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.

Mobility Shifts and Student-as-Producer

*Originally posted at Learning Exchanges on 14 October 2011

Some matters arising from Mobility Shifts and from yesterday’s student-as-producer seminar at CUNY.

  1. How do we critique formalised education as an ideological apparatus of the state-for-capital?
  2. Are we interested in transition or transformation? If the latter then what is the purpose of norms of justice, equality, democracy, participation that are developed within alienating, capitalist social relations? In the face of free market logic how might we overcome the anxieties that plague our existing models of education?
  3. Does education subtracted from the operation of learning leave accreditation, monitoring, control? Does this connect to institutional/tutor accreditation anxiety, realised through plagiarism?
  4. Capital needs disruptors, which/who can re-inscribe new spaces for control and accumulation, and develop new forms of commodities from which value can be extracted. What is the place of educational innovation inside capital in this process? How do we overcome this devastating reality?
  5. How conservative should schooling be, in order to promote mass intellectuality? How conservative are our allegedly radical methods? Can we be against explanation and for emancipation inside this historical moment?
  6. Where social inequality is at stake, in the face of the market and education as private property, how can we work for its negation? How can we refuse agendas of equality that are culturally revealed as opportunistic or hierarchical or based on structural/legalistic frameworks? How do we work for the negation of inequality as revealed under labour-in-capitalism?
  7. Can we reinvent the University against its prescribed role in the reproduction of education-for-capital? How do we reengage with and critique its history?
  8. How can student-as-producer reveal and oppose the ways in which the student is reified through, for example, the NSS?
  9. How can student-as-producer reveal the possibilities for academic activism and the academic/worker engagement in mass intellectuality?
  10. How do open technologies and the processes and lived realities of hacking help in this engagement with/development of mass intellectuality? How do open bases and frameworks enable distributed models of engagement that propose/describe alternatives?
  11. How do we stand against the rhetoric of technology that reveals and then reinscribes institutional power structures?
  12. How do we become courageous in the face of business-as-usual? How does student-as-producer reinforce academic activism?

The true cost of openness

*Originally posted at Learning Exchanges on 1 September 2011

Closure and exclusion

Following his leadership of the successful Upper Clyde Shipbuilders (UCS) occupation and work-in of 1971-72, the Communist and trades unionist Jimmy Reid was elected as Rector of the University of Glasgow. In his Rectoral Address Reid argued that

Alienation is the precise and correctly applied word for describing the major social problem in Britain today… it is the cry of men who feel themselves the victims of blind economic forces beyond their control. It’s the frustration of ordinary people excluded from the processes of decision making.

Since May 2010 the UK’s Coalition Government have been quickening the pace of enclosure of our public spaces; of our exclusion from the preserved, open and shared places in which our society is re-invented. Within this process of exclusion and of enclosing space and time (both the present and, collapsed into it, the future), debt presents itself as a cold and calculating means of collectivised, individual indenture. And the formal, historical University as a site of social contribution, that once lay within and yet against the calculating, coercion of accumulation and the market is closed down within that very logic.


And in that logic, the processes of exclusion, enclosure and indenture are violent. They do violence to the history of the University. They do violence to the hope and to the reality of higher learning as an escape from socio-environmental crisis. As a result they do violence to the possibility of our collective being and becoming. They do violence to us.

Incarceration (or the kettle)

It is in this violent, enclosing space that the activities of the University emerge and are re-produced. It is in this space that higher learning and its social relationships cycle and re-cycle. It is in this space then that “open” risks becoming a fetish, closed to critique and uncritically cloaked in a veneer of co-production, or sustainability, or value-for-money, or efficiency. It is as if “open” or “openness” offers us liberation or emancipation within the coercive, competitive reality of capital power-over our labour. It is as if “open” might reshape the activities of higher education, in spite of the shackling of the University to accumulation by dispossession and the dictates of the market. So “open” risks becoming a distraction; a wish that we might avoid the incarceration that capital enforces on our labour-power, through the discipline of technological surveillance, order, productivity, efficiency, debt.


Thus the institutionalisation of open education risks becoming yet another alienating practice precisely because, as Winn argues, “it is just another way of creating capital out of immaterial labour”. A formalised, institutionalised, “open” education threatens us with: proletarianisation and deskilling through mass-production, automation and standardisation; the totem of efficiency and an increase in the rate of profit; the reification of the resource as product; and pedagogy-as-production, curricula-as-distribution and learning-as-consumption. In our apolitical discourse about the free movement and regeneration of reified things, we risk amplifying the commodification of “open” education through liberal property laws (Creative Commons) that guarantee a level of autonomy to digital objects over and above the rights of teaching (labour) and learning (apprenticeship) from which they are abstracted, and which is placed under the control and supervision of quality assurance, productivity and impact measures.


