England.

So the world economy has still not recovered to pre-crisis levels.  More important, the majority of households in the major economies have seen no ‘recovery’ at all.  The great jobs expansion is been mainly in low-paid, low productivity sectors or in self-employment where incomes are relatively lower.

What worries the strategists of capital is that their failure to get capitalism going again or reduce the burden for the majority to pay for it is beginning to end their political control of the majority. Brexit, the rise of Trump and other ‘populist’ leaders now threaten the end of the neoliberal ‘free trade, cheap labour’ agenda of globalisation

Roberts, M. 2015. Globalisation and whose recovery?

Policymakers should strengthen defenses against protracted periods of global financial turbulence and tighter external financial conditions.

Priorities include reining in excess credit growth where needed, supporting healthy bank balance sheets, containing maturity and currency mismatches, and maintaining orderly market conditions.

And policymakers need to stand ready to act more aggressively and cooperatively should the impact of financial market turbulence and higher uncertainty threaten to materially weaken the global outlook.

IMF. 2016. World Economic Outlook (WEO) Update: Uncertainty in the Aftermath of the U.K. Referendum, July 2016.

declining productivity is primarily reflection of the fact that an increasing proportion of the labour force and employment is essentially “warehoused” in lower productivity occupations, pending either their final elimination and replacement or (hopefully) an accelerated move into higher productivity occupations.

In other words, as technology evolves, parts of the economy become extremely competitive but these segments tend to slowly and gradually reduce productivity of everyone else. The classic example is clearly impact of Amazon on Wal-Mart or impact of electronic trading on equity or fixed income traders or technological impact on clerical, accounting or legal profession. Indeed, the same largely applies to manufacturing. Whilst economists were correct to argue in 2008/09 that the US would experience a manufacturing renaissance, we were right that it was unlikely to lead to any significant rise in employment, as technology can now deliver superior outcomes with much less labour.

Most investors would immediately argue that this is good news as there is higher productivity per employee. Unfortunately, these investors would be wrong, as this argument ignores cross-sectional movement of labour.

key difference is that whereas past technological evolutions were aimed to supplement humans, the Third Industrial revolution is aiming to replace them completely, and hence we continue to view it as intrinsically far more disruptive.

as billions of young people based in least developed countries might encounter much greater difficulty than the 1970s- 90s generation in integrating into the global economy. In a world of ‘declining returns on humans’ having too many young people might be a recipe for social and political dislocation rather than growth, even if the business climate is improved. In our view, it is quite likely that when historians examine the last one hundred years, they would classify 1950s-1990s as the ‘golden age’. Although there would be inevitable academic disputes about exact boundary (i.e. whether the golden age ended in 1980s or whether there were two golden ages, i.e. 1950s-mid 1960s and 1980s-90s), however, as an overall period, we think it was time of increasing opportunities and generally rising returns on human capital. However, 2000-2030s will likely be classified distinctly differently.

Macquarie Research. 2016. What caught my eye? v.61 ‘Lumpenproletariat’ & deglobalization.

Education for a future of ‘declining returns on humans’.

Vesuvius, I am here/You are all I have/Fire of fire, I’m insecure/For it has all been made to plan

Though I know I will fail/I cannot be made to laugh/For in life as in death/I’d rather be burned than be living in debt

Sufjan Stevens. 2010. Vesuvius.

notes on academic overwork and surplus value


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.


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.


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.


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.