notes on academic overwork and surplus value


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

notes in support of Rhodes Must Fall


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

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


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

As Azad Essa argues:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh. Rhodes Will Fall.


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

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

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

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

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

This echoes John Holloway’s work against power.

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

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

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

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

Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs, Yolanda Flores Niemann, Carmen G. Gonzalez, and Angela P. Harris, eds, 2012. Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia. Boulder: University Press of Colorado. Available at:

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Dismantling the Curriculum in Higher Education

With Keith Smyth I have a paper forthcoming an Open Library of Humanities Journal, special edition on the abolition of the University. Our paper focuses on the higher education curriculum. It draws on Keith’s work on the space-time of the curriculum, and my on-going concern with the abolition of academic labour. The abstract is appended below.

More importantly, the paper reflects on the transnational campaigns that form a collective movement of students and staff members mobilising for direct action against the reality of institutional racism. These collective movements include #whyismycurriculumwhite, Rhodes Must Fall, and Dismantling the Master’s House. Their work is revealing the racialized nature of the governance, regulation and funding of higher education, alongside the alienating nature of the curriculum. Here I am reminded that the curriculum reinforces and reproduces hegemony, and that one of the critical moments of these movements is to remind us that the received canon that is the HE curriculum cannot be liberatory.

I will follow this up with a further piece describing my support for #rhodesmustfall, which has made me reconsider the intersection of class and race. I will also describe how my own position is therefore conflicted, in spite of my commitment to these counter-hegemonic movements.


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


New article: technology, co-operative practice and the neoliberal university

I have a new article out in Interactive Learning Environments. It is based on some work I was involved in with in 2013 with Helen Beetham, Debbie Holley and John Traxler, including a panel at ALT-C on global crises and responses, and an Alpine Rendez-Vous. My article has the following, snappy title: Technology-enhanced learning and co-operative practice against the neoliberal university.

The article is available at:

There is an eprint here:


Neoliberalism is a global pedagogical project aimed at the dispossession of free time so that all of life becomes productive, and education is a central institutional means for its realisation. This project aims at marketising all of social life, so that life becomes predicated upon the extraction of value. In part the deployment of technologies, technical services, and techniques enables education to be co-opted as an institutional means for production and control. This occurs inside both formal and informal educational institutions and spaces, like universities and Massive Open On-line Courses, as one mechanism to offset the tendency for the rate of profit to fall and to re-establish accumulation. This pedagogic project also tends to recalibrate and enclose the roles of staff and students as entrepreneurial subjects, whose labour is enabled through technology. This is achieved through learning analytics, big data, mobility and flexibility of provision, and so on. At issue is the extent to which this neoliberal project can be resisted or refused, and alternatives described. This article will analyse the relationships between technology, pedagogy, and the critical subject in the neoliberal University, in order to argue for the use of technology inside a co-operative pedagogy of struggle. This demands that we ask what education is, before we ask what it is for, or the place of technology-enhanced learning in the university. The article considers whether it is possible to uncover ways in which education might be used for co-operation rather than competition, and what technology-enhanced co-operative education might look like?


HE Green Paper and related stuff

This is a collection of stuff related to the Green paper, grouped into: Political economics; Sector responses; HE marketisation; Teaching excellence; Learning gain; HE governance; Quality Assurance/regulation; and Research. It is not exhaustive and I probably won’t add to it.

NOTE: I’m painfully aware of the limited range of voices in the list below, and its apparent lack of diversity, including historically under-represented and underserved communities. Is this me? Is this us? What does this mean?

ONE. Political Economics and Policy

HM Treasury Productivity Plan

HE Green Paper

HEFCE: Financial health of the higher education sector, 2014-15 to 2017-18 forecasts

Jo Johnson: Higher education: fulfilling our potential

Paul Clark: The Green Paper needs big data

Hepi: 10 points about the higher education green paper

Mark Leach: Spending review 2015: Key points for universities

Andrew McGettigan: The Treasury View of HE (variable human capital)

Andrew McGettigan: Spending Review: Loans, RAB and the Discount Rate

UCU: HE Green Paper

Andy Westwood: Spending Review 2015: In the Bleak Midwinter?

DBIS (2013): International education strategy: global growth and prosperity

DBIS (2014): Estimating Innovation Spillovers: an International Sectoral and UK Enterprise Study

TWO. Sector responses

GuildHE: GuildHE response to HE Green Paper

Million+: million+ comment on HE Green Paper (England)

NUS responds to higher education green paper

Russell Group: Higher Education Green Paper

University Alliance: University Alliance responds to the HE Green Paper

UniversitiesUK: A summary of the Higher Education Green Paper

UCAS’ response to HE Green Paper

THREE. HE marketisation

Myka Abramson and Harry Stopes: Academics! You’ve got to fight for your right to job security

Emma Clery: Tuition Fees: 10 Reasons Against

Paul Goodman: Jo Johnson wants the higher education market to work better. Here’s a way of ensuring that it does.

John Holmwood: Slouching toward the Market: the new Green Paper for Higher Education, Part I

John Holmwood: Slouching toward the Market: the new Green Paper for Higher Education, Part II

Mark Leach: Green Paper: the closer you look, the less you see

Andrew McGettigan: 10 things you might have missed about the HE Green Paper

Andrew McGettigan: The accelerated level playing field

John Morgan: Higher education Green Paper: government support for higher, variable fees ‘crystal clear’

Chris Newfield: Are UK universities being cast academically adrift?

Sorana Vieru: We’ve got the power! No, you’ve got the power. Hang on, who’s got the power?

UCU: UCU tells MPs that job security is vital for teaching quality

FOUR. Teaching excellence

Business, Innovation and Skills Q&A on the TEF (1/12/15)

Richard Black: Higher education Green Paper: have universities really neglected teaching?

Simon Clark: Refocusing universities on teaching won’t be easy

Martin Eve: What TEF is really for

Fighting Against Casualisation in Education: Responding to the select committee on TEF

Richard Hall: against teaching intensity

Richard Hall: notes on saying no to the TEF

Chris Havergal: TEF metrics plan attacked by academics

Chris Havergal: ‘Naive’ TEF metrics could undermine widening participation, v-c warns

David Kernohan: CETLs and the ghosts of teaching excellence past

David Kernohan: People in higher education: Professor Sally Brown, teaching excellence and a little bit of history

Mark Leach: The incredible machine? Our visual guide to the TEF

Andrew McGettigan: TEF & fee increases

Martin McQuillan: Remember, Remember the TEF of November

Emran Mian: Can the TEF survive the arguments made against it?

Jess Patterson: 5 Reasons the Teaching in Excellence Framework is Bad News for Higher Education

Philip Plowden: How to approach the Teaching Excellence Framework with confidence

Warwick for Free Education: The TEF: what is it, and why should we oppose it?

Joanna Williams: Higher education Green Paper: what it means for teaching

FIVE. Learning gain

Richard Hall: learning gain and kettling academic labour

HEFCE: 4 million awarded to 12 projects to pilot measures of learning gain

Cecile Hoareau McGrath et al. Learning Gain in Higher Education

Karine Tremblay et al.: Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes Feasibility Study Report Volume 1 – Design and Implementation

SIX. HE governance

Simon Baker: Redbricks, Green and Browne

Ed Byrne: Sector needs ‘oversight’ if BIS takes teaching grant in-house, says King’s principal

Udi Datta: TTIP and higher education policy

DBIS: Degree-awarding powers and criteria for university title

Martin Eve: Jo Johnson: your proposals for British higher education will not yield the competitiveness you seek

Martin Eve: HE Green Paper: response to question 23

David Kernohan: The Green Paper and devolution

Andrew McGettigan: The Great University Gamble

Martin McQuillan: ‘Goodbye to all that’

John Morgan: Pro-market regulator will have ‘different relationship with sector’

SEVEN. Quality Assurance/regulation

Andrew Boggs: Green Paper: six questions about regulation

HEFCE: Quality Assurance Review

Lee Jones: ‘Quality Assessment’ and Completing the Market in UK Higher Education

Lee Jones: ‘Quality Assessment’ and ‘Student Outcomes’: An Open Letter

Gordon McKenzie: Green Paper calls in the architects

Quality Assessment Review Steering Group: The future of quality assessment in higher education

EIGHT. Research

Martin Eve: TEF, REF, QR, deregulation: thoughts on Jo Johnson’s HE talk

Martin Eve: BIS, metrics and non-selective QR allocation

David Matthews: Higher education Green Paper: what it means for research

James Wilsdon et al.: The Metric Tide: Report of the Independent Review of the Role of Metrics in Research Assessment and Management

James Wilsdon: The Green Paper: Nurse will see you now

James Wilsdon: Nurse’s watery prescription for research

Student Achievement in the Digital Age: How emergent technologies can enhance the academic experience

I’m presenting at The Northern Universities Consortium (NUCCAT) annual conference in Manchester tomorrow.

