notes on the cybernetic hypothesis

I spoke last night at an event hosted by the Breaking the Frame collective. Breaking The Frame is based on the idea that everyone has the right to take part in decisions about technology. The collective aims to break the frame that conceals the politics of technology — to expose the common roots of the wide-ranging social and environmental problems caused by technologies.

My talk followed that of Ursula Huws of the University of Hertfordshire who described the terrain that defines the relationship between the digital and capitalism. There are details of the event, and other events in this series, here.

I was asked to speak about The Cybernetic Hypothesis, which was published by the collective that produced Tiqqun (reparation, restitution, redemption), a French journal with two issues in 1994 and 2015. It was argued that Tiqqun was a space for experimentation (pace The Situationists). It was an attempt at bridging the gap between theory and a number of practices and certain ways of “being together”. At issue was how to recreate the conditions of another community. See The Theory of Bloom and Introduction to Civil War for more information about Tiqqun’s philosophical basis.

Joss Winn’s notes on Reading the Cybernetic Hypothesis are especially helpful in unpacking the concepts developed in this short-ish tract (published in Tiqqun 2, and 43pp in eleven sections). Below, I detail the core themes I wished to open-out, alongside some further reading.


Cybernetics and control

It is important to situate the Cybernetic Hypothesis against the history and development of cybernetics, which was amplified in the aftermath the Second World War across a range of (inter-)disciplines. In particular, it focused upon structures, constraints and possibilities for homeostasis/regulation across specific systems. This focused around work involving to designate what was hoped would be a new science of control mechanisms, in which the exchange of information, four flows of data as real-time feedback mechanisms, would play a central role.

In discussing the cybernetic vision, Peter Galison argues that ‘Cybernetics, that science-as-steersman, made an angel of control and a devil of disorder.’ As a result, resistance (developed in the final three sections of The Cybernetic Hypothesis) has pointed to mechanisms that increase disorganisation, noise, and uncontrollability, such as capacity, panic and fog, as ways to resist silence and control.

Here it is worth reflecting on Brian Holmes’ work on control, in terms of the continuous adjustment of an apparatus, or an environment, according to feedback data on its human variables. The environment is overcoded with an optimizing algorithm, fed by data coming directly from you and me. In this way we might view our use of social media, search engines and the Internet of things is a way of mapping ourselves both into a wider value-chain (with differential spatial and temporal aspects) and into a new political terrain. See Holmes’ work on Do Cybernetics Dream of Digital Resistance?, and this video on the society of Control: The Neoliberal Civilization.

What emerges in this analysis is a complex architecture the lies beyond the surveillant-architecture of the panopticon, where transnational activist networks (operating as geographies of neoliberalism) continually attempt to manipulate the environments in which individuals exist. This takes the form of ensuring risk-management by focusing on governing networks (as opposed to network governance) exerting hegemonic forms of social authority in a new ways. It also ensures that the system acts as a form of semi-autonomous ‘piloting’ (according to Tiqqun), through which new forms of accumulation can be generated rooted in the circulation of value. One key outcome is control of the future for consumption, and smoothing out outliers, which may form a terrain for resistances and rupture (in the form of reparation, restitution and redemption). For Tiqqun:

It is no longer a question of static order, but of dynamic self-organisation. The individual is no longer credited with any power at all: his knowledge of the world is imperfect, he doesn’t know his own desires, he is opaque to himself, everything escapes him, as spontaneously co-operative, naturally empathetic, and fatally interdependent as he is. He knows nothing of all this, but THEY know everything about him.

Thus, we might see the role of cybernetics in the interlocking systems that congeal as capitalism as enabling a set of holistic, self-regulating, self-organising processes, which in turn underpin a stable equilibrium between interdependent elements. It should be noted that the original hopes for cybernetic theory were in part grounded in systems as self-organising, although this potentially leads to increased complexity and noise, and the possibility for rupture. Such ruptures stand against the production of an objectively-controlled, stable society; such ruptures are amplified by slowing or breaking the flows of information and data. This is important because, as Tiqqun note:

That is to say, cybernetics is not, as we are supposed to believe, a separate sphere of the production of information and communication, a virtual space superimposed on the real world. No, it is, rather, an autonomous world of apparatuses so blended with the capitalist project that it has become a political project, a gigantic “abstract machine” made of binary machines run by the Empire, a new form of political sovereignty, which must be called an abstract machine that has made itself into a global war machine.


Chile/CyberSyn

In her brilliant MIT PhD, Jessica Eden Miller Medina described the use to which the Chilean state, under Presidents Frei and Allende (and then repurposed under Pinochet), put computers as technologies of the state. She refers to these technologies as “state machines.”

These new record-keeping technologies and practices, including early computers and tabulating machines, in turn allowed state officials to plan economic policies and simulate their effects; map the national population statistically with increasing accuracy; and keep detailed inventories of national resources. The resulting databases in turn shaped future economic policies and their underlying theoretical frameworks, the behavior of international lending agencies, perceptions of government efficacy, and levels of public satisfaction. They also created new forms of state control.

