Performance information and data-driven academic anxiety

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

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

The abstract for my contribution is as follows.

This chapter argues that data is the bleeding edge of educational innovation. By following the traces and trails of data, it is possible to uncover where education is being cracked open for the production, circulation and extraction of surplus value. In part these processes of cracking are amplified by the on-going financialisation and marketisation of higher education that continue to kettle academic practices of teaching and research. By uncovering the flows of value, it is also possible to demonstrate the transnational associations of capital that are profiting as a result of the data-driven reimagining of higher education. This uncovers mechanisms grounded in: enforced, public and open, educational data production; the enclosure and commodification of open and public data for-profit; the selling and re-selling of newly-commodified and technology-rich services back into open and public spaces; the generation of a rentier higher education economy rooted in high technology; the use of secondary legislation or policy related to employment and entrepreneurial activity, alongside primary legislation, to drive change; the exacerbation of debt and indentured study; and, the use of technology in performance management of academic labour. The chapter articulates these processes in the context of global socio-economic and socio-environmental crises and their symptoms, and in particular the generation of academic anxiety. Such anxiety emerges against the on-going precarity described by students and academic staff through technologically-mediated performance management. As a result, the chapter asks what can be learned from counter-hegemonic projects, in order to describe alternative uses for educational data?

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


social co-operatives and the democratisation of higher education

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

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

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

Download the paper.


the porous university

There’s a call out for participation (in person, online or via a provocation) at a symposium to be held on Monday 8th and Tuesday 9th May 2017 University of the Highlands and Islands, Inverness Campus.  The symposium is called The Porous University – A critical exploration of openness, space and place in Higher Education.

The question that interests me most is: what is the role of open academics in dealing with problems ‘in the world’?

My response will draw upon Foucault’s idea (in La société punitive, p. 33) that:

The daily exercise of power must be considered a civil war: to exercise power is, in a certain way, to wage civil war and all the instruments, the tactics, one can identify, the alliances, must be made analysable in terms of civil war.

It will also draw upon Guattari’s analysis (in de la production de subjectivité) of capitalist deterritorialisation, which:

[involves] the continuous disruption of production, the ceaseless dismantling of social categories, insecurity and eternal movement… all the while referring to universalizing perspectives, has, historically, never been able to achieve anything but withdrawal into itself, nationalist, classist, corporatist, racist, or paternalist, reterritorializations.


a manifesto for academic citizenship

A piece in the Times Higher Education by Liz Morrish on why she chose to tackle the failings of the neoliberal academy from the outside is very powerful testimony. She argues that “Academia badly needs a manifesto for academic citizenship to counteract the project of managerial colonisation”. Liz is such an important role model and a point of solidarity.


Against boundaries: Dismantling the Curriculum in Higher Education

I’m speaking at the University of Worcester Teaching and Learning and Student Experience Conference  on June 15th. The title of my talk is Against boundaries: Dismantling the Curriculum in Higher Education, and will be based on this Open Library of the Humanities paper. The abstract is appended below.

The higher education curriculum in the global North is increasingly co-opted for the production of measurable outcomes, framed by determinist narratives of employability and enterprise. Such co-option is immanent to processes of financialisation and marketisation, which encourage the production of quantifiable curriculum activities and tradable academic services. Yet the university is also affected by global socio-economic and socio-environmental crises, which can be expressed as a function of a broader crisis of social reproduction or sociability. As the labour of academics and students is increasingly driven by a commodity-valuation rooted in the measurement of performance, the ability for academics and students to respond to crises from inside the university is constrained by the market. This keynote argues that in understanding the relationship between the university and society, and in responding to a crisis of sociability, revealing the bounded nature of the curriculum is central. One possible way to address this crisis is by re-imagining the university through the co-operative practices of groups like the Dismantling the Masters House community and the Social Science Centre. Such an exploration, rooted in the organising principles of the curriculum, asks educators to consider how their curriculum reproduces forms of colonisation. It is argued that such work enables a re-imagination of higher education that is rooted in an engaged and co-operative curriculum, with a focus on praxis.

The day before I’ll be speaking at the Oxford Brookes Learning Teaching Conference on The really open university: working together as open academic commons. The two papers will complement each other.


book project: The Alienated Academic

I have an agreement with Palgrave Macmillan for a monograph with the title The Alienated Academic: The Struggle for Autonomy Inside the University. It builds on writing here, and has the following aims.

  1. The book applies Marx’s concept of alienation to the realities of academic life in the Global North, in order to explore how the idea of public education is subsumed under the law of value.
  2. The book situates academic labour as a form of productive labour, in order to connect alienation to the ongoing secular crisis of higher education and responses to that crisis.
  3. The book critiques academic responses to the secular crisis, first as struggles to overcome alienation, and second to reassert autonomy and forms of radical subjectivity.