The abstract I agreed in appended below, alongside the key points that I will try to make about the issues and practices that are affecting how higher education institutions address the intersection of student achievement (with a proxy of future earnings and employability), digital transformation (in order to generate economic growth/productivity), and the wider academic experience (bridging institutional/social spaces and the public/private).


This discussion will highlight educational developments in student and staff digital literacy. It will highlight some of the good, bad and ugly institutional considerations that emerge from international project-work on: technology-enabled, alternative forms of accreditation such as open badges; learning analytics and data mining; education-as-a-service rooted in cloud computing; student-as-producer, connected to personalisation and content creation/curation; and digital footprint and professional identity.

The examples developed will focus upon both institutional and hosted solutions, like Blackboard, Moodle, WordPress and Turnitin, alongside technologies used for non-institutional, informal learning. The institutional and individual implications of these innovations will be related to strategies for professional development, technology and data infrastructures, and governance/legal issues. As a result participants will be asked to consider how their own practices might be affected, and what they might do as a result.

Key Points

ONE. I will discuss an institutional space that is framed in three ways. The first relates to digital transformation and productivity, as it emerges from the policy space for higher education. The second asks us to reconsider which students’ academic experiences are we referring, when we talk about achievement and enhancement? The third tries to situate the relationship between technologies and student achievement, against emergent pedagogical practices.

TWO. [slide 5] The policy/practice space for English HE and technology is being reduced to discussions about performance and productivity related to teaching intensity, student commitment to learning, and the nature of the institutional learning environment (c.f. HE Green Paper). These discussions are shaped by HM Treasury Productivity Plan, which grafts education onto ideas of digital transformation and market-led disruption of established positions. Together these two policy documents situate the relationship between education and technology in terms of human capital theory. The Small Business, Enterprise and Employability Act (2015) includes a section on ‘Education Evaluation’ that promotes human capital development (skills, expertise, employability, intellectual capital, entrepreneurialism and so on), as a catalyst for further financialisation and market-driven innovation [see slide 5 and David Willetts’ view of technology and educational disruption].

The terrain of English HE is also affected by trade liberalisation and the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Innovation Partnership, through which education services are likely to be in-scope. This matters because technology enables and is enabled by a rich, transnational ecosystem that involves: academics; publishers; HE institutions; venture capital; non-profits [see slide 6, on the MOOC Universe]. In supporting institutions in making sense of this shifting terrain, Jisc is working on building digital capability with a focus on digital leadership, digital pedagogy/literacy, and digital efficiencies. Here institutions are thinking less about technologies (Blackboard, WordPress, Turnitin, whatever), and instead are thinking about services for students (Replay, Social, Assessment, Learning Resources etc.).

THREE. [slide 7] The interactions between policy and practice change the contexts that enable student achievement, both inside and outside the institution. These contexts are rooted in ideas of “intensity”, “productivity” and “gain”. In order to deliver these, institutions are thinking less about technologies and more about aggregated services for students and staff. These include the following.

  • Data services: learning analytics; open data; c.f. emerging concerns over The Patriot Act, Safe Harbour, and information governance
  • Replay/Learning Content: open repositories; enterprise reading lists; multimedia
  • Accreditation: open badges; e-portfolios; competency-based accreditation
  • Personalisation: universal design for learning; assistive technologies; productivity tools; mobile
  • Social: open education (MOOCs); cloud-based services

FOUR. [slides 8-13] There is a hegemonic or dominant view of students that emerges through the imposition of specific technologies as universal for learning, teaching, and assessment (e.g. learning management systems like Blackboard, multimedia tools like Panopto, or assessment tools like Turnitin). This applies across all levels and for all students, in spite of the developmental basis of those technologies and the enterprise implementation of them.

However, we might question whether these technologies, and our related pedagogic approaches [flipped classroom, bring your own device, universal design for learning, and so on] are enhancing the academic experience of specific students and therefore alienating/disabling others?

The dominant, universal narrative of technology is connected to universal ideas of “progress”, “efficiency”, “employability”. Thus, Pearson speak of technologies in an ecosystem that is: more global; more mobile; holistic; being absolutely obsessed with learning outcomes. Here emergent technologies are linked to the production and circulation of data, which dominates the landscape.

There are important, alternative uses of technology outside formal HE. One such is ds106 (digital storytelling 106), which enables community-based, transnational learning and accreditation. The ds106 space is user-created and curated, and connects to issues of: student-produced, multimedia content; collectively-produced and assessed student outputs or products; the ability to remix and repurpose content, including assessments; alternative forms of accreditation, including open, peer reviewed badging for skills, practices and literacies; and, the relationship between accredited activities and activities that enable sharing of the studet experience (e.g. a radio station).

A more militant story is told by student groups inside formal HE, which are forcing institutions to confront the legacies of colonialism and a racialised curriculum. These include the Why is My Curriculum White? and Rhodes Must Fall Collectives. They force us to question whether emergent technologies can enhance the academic experience for all students, if we do not understand the range of those experience. Does our use of technologies reinforce specific world views and cultural perceptions? How might we use them to challenge established forms of learning, teaching and assessment? For example, how does the digital content that we make available shape a particular, cultural frame of reference? Do our strategies for multimedia enhancement, like lecture capture (an awful phrase), risk some students being unable to speak in class, because they fear being recorded? Do our strategies for e-assessment increase stress on some groups of students?

FIVE. [slides 14-24] The relationship between emergent technologies and student achievement is shaped in a number of ways. I will focus on four.

The first is the increasing complexity of ecosystems available inside and beyond formal HE. This means that institutions are looking to create services for the delivery of: content; assessment; multimedia; social learning; personalised data/information. These are developed digitally, and mean that institutions are extending the backbone of their learning management systems (e.g. Blackboard) through: assessment tools (e.g. Turnitin); social tools (e.g. WordPress/academic commons, plus Campus Pack); interaction tools (e.g. PollEverywhere, TurningPoint, DisplayNote); content tools (e.g. Panopto, Talis Reading Lists); Productivity Tools (e.g. Google Drive, Office365); and collaboration tools (e.g. Blackboard Collaborate, MS Lync, Skype). This is mapped historically for DMU here and here. However, note that Blackboard have a range of platforms (technologies) in Learn, Collaborate, Connect, Mobile an Analytics, which themselves connect to other services (e.g. assessment and feedback).

The second is competency-based learning, like standardised testing, and which can be modelled and enable normalisation and sharing across programmes in different institutions. Here digital transformation grounded in data and content architectures, and e-assessment and e-feedback policies, map onto and potentially change pedagogic practices. Issues of academic autonomy, and tensions between what assessment is to measure and why are live.

The third is the ability to connect institutional and public/personal technologies, so that students and staff can operate across boundaries. This is a more networked approach, witnessed in public good projects like DMU’s Square Mile, and in the Domain of One’s Own project at University of Mary Washington. However, it also needs higher levels of digital literacy amongst staff and students, in order to engage with issue of professionalism, privacy, data protection and interoperability/sharing. It is also affected by institutional policies for social media use and codes of conduct/regulations.