Rationalization, organization, coordination, and, at bottom, tecnificacion not only played a crucial role in Frei’s economic policies for development, but also the social changes outlined in the “revolution in liberty” and the president’s dream for modernizing the state so that he might create a better society.

Crucial here was the focus on the relationship between technical relations of production and political vision. Miller Medina quotes President Allende’s speech welcoming visitors to the Cybersyn Operations Room:

We set out courageously to build our own system in our own spirit. What you will hear about today is revolutionary – not simply because this is the first time it has been done anywhere in the world. It is revolutionary because we are making a deliberate effort to hand to the people the power that science commands, in a form in which the people can themselves use it.

However, inside Chile, there were problems in realising a new social terrain, because of: the relationship between deliberative democracy and the realpolitik of power relations; the messiness of economic planning and information at different levels of state and society, from the factory/community to central government; and because of the messy relationship between economic planning and social revolution. That said, analysing examples like CyberSyn, the involvement of the FLOK Society in delivering Ecuador’s National Plan for Good Living, and the Lucas Plan, each offer alternative ways of exploring the relationships between human activity, human needs and technology.


Relationship to capitalism

The development of cybernetics is a systemic, structural and secular response to the issue of maintaining stable forms of accumulation and avoiding crisis inside capitalism. It is a response to the question of how to develop new forms of value without a fatal disequilibrium arising? For Tiqqun:

It is the tool by which capitalism has adjusted its capacity for disintegration and its quest after profit to one another. A society threatened by permanent decomposition can be all the more mastered when an information, an autonomous “nervous system” is in place allowing it to be piloted.

As a result, cybernetics acts as a lubricant for circulating and extracting value, using control devices to maximize commodity flows by eliminating (or at least reducing towards zero) risk and slow-down. One key issue is the relationship between value and machinery (or state machines), which tends to generate surplus population and to generate popularisation/proletarianisation. Harry Cleaver argues that this forces us to consider the conditions under which people become surplus to a capitalist system based on the imposition of work both waged and unwaged. As Amy Wendling notes this is crucial because “the social tyranny of exchange-value is so comprehensive that it determines how things are made and even what is made […] Capitalism does not care if it produces quantities for use; it cares about producing profit.”

One way of reframing this, which we can imagine emerging from an analysis of cybernetics in Chile or Ecuador, is to recognise how productivity reduces people to appendages of the machine through Capital’s autonomy over the General Intellect. As Marx writes in volume 1 of Capital:

The productive forces… developed [by] social labour… appear as the productive forces of capitalism… Collective unity in co-operation, combination in the division of labour, the use of the forces of nature and the sciences, of the products of labour, as machinery – all these confront the individual workers as something alien, objective, ready-made, existing without their intervention, and frequently even hostile to them.

We may consider resisting through the recognition of our collective knowledge, skills and capabilities as forms of mass intellectuality, which might be liberated in those unalienated areas of our lives yet to be colonised by capital. This leads us towards a struggle against work. As Moishe Postone argues, this is fundamental because the machining realities of the world we are in

opens the possibility of large-scale socially-general reductions in labor time and fundamental changes in the nature and social organization of labor. Yet these possibilities are not realized in capitalism.


Resistance

In discussing a co-operative pedagogy of struggle, I argue:

The fight against forms of cybernetic control is not one of destroying or refusing high technology, but rather focuses upon using technology and technique to reveal the internal, totalising dynamics of capitalism. From this position, alternatives rooted in self-organisation and a societal complexity based on variety, improbability, and adaptability emerge. For Tiqqun, this forms the negation of the cybernetic hypothesis through a return to what it means to be human. A critical role for educationalists using technology inside-and-against the cybernetic hypothesis is to develop educational opportunities that highlight the development of counter-narratives of commons, co-operation, sharing, and openness, and against the separation and alienation of money, price, quality, and competition. As Tronti (p. 105) argued, at issue is the extent to which the forms of control that pervade human existence inside the social factory can be revealed and alternatives critiqued so that ‘capital itself [] becomes uncovered, at a certain level of its development, as a social power’.

Here we remember that Kautsky in discussing the class struggle argued:

The economic machinery of the modern system of production constitutes a more and more delicate and complicated mechanism; its uninterrupted operation depends constantly more upon whether each of its wheels fits in with the others and does the work expected of it.

Here there is an argument that the complexity of the wheels make up the capitalist machine offer moments of slow-down and machine-breaking. For Tiqqun, this did not mean a better, or more democratic use of technology inside capitalism. It meant a different set of social and humane formations:

a cascade of devices, a concrete government-mentality that passes through [inter-subjective] relations. We do not want more transparency or more democracy. There’s already enough. On the contrary – we want more opacity and more intensity.

Attacking the cybernetic hypothesis – it must be repeated – doesn’t mean just critiquing it, and counterposing a concurrent vision of the social world; it means experimenting alongside it, actuating other protocols, redesigning them from scratch and enjoying them.

For the collective moments of reparation, restitution and redemption were to be sought: in the increase in moments of panic disequilibrium; in the generation of noise; in becoming invisible inside the system; in the duality of sabotage and retreat; through deliberate slow-down; through humane, rather than technologically-mediated encounters; by increasing the space for opaqueness and fog. It was argued that “Speed upholds institutions. Slowness cuts off flows.”