And yet we see the crisis all around us. Our environment is polluted. Our environment is despoiled. Our technologies are underpinned by corporate imperialism, war and human rights atrocities. Our technologies are a mechanism for profit and enclosure and the re-inscription of power. Our world-in-the-cloud is increasingly parcelled off into clearly demarcated, outsourced, privatised applications. And through our outsourced connection to the operation and production of technologies, and our consumption of them within a history of capitalist work, we are displaced from contributing towards worldly wisdom. We are increasingly separated, in part by by the disarming disguise of technology, from the reality of our being. This is our ongoing crisis.


A critique of “open” stands against business-as-usual. It offers “open” as a public concern – a form of contribution that is against what the University is becoming. Its realisation offers safe spaces where associations can be developed. And that is closed to monitoring and ordering and control and profit. And that is against the social re-ordering of our lives for enclosure, the extraction of surplus value and of capitalist valorisation. And that is messy in its social re-formations, in its consumption and in its production, and in how individual contributions are assembled. For as Marx wrote:

only in association with others has each individual the means of cultivating his talents in all directions. Only in a community therefore is personal freedom possible… In a genuine community individuals gain their freedom in and through their association.

And so we might ask what the hacker ethic, and what Lulzsec and Anonymous, offers us? We might ask what open source development offers us? We might ask what a more nebulous, less ordered and monitored and modelled form of “open” offers us? What does openness at the margins, beyond the formally-enclosed institution offer us?


Dyer-Witheford offers us hope in the histories of the Commons:

A twenty-first century communism must also be envisioned as a complex unity of terrestrial, state and networked commons, but the strategic and enabling point in this ensemble is the networked commons, which opens possibilities for new combinations of planetary planning and autonomous association.

These histories offer a critique of the ahistorical truisms of our being, that technology and education can only meaningfully serve capitalist expansion, through discourses of order and finance capital that are related to value-for-money, efficiency/productivity/profit, private/public, and the market. The global contribution of skills, alongside stories in which they might be situated, exists in spaces that remain as yet unenclosed. These spaces might be harnessed collaboratively for more than profiteering, or the extraction of surplus value or further accumulation or financialisation, or alienation or violence.

In and beyond technology we teach and re-think these practices and these ways of thinking every day with other staff and students and within our communities of practice. But they need to be politicised in the face of the crisis, because they flow through our being and our power-to create the world. As Marx highlighted

Technology discloses man’s mode of dealing with Nature, the process of production by which he sustains his life, and thereby also lays bare the mode of formation of his social relations, and of the mental conceptions that flow from them.


We need the confidence to imagine that our skills might be shared and put to another use. We need the confidence to defend our physical and virtual commons as spaces for contribution, through production and consumption. We need the confidence to think ethically through our positions. We need the confidence to live and tell a different, overtly political story of “open”.

This might mean less of a focus on “open” and more on “autonomy” against capital. For Tiqqun has argued that

“Autonomy” means that we make the worlds that we are grow. The Empire, armed with cybernetics, insists on autonomy for it alone, as the unitary system of the totality: it is thus forced to annihilate all autonomy whenever it is heterogeneous. We say that autonomy is for everyone and that the fight for autonomy has to be amplified. The present form taken on by the civil war is above all a fight against the monopoly on autonomy. That experimentation will become the “fecund chaos,” communism, the end of the cybernetic hypothesis.

Stories of custom-in-common: history, power and the internet

*Originally posted at Learning Exchanges on 12 July 2011

Brian Lamb has highlighted two quotes that made me think about politics, power, consensus and the web, and most importantly, about History.

David Eaves, Learning from Libraries: The Literacy Challenge of Open Data

Charges of “frivolousness” or a desire to ensure data is only released “in context” are code to obstruct or shape data portals to ensure that they only support what public institutions or politicians deem “acceptable”. Again, we need a flood of data, not only because it is good for democracy and government, but because it increases the likelihood of more people taking interest and becoming literate.

It is worth remembering: We didn’t build libraries for an already literate citizenry. We built libraries to help citizens become literate. Today we build open data portals not because we have a data or public policy literate citizenry, we build them so that citizens may become literate in data, visualization, coding and public policy.