Notes on education-as-gaslighting

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

Anthony Wallace. 1961. Culture and Personality.


Education and radical subjectivity

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

Karl Marx. 1845. Theses on Feuerbach.

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

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

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


Education and substantive equality

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

Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches

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

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


Choose life

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

Jo Johnson. 2016. Open Letter to Students.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Choose dissonance

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

Franz Fanon. 1952. Black Skin, White Masks.

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

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

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

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

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


Choose excellently

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

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

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

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


Choose what you internalise and re-produce

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

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

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

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

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

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


Negotiating Neoliberalism: Developing Alternative Educational Visions

I have a chapter in an edited collection called Negotiating Neoliberalism: Developing Alternative Educational Visions. The Sense Publishers website contains previews of the first two chapters.

My chapter is entitled: Against Academic Labour and the Dehumanisation of Educational Possibility.

The volume is part of a series on Professional Life and Work, and is edited by Tim Rudd and Ivor Goodson.

The flyer for the volume, with contents, is here.

The context and focus/key areas from the original proposal are appended below.

Context

This edited collection of papers illustrates the continued weaknesses and failings of neoliberal education. It highlights the paradoxes in the broader arguments used to substantiate its perpetuation and intensification, and the striking deficiencies and flaws of its central tenets and mechanisms. The collection provides examples of a range of alternative systems, discourses and action in order to illustrate and re-imagine possible alternatives that can challenge the current ‘orthodoxy’ and taken for granted assumptions that have dominated educational debates in the ‘age of austerity’.

It is argued that the proliferous nature of neo liberalism has seeped into core educational debates and practice to such an extent that mainstream, and arguably ideologically informed, discourse regarding the purpose and direction of education largely ignores, and deflects discussions away from, potentially viable alternatives. This ‘hegemonic newspeak’ (Bourdieu & Wacquant 2001) becomes normalised and actualised through discourse symbolically pronouncing a new ‘knowledge society’, which is accompanied by an ideological fetishism surrounding ‘school improvement’, ‘school effectiveness’ and ‘educational change’. However, the concomitant ‘logic’ suggests such goals can only be delivered through dogged adherence to a set of externally imposed ‘standards’, driven by new forms of educational ‘leadership’ and embedded in practice through managerialist practices orientated toward abstract performativity measures.

Yet the paradox in the discourse is clear. Despite decades of policy initiatives aimed at driving up ‘standards’ and delivering ‘educational improvement’, neo liberal policies have served to work to the contrary. Inequalities continue to be reproduced and exacerbated. The extent of system and school improvements and effectiveness remain questionable at best, even when measured against the rigid, limited and abstract measures imposed upon education. Other, potentially more meaningful, signifiers of educational quality have been marginalised in favour of rigid, technicist abstractions that remain incapable of delivering wider change and development. Educators professional autonomy is increasingly being diverted toward an instrumentalist servicing of managerial accountability functions, which ironically have little to do with the qualitative processes of education. As a result we are seeing an increasingly demoralised and de-professionalised workforce. The ‘paradox of performativity’ is that moral and professional commitment and autonomy are eroded, which in turn are detrimental to quality and performance. This in turn raises questions as to whether the wider motivations and dogged pursuit of performativity measures are actually intended to de-professionalise and de-stabilise education as an essential condition to ensure further privatisation is publicly viable. In short, neo liberal education is fundamentally flawed and its logic misplaced, or perhaps misdirected.

Focus and key areas

A range of key elements and aspects that are central signifiers of neo liberal education are explored and critiqued, alongside an exposition of alternative systems, discourse, approaches and practice, and a range of theoretical and conceptual representations.

These include: accountability, performativity and managerialism; forms of measurement, assessment and attainment; critique of learning outcomes and accountability; the marketization and increasing corporate sponsorship of education; privatisation, educational commodification and educational policies; free schools; academies and provider-consumer relationships and ‘logic’ in higher education; profit, labour and surplus; the role of students and educators; dehumanising education and alienation; freedom, choice, commodification; global education reform movements and reproduction; inequality, power, freedom, choice and repressive ideology; historical perspectives on neo liberal education; refraction, variation, neo liberalism and professional knowledge; flexi-schooling; co-operative alternatives; deschooling; and humanist education.


on the HE and Research Bill as a terrain of alienation

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

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

UK universities: functions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TWO. Objectification for-profit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THREE. Paradise lost

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FOUR. Sociality: overcoming a terrain of alienation?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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