The final point is digital transformation, which emerges from partnerships between HE and technology forms, but also from innovations in network/storage and communications. These innovations are rooted in flows of data and content, and a widening of communications channels, and they tend to blur the boundaries between the institution and the public space (e.g. in the idea of the Cloud). As a result they impact staff and student digital literacy (the skills, knowledge and practices that an individual or community can utilise to work on-line). The Digilit Leicester project is an example of wide-ranging digital, educational change.

SIX. I end with four caveats.

  • Think about data governance at all levels, especially in light of the EU ruling on safe harbour.
  • Think about how to support staff and student management of their own digital identity and footprint, for instance focused upon issues of professionalism and e-safety.
  • Think about digital privacy, for instance student/staff rights to anonymity in spaces that are to be recorded. Do technologies affect our ability to create safe spaces for dialogue?
  • Think about digital literacy, for instance the alignment of staff/student digital skills and practices.

against teaching intensity

My reading of the Higher Education Green paper sits alongside that of the Universities and Colleges Union, with its highlighting of the critical absence of staff inside education policy. My reading emerges against the UK Treasury’s Productivity Plan, Fixing the foundations: Creating a more prosperous nation, which stresses the important of human capital intensity. This is a key theme that underpins the Green Paper, and is a central site of potential refusal by academics and students, with pedagogic engagement as a point of departure. My reading is then situated through recent work on social reproduction and the crisis of sociability that is enforced through the hegemony of marketization and financialisation, and which is realised as exploited and alienated academic labour.

Whilst the sector has been used as a means to enforce primitive accumulation, for instance in international markets, it is also being structurally adjusted through the processes of real subsumption. There are vanguards of academics and students who have already experienced and refused these processes and to whom we might listen in becoming our own moments of refusal. In the process we might refuse to compromise with the Government in its measurement and monitoring of academic labour and in its reduction of teaching to ideas of excellence intensity that quantify the classroom. This is a reframing of the Green Paper in the broader, social context of refusal.

ONE. A note on productivity and the loss of time

Marx saw important interrelationships between the production of surplus-value and the length of the working day, the intensity of labour, and productivity (the productiveness of labour).

[W]e have seen that the relative magnitudes of surplus-value and of price of labour-power are determined by three circumstances; (1) the length of the working-day, or the extensive magnitude of labour; (2) the normal intensity of labour, its intensive magnitude, whereby a given quantity of labour is expended in a given time; (3) the productiveness of labour, whereby the same quantum of labour yields, in a given time, a greater or less quantum of product, dependent on the degree of development in the conditions of production.

Here the management and intensity of work-time and free-time become a key terrain of struggle between Capital and Labour. However, the struggle is itself re-shaped by both competition and the stimulation of new, tradable needs and desires, which push the forces of production and the relations of production into tension. This underscores the tensions that emerge from Marx’s ‘Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy’:

At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or — this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms — with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters.

In Capital, Marx described these tensions in terms of: first, ‘enforcing economy in each individual business’; and second

by its anarchical system of competition, the most outrageous squandering of labour-power and of the social means of production, not to mention the creation of a vast number of employments, at present indispensable, but in themselves superfluous.

Much of our toil is superfluous to the purpose of meeting our basic needs. Instead we are compelled to generate an ever-expanding range of services or products, and to chase them into new terrains or markets. As wasteful is the realisation that we aim to become more productive in the hope that we will have more free time, and yet the system colonises and co-opts that free time, and enforces yet more productivity. We are subjected to increasing levels of excellence intensity of labour across our working lives. And this intensity of labour underscores the desperate search for surplus-value and its materialisation as profit. As a result, Marx argued that we witness how

In capitalist society spare time is acquired for one class by converting the whole life-time of the masses into labour time.

TWO. The Treasury, human capital and productivity

HM Treasury of the UK Government have attempted to re-frame the struggle between the material, productive forces of society and the existing relations of production, through its productivity plan: Fixing the foundations: Creating a more prosperous nation. The Plan centres productivity and intensified work on an ideological terrain that situates our means of reproducing society or our social relationships, solely through work. All of life is our duty to capitalist work.

Productivity is the challenge of our time. It is what makes nations stronger, and families richer.

The drivers of productivity are well understood: a dynamic, open enterprising economy supported by long-term public and private investment in infrastructure, skills and science. A nation flourishes when it uses the full skills of all its people in all parts of that nation. (p. 1)

The Productivity Plan is central to an analysis of the HE Green Paper, which situates higher learning through human capital theory. This is a critical insight flowing from Andrew McGettigan’s work on The Treasury View of HE: Variable Human Capital Investment, which sees ‘undergraduate study as a stratified, unequal, positional good dominating future opportunities and outcomes.’ Thus, the Treasury argue (p. 8) that

Our excellent university sector cannot be kept competitive, and open to all who can benefit, unless we make hard choices about funding.

These hard choices are foregrounded here as the Teaching Excellence Framework [TEF] ‘to sharpen incentives for providing an outstanding education to students’, and also increased competition from new entrants to the HE market to ‘deliver better value for money’.

Investment is an essential part of raising productivity. In today’s economy that is not simply a matter of increasing the stock of machines, equipment and essential physical infrastructure but also, crucially, the development of human and intellectual capital. (p. 15)

The TEF is therefore a critical moment of real subsumption that intensifies academic activities, in terms of how the curriculum is structured and delivered, and how it is monitored. The TEF ‘will inform student decision-making, continue to support a high average wage premium for graduates and ensure that students’ hard-won qualifications keep their value over time’ (p. 28). Thus, as John Holmwood argues for the Green Paper, we might note that the Plan ‘represents the familiar neo-liberal package of de-regulation via markets together with strong central direction’, which reinvents work/Academia itself ‘increasingly [as] a ‘Big Data’ project’. In the case of Academia the contexts for this project are now both teaching and research.

In terms of readjusting the relations of production, the Plan hollows out a space to be governed by a modern competition toolkit and the active choices of consumers.

Competitive markets are fundamental to fostering productivity growth. They compel firms to be more efficient and innovative, allow new businesses to enter markets and ensure that the best firms grow (p. 59).

During the last Parliament, the government created the independent Competition and Markets Authority [CMA], bringing existing competition authorities into a more streamlined body and modernising the competition toolkit. The government’s role is to ensure that the regime continues to be amongst the best in the world… to ensure that consumer enforcement capability effectively supports competition and better regulation objectives (p. 60).

The disruption of cultural norms that have been negotiated over time is central to this approach. The Plan’s digital-determinism (and the re-focusing on Digital Transformation) sits at the centre of a desire to break-up unproductive positions and to forge industry transformation. In part this is by breaking established labour relations. In part it is situated through transnational engagements between service providers like universities, and service innovators like communications and infrastructure corporations, or financiers like venture capitalists. These new transnational associations, pivoting around enterprise are ‘driving productivity by ensuring that firms continually strive to improve their efficiency and better meet customers’ needs’ (p. 61). The transnational imperatives of such innovations are central to the Plan’s proposals for exports and international markets, but also to ‘further trade liberalisation’, including The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) (p. 67).

Yet, as Holmwood notes for the HE Green Paper, it elides enterprise, active consumption and growth, whilst ignoring the structuring realities of an economy rooted in precarious employment and debt:

All values are reduced to economic values, but in place of a promise to re-balance the economy, the economy is increasingly directed toward short-term profits and financialisation. Economic inequalities widen, the proportion of ‘graduate jobs’ declines, and the claim that this can help increase social mobility is increasingly hollow.