This reminds us of Marx’s conception in the Grundrisse of the social cost of productivity and technological intensification:

The more developed the capital, therefore, the more extensive the market over which it circulates, which forms the spatial orbit of its circulation, the more does it strive simultaneously for an even greater extension of the market and for greater annihilation of space by time. (If labour time is regarded not as the working day of the individual worker, but as the indefinite working day of an indefinite number of workers, then all relations of population come in here; the basic doctrines of population are therefore just as much contained in this first chapter on capital as are those of profit, price, credit etc.) There appears here the universalizing tendency of capital, which distinguishes it from all previous stages of production.

For Tiqqun, then, the point was widening the space for autonomy.

It gives itself the means of lasting and of moving from place to place, means of withdrawing as well as attacking, opening itself up as well as closing itself off, connecting mute bodies as bodiless voices. It sees this alternation as the result of an endless experimentation. “Autonomy” means that we make the worlds that we are grow. The Empire, armed with cybernetics, insists on autonomy for it alone, as the unitary system of the totality: it is thus forced to annihilate all autonomy whenever it is heterogeneous. We say that autonomy is for everyone and that the fight for autonomy has to be amplified. The present form taken on by the civil war is above all a fight against the monopoly on autonomy. That experimentation will become the “fecund chaos,” communism, the end of the cybernetic hypothesis.


There are some outstanding issues which need to be addressed as part of this discussion.

  • Issues of intersectional oppressions, which are reinforced cybernetically, including the emotional and psychological toll this takes. This is then related to reproduction of white, male, hetero-normative power.
  • The role of accelerationism: see Jehu’s discussions over at The Real Movement.
  • An engagement with issues of proletarianisation, and working class composition, autonomy and power. This leads to a discussion of the abolition of alienated-labour, across the wider social terrain.
  • How do we use narratives to generate forms of solidarity, and in order to offer examples of rupture and alternatives? Here I am interested in the tactics offered by PlanC in generating a machine for fighting anxiety.

NOTE: I have written about cybernetics in the context of the relationship between Autonomist Marxism and eduction, and also in terms of emerging technologies and commodification. There are useful resources in the reference lists.


notes against educational ‘managerialism’

Yesterday I wrote that a while back I’d been asked to contribute to some work-in-progress on the idea of dangerous words. The three terms I selected were ‘immiseration’, ‘managerialism’, and ‘alternative education’. The work-in-progress hasn’t progressed so I’ve decided to publish what I wrote a year ago, starting with ‘immiseration’ yesterday, and with ‘managerialism’ today.

The brief given was to:

  • explore the connections between a particular set of selected terms and their role in contemporary social relations, where these words function as one aspect of social relations and not as ‘empty signifiers’;
  • question the increasing use of some words in the public and private domains and to explore the effects of these words and the logic that underpins them, on meaning-making and on creating possibilities for improving life;
  • critique these terms as one aspect of social relations in education;
  • discuss acts of separation that are made possible through simultaneous processes of distinction, differentiation and stratification, whilst bearing the possibility for their representation.

The idea is to uncover tools to refuse the neoliberal/capitalist idea of education as a neutral and technical process, which in-turn imposes its ideology on us. This ideology uses a language that teachers, educators, researchers, students and parents are encouraged to co-opt. Occupying and refusing certain words, and finding alternative ways of doing, making, creating, sharing, pooling, gifting (against producing, services, productivity, entrepreneurialism and so on), are critical moments in resistance and refusal. Ultimately they are critical moments in a process of liberation.

Managerialism

Managerialism is now operating much more intensively inside increasingly corporate educational institutions. It rests on a belief that traditional, public-sector organisations are inefficient and lack the organisation and leadership to maximise student learning outcomes or teaching quality (Friedman 1962; Gates Foundation 2014). New forms of public management, like deliverology (Devarajan 2013) or the World Bank’s science of delivery, are implemented to rationalise and quantify processes and goals that are grounded in techniques of performance management. Often these processes are crystallised inside individuals and institutions as performativity, or the incorporation of hegemonic practices and beliefs (Ball 2003; Butler 2015). Across educational domains, managerialism reshapes the curriculum around commodity-valuation rooted in the measurement of teacher/student performance, like income generation, research outputs, employability metrics, or student outcomes and progression rates (Hoareau McGrath et al. 2015). Any hope for those opposed to new forms of managerialism that radical subjectivity might emerge from the messy realities of the curriculum are lost in the processes of performance that subvert the concrete work that teachers and students do inside and outside the classroom.

In theorising these processes, Ball (2012) writes of three stages of neoliberalism, as a governance project that seeks the managerial control of everyday life. The first proto stage refers to the intellectual genesis and maturation of the neoliberal project. This stage witnesses a cultural attack on the everyday reality of the public and of the State, and it lays the groundwork for managing a consensus around the value of the market in defining the production of everyday life. In the second, rollback stage, social life that was hitherto experienced as public, and which included free-at-the-point-of-delivery education, is broken-up. Rollback connects to the third, rollout stage of the new neoliberal normal, through for instance: public policy that enables privatisation; the insuring or indenture of access to public goods like higher education; and, opening-up access to public, educational data for private gain.

