Forking the University: legitimising deliberation in physical and virtual space

The theme of the place and politics of the Academic Commons crops up often in my writing and work. In particular I am taken with ideas of how and where academics and students as scholars can resist and then push back against the enclosure of the spaces and places for academic practice and critique. At DMU this has led to two inter-connected ideas: the virtual DMU Commons; and our new, physical Speaker’s Step in Magazine Square.

The Commons apes those other examples of virtual common-land, for instance at Lincoln, and CUNY, and BCU, and which our student DMU Commons Gardener is documenting here. Our Commons connects to a deeper history of protest, negation and refusal, and stories of custom-in-common that define a shared, collective identity, which I wrote about here. So our Commons is:

a shared place for the production of learning and research that is personally and socially transformative. Our DMU Commons will connect the social world of DMU to the resources, artefacts, networks and conversations that emerge from our thinking. The DMU Commons will nurture, stimulate and enhance respectful and generous learning conversations, within and beyond the University. It will help us to realise our ambitions through co-operation and our shared labours.

This connects to a second strand of thinking about hacking or forking the University, which is being developed nicely as a research project by Joss Winn at Lincoln, and which embeds ideas of craft and skill and tradition and production, and then links them to personal and social identity. I see this as a position from where the negation of ourselves as subjects inside the University might be fought. Moreover, it offers a way to connect with Christopher Newfield‘s desire for Re-Making the University in the face of austerity.

Thus, at DMU we might take the idea of craft and re-making or re-producing, in order to develop an idea of commonality around which we might also offer-up, create or carve out spaces for local/University developers, like the Leicester Linux Users’ Group, to engage with users, like the DMU Mashed group. This might then enable those new partnerships to use gizmos (Arduinos, Pis and drones) and sandboxes (part of a private cloud) to engage with real data (OpenAccess, OAuth and Big), in order to give a forked DMU community the opportunity to re-create/re-produce the University, and to solve problems inside enterprising, politicised, open spaces. In part this re-making depends upon the engagement of multiple and disparate groups in a set of shared problems, worked out in common or on a commons. Thus, the DMU Commons might become important as a place where research groups, developers, students, external friends of the University, alumni etc. might meet or see or review or hack or fork each other’s work.

However, we are now moving towards the idea that a DMU Commons might also need a physical place where ideas might be catalysed and problems identified and solutions debated. The need for a physical, communal spaces that also serve as ciphers for administrative or juridical or political groupings has a long tradition: from wapentakes/hundreds in English political administration; to the histories of general assemblies in, for example, student struggles; to workers’ councils; to the history of political reform meetings; and the recent histories of political struggles in Syntagma Square in Athens and Tahrir Square in Cairo. As spaces become enclosed the risk is that our opportunities for deliberation and free debate are stifled. The need is then for the courage to reassert in common our rights to deliberate in shared spaces.

At DMU we have begun to open-up just such a communal, deliberative space in Magazine Square, and we are reclaiming its use for the University-in-the-City. The space was first co-opted by Nick Clegg at the 2010 General Election and then, in response, by Ed Balls in 2011 in the run-up to the Leicester South by-election. Both Clegg and Balls stood at the same point on the same concrete podium, which serves as a seat in the Square, in order to make their election pitches. This is important precisely because it invested the square as a political space, but it is also important that the Square itself is centred on one of Leicester’s most historic spaces, by the Castle Magazine, Castle Park, St and Mary de Castro Church, and with a resonance through the University’s name to Simon de Montfort’s first Parliament.

It is also important that the seat, or step, sits very near to the the DMU/Leicester City Council boundary line. The demarcation is clearly marked by metal studs in the ground, and two brick square studs in the grass behind the speakers’ step. The deed lines for the land ownership are fascinating as they move along the front of DMU’s Hugh Aston Building and across the Magazine. This rudimentary sketch of the DMU/Leicester City Council Boundary shows this a little more clearly. Although the step wall where Clegg and Balls spoke technically belongs to Leicester City Council, there is no permission required given that speaking there will be an open public forum, taking place in an open public space. We are going to mark what we now refer to as Speaker’s Step with a plaque inscribed with Nelson Mandela’s quote that:

Sometimes it falls upon a generation to be great, you can be that generation”.

We have already held Student Union hustings on the Step, and on Thursday 8 March, to coincide with the Queen’s visit to DMU, we are hosting a series of speed lectures, hopefully complete with heckles and interruptions and questions, which will further inscribe Speaker’s Step as a space where we might reconnect the University with the public and the City. The idea for these speed lectures is to discuss the idea of the University as a public good, and Executive Board members, academic staff and students will be deliberating issues that matter to them around: local governance; creativity; open education; the NHS; software design and the history of computation; why we need another inquiry into housing; management information, universities and £9k fees; language development and education for the multicultural learner; and the cultural importance of Margaret Atwood and Florence Nightingale. We hope that this will be the beginning of a recapturing of this public space by the staff and students of DMU, as a way to re-create and re-produce the University as a public good deeply connected to the politics and place of Leicester.

As important will be our attempt to catalyse the use of the space for hustings, meetings, general assemblies, rallies and so on, as a legitimate form of re-imagining the University-in-the-City. Legitimising ways and places in which people can colonise and develop ideas and problems, and hopefully then re-produce or hack or fork the University, in order to solve those problems is central to this project. It is in the legitimation and interconnection of our DMU Commons with our Speaker’s Step, and the wider University/City, that we begin this political process.

For the University as radicalised space

On Tuesday 13 December De Montfort University will be hosting the Roots of Violent Radicalisation Conference, which has been organised by the Parliamentary Home Affairs Select Committee. I will be speaking in the workshop on how Universities can best counter violent radicalisation. I will make the following four points.