Paul Mason, Murdoch: the network defeats the hierarchy:

Six months ago, in the context of Tunisia and Egypt, I wrote that the social media networks had made “all propaganda instantly flammable”. It was an understatement: complex and multifaceted media empires that do much more than propaganda, and which command the respect and loyalty of millions of readers, are now also flammable.

Where all this leaves Noam Chomsky’s theory I will rely on the inevitable wave of comments from its supporters to flesh out.

But the most important fact is: not for the first time in 2011, the network has defeated the hierarchy.

These two quotes have emphasized some questions for me.

  1. Against the neoliberal constraint on what can legitimately be fought for, how do we tell stories that reclaim our common history and our social relationships? How do we protect the richness of the technological ecosystems that help us to do this work?
  2. In the rush for technology-as-progress, can we identify how that progress is shaped in our stories of struggle? How do we recognise struggle in our use of technology?
  3. How do we struggle-in-common against the enclosure of our networked public spaces? How do we develop a politics of digital literacy? How do we develop a political digital literacy?

Over a period of six years I wrote about property, the common and political power in Augustan Yorkshire. Revisiting that helps me to identify struggle-in-common over access to resources, be that physical land/cultural rights or immaterial spaces/rights held in common. In the early eighteenth century county elections were an important means by which the political stability and legitimacy of the Augustan and Hanoverian political structures could be ensured. The significance of voters in County [as opposed to Borough] elections in the political system was recognised by contemporaries who saw these ‘forty shilling freeholders’ as the guardian of the nation’s liberty.

To the historian, the importance of the voters hinges upon whether they had any measure of independent political action and power, and how they struggled for their collective rights. Analysis shows that a substantial subset of the electorate had the socio-economic standing, individually or in common, to show a great degree of political independence. Thus, once the politicians forced an election they became involved in a wider nexus of responsibilities which gave the forty shilling freeholders a measure of political power.

Power in networks: a note on shire elections and political power in early-modern England

Notionally the enfranchised county freeholder was a man who voted by right of freehold property that was worth forty shillings per annum clear of all taxes. This also encompassed the possession of a particular office, for example a clerical benefice, as well as annuities, leases for lives, or the control of a mortgage. These men were the bedrock of the county community precisely because of the eighteenth-century elevation of property to a sublime position within society. The marquis of Halifax stated that ‘the interest of the county is best placed in the hands of such as have some share in it’. A share in the land of the county would show a higher political consciousness and entail a recognition of the importance of property and liberty. The importance of shire elections in giving property the opportunity to legitimise or oppose a political outlook meant that any shire election became crucial to the political nation.

The importance of the voters in the political system hinges upon whether they had any independent political action or impact. Were they relatively free to vote as they wanted, or were they subservient to the needs of their social superiors? These issues depend upon the amount of pressure which could be placed upon an individual voter. Investigations related to power and agency help to rescue the voters and the unenfranchised from an impotent limbo, to stress their importance in the political process, and to emphasise the view held by many among the eighteenth century political nation that the ‘forty-shilling freeholder’ was the guardian of the nation’s liberty against over-bearing hegemonies.

A story of struggle in common: power, agency and networked resistance

The importance of local cultural considerations was nowhere stronger than at Hatfield, a lowland agricultural township eight miles north-east of Doncaster. It bordered on Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire, and had a large area of common land which had been drained by Dutch immigrants in the seventeenth century. The town numbered between 20 and 31 voters at each election in the early eighteenth century. Whilst the Hearth Tax records of 1672 noted 211 households, there were 350 families in Archbishop Herring’s visitation returns of 1743. Thus, a crude approximation gives Hatfield 1 voter for every 22 families at the 1742 county by-election.

The lords of the manor of Hatfield, which included 8 other townships, were the viscounts Irwin and the manorial framework was important to the functioning of local society. These men were strong in the Whig cause throughout the period and were active at every election except that of 1708 when the new lord was a minor. However, only in 1742 did the Government Whig party achieve a majority of votes in the township. [N.B. at each election there were generally 2 parties with 2 candidates for the 2 shire MPs. Each voter had 2 votes at each election.]

This fractured voting may have had much to do with the franchise in this town which developed through common right. The independence which this gave bolstered the widespread antipathy in the area towards the interference of Irwin in social and economic matters. Prior to the 1695 election Abraham de la Pryme noted that the common at Hatfield ‘is freehold unto us, and the Lord has nothing to do with it’. Moreover, ‘the common-free inhabitants that made above forty shillings a year of their common did, according as formerly, swear themselves worth above forty shillings a year freehold and accordingly polled.’ In a case of trespass which occurred in 1737 it was noted that ‘time out of mind [there] hath been an antient custom to wit that the respective Tenants and occupiers in west field…have inclosed and separated such of their part of the s[ai]d common field…and to hold and enjoy the same…free from any common of pasture.’ In their eyes it gave them rights in common and as political actors.