Inside education in the global North, these processes are reinforced through new public management techniques (Davies 2014), which accelerate the quantification of academic practices through performance metrics related to teaching quality, learning environment, student outcomes, and research impact (Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (DBIS) 2015). Managerial processes that are grounded in the quantified academic self are amplified by competition, which forces individual universities: to restructure using bond finance to enable capital investment; to rebrand themselves for international markets; to engage in labour arbitrage, or the reduction in labour costs, through precarity and outsourcing; to drive strategies for entrepreneurialism or social enterprise, which refocus academic work on spin-out companies and intellectual property or generate new brand identities; to engage explicitly in corporate partnerships with publishers and finance capital that pivot around the production of value. Here the proto phase of the marketization of higher education meets the rollback of State funding and regulation, and the rollout of opportunities for marketization and accumulation, in a messy and contested set of spaces (Mazzucato 2013).

Such contestation demands the imposition of managerialism inside the corporate university, in order to regulate the institution and those who labour within it. This is imposed through: techniques of co-ordination, like service development plans and workload management that identify academics and students as resources (Ball 2003; McGettigan 2015); performance management techniques that seek to optimise outcomes or impact (DBIS 2015); and the imposition of systems of command, such as those which emerge from more nuanced analysis of the data produced by academics and students, including learning analytics (Crawford 2014) and ‘liquid information’ (Manyika et al. 2013). As a result, managerialism signals appropriate behaviours amongst academic communities, so that obedience is reproduced (Foucault 1975; Tiqqun 2001). For Foucault (1975), such forms of regulation crystallise disciplinary management by: drawing up tables; prescribing movements; imposing exercises; arranging tactics. Disciplinary managerialism enables a qualitative shift in the types of outcomes accumulated, whether they are framed as student satisfaction, research impact, institutional surpluses, teaching excellence, and so on.

A critical moment in the generation of managerialism across higher education is the entrepreneurial turn inside the University, as that working space mirrors the generation of the creative-commodity economy outside. This turn recasts the academic as innovator whose formation inside-and-outside the University can be witnessed and judged as creative and valuable, not because it is useful but because it can be exchanged and can generate a surplus or a profit (Hall and Smyth 2016). This is not about the relationships that the academic has either with her peers, her students, or most importantly herself (Amsler 2015; bell hooks 1994). It is about the enclosure and commodification of that life under the organisation of the market.

A critical managerial impact of this internalisation of performance is the reduction of academic autonomy, which is accompanied by new, systemic myths that prioritise ‘resilience’ as key performance characteristics (Plan C 2014). An individual’s resilience inside an organisation is here defined as a positive emotional and cognitive adaptation despite experiences of significant adversity. As managerialism generates academic alienation, for instance through targets for external income generation, faster turnaround times for assessment feedback, and new workload models, the resilient individual has to adapt to survive. Managerialism enables the restructuring of the University as a business through the alienated academic self (Tokumitsu 2015). Target-driven fears and anxieties form the internalised boundaries of a structural and structuring performance management (Ball 2003; Hall and Bowles 2016). In education, such internalised managerialism reifies certain forms of work because they are intellectual, creative or social, whilst also internalising the demand to be competitive and outcomes-focused. Thus, as managerialism enforces the routinisation and proletarianisation of educational work (Cleaver 2002), academic labour becomes subsumed inside a structure that exists for the autonomy of Capital alone (Hall 2014; Marx 1993).

One crucial rupture point in this struggle between Capital and Labour for autonomy is the raising of voices that are systemically marginalised. Processes of managerialism tend to increase the pressures on subjects who are female, feminised and/or racialised, in workplaces that function as white, male hegemonies (Alexander and Arday 2015; Gallant 2014; James 2013). Managerialism re-produces educational practice through a white curriculum that is rooted in colonial power, and inside institutions where it is exceptionally difficult for individuals racialised as black to attain high status positions, like professorships (Rhodes Must Fall 2016; Why is my curriculum white? collective 2015). The managerial recalibration of institutions around specific forms of performance that are productive of value amplifies methods of exclusion, because the construction of educational settings is framed by those who have the power to voice in those spaces, and to co-author those spaces. The underlying, on-going logics of colonialism are revealed inside educational institutions that reflect a power structure rooted in further colonisation that serves the purposes of value production, circulation and accumulation.

In responding to the on-going colonisation of education by managerialism, it is important that educators and students contest the democratic deficit inside their own institutions, which is revealed in day-to-day performance management and governance practices (McGettigan 2014). Emergent themes connected to personal narratives need to highlight the local, regional and transnational impacts of managerialism on the bodies and souls of educators and students (Hall and Bowles 2016). This is important because managerialism that is designed to open-up and connect datasets around academic performance, like progression, the repayment of student fees, and future earnings profiles for graduates, stitches education into global geographies of financialisation and marketisation (Ball 2012). As educational performance becomes a tradable commodity, and as curriculum inputs are re-engineered to enhance futures trading in educational outcomes and earnings (McGettigan 2015), there is a need to think through how the management and governance of education might be liberated as a form of open, co-operative, common property that is itself rooted in social struggle beyond the University. Might educators and students build something that is engaged and full of care, and where they no longer simply learn to internalise, monitor and manage their own alienation?