  1. The University has a radical, historical tradition that is politicised, and which enables both deliberation about and the legitimisation of alternative positions. Importantly, these positions might be realised inside the University.
  2. Most radicalism is not violent, but seeks to refuse, negate and push back against marginalisation and de-legitimisation, through tactics of deliberation, denial or disobedience.
  3. Current University tactics against protest mirror the state of exception imposed by the State, and that this reinforces marginalisation and de-legitimisation. Thus, strategies for coercion are being imposed and are kettling scholarly debate.
  4. The University should fight to recover itself as a space for general assembly and deliberation, and that this work should be done in public, in order to engage with the roots to violent radicalisation.

Point one: the radical University tradition. There is a distinct and vibrant strand of radicalism, as opposed to violent radicalisation, that infuses the historic idea of the University. This strand connects Newman’s declaration that the University was a site for the “collision of mind with mind”; to Humboldt’s view that “Education of the individual must everywhere be as free as possible, taking the least possible account of civic circumstances. Man educated in that way must then join the State and, as it were, test the Constitution of the State against his individuality”; and to the student activism of the 1960s and 1970s that led the historian EP Thompson to declare a hypothesis that was against:

a university [that] had become so intimately enmeshed with the upper reaches of consumer capitalist society that [its administration] are actively twisting the purposes and procedures of the university away from those normally accepted in British universities, and thus threatening its integrity as a self-governing academic institution; and that the students, feeling neglected and manipulated in this context, and feeling also – although at first less clearly – that intellectual values are at stake, should be impelled to action.”

And this strand of radicalism connects many other examples of political, scholarly, historical activism: in Oakland; and Santiago; and Turin; and Dhaka; and University College London; and Kent State University; and Manila; and beyond.

Point two: marginalisation and radicalisation on campus. This radicalism is fed, in-part, by marginalisation; by an existence that is de-legitimised beyond the abstraction of money, and where putting students at the heart of the system reveals only the intellectual poverty of a life lived as a consumer, wrapped in the ideological rhetoric of choice, private property, debt and marketisation. This rhetoric then forms the background to the enclosure and removal of historically-accrued, socially-defined goods like free education and healthcare. Thus austerity is exposed as the State’s action against our shared future.

And in response to this marginalisation we see students in a range of contexts taking non-violent direct action that questions the State’s actions and reveals the coercive machinery of its power. Much of this work of protest is done in public spaces through marches and occupations, and Judith Butler has argued the importance of these radicalised, public movements:

When bodies gather as they do to express their indignation and to enact their plural existence in public space, they are also making broader demands. They are demanding to be recognized and to be valued; they are exercising a right to appear and to exercise freedom; they are calling for a livable life [sic.]. These values are presupposed by particular demands, but they also demand a more fundamental restructuring of our socio-economic and political order.”

This point reflects the politicisation of both the form and the content of our institutions, and a process of indignation or radicalisation. As the activist Pierce Penniless argues:

We are living in an extraordinarily hot political moment, in which people’s politics are changing rapidly – and in which systemic popular dissent is more visible than it has been for a long time. That it is systemic is most interesting: for all the reductive slogans about bankers and their bonuses, the political conversation that emerges in the camp is far more about systemic change than some peculiar bad bankers.”

Point three: the coercive University in a state of exception. In a reprise of historic activism, we see students marching and subsequently being kettled or maced or receiving official letters from the Police ahead of future demo’s or being threatened with baton rounds; we see students using the historically-situated tactic of occupation, in order to protest their opposition through general assemblies and teach-ins, and being classed as terrorists or extremists, and having services denied to them. Or we witness our educational leaders as supine or quiescent in the face of the brutalisation of our young people by the State. Their silence is deafening.

And now we see the Universities of Sheffield and Birmingham and Royal Holloway (University of London) in the UK seeking or obtaining High Court injunctions banning any form of protest on their property. Against this criminalisation and de-legitimisation of dissent and the creation of a state of exception on campus, Liberty have argued that “The right to protest is a cornerstone of our democracy and this aggressive move hardly sits well with our best British traditions of academic dissent… Universities should be places where ideas and opinions can be explored [my emphasis].” And the written evidence submitted by the Federation of Student Islamic Societies to the Parliamentary Inquiry on the Roots of Violent Radicalisation echoes this point:

Universities play a key role in challenging prevalent ‘wisdom’ as well as debating and researching controversial topics. The ‘values-led’ approach to the revised strategy risks harming legitimate grievances being aired on campuses and could have a significant damage on intellectual debate and research as well as the international reputation of British universities.”

Thus, these English Universities’ attempt to criminalise the politicisation of the form of the University. They attempt to de-politicise its form whilst its content is being politicised through its marketisation. The inscription of a hidden curriculum of debt and consumption within campus-life is coupled to the de-legitimation of any counter-argument that confronts or refuses or pushes back against their power over where scholars might assemble and what they might discuss. We surely have better strategies than marginalisation and overt coercion with which to accommodate difference?

Point four: reclaiming or re-legitimising Universities as radical spaces. Against the neoliberal constraint on what can legitimately be fought for, University communities might consider how they share stories that reclaim the breadth of their common histories and social relationships. This process might usefully be developed using open technological systems. This is important because universities have much to contribute to a public discussion of how cultures protect the richness of their ecosystems, which in turn helps us to describe alternative worlds, and to accept that much of our present is shaped by historical struggles that are valuable precisely because they are political. Thus, we learn not to accept dominant narratives as given, or neutral, or beyond our collective wisdom to re-define in a legitimate manner. And our non-acceptance is not seen as radicalisation.