However, the Treasury view situates these entrepreneurial processes of financialisation and marketization inside the drive for public sector productivity rooted in the needs of employers. Moreover, it ties efficiencies to issues of labour intensity that are shaped by Single Departmental Plans, ‘which will identify key priorities for every department, and will act as a vehicle to link inputs to outputs’ (p. 75). The Plan notes that November’s Spending Review will focus attention on: service redesign and value-for-money; restructuring organisation and workforce; and prioritising technology and data. In part this is a response to a perception of poor decisions ‘about resource allocation across the economy, preventing capital and labour from finding their most productive uses and weighing on productivity growth’ (p. 76). However, it is also a response to ‘the relatively low cost of labour since the crisis [that] may have led firms to substitute away from investment, reducing the effective amount of capital workers can use and thus reducing productivity’ (p. 76).

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

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

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

THREE. Teaching Excellence Intensity

HM Government’s Green Paper, Fulfilling our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice, looks to enact the Productivity Plan inside English HE, and roots its proposals as the denial of a history of work on teaching quality and quality enhancement. It collapses the contexts of struggles over: teaching and pedagogy; existing educational inputs and outputs; the idea that students are purchasers, consumers and/or producers; and determinants of value for money that are held by families as purchasers, taxpayers as underwriters, and employers as innovators. These contexts are collapsed onto one ideological terrain that seeks to delegitimise alternative conceptualisations of HE.

The HE Green paper amplifies the roll-out (c.f Stephen Ball) of a specific neoliberal agenda, which has a long ideological lineage, through which the terrain for the marketization of everyday life was prepared. In English HE this is witnessed in the recent history of: the move of universities and HE into the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills; the raising of fees under New Labour; the Browne Review; the ramping-up of fees, and the HE White Paper under the Coalition. These moments normalised the idea of mass HE rooted in active consumer choice and open data, career-ready human capital, and global competition (p. 10). Thus, these moments prepare Academia for short-term productivity fixes that are rooted in bureaucracy, and which demand that students and academics surveil and monitor themselves, in the name of:

the development of a positive work ethic, so that they can contribute more effectively to our efforts to boost the productivity of the UK economy (p. 11).

This is a productivity that is shaped by:

(1) the length of the [academic] working-day, or the extensive magnitude of [academic] labour; (2) the normal intensity of [academic] labour, its intensive magnitude, whereby a given quantity of [academic] labour is expended in a given time; (3) the productiveness of [academic] labour, whereby the same quantum of [academic] labour yields, in a given time, a greater or less quantum of product, dependent on the degree of development in the conditions of [academic] production.

In order to develop the forces of academic production, active consumer choice is central, and this emerges against data about ‘Course quality, teaching intensity and contact hours’ (p. 11). Entrepreneurial intensity is central to this prescription for academic productivity. UCU’s response presents a counter-narrative that teaching is an inclusive, collegial endeavour, and that is enriched through peer-review, and which depends upon the labour conditions of both teachers and students.

Everyone recognises the need for high quality teaching, but unless government places staff at the centre of the process and addresses underlying issues like casualisation, low status of teaching, lack of career progression and lack of funding, the green paper is unlikely to achieve its stated objectives

This focus on the Green paper as an attack on labour rights and conditions of work, designed to drive service redesign and workforce efficiencies, questions whether, as David Kernohan notes, ‘the TEF can become a [] vehicle for a community of interest based around a common idea’, without being centred around academic labour struggles. In particular, this is because academic labour and teaching intensity are rooted in attempts to de-professionalise HE. As UCU note, any TEF will be transplanted onto a fractured terrain.

Temporary contract working is endemic across UK higher education, with 69,000 (43%) out of a total of 161,000 contracted academic staff on non-permanent contracts. Among 40,000 teaching only staff, 29,435 (73%) have non-permanent contracts. These figures do not include the 75,000 so called ‘atypical’ academic staff who are also largely engaged in teaching but who are usually employed only on an as and when basis and have little access to CPD, career development or other scholarship opportunities

These data about teaching excellence intensity might enable conversations about: the precarious, indentured reality of English HE; how tuition fees are spent (p. 12), which discusses the labour costs of the work of students as well as staff, and then re-opens debates about wages for schoolwork; HE as exchange-value and tradable asset, rather than publically- or socially-useful value; changes to behaviour that are grounded in interpretations of projections about future earnings, which are themselves historically-hedged; changes that emerge from inside pedagogic relationships and through the curriculum; and a desire to limit higher learning to data and value-for-money:

The TEF will increase students’ understanding of what they are getting for their money and improve the value they derive from their investment, protecting the interest of the taxpayer who supports the system through provision of student loans. It should also provide better signalling for employers as to which providers they can trust to produce highly skilled graduates. (pp. 12-13)

This is the proposed structural adjustment of HE to meet the needs of the Treasury’s Productivity Plan.

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

TEF should also prove a good deal for employers and the taxpayer. The aim is to improve the teaching that students receive, which in turn should increase their productivity and help them secure better jobs and careers. It should enable employers to make more informed choices about the graduates they recruit… With higher returns, more graduates will be able to pay back more of their loans, reducing the amount that needs to be subsidised by the taxpayer in the longer term. This is on top of the benefits to taxpayers from having a stronger economy powered by a higher skilled workforce. (p. 21)

This is the excellence intensification of academic labour rooted in a restructuring of the relations of production through explicit connections to active consumer choice and a functioning competition and markets authority (p. 27), which can ensure that the HE terrain is opened-up for trade liberalisation and the TTIP. As Datta has argued, TTIP is pivotal because it protects access to the market for corporations operating across borders. Moreover, the UK Government has made no reservations to the application of these protections in education, and indeed the coupling of the Green Paper and the Productivity Plan to TTIP mean that ‘the experiment in the market operation of the higher education sector could potentially be irreversible’.

The last leaked draft of TTIP is expressed as applying to services which are performed commercially. In an education market which is characterised by a mixed economy of both privately and publicly funded, profit-making and non-profit making institutions, education services are likely to be treated as within the scope of the TTIP treaty.

The excellence intensification of academic labour is shaped by three aspects (p. 32): teaching quality (TEF); learning environment [which demands that universities open themselves up to part-privatisation for the service redesign and workforce efficiencies of the Productivity Plan]; and student outcomes and learning gain [data]. This is Holmwood’s Academia as big data project amplified by human capital intensity, alongside the incorporation of ‘new common metrics on engagement with study (including teaching intensity) and learning gain, once they are sufficiently robust and available on a comparable basis’. This is not just the excellence intensity of work, but the intensity of motivation to work. It is also the shaming of those who do not enhance ‘Student commitment to learning – including appropriate pedagogical approaches’, or ‘Teaching intensity – measures might include time spent studying, as measured in the UK Engagement Surveys, proportion of total staff time spent on teaching’ (p. 32).

It is important students have information about the composition of the course, including contact hours, to help them make informed choices about the course they choose to study. The CMA identified this as being material information likely to be required by the Consumer Protection Regulations, and as part of the payment, service delivery and performance information required to be provided pre-contract under the Consumer Contracts (Information, Cancellation and Additional Charges) Regulations. (p. 32)

In order to avoid metricide, or the inability to financialise positive outputs/outcomes because of poor data, competition will compel universities to drive down on staff working conditions, including new workload arrangements and increased surveillance of teaching, research and administration. As Andrew McGettigan has noted ‘if you work in HE, then pay bargaining is going to be a dismal business for the foreseeable.’

We are therefore pushed towards the acceptance of further state-sponsored privatisation of HE. This is not re-imagining the university through learning, teaching or pedagogy, but an unmaking of the university in the name of service redesign, workforce restructuring/efficiency and global, high-tech enterprise. This is HE deterritorialised for productivity, so that only those [academics, students, institutions] ‘that innovate and present a more compelling value proposition to students will be able to increase their share’ (p. 54). As a result what emerges from the Green Paper is an assault on collective work: the collective work of students unions; and of the collective work of students and staff as academic labour. Instead we are forced into asymmetrical relationship to the reality of our fetishized and rugged individualism in the market. Here our pedagogic decisions and the relationships that flow from them are to be governed by the TTIP, the CMA and the proposed Office for Students.