References

Alexander, C., and Arday, J. (eds 2015). Aiming Higher, Inequality and Diversity in the Academy, London: Runnymede.

Amsler, S. (2015). The Education of Radical Democracy. London: Routledge.

Ball, S. (2003). The teacher’s soul and the terrors of performativity. Journal of Education Policy, 18(2), 215-228.

Ball, S. (2012). Global Education Inc. New Policy Networks and the Neo-Liberal Imaginary. London: Routledge.

Butler, J. (2015). Notes toward a performative theory of assembly. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Crawford, K. (2014). The Anxieties of Big Data. The New Inquiry Retrieved 5 July 2016 from http://thenewinquiry.com/essays/the-anxieties-of-big-data/

Davies, W. (2014). The Limits of Neoliberalism: Authority, Sovereignty and the Logic of Competition. London: SAGE.

DBIS (2015). Fulfilling our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice. Retrieved 5 July 2016 from https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/474227/BIS-15-623-fulfilling-our-potential-teaching-excellence-social-mobility-and-student-choice.pdf

Devarajan, S. (2013). Deliverology and all that. Retrieved 5 July 2016 from http://blogs.worldbank.org/developmenttalk/deliverology-and-all

Foucault, M. (1975). Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. London: Penguin.

Friedman, M. (1962). Capitalism and Freedom. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Gallant, A. (2014), Symbolic interactions and the development of women leaders in higher education, Gender, Work & Organization, 21 (3): 203-216.

Gates Foundation, The. (2014). College-Ready Education, Strategy Overview. Retrieved 5 July 2016 from http://www.gatesfoundation.org/What-We-Do/US-Program/College-Ready-Education

Hall, R. (2014). On the abolition of academic labour: the relationship between intellectual workers and mass intellectuality. tripleC: Communication, Capitalism & Critique, 12 (2), 822-37. Retrieved 5 July 2016 from http://www.triple-c.at/index.php/tripleC/article/view/597/638

Hall, R., and Bowles, K. (2016). Re-engineering higher education: the subsumption of academic labour and the exploitation of anxiety. Workplace: A Journal of Academic Labour, 28.

Hall, R., and Smyth, K. (2016). Dismantling the Curriculum in Higher Education. Open Library of the Humanities, 2(1), p.e11. DOI: http://doi.org/10.16995/olh.66

Hoareau McGrath, C., Guerin, B., Harte, E., Frearson, M., Manville, C. (2015). Learning gain in higher education. RAND Corporation. Retrieved 5 July 2016 from http://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR996.html

hooks, bell (1994). Teaching to Transgress. London: Routledge.

James, J. (2013), Transcending the Talented Tenth: Black Leaders and American Intellectuals, New York: Routledge.

Manyika, J., Chui, M., Farrell, D., Van Kuiken, S., Groves, P., and Almasi Doshi, E. (2013). Open data: Unlocking innovation and performance with liquid information. McKinsey Global Institute. Retrieved 5 July 2016 from http://bit.ly/28Qy8aN

Marx, K. (1993). Capital, Volume 2: A Critique of Political Economy. London: Penguin.

McGettigan, A. (2014). Financialising the University. Arena Magazine. Retrieved 5 July 2016 from http://arena.org.au/financialising-the-university/

McGettigan, A. (2015). The Treasury View of HE: Variable Human Capital Investment. Political Economy Research Centre, Papers Series 6. Retrieved 5 July 2016 from http://www.gold.ac.uk/media/PERC%206%20-%20McGettigan%20and%20HE%20and%20Human%20Capital%20FINAL-1.pdf

Plan C (2014). We Are All Very Anxious. Retrieved 5 July 2016 from http://www.weareplanc.org/blog/we-are-all-very-anxious/

Rhodes Must Fall. (2016) Rhodes Must Fall. Retrieved 5 July 2016 from http://rhodesmustfall.co.za/

Tiqqun. (2001). The Cybernetic Hypothesis. Retrieved 5 July 2016 from http://bit.ly/mTWhMI

Tokumitsu, M. (2014). In the Name of Love. Jacobin Magazine, Issue 13. Retrieved 5 July 2016 from https://www.jacobinmag.com/2014/01/in-the-name-of-love/

‘Why is my Curriculum White?’ collective (2015) 8 Reasons the Curriculum is White. Retrieved 5 July 2016 from http://wire.novaramedia.com/2015/03/8-reasons-the-curriculum-is-white/


notes on educational ‘immiseration’

At 4.30am this morning I remembered that a while back I’d been asked to contribute to some work-in-progress on the idea of dangerous words. The three terms I selected were ‘immiseration’, ‘managerialism’, and ‘alternative education’. The work-in-progress hasn’t progressed so I’ve decided to publish what I wrote a year ago, starting with ‘immiseration’. The other two will follow.