Which brings us to an engagement with and understanding of violent radicalisation. Universities, in terms of both their management and the communities of scholars that management is meant to facilitate, need to engage with issues of marginalisation, legitimacy and power, and to do this democratically and in public. It is not enough to de-legitimise all protest as extreme unless it conforms to proscribed norms, in prescribed spaces that are too often private. As the historian John Tosh has argued, differences need to be deliberated:

Few things would make for a more mature understanding of current affairs than an awareness that the relevant historical perspectives are themselves the subject of debate – particularly if those controversies bear on the present. It then becomes possible to think outside the box – to challenge the spurious authority of single-track thinking.”

In this process we uncover what is legitimate, and we reveal what we collectively are willing to bear in the name of freedom. What we are willing to bear has to be negotiated communally, through a process that re-legitimises the politics of both the form and the content of the University. This demands trust and consent rather than coercion, a discussion that is more vital to the idea of the University in a world that faces not just economic austerity but socio-environmental crisis. For it may be that we risk enduring a semi-permanent state of exception if we do not find the courage to deliberate the reality of our world. EP Thompson recognised this courage emanating from a radicalised student collective, and saw in it a glimpse of redemption beyond economic growth:

 “We have been luckier than any of us had the right to deserve in the quality of our students. They took the initiative. They asked the right questions. They began to understand the answers. They stood firm against rhetoric, against threats, against the special pleading of those with large interests to lose. They have – by now in scores – put their academic careers at risk. It is they who have reasserted the idea of a university. They may well need help.”

This was echoed forty years later by the Federation of Student Islamic Societies when they argued that we need to open-up the debate against and beyond the permanence of exceptional circumstances, in order that “The autonomy of universities as places of free speech and expression should be preserved.” It is in this struggle that the University as a community of scholars should fight to recover both its history and its self-realisation as a public space for the discussion of legitimacy, marginalisation and power.

Beyond Cuts and Taxation: Critical Alternatives and the Idea of Higher Education

*Originally posted at Learning Exchanges on 28 March 2011

The slides for this workshop are available on my slideshare.

Introduction: beyond cuts and taxation

In a recent workshop on the alternative to cuts, DMU’s Sally Ruane argued that if the UK’s structural deficit [as opposed to its national debt] demanded immediate governmental response, then that response needed to focus upon taxation as a cipher for our shared, common wealth and values. Rather than driving through cuts to public services, which marginalise those living in poverty, the pivot should be on overcoming tax avoidance and tax evasion. Sally’s focus was on humanising our system of economic governance through mechanisms tied to social justice and inclusion. Connected to the Keynesian realities that emerged beyond the New Deal, which was subsequently attacked intellectually by the Chicago School in the 1970s and seeded politically by the Thatcherite-Reagonite consensus, Sally began to imagine an alternative that re-focused our social relationships on alternatives shared-in-common, and based around recalibrating the existing capitalist system. Rather than a political re-imagining of the world as it might be, the argument was that there is a more limited, humane economic agenda for which we might fight.

Sally’s arguments rightly connected issues of social injustice, highlighted in part by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, about the lack of redistribution in the coalition’s political economy, to public outrage about our banking system, and to a series of questions about what is to be done as a result. Functional, solutions have emerged from the left, including: a Green New Deal and no- or de-growth [proposed by the new economics foundation]; the public shaming of tax avoiders [the praxis of UK Uncut]; and, the development of co-operative facilities for managing debt, like Eurobonds [promoted by Stuart Holland]. These solutions argue for compassionate or progressive capitalist approaches, but they do connect economic drivers to issues of governance and politics, a connection that is missing from so much of our public discourse, which is too often reduced to cuts versus taxation.

Yet, as Stuart Price noted in the first workshop, we have a catastrophic cleavage in the condition of our democracy, where the electorate can be undermined by coalition manifestos produced in negotiations after the fact, and which move us to a position where we are disempowered through shock as both our public services and our shared resources held in common are disembowelled. This subsumption of our politics to the realpolitik of the state, managed through shock therapy, is reinforced through what George Lambie highlighted as the power of the transnational flows of [finance] capital over that state apparatus.

It is this role of the state as a key vehicle for capital, nested within a neoliberal discourse that is the cornerstone of what Marx called the “real subsumption of labour to capital”, which I wish to investigate in this second seminar. In particular, I wish to look at the dominant narrative that now subsumes higher education within the needs of transnational capital, or what Hardt and Negri have termed Empire, for, amongst other things, profit maximisation, accumulation by dispossession, increases in the rate of profit, and a furtherance of consumption as the motive force behind growth. As one of the occupiers at University College London argued, “this is about more than education.” In this I want to begin to relate the real subsumption of higher education to the capitalist logic of domination, inspired by the work of Deleuze, Negri and Tronti [among others] on the social factory.

So this seminar is in four parts. In the first I look at the hegemony of neoliberal dogma within higher education, in order to ask whether liberal versions of business-as-usual are viable. In the second I try to relate this dogma to the current crisis of capitalism, in order to demonstrate how higher education and its actors are being deliberately brutalised by the state, through the deployment of pedagogies of both debt and the kettle, as a form of shock therapy. In this brutalisation, hopes that progressives can mollify the system against tax evasion and against the cuts risk a lack of traction. In the third part I briefly place higher education in the context of global flows of capital and the impact of shock through internationalisation on our environmental crisis. In the final part, I wish to explore alternatives, in order to ask whether, in Holloway’s terms it is possible to be in-and-against the dominant logic of capital, and to imagine moving beyond its alienating immiseration. Is it possible that autonomous alternatives and refusals to be subjugated to the iron-fisted rule of money might offer possible re-imaginings? How is it possible for higher education, in Marx’s term, to facilitate the negation of our negation?