Local electoral right had emerged from resistance and struggle, and had its basis in the drainage of the area in the late 1620s and early 1630s. In May 1626 the crown and Cornelius Vermuyden came to an agreement about draining the level. By 1629, after a series of disputes and riots, which indicate that the area had a history of direct action against and opposition towards the local landlord, Vermuyden covenanted ‘that he will convey to the tenants of the said manors such portions of the recovered lands as had been assigned to them in respect of their common’.

This acrimonious history of fighting for common rights continued in the eighteenth century. In an argument running from 1726 until 1758, which focused upon the common land, Irwin questioned the landholding rights of the inhabitants. He had a turnpike erected on the common at Stainforth, which provoked a riot and subsequent prosecution that exacerbated the splits within the township. Thomas Perkins after certain inhabitants of the manor signed a submission to Irwin. He wrote, ‘What power he may now have I can’t tell…His Majesty K[ing]: Charles ye 1st w[oul]d not at least…have done a contrary thing.’ This was a powerful analogy to make in comparing the major local landowner to a perceived tyrant.

The very fact that the commons were crucial to the economies of the small farmer, and the feeling that the local balance of power lay with the community rather than the lord, fostered a strong sense of community action and local loyalty. In 1739, Jonathan Parish, who hoped to be made the local schoolmaster, had written to Irwin asking for his favour. Parish reported that ‘by making Lord Irwin my friend [I] had made all my Neighbours my enemies’. Concerning the schoolmaster’s appointment, the local curate Marmaduke Drake, hoped that ‘they were wiser than to be led by ye nose by a Lord’. These men seemed unlikely to defer to any man shy of the monarch; thus, political control may have been illusory at best for a man like Irwin.

This confident air was induced by the strength of the community’s common right. One seventeenth-century commentator noted, ‘by often iteration and multiplication of the Act, it becomes a custom: and being continued without interruption time out of mind, it obtaineth the force of a law’. Similarly, one agrarian historian has written that common field government ‘held the village together’, so that the support for local common rights gave the community a sense of security. In the case of Hatfield this common usage was a form of social, and potentially political cement. Agrarian usage impinged upon the shire franchise and would have added to the difficulties and differences of political control. This would have been more so if those who enjoyed the vote by common right saw a landowner’s actions as an attempt to impoverish them.

The commons were crucial for rearing sheep, oxen horse and pigs, as well as providing thatch, bricks, and sundry extras which bolstered the local economy. Neeson has written that ‘at the local level, custom had the force of the law’. Moreover, if the commons were crucial to the psychological and personal well-being of the individual and the community, then its defence was all-important no matter whom the attacker. The commons gave the individual and the community a chance to live of their own and to survive a dearth. They also gave the chance to have an economic independence that may have fed political autonomy. All this stemmed from what appeared to be enclosure and enfranchisement by consent. There was the strength of custom and usage in terms of the variations in the franchise. As Langford has pointed out ‘faith in local procedures was deeply entrenched’.

Struggle for the common in cyberspace

Which brings me back to my third question:

How do we struggle-in-common against the enclosure of our networked public spaces? How do we develop a politics of digital literacy? How do we develop a political digital literacy?

In Eighteenth century Hatfield, that so many political voters (agents) owned their own lands, and that landownership was so fractured made political control awkward. It simply was not possible for local landowners to brow-beat a majority of men to the polls. The relationship between the politicians and a large subset of the electorate was fragile and conditional. Once the politicians drew the battle lines they were involved in a wider nexus of responsibilities. With this in mind it is hardly surprising that the politicians had to expend so much energy and money to gain an election and maintain some form of control.

I am wondering what this offers in terms of the institutionalisation/enclosure of the internet and the web as a subset of it.

  • How do we struggle to acknowledge and nurture the disparate local contexts and activities born of custom that exist online?
  • How do we recognise power and privilege in networked communities? How does one avoid the real subsumption of the individual within common spaces?