The brief given was to:

  • explore the connections between a particular set of selected terms and their role in contemporary social relations, where these words function as one aspect of social relations and not as ‘empty signifiers’;
  • question the increasing use of some words in the public and private domains and to explore the effects of these words and the logic that underpins them, on meaning-making and on creating possibilities for improving life;
  • critique these terms as one aspect of social relations in education;
  • discuss acts of separation that are made possible through simultaneous processes of distinction, differentiation and stratification, whilst bearing the possibility for their representation.

The idea is to uncover tools to refuse the neoliberal/capitalist idea of education as a neutral and technical process, which in-turn imposes its ideology on us. This ideology uses a language that teachers, educators, researchers, students and parents are encouraged to co-opt. Occupying and refusing certain words, and finding alternative ways of doing, making, creating, sharing, pooling, gifting (against producing, services, productivity, entrepreneurialism and so on), are critical moments in resistance and refusal. Ultimately they are critical moments in a process of liberation.

Immiseration

Educational immiseration emerges from the processes through which the academic lives of students and academics are subsumed under the reproduction of capitalist social relations, and are thereby inexorably worsened (Hall and Bowles 2016; Marx 2004). It is underscored by social and economic impoverishment, and the on-going alienation of the academic and student: first from their own labour-power and the products of their own labour, which are disciplined through performance management and debt; second, from the university as a self-critical scholarly community, which is now on the search for competitive edge and surplus value; and third from other academics and students, with whom they must now compete, with such competition made explicit in league tables and performance indicators (Hall 2015a; Wendling 2009). Immiseration is then a function of the on-going privatisation and alienation of the conditions for social reproduction, alongside the demand for labour to be productive (i.e. to expand capital). It benefits a transnational capitalist class that is restructuring educational institutions, and which consists of academics and think-tanks, policy-makers and administrators, finance and venture capital and private equity, educational publishers, and philanthropists or philanthrocapitalists.

Innovations in pedagogy, such as student-as-partner, or in the delivery of the curriculum, for instance through open education, might fruitfully be analysed against these potential constrictions or barriers to the social reproduction of capital. Reproduction must maintain an increase in the rate of profit and leverage further investment, in order to avert crises of over-accumulation, overproduction or under-consumption. At the same time labour rights, time and costs are forced down, to increase the rate at which surplus value is produced and accumulated It is increasingly reinforced through: first, competition between institutions and disciplines, through league table metrics, and between people in terms of enterprise and employability; and, second, through new forms of financialisation, such as debt-driven study, bond-financed, university expansion, or the connection of datasets relating to student loans, educational outcomes and taxation (McGettigan 2015; Rolling Jubilee 2016). The increase in student or institutional debt, and the linking of that debt to performance data is a means to bring education into the reproduction cycles of capitalism, and to re-engineer it to meet the demands for economic growth.

These processes of re-engineering higher education inside the logics of capitalism, known as subsumption, also works to modify the processes of accumulation, which enable academic labour, in the form of student labour-power or staff teaching or shared research, to be immiserated through its proletarianisation (Newfield 2010). Such proletarianisation is global, and is influenced by national educational policy like indentured study and using HE as an export strategy. It is also amplified transnationally through institutional internationalisation strategies and innovations like MOOCs that commodify educational content and assessment across global markets (Hall 2015b). The technological and organisational innovations being implemented across higher education by a transnational capitalist class are an outcome of the logic of competition, which itself demands the development of the productive power of labour and attrition on its costs. This affects the labour of students and academics, and drives universities to compete and to remain productive through technological and organisational innovation, as a response to the need to increase financial surpluses (as a form of accumulation). This puts further pressure on the demand for labour, as investment in physical and virtual estates and services rises, and through the ability of universities to drive down the labour-time for assessing, teaching or publishing compared to competitor institutions. One tendency is to further the consumerisation of higher education, such that educational relationships become contractual or transactional.

Changes in the technical conditions of the process of academic production enable new accumulations of surplus academic products to become additional means of production. For instance, the increased use of technology to deliver curriculum content and assessment reduces the demand for teaching staff, while increasing the amount of digital content available for new markets. The end result of these changes is an increase in the number of precariously-employed academic labourers, in the form of postgraduates who teach, adjuncts, casual teachers, and even associate/full professors, and crucially students, who are struggling for some control over the means of production (CASA 2016; CUPE 2016; Morris 2015). Precarity means that students and adjuncts are forced to sell themselves piecemeal and are forced to contend and compete globally, including with private HE providers or alternative service providers. Immiserated labourers are forced to compete as self-exploiting entrepreneurs, beguiled by the promise of autonomy and ever-increasing standards of living, whilst in reality working longer and harder for lower rewards (Richmond 2014).