Part 1: higher education and the totalising logic of capital

We might start by asking whether autonomous consumption and production of our common educational wealth is possible. Or whether our higher education is now inextricably bound to the individualistic, libertarian, debt-driven privatisation and separation of the market? Moreover, in this historical space, what is the future for higher education where it now exists as a functionary, or training ground, for further capitalist accumulation? No longer recognised as a public good in its own right, our dominant, anti-humanist rhetoric accepts the neoliberal, anti-historical consensus of Fukayama, and forgets the situated critiques of Keynesians like Galbraith. In this, critical theory is relegated to the margins, having no historical power in the present moment, and seeming to be beneath progress. In this present moment, the liberal view of business-as-usual, which imagines the humanising of capital through, for example, effective tax mechanisms or parliamentary democracy refuses us space to contemplate the historical moment and contingency of a higher education for neoliberalism. In the world of cuts versus taxation there is no historical critique.

Yet the world of higher education is one in which the mantra of growth and competition is explicit in HEFCE’s mission statement and in its reports, in the HEA’s strategic plan, and in the Coalition Government’s shackling of the AHRC’s research strategy to its big society agenda. Thus, strategy and structural agendas are linked to economic narratives, over-and-above social relationships. Moreover, in the depositions of representational groups like UUK, or University Alliance, or the British Academy, the rule of money and the interests of business are hegemonic and uncontestable. There is no critique of the relationship between higher learning and economic narratives or the financialisation of education. There is no central critique of the drive-to-indenture-through-debt or the managerialism of labour in the academy. There is no critique of the mantras of value-for-money, efficiency and more-for-less. There is no acceptable, historically-situated counter-narrative within the academy. There is just the world we are in. There is just outrage and money. There is just abstraction.

One implication of this is that higher education is no longer immune from the totalising nature of capitalism. As with the whole social environment, including our mores, cultures, politics, and personal relations, higher education is now part of the social factory. In this way, higher education is part of a regime of capitalist power that can direct the consumption and production of our lives, as we labour and as we relax. As Ellen Meiksins-Wood argued: “we’re living in a moment when, for the first time, capitalism has become a truly universal system…. Capitalism is universal also in the sense that its logic – the logic of accumulation, commodification, profit-maximisation, competition – has penetrated almost every aspect of human life and nature itself”. With no new geographical spaces ripe for accumulation by dispossession, the argument here is that the real subsumption of life to capital through debt and consumption is a form of accumulation by dispossession [of our futures], in order to enable profit maximisation. There is no ‘outside’ the logic of capital. There is no humanising its dominant logic by an appeal against cuts and for taxation. This is where the transnationality of financial capital works against those who would reform the financial apparatus of the state through a plea to the state. As the Libera Università Metropolitana notes

the financial capitalism and transnational corporations do not accept any form of regulation and consider the crisis to be a structural condition to be viewed as part of the contemporary production of value. On the other hand, the parabola of Obama indicates that reformism has come to halt and neo-Keynesian receipts are blunt weapon[s].

Part 2: the pedagogies of shock – the kettle and debt

Thus, the totalising, anti-humanist subsumption of higher education to the market is a form of shock therapy, imparted by the state in the name of growth and progress. Two elements of this shock therapy are especially important in the current historical moment, and these are the twin pedagogies of debt and the kettle. The idea is to marginalise dissent and resistance and to enforce the separation of our social concerns into private, personal spaces, so that we are not willing to fight for our common, educational wealth. We see *our* higher education as *our* private property, paid for and owned individually. The discipline of personal debt shackles dissent as we do not wish to be marginalised in the employment market as labour that is surplus to requirements. We are caught by the promise of the knowledge economy and forced to immerse ourselves in the skills of material and immaterial consumption, in order simply to survive. In order simply to consume.

It is in this space that debt becomes a pedagogy, focused upon the consumption of knowledge and lifestyles, of uncriticality, of employability and skills, of business and not economics, of STEM and not humanities. As Williams notes:

student debt, in its prevalence and amounts, constitutes a pedagogy, unlike the humanistic lesson that the university traditionally proclaims, of privatization and the market.

We are being taught a lesson that as the state transfers the social value of a university life to the individual via debt, higher education is no longer immune from the logic of the market, and is no longer able simple to call upon the mantra of the public good. Thus we enter a world where graduates face paying back double their student loans as debt charges rack up, and where Universities are disciplined by funding shortages into providing what their students as customers, disciplined by debt in a specific market, demand of them. There is no space for common deliberation about the purpose of an education in a world that faces massive socio-environmental disruption. There is only space for discussion of employment and debt repayment. The logic of capitalist accumulation through debt, and the treadmill necessity of finding spaces for the re-capitalisation/investment of surplus value shackles higher education to the hegemony of consumption for capitalist growth. Thus, even where it is shown that subsidies like EMA are efficient in recouping their costs they are scrapped because they are beyond the logic of debt. For, as Michael Gove argues: debt is now a way of life, and a way of marketising humanity: “Anyone put off… university by fear of… debt doesn’t deserve to be at university in the first place”.