You have not been paying attention: putting students at the heart of the system

*Originally posted at Learning Exchanges on 29 June 2011

Nervously, and without any real need whatever, Franny pushed back her hair with one hand. ‘I don’t think it would have all got me quite so down if just once in a while — just once in a while — there was at least some polite little perfunctory implication that knowledge should lead to wisdom, and that if it doesn’t, it’s just a disgusting waste of time! But there never is! You never even hear any hints dropped on a campus that that wisdom is supposed to be the goal of knowledge. You hardly ever even hear the word “wisdom” mentioned! Do you want to hear something funny? Do you want to hear something really funny? In almost four years of college — and this is the absolute truth — in almost four years of college, the only time I can remember ever even hearing the expression “wise man” being used was in my freshman year, in Political Science! And do you know how it was used? It was used in reference to some nice old poopy elder statesman who’d made a fortune in the stock market and gone to Washington to be an adviser to President Roosevelt. Honestly, now! Four years of college, almost! I’m not saying that happens to everybody, but I just get so upset when I think about it I could die.’

J.D Salinger, Franny and Zooey

It’s the devil’s way now/There is no way out/You can scream and you can shout/It is too late now/Because you have not been/Payin’ attention

Radiohead, 2+2=5 (The Lukewarm)

Preamble: the rule of money

We have already seen a rush to dissect the Coalition Government’s White Paper for Higher Education in the UK, interestingly entitled “students at the heart of the system”.

  1. David Kernohan has picked up on both assumption-based risk management and government funding exposure, in order to highlight inconsistencies or concerns that underpin the detail of the proposals in terms of costs.
  2. The Campaign for the Public University has focused on the public/private binary and has argued that “A public higher education system that is internationally acclaimed for its excellence is being dismantled”.
  3. This public/private focus has been nuanced in a Times Higher report on the benefits to ‘for-profit’ institutions, as “all providers, regardless of their status, would be subject to the same oversight if they have loan-funded students.”
  4. The Education Activist Network has taken a more trenchant stance highlighting “increased interference from government, on the one hand, and exposure to the caprices of the market on the other, this cynical, morally bankrupt move by the government threatens to dismantle the H.E. system and tender it out to the highest bidder”.
  5. Research Fortnight Today has argued that the Coalition has used off-quotas, the place of for-profits, de-regulation, efficiency etc. as wedges to drive HE to the market: “the government’s ambitions may be important for the long-term development of the sector and the further market-oriented reforms that may follow”.
  6. In his White paper fury, Plashing Vole states that “It’s not the private sector coming to the rescue of the public sector: it’s the taxpayer being forced to hand over money to the private sector (just like the banking bailout) with the students as collateral damage.”

What is clear from these analyses is the rule of money in higher education, with this White Paper standing as a marker for what will follow. This marker focuses upon for-profit-maximisation, competition, the removal of state subsidies for shared, public goods, individualisation of experience, and commodification of learning. The Times Higher has gone on to claim that this is a half-cocked plan, and yet planning is not the issue: ideology is at the heart of the paper, with detail to emerge in practice later. Consumption and the rate of profit are central to this structural readjustment policy, and the crises that this approach will provoke, allows capital to further subsume our public goods into its cycles and circuits. [Note that marketisation will not be questioned by the Labour Party – Higher Ambitions in 2009 taught us this, and I note the lack of HE news on their site.] The threat of subsumption is therefore a critical moment in civic society, for as John Holloway argues:

As long as money rules, injustice and violence prevail – money is the breach between the starving and the food, the gap between the homeless and the houses. As long as money rules we are trapped in a dynamic that nobody controls and that is visibly destroying the possibility of human existence.

We are systematically disciplined

In the ethos and idea of the White Paper all of our social relationships for learning are commodifed. This is a world of quotas, margins, efficiency but above all of consumption and of business. We now know that it is now the economy that drives our learning, and that our learning must be exchanged as a specific use-value in the economy. There is no space and no time for developing and nurturing and experiencing wisdom. That is the cold, brutal, disciplinary logic of the Coalition’s HE White Paper. Your learning, whether you regard it as a process or not, is now a thing; it is an object, with a clear and explicit link to future earning capacity. Your learning and your future are objectified for sale. Your-self is an object in a market where your learning, akin to the downloads Neo receives in The Matrix, are simply imparted to you through training mechanisms. This is higher education as system, not higher learning as struggle and process.

This is the outcome of a process of systemic corporatisation within the public sphere described by Williams in the USA:

Universities are now being conscripted as a latter kind of franchise, directly as training grounds for the corporate workforce; this is most obvious in the growth of business departments but impacts English, too, in the proliferation of more ‘practical’ degrees in technical writing and the like. In fact, not only has university work been redirected to serve corporate-profit agendas via its grant-supplicant status, but universities have become franchises in their own right, reconfigured according to corporate management, labor, and consumer models and delivering a name brand product.