In each of these cases individual labourers survive by selling their labour-power in the market, including students selling their future labour-power (as their potential employability) for credit that is obtained through loans. The process of immiseration entails the dispossession of individual and collective autonomy and time. The educational autonomy that is dispossessed relates to what can be produced and the process of production. The educational time that is dispossessed is both the indentured present, which must be focused around becoming employable or entrepreneurial, and the future that is foreclosed because it must be described by the repayment of student loans (Postone 1996, 2012). This alienated labour-power is scrubbed clean of its usefulness beyond that dictated in the market by future employability, and research impact and student satisfaction metrics. What emerges is the substitution of that alienated labour-power for that which was previously locally-bargained, with control over the means of production residing transnationally rather than at a local level. This process of alienation is an echo of Marx and Engel’s (2002) argument that competition and the expansion of value, driven by space-time compression across an international market, would immiserate and proletarianise increasing amounts of work.

Policy statements also recalibrate higher education inside national export strategies, and strengthen immiserating tendencies, by re-focusing educational practice on high value-added, non-routine jobs (Australian Government 2015; Newfield 2010; Willetts 2013). Here, there is an acceptance that for vast swathes of the global population the reality is only immiseration and low-skilled, low value-added, routine jobs in a transnational market. Policy tends to accelerate competition and the incorporation of HE inside that logic, so that competition drives precarity and casualisation, and competition between entrepreneurs (Davies 2014; Mazzucato 2013).

Critically, the effects of such a policy mean that universities as businesses are restructured for the production of surplus value, through organisational development, knowledge transfer, research impact, technological innovation and so on. A central issue for academics and students as labourers then becomes the creation of circulation of commodity services that are compensated through institutional profits or surpluses (Marx 1993). Thus, those who labour to provide a service, alongside those who labour to produce surplus value, are faced by capital’s drive to expand and accumulate value, and to reduce costs in the face of maximising profit. Profit is key in disciplining and exploiting (productive) labour and in driving down labour costs.

As capital looks for new spaces in which to invest the surpluses it has accumulated (in the form of new technology, intellectual property, finance and so on), it drives labour-saving innovations or technologies in all sectors of the economy. Thus, the growth of technological and entrepreneurial activity inside and against the University forms a way for capital to leverage the ratio of the total surplus-value produced in society to the total capital invested. Educational innovation also enables a redistribution of surplus value from businesses that produce commodities or services like universities to those that market them or that lend money to make academic labour productive. Therefore, it becomes important for educational activists to analyse the role of educational innovation in revolutionising the means of production and in generating social relations and modes of production that are immiserating. In the face of this assault on academic identity, enacted through time and performance, it is important for educators and students to ask whether it is possible to imagine a more general transformation of social relations for educational abundance? Such a reimagining must work for the abolition of academic labour, and of labour in general, as a way of overcoming immiseration.

References

Australian Government, Department of Education and Training (2015). Draft National Strategy for International Education. Retrieved 5 July 2016 from https://internationaleducation.gov.au/International-network/Australia/InternationalStrategy/Pages/National-Strategy.aspx

CASA (2014). A home online for casual, adjunct, sessional staff and their allies in Australian higher education. Retrieved 5 July 2016 from http://actualcasuals.wordpress.com/

CUPE3903 (2015). Representing, Organizing and Activating the Contract Faculty, Teaching Assistants, Graduate Assistants, and Research Assistants @ York University, Toronto, Canada. Retrieved 5 July 2016 from http://3903.cupe.ca/

Davies, W. (2014). The Limits of Neoliberalism: Authority, Sovereignty and the Logic of Competition. London: SAGE.

Hall, R., and Bowles, K. (2016). Re-engineering higher education: the subsumption of academic labour and the exploitation of anxiety. Workplace: A Journal of Academic Labour, 28.

Hall, R. (2015a). The University and the Secular Crisis. Open Library of the Humanities, 1(1). DOI: http://doi.org/10.16995/olh.15

Hall, R. (2015b). For a Political Economy of Massive Open Online Courses. Learning, Media and Technology, 40(3), 265-286.

McGettigan, A. (2015). The Treasury View of HE: Variable Human Capital Investment. Political Economy Research Centre, Papers Series 6. Retrieved 5 July 2016 from http://www.gold.ac.uk/media/PERC%206%20-%20McGettigan%20and%20HE%20and%20Human%20Capital%20FINAL-1.pdf

Marx, K. (1993). Grundrisse: Outline of the Critique of Political Economy. London: Penguin.

Marx, K. (2004). Capital, Volume 1: A Critique of Political Economy. London: Penguin.

Marx, K., & Engels, F. (2002). The Communist Manifesto. London: Penguin

Mazzucato, M. (2013). The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs. Private Sector Myths. London: Anthem Press.

Morris, A. (2015). The Rise of ‘Quit Lit’: What It Is and Why It Matters [Opinion]. Retrieved 5 July 2016 from https://www.noodle.com/articles/the-rise-of-quit-lit-heres-what-it-is-and-why-it-matters144

Newfield, C. (2010). The structure and silence of Cognitariat. EduFactory webjournal, 0, 10-26. Retrieved 5 July 2016 from http://www.eurozine.com/articles/2010-02-05-newfield-en.html

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

Postone, M. (2012). Exigency of Time: A Conversation with Harry Harootunian and Moishe Postone, Concentric: Literary and Cultural Studies, 38(2), 7-43.