This dominant narrative of debt and dispossession has been quickened within UK higher education through the Browne Report and the Coalition Government’s subsequent response. The global economic crisis has been turned into a means to speed the privatisation of the state, and to attempt the strangulation of possibilities to energise transformative, co-operative relations. This places HE in the vanguard of the Shock Doctrine, designed “to achieve control by imposing economic shock therapy”. It rests upon, for example:

  1. the relentless law of competition and coercion (internationalisation)
  2. the impact of crisis to justify a tightening and a quickening of the dominant ideology of student-as-consumer, and HE-as-commodity
  3. the transfer of state/public assets to the private sector under the belief that this will produce efficiency and economic outputs
  4. the lock-down of state subsidies for ‘inefficient’ work (Bands C and D funded subjects)
  5. the privatisation of state enterprises in the name of consumer choice, economic efficiency or sustainability = encouraging privatisation of HE
  6. a refusal to run deficits, catalysing pejorative cuts to state services
  7. extending the financialisation of capital and the growth of consumer debt, through increased fees
  8. a controlled, economically-driven, anti-humanist ideology.

The Coalition’s higher education agenda might be read as an attempt to enforce the shock doctrine as part of a response to economic crisis. It might be read as an attempt to increase the market for western neoliberal values, delivered through the engine of higher education. This is revealed in David Willetts’ speech to the spring conference of Universities UK, in which he made plain a view of: privatisation; cost reduction; consumption as pedagogy; closing-off teaching in “undesirable” subjects; and anti-humanism.

Let me start this morning with our broader vision for HE – it is a simpler, more flexible system which gives students better value and greater choice. That means a more diverse range of providers should be able to play a role. It means funding for teaching should follow the choices that students make. And it means empowering students to make their own choices based on better, more transparent information.

In the face of this one wonders about the strength of an agenda focused upon taxation versus cuts, of clamping down on tax evasion and avoidance, rather than developing a critique of the historical space that we inhabit. As Žižek notes, 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.” We believe that we can convince those in power, who support protest and resistance in the Middle East where issues of governmental legitimacy and resource appropriation are concerned, but for whom the kettle is the appropriate response to similar outbursts at home, that there is a more humanist, socially inclusive response. We believe that our alternative is no-growth, or de-growth [impossible in capital] or a green new deal [impossible in capital fuelled by liquid energy], or a return to Keynsian economics, in the face of the dominant logic of coercive competition that has subsumed the fabric of our lives. Žižek forces us to confront whether, in the face of a political system in which parties trade their strategies for immiserating cuts as if they are the only demonstration of a fitness for government, it is enough that “the institutional set-up of the (bourgeois) democratic state is never questioned”?

In this space, alternatives revealed as protests or occupations of university buildings, are revisited by the state in the form of the kettle. The language of the kettle becomes the language of state security against those who would protest the logic of imposed order. Thus University senior management describe student occupiers as terrorists intent on violent subversion of accepted norms, and as a threat to the education [training] of others. Elsewhere management threatens to bankrupt student protesters to silence dissent, or it calls in the police to remove forcibly those engaged in civil disobedience [and not criminal damage]. In this world protest is brutalised or it is de-legitimised. As Neocleous states:

the logic of ‘security’ is the logic of an anti-politics in which the state uses ‘security’ to marginalize all else, most notably the constructive conflicts, the debates and discussions that animate political life, suppressing all before it and dominating political discourse in an entirely reactionary way

Alternative forms of our common educational wealth are brutalised, marginalised and de-legitimised as threats to our security. In this space we forget the lessons of our histories of civil disobedience to authority, in reform movements, in the fight for the suffrage, in civil rights, in moves against war and brutality. Our anti-history subverts our quest for deliberation and meaningful alternatives. Our anti-history reduces us to the present and a story of growth and progress. Our anti-history reinforces the pedagogy of the kettle that enforces silence and stands asymmetrically opposed to critique and resistance. Our anti-historical stance allows the pedagogy of the kettle to be a means by which order can be imposed and a pedagogy of debt enforced. In this higher education risks complicity through silence.

Part 3: a brief note on global higher education

The realisation of a pedagogy of debt is a need to work and to undertake both material and immaterial labour. However, this work demands energy, and in turn stands against nature: climate change, peak oil, energy costs, the loss of biodiversity each threaten business-as-usual within capitalist social relations. Yet these outcomes are simply the collateral damage of accumulation and the desire to extract surplus value. Thus, higher education’s marketisation through internationalisation threatens to take more people from countries with low ecological footprints and export them to those with high footprints, or to transfer activities in the opposite direction. Higher education’s mission appears to be the generation of western business opportunities in the developing world, cloaked by issues of sustainability and global citizenship.

And it is simply not good enough to claim that technological efficiencies or a green new deal will save the day, because a rise in global population and affluence will ensure that this is not possible. Capitalism’s motive means of production is oil. Green technologies do not offer motive alternatives, and rely on natural resources that are hardly abundant. Deeper solutions are needed about the ways in which we address scarcity and abundance, and work for social as opposed to economic progress/growth. Yet in the anti-humanist logic of shock, there is no space to deliberate possible alternatives. Our pedagogies are remodelled to the market and the rule of money, through the kettle and debt, and away from an engagement with critical externalities like the need for a resilient education. In the face of the commodification and trading of food and water, which starves communities around the globe, of resource depletion and carbon emissions, which threaten our very existence, and of peak oil, which threatens neoliberalism as a whole, arguing over taxation versus cuts may be irrelevant. In spite of the fact that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism, our historical moment demands a redefinition of what the University is for.