FOUR. Value-for-money: there is no alternative.

This policy space is further constrained by money, and in particular cash-flow forecasts and the need to generate operating and investment surpluses. As noted by HEFCE in its Financial health of the higher education sector, 2014-15 to 2017-18 forecasts ‘relatively small changes in key assumptions can have a significant impact on an HEI’s ability to generate surpluses’ (p. 1). This shifting terrain of short-term signals being shaped by active consumer choice and competition is overlain onto a

trend of falling liquidity (cash) and increasing sector borrowing… The sector expects its liquid funds to fall from £7.7 billion as at 31 July 2014 to £5.0 billion as at 31 July 2018, equivalent to 67 days of expenditure; the lowest level reported since 31 July 2006. At the same time, the sector expects borrowing to increase from £6.7 billion at the end of July 2014 to £9.2 billion at the end of July 2018, by which time the sector would be in a net debt position of £4.1 billion. The trend of increasing borrowing and reducing liquidity is unsustainable in the long term. (p. 2)

Crucially, the Financial Health report notes that as ‘charities, HE institutions are obligated to ensure that they remain sustainable and do not expose themselves to undue risk. Strong liquidity is particularly important given the level of uncertainty and risk that currently exist in the sector’ (p. 2). Yet as McGettigan notes, the corporate forms of English universities and their relation to finance capital have been continually questioned.

In 2013, a government report on HE as an export suggested that universities should consider whether charitable status (and ‘objects’) had outlived its usefulness. [He quotes]

Although this [charitable status] model has many strengths, it does not lend itself to rapid growth. The governance structures and obligations of charities, or of bodies of similarly ancient pedigree established by Royal Charter or equivalent instruments, were not designed to grow rapidly, or to run a network across the world.

This trails the Green Paper’s questioning of the governance arrangements of universities so that they better reflect business needs (p. 68), and which then enable engagement with venture capital. This potentially connects to HEFCE’s argument that ‘forecasts assume that the capital markets continue to have confidence in the sector, which depends upon their risk assessments of the sector and individual HEIs’ (p. 3), and the Green paper’s focus on weak or low-quality providers exiting the market, in order that the sector can leverage confidence and finance. As McGettigan notes elsewhere, the real significance of the Green Paper may turn on the proposed changes to the corporate form and governance structures of universities, by enabling private and venture capital to establish associations or joint ventures. Through governance and corporate form, the relations of production across the sector are to be recalibrated, so that teaching excellence intensity can be normalised. Thus, HEFCE’s warning (p. 26) that ‘The reduction in cash balances, the increase in borrowings, and the increasing volatility of income streams point to an increase in finance risk’, folds pedagogic practices and the framing of teaching excellence inside a wider struggle over the financial viability of the sector and of academic labour.

FIVE. What is to be done?

Martin McQuillan asks:

is there any voice today that has the political credibility and intellectual capacity to offer an alternative vision for universities in England? Will one emerge from within the sector? University leaders should not be distracted by the shiny new bauble of achieving Level 4 TEF status. As custodians of our universities they need to think about what is best for higher education in England. Is it really the end of the post-war dispensation of public institutions and public service and the opening up of those institutions to global equity capital? There is a choice to be made here and it is a more profound one than our next mobile phone provider.

Responses from UniversitiesUK, and groups like Million+ and the Russell Group would suggest forms of compromise. Equally, the inability of groups like the Association of National Teaching Fellows to reconcile student work as a form of academic labour that might have points of solidarity with the work of academics, means that notionally professional groups are unable to confront the crisis of social reproduction that is the enclosure and marketization of HE. Moreover, as Kernohan and McQuillan note, the Green Paper either targets managers in the performance management of staff through the data-driven normalisation of practice, or it enforces structural adjustment inside institutions so that more students can be recruited and taught more efficiently. Hence we witness the abundance of technological innovations designed to reproduce the learning environment as a precursor for the restructuring that will be required in order to deliver learning gain. Here is the terrain over which collectivised teaching excellence will be lost to individuated teaching intensity.

The most meaningful questions emerge from the labour movement, from specific student groups, or from academic associations that attempt to make concrete the lived reality of Government reforms, for instance in terms of student debt or academic precarity.

Bringing in experts, we ask: what are income-contingent loans, who profits from your debt, how does the experience of having debt affect student wellbeing and life chances, and in what ways do fear of debt and the types of loans that are sold to students perpetuate inequalities? We also hear from activists on how debt can be resisted and how we can move from the idea of individual responsibility to collective action.

Students in debt

The document’s logic has “students” at the heart of the system. If and only if those students can afford to pay higher fees, study full-time, and what they want is what employers want.

Sorana Vieru

And in a terrain that is described fiscally, where money is the critical and universal reference point for academic value that is itself immanent to future earnings, it becomes difficult if not impossible to imagine, as Emran Mian argues, ‘that university teachers can choose how to influence these metrics positively, in dialogue with other subject specialists.’ The political economics are increasingly loaded against academic labour in its relationship with institutional managers who, as McQuillan argues elsewhere, are invoking a disciplinary framework designed to break collective bargaining and collective working arrangements. Moreover, even if, as Mian notes, ‘university teachers take the lead on talking and responding to their students – they’re much closer, if you like, to the critical market-moving information’, it is unclear how such depoliticised talking will trump the governing power of performance metrics that militate against the messy and complex realities of the delivery of the curriculum. It is particularly unclear how this will play-out in the face of the reproduction of an increasingly precariously employed, efficiency-scarred, technologized and redesigned academic labour force. As a result, such talking risks becoming a form of hedging against the quantified curriculum, rather than emerging over time through classroom relationships. In any case, those relationships will be increasingly and intensively squeezed by managers gaming the TEF.

SIX. On the crisis of academic sociability

There is increasing emphasis being placed on the global crisis of sociability that is Capital’s inability to re-establish stable forms of accumulation. This crisis is one of social reproduction that amplifies and exacerbates the worst excesses of the market.

  • It is witnessed through the frame of care-based work, which enables individuals to be reproduced or to get some of their physical needs met (childcare, housework, and so on), by outsourcing it to family members or employees, so that wage-earners can return to the market each day to sell their labour. This work of care is gendered and racialized.
  • It is witnessed through increasingly precarious employment, the assault on social security, State repression of marginalised groups, unaffordable rents, mental health crises, lack of access to basic amenities including water and healthcare, and disciplinary policing.
  • It is witnessed in the rise of companies purportedly involved in the sharing economy like Uber, AirBnB, TaskRabbit and Postmates, which enable a digital transformation of sectors of the economy whilst failing to provide any form of social security or employment rights.
  • It is witnessed in the inability of indebted individuals and States to lift externally-imposed capital controls, and in the profusion of anti-labour trades union legislation.
  • It is witnessed in the increasing failure of the curriculum across the globe to respond to its racialized nature, leading to academic struggles like #rhodesmustfall, #millionstudentmarch and #whyismycurriculumwhite. In large part these struggles are fuelled by the indignation of students of colour against the on-going colonial condition of the university as an export strategy for specific hegemonies.

This is the separation of workers from their means of subsistence or reproduction, or the increasingly precarious state of that separation, which legitimises particular voices, such as those promoting intensity/productivity/excellence. Keir Milburn argues that this ‘subordinates you to a timing and framing determined by someone else’s strategy’.

As Devi Sacchetto argues, this applies transnationally because ‘The geography of production is now organized in different areas depending on the kind of commodities that are produced and on the lead and sub-contracting firms’. Thus, it applies across HE because the university is being reconstituted as the producer of commodities rather than relationships and practices, in-part through changes to its corporate form and governance that usher in new joint ventures.

In response to the generalised (non-HE) crisis of sociability, there has been a call for the social strike, as a means of generating alternative political actions rooted in solidarity across social relationships. Such actions connect society and the factory through the critique of social conditions that tend to immiserate.