Richmond, M. (2014). Unpaid Trials & Self-Exploiting Entrepreneurs. The Occupied Times. Retrieved 5 July 2016 from http://theoccupiedtimes.org/?p=13436

Rolling Jubilee. (2016). Retrieved 5 July 2016 from http://rollingjubilee.org/

Wendling, A. E. (2009). Karl Marx on Technology and Alienation. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Willetts, D. (2013). Robbins Revisited: Bigger and Better Higher Education. London: Social Market Foundation. http://www.smf.co.uk/research/category-two/robbins-revisited/.


Performance information and data-driven academic anxiety

I have a chapter in a new open access e-book. The book is entitled: Education and Technology: Critical Approaches. The book is in Portuguese and English, and can be accessed here.

My chapter is: Hall, R. (2017). Performance information and data-driven academic anxiety. In eds L.A da Silva Rosado and G.M. dos Santos Ferreira, Education and Technology: critical approaches. Rio de Janeiro: University Estácio de Sá Press, pp. 185-205.

The abstract for my contribution is as follows.

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?

Keywords: Big Data; Commodification of Education; Academic Labour; Academic Anxiety.


On the alienation of academic labour and the possibilities for mass intellectuality

I have just submitted a manuscript, “On the alienation of academic labour and the possibilities for mass intellectuality” to tripleC: Communication, Capitalism & Critique, Open Access Journal for a Global Sustainable Information Society. The abstract is given below, but the MS is part of a special issue on academic labour, digital media and capitalism. 

Situated in this economic and political context, the overall task of this special issue of tripleC: Communication, Capitalism & Critique is to gather critical contributions examining universities, academic labour, digital media and capitalism. We are thus particularly interested in articles focusing on (1) the context, history and theoretical concepts underlying academic labour, (2) the relationship between academic work and digital media/new information and communication technologies/the Internet/social media and (3) the political potentials and challenges within higher education.

My submission focuses upon the links between: the proletarianisation of the university; the life-wide mediations of our alienated labour; the hopelessness that such alienation catalyses; and the possibilities that mass intellectuality offers for new forms of sociability. This connects to the book that I am working on for Palgrave Macmillan on the alienated academic.

In particular, I have been drawn to the following work through this submission:

  • Clarke, Simon. 1991. Marx, Marginalism and Modern Sociology: From Adam Smith to Max Weber. London: Palgrave. [Thanks Mike!]
  • Dyer-Witheford, Nick. 2015. Cyber-Proletariat: Global Labour in the Digital Vortex. London: Pluto Press.
  • Federici, Sylvia. 2012. Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction and Feminist Struggle. Oakland, CA: PM Press.
  • Marx, Karl. 1844. Comments on James Mill. http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/james-mill/
  • Marx, Karl. 1844/2014. Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. London: Bloomsbury.
  • Marx, Karl. 1866. Instructions for the Delegates of the Provisional General Council: The Different Questions.  http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1866/08/instructions.htm
  • Marx, Karl. 1875. Critique of the Gotha Program.  https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1875/gotha/
  • Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich. 1846/1998. The German Ideology: including Theses on Feuerbach and Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy. New York: Prometheus.

Abstract: As one response to the secular crisis of capitalism, higher education is being proletarianised. Its academics and students, encumbered by precarious employment, overwhelming debt, and new levels of performance management, are shorn of any autonomy. Increasingly the labour of those academics and students is subsumed and re-engineered for value production, and is prey to the vicissitudes of the twin processes of financialisation and marketization. At the core of understanding the impact of these processes and their relationships to higher education is the alienated labour of the academic, as it defines the sociability of the University. The article examines the role of alienated labour in academic work, and relates this to feelings of hopelessness, in order to ask what might be done differently. The argument centres on the role of mass intellectuality, or socially-useful knowledge and knowing, as a potential moment for overcoming alienated labour.

Keywords: academic labour, alienation, higher education, mass intellectuality, proletarianisation


social co-operatives and the democratisation of higher education

Yesterday, Joss Winn and I presented the following paper at The Co-operative Education and Research Conference, 5-6 April 2017, Manchester. A link to download the paper is below the abstract. It is a version of our Introduction to the forthcoming book, Mass Intellectuality and Democratic Leadership in Higher Education. The slides are also available below the abstract.

This paper develops a critical analysis of ‘intellectual leadership’ in the University, and identifies on-going efforts from around the world to create alternative models for organising HE and the production of knowledge. It offers the potential for developing an alternative conception of the role and purpose of HE that is rooted in the idea of ‘mass intellectuality’. This takes experiences and views from inside and beyond the structures of mainstream HE, in order to reflect critically on efforts to create really existing alternatives.

In the process the authors ask if it is possible to re-imagine the University democratically and co-operatively? If so, what are the implications for leadership not just within the University but also in terms of higher education’s relationship to society? The authors argue that an alternative role and purpose is required, based upon the real possibility of democracy in learning and the production of knowledge. Thus, the paper concludes with a critical-practical response grounded in the form of ‘co-operative higher education’. This rests on the assertion that ‘social co-operatives’ offer an organizational form that values democratic participation and decision-making and would constitute the university as a social form of mass intellectuality re-appropriated by the producers of knowledge.

Download the paper.


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.

<capital-intensity>

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.