Part 4: critical alternatives and the idea of higher education

Mike Neary has argued that the struggle is not over what the university is for, but against what the university has become. In this struggle there are two forms congealing that offer critical alternatives, and which are connected into broader sites of resistance to the alienating logic of capitalism. The first is the raft of student occupations in the heart of the academy and the second is the emergence of autonomous, informal spaces for higher learning. These forms of resistance offer the possibility of transformation, in-part by re-imagining the general intellect through co-operative moments of protest, which develop aspects of what Hardt and Negri call the multitude, and our struggles for post-national democratic spaces and against submission to the bottom-line logic of capital. The role of the multitude, the force behind and in opposition to capital-as-empire, is in producing, consuming, co-operating and communicating capital through globalisation. Within the totality of the global, social factory, where transnational, corporate power dominates, there are countless spaces in which opposition can erupt: the environment; identity politics; education; health etc.. The immateriality of this multitude, which operates physically and virtually, and its swarming, autonomous, material nature, offers spaces for resistance, like hacking either software or corporate spaces, or for developing practical alternatives that might stick or which might dissolve as they become part of the spectacle, or for infusing wider, societal protests, like demonstrations against cuts, with critique.

The first form of struggle has been occupation. The conflicted and yet productive work of occupation across the UK demonstrates how students are attempting to re-define and re-produce their social roles, in light of a questioning of the structures higher education and their connection to higher learning. They ask:

  1. Can we re-imagine a more transformative university space, which values making, knowing and being over simply consuming?
  2. For whom is the university? For businesses and managers, for co-operators, or for society at large?
  3. How can the space and the meaning of the university be liberated?

Within the occupation, the use of place, its attempted liberation from a normalised utility and its position as a sanctuary are revealed. The focus on spaces-of-sanctuary from hegemony, in order to deliberate transformational opportunities, has been shown in the levels of solidarity from across the globe within and between student movements, and which are increasingly being revealed as conflicted efforts at non-hierarchical, co-operative organisation. Thus, the University for Strategic Optimism argues for ‘A university based on the principle of free and open education, a return of politics to the public, and the politicisation of public space’. This reclamation, whilst negating claims of ownership or property rights, highlights the drive towards personal and co-operative autonomy in a living and commonly-owned space. The students who are arguing for transformation are engaging with what Marx called ‘the real movement which abolishes the present state of things’. This highlights an anti-institutionalised, anti-controlling description of the social forms of higher learning, where barriers, separation, differences and transitions are critiqued dialectically and historicised within the dynamics of capital. In this, the social, co-operative structures rendered possible within universities as sites of potential knowing are pivotal in re-producing a shared set of educational and societal alternatives.

In this project, a second site of alternative, critical practices is revealed through autonomist, conceptual spaces that offer open source possibilities for transformation.

  • Student-as-producer is a concept which ‘extends the concept of production to include ways in which students, as social individuals, affect and change society, so as to be able to recognise themselves in the social world of their own design.’
  • The Really Open University’s emphasis on the need for praxis, in re-asserting the idea of the university as a site for critical action, resistance and opposition, led by students.
  • The Peer to Peer University’s open approach to co-operative production through sharing and accreditation.
  • The Institute of Collapsonomics’ analysis of meaningful socio-cultural resilience, and our capacity to develop agile and mobile associations, which can solve problems and develop alternatives.
  • The University of Utopia’s aim to invent a form of radicality that confronts the paradox of the possibility of abundance (freedom) in a society of scarcity (non-freedom).
  • The Really Free School’s aim to de-school society, in order to share the possibility for re-producing something more meaningful along with those around you. Against the rule of money, the Really Free School encourages “a collective learning process directed by your own desires, ideas, questions and problems. We hope that here knowledge and skills will not simply be transmitted – but created.”

These activist possibilities highlight the interconnections between organisation and technology, environmental demands and human needs, congealed in specific places like occupations in the academy. In challenging the hegemony of neoliberalism these spaces are theorising a higher education that is not framed by business continuity (i.e. ensuring ‘business-as-usual’). From these places emerges a demand for a practical, critical theory, embedded within society that engages with wider environmental changes, against the alienation of capitalist work, and the reductionism of a debate of taxation versus cuts. These co-operators are debating and fighting for the idea and the form of the University-in-society and not the University-for-economy. They are attempting to do so in transitional spaces infused with and by a culture of open critique. These spaces and conflicted, not always consensual, and they are compromised. However, they are at least deliberating alternatives.

As Paul Mason noted last month, about why it is kicking off everywhere, “At the heart of it all is a new sociological type: the graduate with no future”. The newly-politicised energy of these graduates instantiates protest, just as the 26 March demonstrations in London demonstrated the new vitality of a broad demographic, represented in large part by the associational democracy of trades unions. This broad demographic is against hegemonic, unrepresentative, parliamentary politics. The question now is how autonomous movements and a broader demographic, congealed in an immediate agenda against governmental cuts, might be enabled to imagine societal alternatives in a world that faces massive disruption. How will governance work at local, national, global scales? As students and staff work together in occupation and in sites of resistance, we might ask how their re-imagining of the role of higher education can be dissolved into the fabric of society, so that higher learning can enable alternatives to become realities against the rule of money.

As Mieksins-Wood noted fifteen years ago:

the universalization of capitalism not just as a measure of success but as a source of weakness… It can only universalize its contradictions, its polarizations between rich and poor, exploiters and exploited. Its successes are also its failures… Now capitalism has no more escape routes, no more safety valves or corrective mechanisms outside its own internal logic… the more it maximizes profit and so-called growth – the more it devours its own human and natural substance.

I have no solutions. The Vice-Chancellors who have been debating these issues have no solutions. Only the willingness to ask and discuss questions, and to find spaces to test alternatives in co-operation. So we might ask:

  • Are there other ways of producing knowing? What authority does HE/do universities have?
  • In a knowing world, rather than a knowledge economy, what does the curriculum mean?
  • Does a pedagogy of production need to start with the principle that we need to consume less of everything? What does this mean for ownership of the institution at scale [local, regional, global]?
  • How can student voices help in the struggle to re-invent the world?
  • What is to be done?