This systemic corporatisation is embedded in the White Paper. Whilst its title is “students at the heart”, DBIS are very clear that “The White Paper comes as part of the wider government agenda to put more power in the hands of the consumer.” Let’s repeat that:

 The White Paper comes as part of the wider government agenda to put more power in the hands of the consumer.

Thus, one might argue that it is student-as-consumer that is at the heart of the system, and not student-as-human. Higher education is opened-up as a training and development space for business, and for economic growth. As the White Paper reveals, HE “should evolve in response to demand from students and employers, reflecting particularly the wider needs of the economy.”

Higher education is explicitly a commodity now. It is explicitly open to market forces and for-profiteering. This exposes it to risk, hedging, venture capitalism, and the treadmill of competition. This means that all of the social relationships we develop and nurture within higher education are subject to the rule of money. There is no outside this exchange mechanism that frames how we relate, as Capital turns back in on what it terms ‘the developed world’, in order to accumulate [our mutual futures] by dispossession through debt-driven consumption. As a result, and amongst other issues:

  • our sustainability agendas and Green IT projects are subject to the rule of money and the market;
  • our focus on student-as-producer is subject to the rule of money and the market;
  • our engagement in social inclusion and widening participation is subject to the rule of money and the market;
  • our use of technologies for social learning is subject to the rule of money and the market; and
  • our nationally-negotiated pay and conditions are subject to the rule of money and the market, and indeed we are now threatened by the casualisation of our labour within the Coalition’s “system”.

Moving the previous Government’s privatisation agenda forward, Vince Cable notes that “Higher Education is a successful public-private partnership; combining Government funding with institutional autonomy.” This is a public-private partnership that is now for-profit. This is the enclosure of higher learning within the calculating logic of capital’s need to increase the rate of profit through financialisation. As Simon Clarke notes “The sense of a world beyond human control, of a world driven to destruction by alien forces, is stronger today than it has ever been”. This is why the Coalition’s White Paper might be seen as a flag in the ground for further marketisation of our higher learning. There is no turning-back. The end-game is structural adjustment and the discipline of the shock doctrine throughout our lived, public experiences, whether imposed by the IMF and the EU in Greece, or by the Coalition’s austerity agenda.

Vesuvius/I am here/You are all I have/Fire of fire/I’m insecure/For it is all/Been made to plan/Though I know/I will fail/I cannot/Be made to laugh/For in life/As in death/I’d rather be burned/Than be living in debt

Sufjan Stevens, Vesuvius

Cybernetics, order and risk

We might usefully note the cybernetic imagery embedded in the technocratic, informatic use of language in the White Paper, and in particular its view of HE and University life as a system. This highlights the dominant view that Universities are now tools of capital, which must use information flows and dashboards, alongside embedded, corporate technologies, to predict, manage and commodify performance and risk in learning. This system is funded by individualised debt, in order to discipline our lives and livelihoods for economic growth and efficiency. Thus, David Kernohan has analysed the White Paper as a form of assumption-based risk management, where technocratic strategies prompt Universities to engage in hedging risk, and there are ties here to the neoliberal focus on using cybernetics to manage risk and impose order as a prerequisite for capitalist accumulation. This is exemplified in both Adam Curtis’s All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace (episode 1), and Paul Mason’s Meltdown, which demonstrates the financial system’s structural inability to control risk through mechanisms like credit default options, fiscal modelling (based on societies in which order and law have been imposed), and market deregulation. As Mason notes:

technologies led to automated models that excluded possibilities of crisis and so amplified risk-taking, so that higher stakes and higher outcomes are taken based on assumptions of order and control of information flows.

This hedge-based position in the finance sector is being extended into the sphere of public goods, including higher education. Just as there is no critique of this position from within Parliament, there is limited critique from within the sector’s own associations, which have generally been subsumed within the broader neoliberal definition of what is required of higher education. Here there is no space for alternatives to be created and implemented.

It is only Million+ that criticizes, noting that there is “absolutely no evidence that the competition Ministers are trying to inject will actually improve the quality of the student experience.” Moreover, this focus on business-as-usual is echoed by organisations like DEMOS, whose libertarian choice agenda does not reflect on the evidence that ‘choice’ as a concept linked to consumption of goods and services is contested, whether as part of broader public policy or NHS reform, and that it tends to undermine mutualism, co-operation and trust.

