Friday 10 April 2015

Status Farms and Brain Mortgages: Why might the establishment have to listen to the campaign for Free Universities?

Hot on the heels of the Maagdenhuis occupation at the University of Amsterdam, the UK is experiencing a wave of student occupations, the most prominent being at the LSE. You can read about it here David Graeber, who is a supporter of the Amsterdam occupation, and a long-time activist for Occupy is also professor at the LSE - something of a cuckoo in the nest, I would have thought... so I'm beginning to wonder if we really are seeing something new in these movements. I'm surprised they haven't sacked him. (Clearly the LSE doesn't yet subscribe to what Laurie Taylor called this week the "University of Bolton Protocol": see

Key among the demands of the LSE occupiers is that the LSE commits to the establishment of a new "Free University of London". The LSE has attempted to rebuff protestors with a kind of managerial mealy-mouthedness (see which fundamentally side-steps the key demand of the students. They have responded:
we wish to particularly redirect your attention to our demand for a permanent space for the pursuit of the aims of the Free University of London. 
The process which has been initiated in the occupied space has been one of creating, on a prefigurative and propositional basis, a liberated and safe university space, run democratically by students and staff, and independent of the pressures of the market. We hope it is obvious that we cannot continue this process without access to a space along the lines of point 2) of the Liberation section of our demands document. 
In this respect we believe it would be a dereliction of duty for us not to maintain an open space, providing opportunities for democratic discussion in the time leading up to the tripartite meeting, as well as opening up additional space for studying and alternative educational workshops, until the proposed discussions take place.
This is a similar objective to the Maagdenhuis occupation. When lots of people start to ask for the same thing, you start to believe it. Why might the LSE object?

I think the central conflict here is between two models of the University:
  1. As a liberated and safe space for thought and learning, run democratically by students and staff, and independent of the pressures of the market;
  2. As an economic operation for generating capital through putting students in debt.
Option 1 could have been written by the founders of any traditional seat of learning from the disaffected scholars who left Oxford for Cambridge onwards. Option 2 is new and, in my opinion, entirely tied to the fate of late capitalism. It can best be compared to reforms to allow pensioners to blow their pensions on Lamborghinis. In both cases, the intention is to capitalise fundamental social stabilising mechanisms. The effects are respectively, capital injections into institutions (who then spend it on yachts for the boss and new buildings), or car showrooms and Saga cruises. The fact that the LSE will object to a Free University of London shows the extent to which Universities have shifted in their nature from ideal 1 to idea 2.

Something else has happened this week which sheds more light on the issue of the topic of Universities and Capital.

The University of Warwick (where there is another occupation underway see is setting up a subsidiary company called "Teach Higher" to employ hourly-paid academics - see The FaceEducation blog reports on this that:

Teach Higher represents a significant threat not only to working conditions of casualised academic staff, but also to the possibilities for organisation and resistance. The outsourcing of hourly paid academic staff will very clearly institutionalise what is already beginning to look like a two tier system within academia – separating out low paid casualised staff (who increasingly do the bulk of departmental teaching) from permanent staff. 
Because staff employed by Teach Higher will no longer be employed directly by the University, this means they will lose union recognition, will not be covered by national pay bargaining etc., and, crucially, will not be able to participate in national industrial action voted for by UCU in Higher Education. For a couple of years now, casualised academic staff in Higher Education have been beginning to organise at a grassroots level – no longer willing to put up with working excessively long hours for what works out at less than the minimum wage, when universities increasingly rely on us to provide the majority of their teaching. In February 2015 a national FACE conference (Fighting Against Casualisation in Education), attended by over 150 people, brought together casualised academics from across the UK to share their experiences of organising against this kind of exploitation and to make plans to work together in the future. Perhaps Teach Higher should be seen as management’s response to such exciting new developments, an ideal way to divide and rule Higher Education employees and rollback what meagre trade union rights we have at present.
What's interesting about this move is that the University looks increasingly like a brokerage service. You'll be able to find a PhD supervisor like a babysitter. How much to supervise one student? Say £1500 per year, no pension, no protection, no union. The University meanwhile will continue to charge their full fee, whilst sacking their permanent research staff who are now far too expensive to supervise PhD students!

Watch this space. I predict low-ranking institutions will be particularly keen on this model!

So here the equations mean that University Profits increase with the driving down of the wage bill and the casualisation of academic staff, with student debt feeding the machine. Profits are then fed into elaborate building projects and higher salaries for managers (one would have to be careful that arrangements with building contractors did not become corrupted - it would no doubt be tempting for managers!) Of course, at some point some of those students may find themselves working for the University machine ("Teach Higher" will no doubt be attractive!), but it will be a trap: there'll be nowhere to move on to.

So, why are universities, and those that run them, getting away with all this? Why haven't we seen Free Universities yet? Why are they opposed by the establishment?

The capital value of universities rests largely on their power to award degrees (and a tiny bit on the buildings). If nobody valued the degrees, the Universities would simply be buildings. Capital value is tied to mechanisms of social status. Universities have been 'status farms' for centuries. The number of illustrious names who have passed through Oxford and Cambridge colleges (and a few in the LSE!), all of whom have become immortal and changed the world acts as a magnet which affects any institution calling itself "University". Whilst it lends itself to 'marketing', this is about much more than marketing. It's really about fairy dust and the meaning of life.

There is no reason (I'm sure the LSE, Amsterdam and everyone else knows this) why a Free University should not be an excellent 'status farm'. Indeed, they may well do better than more established institutions. But by being free, they would not serve the function of capital generation from student debt. Isn't this what really scares the Establishment? - it would blow a hole in the strategy for keeping capitalism afloat. Take away student debt, and capitalism would have to find ways of encouraging people to mortgage their bodily organs! Student debt is a kind of 'brain mortgage', after all.

All universities are funded in the intention that they continue to pursue truth and knowledge because it represents the only thing that really matters about university in its relation to society: hope. The managerial game is to give the impression that the pursuit of knowledge continues (by hiring academics in time for the REF and then dismissing them), whilst increasing corporate profits and building new buildings. It is to give an illusion of hope, framed by capitalist rhetoric of the "graduate premium", but which is shallow, cynical and unsatisfying to human spiritual needs. The crippling truth is that a new Popper or Lakatos would not find employment in Bolton, let alone the LSE. The fairy dust (for those institutions that have some) has been cased in aspic and placed in shiny glass cabinets in the VC's office. But modern VCs are rather like the magician in C.S. Lewis's "The Magician's Nephew": they don't really know what they're dealing with. The human spirit of which the dust is made is much more powerful than they realise.

They may yet have to listen to the students occupying their buildings.

1 comment:

Simon Grant said...

Thanks, Mark! In many ways, I think the challenge is to bridge that gap between the two models you set out. Yes, it's got to be a place of free enquiry and learning. Yes, it also must survive economically -- not as a tool to be manipulated by the owners of capital, to be sure, but as a place where the enough resources are secure enough, and maintained so, to create an effective environment where learners don't suffer so much stress that their intellectual creativity is impaired.

The "funding" could potentially be done in many ways. First, we would need to trim away the excess of self-inflated senior management salaries. But there remains the question of how to support the maintenance of what is really necessary.