Debate: are Universities a public good?

*Originally posted at Learning Exchanges on 4 February 2011

Halfway through Wednesday’s DMU debate on whether Universities are a public good, a friend asked me if this was the right question. Doesn’t the answer have to be “yes”? Whether you are a neoliberal fixated on the privatisation of public assets, and driving forward market fundamentalism in the name of the knowledge economy, or a *liberal* for whom the University is about developing global knowing and inclusion, or a radical for whom the University is a space for re-imagining in the face of global disruptions, the answer has to be yes. The University is a space in which the focus can be on the economy, or on mending/remaking our social relationships, or on socio-technical solutions to crises of global political economy.

So is the question are Universities a public good meaningful? It depends on how that question and any solutions are to be developed. That question has to open up a crack in the dominant logic of our political economy, within which the University, as organisation as well as idea, sits. One of the issues I had with Wednesday’s debate was that it assumes, as Žižek argues, that 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.” Framed by this critique of the failure of liberal democracy to humanise, and in the face of the State’s oppression and antagonism, Mike Neary notes that we must question whether in education “The struggle is not for the University, but against what the University has become.”

This is where the debate risks becoming mired in the honest desire to remove us from the immiseration and alienation of capitalist work, towards the idea that we can have growth and pensions and fridges and shiny new iPads in a world that faces significant disruption revealed by energy and resource availability, climate change and massive, structural debt. The point was made that growth is a problem on a planet with fixed resources. But the dominant logic of capital is framed by growth. De-growth or no-growth is illogical in the face of debt, the market and an ageing population that needs social support through taxation. It is not possible to expand markets and grow, and cut carbon emissions – GDP and carbon are coupled. So we need a radical rethink. Unless we wish to give up, and finally accept that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is the end of capitalism.

The University’s place in this space is framed by the iron cage of control exerted by capital’s control of public funding for growth, and nothing else. The Coalition’s demand for higher education to commit to its economic agenda leaves little space for alternatives to emerge within a funding structure that demands all activity be shackled to growth or else, where our students and young people are brutalised in the kettle when they demonstrate opposition, and where the hegemonic, neoliberal discourse is challenged in a fractured way. So we focus on saving education, or saving disability living allowance, or saving day centres, or saving our national forests. We do not join this up into a set of (radical) alternatives for what our society might become. We abdicate all responsibility to the state that alienates us in the form of funding controls or a mantra of efficiency or through police batons.

And yet the University is a space in a set of communities that might offer the hope that we can create something different, in the face of climate change and peak oil and debt. It offers us a space to re-think our world beyond the subject discipline or single issue or single community. These arbitrary differences allow those in power to divide and rule, and thereby to stop meta-narratives or explanations of the reasons why we are in this crisis from emerging. So we need to ruthlessly critique the rationale behind the Coalition’s agenda, not just in education but across our communities, and with our communities. We need to move on from the outcomes of the debates around “Are Universities a public good?” to ask “what is the University for?”, in order to debate “how might the University be re-imagined in order to provide alternatives?”

Already there are spaces emerging where students and staff are re-imagining education, either in *organisations*:

or within *associations*:

These spaces engage a wide-range of activists in engaging with the question of are universities a public good, to assess the ways in which Universities are public goods and what are those goods for, in order to ask what is to be done? That is the end-point. We need to critique the place of the University in a world that faces significant disruption, to try to work out alternatives that support our communities. For DMU that is important in enabling our communities, at each scale (local, regional, national, international) to adapt to dislocations. Involving those communities in re-imaging the university, in re-inventing it, demands that we open up our places and ideas, that we engage people in the production of their lives or their life-world. In this way the university becomes resilient in adapting to change. In this way the university becomes a space for transformation.

See also:


Presenting and representing the past: a model for History learning and teaching

*Originally posted at Learning Exchanges on 8 October 2009

The level 1 History module, “Presenting and re-presenting the past” is viewed as a shared project between staff and students. The intention is that students and staff will engage as colleagues in engaging with its content, concepts and meanings, in order to understand more critically how History as a subject develops, and why and how it matters to different societies. The module is divided into 4 blocs, each dealing with a particular topic/issue.

  1. What is history and what do historians do.
  2. The relationship between the practice of academic history on the one hand, and public or popular history on the other.
  3. Issues relating to sources, research and the ways that historians handle and use “evidence” in their arguments.
  4. The recent attacks on history and historical knowledge, and how historians have attempted to defend their discipline.

Underpinning the module is a core theme, namely that: history and historical writing are contested.

The teaching team hold to the belief espoused by Gramsci that we all have the ability to flourish as intellectuals in everyday life, and that we all have the potential to become ourselves-as-academics. As a result, the team strive to provide an environment to support its aspiration that all students succeed. The team believes that all learners are studying at De Montfort University because they want to develop as individuals and want to enhance their critical thinking. Our ethos is to challenge students to make good, personal decisions about what to read, what to write, and what decisions and actions to take.

The place of the learner within this context is represented by this adapted version of the Ravensbourne Learner Integration model, with feedback from a variety of communities of practice being key.

Learner Integration Model in Fused Learning Environments

Learner Integration Model in Fused Learning Environments

See Hall, R. Towards a fusion of read/write web approaches. EJEL, 7 (1).

The technologies that support these aspirations are designed to extend the face-to-face contact that is available. We expect that students will attend or engage with all formal, timetabled activities, namely lectures, seminars and tutorials that are driven by socio-constructivism, activity and participation. However, we are clear that social and individual, independent learning activities are crucial in developing learning citizenship.