In the face of competition and a lack of mutuality, I don’t wish to restate my position here on the place of higher education in developing resilient approaches to global disruption, but it is worthwhile noting the broader economic context for the White Paper. The input-output model is broadly debt-incentivised education and training based on higher incomes, in spite of declining real wages since 1980 and an on-going attack on labour rights. Both Zerohedge and The Automatic Earth are clear that the global economic recovery is at best fragile and at worst a myth. When we factor in issues over energy availability [witness the International Energy Agency’s reports on liquid fuel] and resource depletion [increasingly around water], guaranteed economic growth and a real return on investment for graduates is a risk that may need hedging in some way. Even those who are less fatalistic, like Faisal Islam and Paul Mason, demonstrate how the politics of austerity makes for an uncertain future. This uncertain future is one that is individualised, non-co-operative and driven by debt.

In this brave new world, where the student is at the heart of the system, the academic is missing, and this represents their functionary status, which will increasingly be driven by precarity. The dominant logic is attrition on labour rights, decreased real wages, performance-related pay, increased contact hours, techno-surveillance, efficiency, more-for-less, and attrition on trust, openness and sharing. In this cybernetic system there is no ‘us’. There is no ‘you’ and ‘me’. There is only value and profit. Thus, perhaps trades unions are key as this becomes more-and-more about capital/labour and the extraction of surplus value. It is possibly this real subsumption of our public, non-commodified spaces to capital and its exploitation, where staff are subsumed within the logic of consumption, that offers us a crack for an alternative narrative around commons, co-operation, sharing, and openness, which is not framed by the separation and alienation of money, price, quality, and competition.

What is to be done?

In a recent blog posting, Tony Hirst wrote about ‘Public understanding – data on whose terms? Understanding on whose terms?’ He argued that dialogue between the public and academics is essential in developing meaningful public policy. In a second posting on academia and demand education Hirst argues for “a consideration of how academics can make content available to the media to add depth and deepened engagement to a story”. This is about academic activism in the public space, away from the spectacle and academic performativity, and towards a dialogue and a critique of the problems we face. For Hirst this is around policy, for others this may be about networked activism and informal politics.

This approach to public engagement has been amplified by Bob Brecher is his attack on the AHRC and their involvement in the neoliberal takeover of the academy, through their engagement with the Coalition Government’s ‘big society’ agenda. Brecher argues that this attack on the autonomy of academia, placing its agendas at the heart of government policy, demands the following.

  1. Critique of the ideological impulse of the government’s attack on universities [that is not] sidelined by the cost-cutting disguise;
  2. Students, administrators and academics need to take themselves seriously as members of a university and to join forces with all the other workers, paid and unpaid, whom the fundamentalists around the Cabinet table regard as so much dross.
  3. Most pressingly of all, academics have to understand, realise and use the power we have. We must refuse to act as the self-interested egoists too many of us have become and whom the neo-liberals would have us all become; refuse to compete with one another within and across institutions, or with other groups of workers; and make a new reality of what was once known as solidarity.

This is a clarion call for academic activism, which itself is Gramscian in tone and sentiment. Detailed critique is important but it needs a history that enables alternatives to be developed in public and with a range of partners organisations. It demands that we move away from playing on the Coalition’s public/private turf. There is no public. There is no private. Universities have been both-and-more forever. We need to quit the outsourcing of our hope and expectations to politicians or sector-wide groupings, whose demands are based on power. This is not about resetting the clock. It is about taking action to recast and re-create something different in the public sphere. This is as much about what the University has become as what it might be.

Gramsci argued that to achieve ongoing domination a social class had to complement its material and political power with the power of ideas: ideological power. In this, both political and civil society are battlegrounds – the former in imposing order and law, the latter in exposing the wider public sphere to cultural hegemony. The role of organic intellectuals is to process ideas in the public sphere through a scholastic programme that enables those ideas to become accepted as general conceptions of life. Thus hegemony can lead to exploitation and alienation through ideological manipulation and domination, and in our neoliberal world, through cybernetic regimes.

Thus, what is key for us now is the role of academics as organic intellectuals in enabling a new form of consciousness either within or beyond the academy, in the battle of ideas. In developing a counter-hegemony that challenges the dominant, neoliberal ideological codes. Transformation demands alternative ideas framed by critique. In delivering those in practice, whether in a social science centre, an autonomous centre, a free university or a commune, we need the courage to act.