Overcoming the limits of present forms of organization means to cut across the artificial division between labour and social struggles, and to bring organization on a transnational level, coming to terms once for all with the fact that the national level of action is by now clearly insufficient to build an effective power. Labor and social struggles must find a common political ground of connection.

Final document from 1st Transnational Social Strike Meeting.

This is increasingly live because, as Alisa Del Re notes:

In Europe the reproduction of individuals is subject to a continuous fluctuation between “social” and “private.” The social is the space of direct manipulation, organized by laws, public expenditures, customs, and moral rules that crush the individual’s ability to desire. The private is coarsely idealized as the space of freedom, but in most cases it reveals itself as the dominion of neglect, misery, frustration, powerlessness, and loneliness.

It becomes important to ask how we might ‘organize vulnerability and turn it into political action’ on a scale large enough to enable new relations of social reproduction that respond less to the market and transnational prescriptions of what market freedom entails. Such a reimagining would focus upon a social reproduction that was rooted in equality between different human bodies, rather than being rooted in the equality of data flows. Such a reimagining has to find spaces inside the university, but increasingly it has to hear and propagate those alternatives that emerge beyond, in social centres or on the Commons, or in responses to austerity.

Thus, a critical response to the HE Green Paper is

making the new conditions visible, disrupting the circulation of capital and directly socialising, collectivising and communising our social relations, reproduction and struggles… Most obviously this involves striking (or otherwise acting) in ways that maximise feelings of collectivity and enhance general levels of sociability.

Keir Milburn

A social strike is a strike that occurs on multiple terrains and spaces. By this I mean it’s a strike that is not confined to one workplace, sector or locality. It’s not enacted by a single homogeneous subject but by a multitude of different subjects. It allows some fluidity in changing from one identity to another, say from worker to mother to student and back again. It isn’t defined by the singular identity of worker, a worker that is always a worker regardless of the multiple other demands from other ‘roles’. After all work is omnipresent, it continues long after we leave our official places of work, we work as producers but also we work on the other side of the relationship, as consumers, as clients and service providers. The social strike offers the possibility of building up relationships of solidarity, communication, knowledge, and shared culture, and in doing so recognising their importance in twenty-first century class formation. To be able to strike today means we cannot strike on only one terrain. To disrupt the flow of capital  we need to block all of its avenues – both metaphorically and literally.

Alex Long

Thus, working to situate the restructuring of HE against other social strikes and directional demands, forms one means of pushing-back against the ideas of teaching excellence intensification and of staff/students reduced to human capital. Such moments of solidarity are intentionally counter-hegemonic and would highlight how so much of social [academic] reproduction is predicated on voluntary, unwaged labour, such as that enacted in the home or by students, or by precariously employed labour. Such moments of solidarity would be rooted in specific, social and directional demands grounded potentially in the liberation of free time beyond teaching or study intensity, or in the idea of debt-free education, or in a re-focusing of education on collective well-being, or in harnessing education to global emergencies like climate change. They would need to connect, in Bue Rübner Hansen’s terms, academics and students to ‘[a] constitutive heterogeneity of the exploited and expropriated populations of the world’, which recognises ‘the self-organization and composition of differences and particularly of different strategies of life and survival.’

In these terms, common struggle is critical in refusing the precepts of the Green Paper. Such common struggled would join with those who are calling for refusal of TTIP, beyond education and in terms of other social goods like healthcare. It would connect intergenerational refusals of debt and indenture, which are shackling families with debt so that they become competitive rather than co-operative. It would connect with others who are precariously employed, in order to work-up moments of refusal and negation, and to demonstrate alternatives. Critically, Hansen notes, this is predicated upon collective work.

the practical task of class composition – which is necessary for posing the problem of the abolition of the proletarian condition concretely instead of remaining stuck in mutual competition and abstract hope – consists in developing collective strategies of life and survival which either combine, supplement or make superfluous individualized forms of reproduction.

Here academics and students have a central role because

theory, considered as a part of such movements, is the active effort to disseminate strategies of combination and struggle, and of elaborating commons and transversal points of connection between different struggles. Taking seriously the fact that resistances and networks of solidarity preexist irruptions of open struggle means to go beyond the faith in spontaneity. This entails an ethics of militant, embedded research, knowledge production, and popular pedagogy, which proceeds through practices of collectively mapping of the possibilities of composition, and reflections on how to connect and extend networks of trust and solidarity. It implies sharing tools of organizing and tactics of struggle, taking measure of the rumors and whispers, and engaging in small struggles in ways that can help them transform fear and mistrust into courage and solidarity.

As Marx argued in the Instructions for the Delegates of the Provisional General Council of the First International, this implies aiding ‘every social and political movement tending in that [same] direction’.

It is impossible to reconcile the central conditions of the Green Paper and the Productivity Plan to non-marketised/financialised pedagogic relationships. This is the prescribed direction of travel that frames the classroom economically though relations of production that subjugate people, as human capital that can be made productive through discipline.

Discipline is basically the mechanism of power by which we come to exert control in the social body right down to the finest elements, by which we succeed in grabbing hold of the social atoms themselves, which is to say individuals. Techniques for the individualization of power. How to supervise [surveiller] someone, how to control his conduct, his behavior, his aptitudes, how to intensify his performance, multiply his capacities, how to put him in a place where he will be most useful: this is what I mean by discipline.

Michel Foucault, “The Mesh of Power.”

Revealing the increased disciplining of social reproduction reveals the crisis of sociability that infects HE, and yet it also offers directions for alternatives. At issue is how to connect opposition to teaching intensity and learning gain, to rent strikes and labour relations/rights inside the University (including those of students), alongside the fight for living wages and pension rights for professional services staff, and then beyond to the complex and heterogeneous global struggles for liberation. This means that ‘a lot of things need to be changed on the ground in order for a massive economic and political transformation to be possible’ (Steven Shaviro). But we have to begin somewhere.

The University and the Secular Crisis

I’ve had an article published in the Open Library of Humanities, based on my inaugural lecture. If you want to revisit those fun-times, you can do so here.

The article is also on “The University and the Secular Crisis”, and it can be accessed here. The abstract is as follows.

The economic crisis of 2008 was followed by a persistent recession, with low levels of growth, weak aggregate demand, and high levels of underemployment or unemployment. For several recent authors this forced an engagement with the idea that the global economy is witnessing a secular stagnation or crisis. This article is situated against the changing landscape of English HE and seeks to understand the implications of the secular crisis on that sector, and on the idea of the University. It examines how responses to the secular crisis have amplified the twin forces of marketization and financialisation that are reconstituting the higher education sector for the production, circulation and accumulation of value. It then places this analysis inside the political economic realities of there is no alternative to the logic of choice and competition. The argument is then made that as this cultural turn affects the idea of what the University is for, both historically and materially, academics and students need to consider the potential for developing post-capitalist alternatives. The central point is that by developing a critique of the restructuring of higher education and of the idea of the University through political economy, alternative forms of knowing and developing socially-useful practices can emerge.

notes on a teaching-anxiety [excellence] framework

slower and more calculated/no chance of escape/now self-employed/concerned (but powerless)/an empowered and informed member of society (pragmatism not idealism)/

calm/fitter, healthier and more productive/a pig/in a cage/on antibiotics

Radiohead. 1997. Fitter. Happier.

ONE. Endings

Endings are important.

Fucked-up endings remain. Corroding. With the loss and the grief.

Fucked-up endings and the bewilderment that coerces us to internalise the loss, and to incorporate the reasons for it. As if we caused it. As if we didn’t try hard enough.

Fucked-up endings that coerce us into complicity with the original act. That leads us to hope that we might be able to persuade. That this time it might be different. To hope that we might return to where we once were.

Fucked-up endings that leave us with no way out but lamentation.

Fucked-up endings that leave us bitter.

And what are we to do when the means to manage those endings are taken from us?