Blackboard provides a shared on-line space to access learning materials/tasks and discussions for each area of work on the module. Generally content will be presented in MS Office format so that it can be repurposed easily by learners. For some blocks of learning or key concepts we will also post podcasts or short videos. Instructions will be given on Blackboard about how to download or access these files. Blackboard also provides security that assessments can be backed-up and submitted in a secure space. Students are expected to submit all assessments: book and web reviews; and both essays; into our Plagiarism Detection System, Turnitin. This is accessed through a link in Blackboard.

Ning allows the students to build their own profiles and create their own identities in a safe space that is closed to the wider web, but is more engaging than Blackboard. The intention is that this will encourage shared discussion of concepts, readings, ideas and assessment. The forum tool is used to engage learners in weekly tasks like discussions of objectivity and morality in History. There is also a Twitter feed that picks up the #hist1002 hashtag, so that staff or students with Twitter accounts can post ideas or feedback. Finally Huddle workspaces are provided for the group presentations that are planned and delivered during the first semester.

Ning can be accessed from the module home page on Blackboard, and it enables all students and staff to post and read messages, or start conversations. In the first instance, specific tasks will relate to particular seminar discussions and will involve the Forum tool only. Over time the students will be introduced to Huddle and Twitter, as possibilities only, in-line with the technological model presented below. There is a tension between presenting a coherent structure and a set of tools that overwhelm. So the early use of Blackboard and Ning forums/profiles is to support the production of the first assessment, a 700 word book review.

External web resources are housed on diigo accessed via Blackboard. However, in order to reduce student (di)stress this is managed by the tutors in the first instance. As students prepare for their second assessment, a 700 word web review, they will be invited to use diigo, to create a shared set of resources for the community and to understand tagging, annotating and managing resources for a specific purpose. Diigo is also linked to from Blackboard, so that there is a common framework available.

Students have to submit two essays in the Spring, on the public perception of History and on History and controversy. They can work this up via Googledocs or MS Word. The final piece of assessment is a learning log on Blackboard, which is a means to reflect on progress as a learner and as an historian at critical times in the session (e.g. assessments). Maintaining the log is done via Blackboard (secure and individualised/private), and is continuous in nature. The quality of contributions is formally assessed. The intention is to gradually extend the learning environment in a controlled way, to enable students to manage their transition into HE and to identify and model historical practices in a set of safe spaces.

HIST1002 technological model

HIST1002 technological model

How might current and future trends in technology affect educational leadership?

*Originally posted on Learning Exchanges on 13 July 2010.

At DMU’s Leadership and Management Conference, Mike Robinson [Director of ISAS] and I ran a workshop on “How might current and future trends in technology affect leadership at DMU?” The purpose of the session was to enable staff to share aspirations, revisit key trends in the strategic development of institutional IT, and to analyse the development of TEL at DMU as a case study, before identifying key short/medium-term priorities for their teams. The key outcomes raised by the mix of academic and support staff are noted below.

What are your aspirations for your use of technology as a leader?

  • Demands effective leadership that is proactive rather than reactive.
  • Enhanced processes/controls [automation and infrastructure].
  • Integrated management information to inform and support decisions, including finance.
  • Enhanced administration/efficiency of teaching tasks, including distance learning.
  • Improve communication of information, document management.
  • Mobility and remote working.
  • Meeting staff/student expectations.
  • Interest in short-term innovation within a long-term view.

Can you define a short and medium-term priority for your team in utilising technology?

  • Aspirational strategy for DMU, which is suitable and sustainable.
  • Having a typology of technology allows for flexibility/innovation and security/comfort factor for some staff.
  • Culture change away from paper towards the use of data repositories, recorded webinars etc..
  • Joined-up systems/thinking – synergy/seamless..
  • Planning; communications; identify support.
  • Engagement with what is currently available – how can it help me?
  • Feedback from team about what works/needs attention.
  • Developing approaches to Open Educational Resources.
  • Matching possibilities with University procurement and decision-making processes.
  • Develop a knowledge base on non-DMU systems, and contextualisation of use.
  • Training and support.
  • Innovation, investment, resourcing.
  • Open mind, agile and flexible.

Can you identify key barriers to this?

  • Culture change. We are in a faster world, with no space to think, where staff need to be subject specialists and technologically aware. What does this mean for relationships between staff/students/university?
  • Need for enhanced collaboration between services/faculties and the use of champions/pioneers.
  • Top-down strategy and cultural bias that impacts staff fears/increases resistance,
  • IT as a distraction; the need to follow the crowd; buy-in; resistance to change. Speed of change, and lack of engagement/awareness.
  • Better communication about reviews/developments.
  • Lack of support [resources for innovation].
  • Lack of testing of new technology; being wedded to certain providers is restrictive.
  • Sourcing everything from the private sector.
  • Security of the environment.
  • Green fingers – work/teach remotely.

The headlines for me from the session were three-fold, and connect into the work we are undertaking around a vision for TEL at DMU.

  1. Staff focused on a vision for joined-up systems, including access to management information, learning technologies and communications tools, which can enable both effective decision-making/controls and curriculum/work innovation.
  2. Developing a joined-up approach requires staff participation in the development and delivery of a longer-term, aspirational strategy for DMU in engaging with technology. This strategy should help staff innovate in their activity/tasks/work with the tools that they already have at hand in the short-term, so that they are ready to innovate with new tools and to manage change in the longer-term.
  3. Sustainability, in terms of: the curriculum; our human relationships; our data; our infrastructures; our use of energy and natural/manufactured resources; is very important. How we develop “green fingers” in our use of IT is a priority and a responsibility for us all, in developing a resilient higher education.