  • This activity must take place within the University: in struggling for content and curricula that are a form of production against the neoliberal turn in our lives.
  • This activity must take place within the University: in struggling for technologies and processes and systems that are not outsourced but which are mutually described.
  • This activity must take place within the University: in struggling for open engagement with communities of practice against business ethics.
  • This activity must take place within the University: in struggling for a narrative that is not public/private and which is not driven by the rule of money, but which is framed by higher learning in the face of global disruption.
  • This activity must take place within our higher education communities of practice: in struggling for association and opposition to governmental interference in teaching and research agendas.
  • This activity must take place beyond the University: in struggling for higher learning in the fabric of society in the face of global disruption.

We must remember that capital struggles to shackle and control labour, within its cycles and circuits. We need to focus on co-operation against the rule of money. In the face of the discipline of debt and the kettle, this is tough, but what is the alternative? There is no fairy-godmother. There is no political white knight on a charger. There is only struggle for the alternative.

In the right light, study becomes insight/But the system that dissed us/Teaches us to read and right/So called facts are fraud/They want us to allege and pledge/And bow down to their God/Lost the culture, the culture lost/Spun our minds and through time/Ignorance has taken over/Yo, we gotta take the power back!

Rage Against the Machine, Take the Power Back

Reimagining the university

*Originally posted at Learning Exchanges on 29 November 2010

I spent a wonderful day with students at the Really Open University programme of events last Friday, in occupation of the Michael Sadler lecture theatre at the University of Leeds. The day revealed the deeply thoughtful and critical nature of the autonomous, inclusive student movements that are emerging in the face of the Coalition’s cuts agenda. The meaningful and productive work of occupation is demonstrating how students are re-defining and re-producing their social roles.

The students in Leeds raised big questions for higher education.

  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 forsociety at large?
  3. How can the space and the meaning of the university be liberated?

The students organised an amazing symposium of activities, involving discussion of:

  • the attempts at autonomous educational experiences of Italian students after the earthquake in 2008, in the face of institutionalised, state and mafia controls. A key message was that these students believed in and fought for “a fairer, non-commodified education”;
  • the experiences in occupation of Reclaim The Streets, Sussex University students, and students in Switzerland, with a focus on disrupting and liberating spaces, in order that they do not replicate, reinforce or recreate power relationships;
  • alternative views of the social forms of the University, through proposed social science centres and the University of Utopia.

In the discussions the use of space was central. This was reinforced by the fact that when I walked into the main lecture theatre I was hit by its customisation by its occupiers as a living and lived-in place that made sense to them. It combined education with shelter, and with food, and with belonging. It reminded me of the ways in which guests at Birmingham Christmas Shelter fight to assert themselves and to colonise their space in that shelter. In fact, the power of the experience had me questioning whether education is both occupation and shelter; or whether in some form education acts as occupation shelter, in order for students and academics to build spaces to transform the world.

The focus on spaces for transformation has been shown in the levels of solidarity from across the globe within and between student movements, which are increasingly being revealed as attempts at non-hierarchical, co-operative organisation. In developing this type of approach, 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”. In this, social media use is highlighting the power of solidarity in autonomous movements. This is being realised through, for example, the proliferation of WordPress blogs on the open web managed by student groups; though examples of sharing and discussing actions using SKYPE; through the use of Twitter/Facebook to draw more interested parties in to discuss actual action; the use of multimedia to share lived and living experiences in the world; and through dance-offs. Part of the beauty of these examples is their interconnectedness and their lack of a formal, social media strategy or of institutionalisation. That these on-line spaces are being colonised, de-marketised, and re-claimed, offers us hope beyond the issue of education cuts, for wider opposition to the increasing enclosure and privatisation of the web.

This reclamation, whilst negating claiming ownership or property rights, highlights the drive towards personal and co-operative autonomy in a living and commonly-owned space. The students who were arguing for transformation were 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 education, where barriers, separation, differences and transitions all need to be critiqued. So these occupations-as-education force us to examine the contexts in which roles like academics, managers, administrators and students are created, and the powers that they represent/realise/reproduce. This non-hierarchical, co-operative approach to social relationships makes monitoring and controlling the use of social media uncomfortable, and has ramifications for those dealing in institutionalised educational technology.

In this crisis, the critical social theory that underpins student-as-producer or which defines a pedagogy of excess may become central. These ideas define a movement beyond the present state of things. They do not replicate a curriculum-as-consumption, or a curriculum-for-business-as-usual. They view the curriculum critically through the lens of political economy and through our relationships in, and technologies for, the processes of producing the curriculum. The relationships between students and academics, entwined in praxis, and developing and defining an active, socio-historical curriculum are central to meaningful transformation. In the current crisis, students are defining radical moments through which we might re-imagine the university.

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