TWO. Walking to the end

And this matters because there are those of us who walked through London, and who spoke at teach-ins and occupations, and who wrote in defence of some idea of equality in education, and who were kettled for it. And there are those of us who protested the Browne Review and the increase in fees. There are those of us who knew what was coming.

And many of us did this because we had some formation of education as social justice or radical democracy or critical pedagogy at the heart of our work. And in these formations there are those of us who struggle to enrich the very relationships upon which our institutions are build. Who struggle for relationships that others have co-opted as excellence. Who struggle for relationships that others have co-opted in order to punish those who are “coasting”. Who struggle for relationships that others have co-opted as progression and retention and satisfaction.

Relationships co-opted as data and debt. Relationships abstracted as indentured study.

And what is worse, is that the co-option of our work for self-actualisation or care or relationships has been laid bare. It has been laid out in-front of us, not just in the teaching excellence framework but also in the Treasury view of higher education. What is worse is that we fought for relationships that were not rooted in the rule of money, and so we fought for ideas of students-as-producers or partners or co-creators, and for education as courage and faith and justice. And our struggle was rooted in a refusal of the logic of Browne and nine thousand pounds. A corrosive logic implanted in the very heart of our pedagogical souls.

On fees, Mr Osborne announced the lifting of the £9,000 fee cap when he said that “we’ll link the student fee cap to inflation for those institutions that can show they offer high-quality teaching”. That appears to be a reference to the government’s recently announced plans for a teaching excellence framework, aimed at driving up teaching quality, which has been widely seen as offering a possible mechanism for the government to allow fees to rise.

John Morgan. 2015. Budget 2015: fees can rise for universities with ‘high-quality teaching’. Times Higher Education.

The other major measure affecting higher education was the announcement that universities in England will be allowed to upgrade their tuition fees above £9,000 in line with inflation from 2017-18, so long as they can demonstrate high-quality teaching. Universities UK has recently pointed out the inflationary pressures affecting universities and their ability to provide the highest quality education, so the fact that the Chancellor has listened to this is welcome. The government’s focus on ensuring a high quality of teaching alongside any increases is understandable.

I think it’s safe to say that the government  is at least looking into whether the  Teaching Excellence Framework announced last week by Jo Johnson should be used as the metric as to whether institutions should be able to increase tuition fees, and Universities UK will certainly be taking part in the consultation process for this.

Alex Leonhardt. 2015. Big announcements for universities in the Budget. UniversitiesUK Blog.

Above all, to meet students’ high expectations of their university years and to deliver the skills our economy needs, we need a renewed focus on teaching.

This is vital unfinished business from the reforms of the last Parliament.

As David Willetts himself acknowledged in a recent interview with the Times Higher Education; “teaching has been by far the weakest aspect of English higher education”.

This must change.

There must be recognition of excellent teaching – and clear incentives to make ‘good’ teaching even better.

Some rebalancing of the pull between teaching and research is undoubtedly required.

Jo Johnson. 2015. Teaching at the heart of the system. Gov.UK

Performance measurement and management dominate our lives in-and-against higher education, and bring the relationships that emerge in the classroom and within families into stark, asymmetrical relation to the market. As a result, life inside-and-outside the classroom is collapsed around the need to generate value and exchange and enterprise. What happens inside the classroom becomes a primary, societal concern beyond the governance and regulation of individual universities or the higher education sector.

The Coalition government has quietly put in place a series of measures designed to support a new performance metric: repayment of loans by course and institution. It could become the one metric to dominate all others and will be theorised under the rubric of ‘human capital investment’.

The Small Business, Enterprise and Employability Act received Royal Assent at the end of March 2015. Section Six of the bill is titled ‘Education Evaluation’… I quote [the Act]

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

Andrew McGettigan. 2015. The Treasury View of HE: Variable Human Capital Investment. PERC Paper 6.

And now this logic is really subsuming our academic labour. Because we know that our work in care and self-actualisation and relationships will now underpin new metrics. A new teaching excellence framework. A set of metrics to dominate our pedagogical souls. And what is worse, for those of us who protested the iniquity of this, our work will now be co-opted and repurposed so that our excellence enables our providers of higher education to raise fees. The very spaces that we sought to defend now alienated from us, and turned against us. The very spaces we sought to defend used to amplify and accelerate the very thing we were protesting against.

So that the very acts we sought to protect are reproduced for value.

And what does this do to our souls?

THREE. We are all anxious entrepreneurs now

And we remember that the financialisation and marketization of the sector has enabled the social relations of production, which are rooted in the production and accumulation of surplus labour and surplus value, to enter the academic labour process. This entry alone is not enough for the real subsumption of the sector inside the law of value. But this process has been accelerating. With outsourcing and technologizing and performance management and zero hours contracts and open data and debt and knowledge transfer and whatever. The sector and the academic labour that shapes it being compelled to reproduce capitalist social relations. Being compelled to open up for the reproduction and circulation and accumulation of value.

For others.

And the landscape of higher education is restructured perceptibly so that its labour processes are transformed. Subsumed. Really. We have seen the creation of an infrastructure and a technocracy that monitors and measures higher education’s current means of production, in readiness for its recalibration. An infrastructure that hints at markets and surpluses and enterprise and data. An infrastructure that is predicated upon opening-up the sector and its labour processes and its data. An infrastructure that internalises in each of us performativity.

And this is a site of anxiety, because we can remember what went before. And we can feel its loss. And we are powerless. Because we see that capital cannot tolerate a space inside which the social forces of production are developed in a limited way. And we feel the acceleration of performativity and the loss of autonomy and agency. And we feel the recalibration of higher education through a real capitalist labour process. And so it goes: this recalibration changes the social relations of production and the modes of academic labour, so that they produce and reproduce the nature of capital.

And this incorporation corrodes. And it generates anxiety. So that as we internalise the University’s entrepreneurial turn, we in-turn become our own seats of anxiety. Our own generators and circulators and accumulators of anxiety.

As a result academic labour is really subsumed. Subsumed for value, not for humane values. It is performance managed or measured and made efficient, or it is disciplined by outsourcing or technology or zero-hours contracts. It is governed by codes of conduct and workload management. The governance, regulation and funding of higher education, together with the organising principles for the public University and its curricula, are transformed through financialisation and marketisation. Academics work under the structural domination of finance capital, disciplined by the idea of student-as-consumer, partner or entrepreneur, their labour enclosed by institutions driven by competitive positioning in increasingly volatile markets for educational services.

So that effective teaching practice can be reproduced as teaching excellence. So that teaching excellence can be converted into data. So that data can drive excellence-as-a-service. So that excellence-as-a-service can be sold back to us. Our souls commodified and repackaged and sold back to us. Because if only we internalised excellence-as-a-service we would be better teachers, professors, whatever.

And this process is anxiety-inducing. And the refusal of this process is anxiety-inducing.

So that the real subsumption of academic labour under the law of value has forced an emotional recomposition of the practices of the University itself, and thus of the experience of labouring inside it. The accelerated transition towards real subsumption has both restructured institutions and reduced the points of potential solidarity for academic labour. Just as points of solidarity have weakened, the competitive dynamics of commodity capitalism have catalysed new systems of production, organisational development and technological innovation, which are in turn further constraining academic autonomy and agency. As the compulsion is always towards productivity measured by the law of value, academics are forced to perform in ways that can be considered to be culturally-acceptable self-harming activities and which amplify trauma, anxiety and alienation.

Alienating. Corroding. Toxic.

FOUR. The University, corroded by excellence

And so a generalised state of anxiety has emerged in the governance and experience of work in global higher education systems, showing up as both perverse incentive and outcome. To understand anxiety in higher education and the idea that the university is a machine that feeds off the production, circulation and accumulation of anxiety, we need to accept that it is no longer a sign that higher education is not functioning as it should, but that anxiety has become the proper functioning state of all sectors within the global, neoliberal economy.

And this anxiety is rooted in academic performativity, uncovered through the mechanics of managerialism, systemic signalisation, marketisation, and the commodification of academic life, so that the ways in which we strive for care or self-actualisation or relationships can be co-opted as excellence and turned against us. So that in order for the University to maintain itself as a node in a transnational network nominally interested in the production of value, it has to become grounded in the production, consumption and distribution of anxiety itself. In part this anxiety is incorporated from an external environment that is responding to the systemic crisis and the politics of austerity; in part it is a projection of anxiety from inside the University across both its internal structures and external associations.

Because anxiety about inputs and outputs, about metrics and learning gain, about excellence and entrepreneurship, are the normalised and reproduced pedagogical moments of the university now. The University that collapses the future into the present, so that current productivity is not enough. We must internalise the management of risk so that the risks that exist in our pedagogical futures can be shorted or hedged. We are made to internalise anxiety about the future risks of failure of our curriculum or our students’ success or our own performance, in our ability to recruit or to progress or to repay our debts. To internalise that anxiety and to reproduce it, as a permanent state of exception.

Anxiety as a permanent, pedagogical state of exception.

FIVE. Points of [most excellent] solidarity

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

Pace John Holloway. 2002. How to Change the World Without Taking Power. London: Pluto Press.

Is it possible for academics and students to refuse both the valorisation of competitive success and the therapeutic recuperations currently servicing the sustainability of profit? Given that we are witnessing the annihilation of pedagogical space by work time. Given that we are witnessing ways in which our teaching as care and relationships and self-actualisation led us to fight fees, only to find that those principles upon which we fought have now been really subsumed so that fees can be raised further on the basis of our excellence.

As Marx notes:

The social productive powers of labour, or the productive powers of directly social, socialised (common) labour, are developed through cooperation, through the division of labour within the workshop, the employment of machinery, and in general through the transformation of the production process into a conscious application of the natural sciences, mechanics, chemistry, etc., for particular purposes, technology, etc., as well as by working on a large scale, which corresponds to all these advances, etc.

And we witness academic labour subsumed as a social force of production that is lost to us.

This development of the productive power of socialised labour, as opposed to the more or less isolated labour of the individual, etc., and, alongside it, the application of science, that general product of social development, to the direct production process, has the appearance of a productive power of capital, not of labour, or it only appears as a productive power of labour in so far as the latter is identical with capital, and in any case it does not appear as the productive power either of the individual worker or of the workers combined together in the production process.

And we witness the social productive powers of labour recalibrated for the production of relative surplus value, and as a precursor to competition rooted in finance capital, data and new markets.

The mystification which lies in the capital-relation in general is now much more developed than it was, or could be, in the case of the merely formal subsumption of labour under capital. On the other hand, the historical significance of capitalist production first emerges here in striking fashion (and specifically), precisely through the transformation of the direct production process itself, and the development of the social productive powers of labour.

And we have descriptions of the impact of this on our humanity. As our humanity is subsumed and our souls are corroded, in this annihilation of pedagogical space by work time.

Within all of this as an academic subject I am made uncomfortable again, out of place once more; my home in the ivory tower is being flattened by neoliberal bulldozers to make way for a fast-fact higher education franchise in which all knowledge has is price and which, as Ansgar Allen puts it, ‘is distinguished not by its greyness and economic subjugation, but by a gaudy proliferation of colour. It has become the rampant breeding ground of jobbing academics in search of the next “big” idea’. I began with both memories of and a critique of welfare education and end with a critique of neoliberal education, and have inhabited and struggled with the discomforts of both. I am left with a sense of process rather than destination, unease and refusal rather than affirmation, in a space in which I am (im)possible and in which sociology as a vocation, as something I do, is being re-inscribed as a resource for the management of the population, which is how it started.

Stephen J. Ball (2015): Accounting for a sociological life: influences and experiences on the road from welfarism to neoliberalism, British Journal of Sociology of Education, DOI: 10.1080/01425692.2015.1050087

The title of ‘professor’ contains within itself a statement that what they do is more than a job: they profess a set of beliefs or values which transcend their formal terms of employment… All this goes out of the window once the professor is left wondering whether the next phone call is to had her the price of a good holiday or summon her to an exit interview. Who will challenge (constructively or not) anything that happens when their are [sic.] such serious consequences? You’d have to be hard as nails to resist the tide in this way or – like me – resigned to finding fulfilment in my small but steady academic niche rather than in the warm glow of management’s regard. It’s not good enough… This morning I sat next to a dignified and professional man as he begged for his job, his livelihood and his personal and professional pride, watched across the table by a man in a suit who kept saying that he didn’t have time for this. For all the abstract points I’ve outlined above, this is what it comes down too: sleek bonus-seeking sharks forcing honest people to justify their existence in the most reductive terms.

Plashing Vole. 2015. You’re fired. Enjoy your summer.

In one university, as well as undergoing six-monthly performance reviews (as frequently as newly appointed probationers), professors must now meet exacting criteria for ‘quality’ of publications. Progression to the next professorial level must be achieved within five years, and this depends on meeting certain ‘drivers’, which include securing a research grant as PI every two years, producing REF 3* and 4* ‘outputs’, supervising graduate students, producing a significant impact case study, leading high-prestige international collaborations, and of course, continuing to teach. Failure to meet these expectations will result in the public humiliation of the Improving Performance Procedure, and possible demotion. No accrual of reputation can be permitted; the criteria must be met every year, not just over the course of a distinguished career. In this way, any prestige associated with the rank of professor must be considered temporary, as is its tenure. Professors, then, have been made to join the expanding precariat of the academy. Ben Knights (2013) cites Sennett (1998), who recognizes that “a regime which instills insecurity, in which you are… ‘always starting over’ is inimical to the longer term processes of memory and imagination.

It is common in the performance management documents I have collected, for reference to be made to ‘stretching objectives’ which are purported to sit in between an individual’s ‘comfort zone’ and the  ‘panic zone’. ‘Stretching objectives’ are presented as desirable, but objectives which place individuals in their comfort or panic zones are not. There is a disturbing presupposition in this discourse of comfort zones. To be asked to go beyond it makes the patronizing assumption that one’s life is normally comfortable.

Liz morrish. 2015. The paradox of the ‘under-performing professor’

Some of the most precious qualities of academic culture resist simple quantification, and individual indicators can struggle to do justice to the richness and plurality of our research. Too often, poorly designed evaluation criteria are “dominating minds, distorting behaviour and determining careers.” 1 At their worst, metrics can contribute to what Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, calls a “new barbarity” in our universities.2 The tragic case of Stefan Grimm, whose suicide in September 2014 led Imperial College to launch a review of its use of performance metrics, is a jolting reminder that what’s at stake in these debates is more than just the design of effective management systems. 3 Metrics hold real power: they are constitutive of values, identities and livelihoods.

James Wilsden et al. 2015. The Metric Tide: Report of the Independent Review of the Role of Metrics in Research Assessment and Management.

Endings are important.

Beyond the Neoliberal University: Critical Pedagogy and Activism

There is a symposium being hosted by Coventry University UCU, on Friday 15 September 2015. The symposium is focused on the following two questions.

  1. Has the idea of Higher Education as a social good been replaced by the idea of education for profit?
  2. What kind of University do we want?

This event seeks to address these concerns by bringing together activists, academics and trade unionists who are engaged practically with the consequences of the way our universities are being changed.

This event is free to attend but you must register. If you are in full time employment and feel you are able to make a contribution, then a donation of £20 can be used to fund travel expenses of those who need financial support in order to attend.

Details of ticket can be found at:

Around the world there have been a whole series of occupations and protests led by students, as well as actions involving lecturers and teachers, which reflect widespread disillusion with the way universities have come to act primarily as money making institutions. This event will begin with speakers who will set out the social and economic context for the marketisation of Higher Education, followed by participatory workshops on issues of activism, pedagogy and research.

The event begins at 9.30 and concludes at 4.00. Light refreshments will be provided. Further details will be provided on registration.

For any further enquiries please email:

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