Don’t Defend the University, Transform it!

In Articles on 15 August 2011 at 5:31 pm

by Amy Clancy

On 10th November 2010, following Lord Browne’s recommendations to slash funding for higher education by 80% and to remove the cap on university tuition fees in England, an estimated 50,000 people rose to its defence and marched through the streets of London.

Further marches, strikes and occupations have ensued as the impact of Browne’s suggested structural adjustments shake the foundations of universities across the country. The withdrawal of public funds beckons the closure of entire departments, increasingly under-resourced courses, the further exploitation of postgraduates and support staff, restrictions on research, and increased competition for funding at every level. Simultaneously, the hike in fees signifies an effective ‘no access’ policy for vast swathes of the population and a reinforcement of the economic logic that commodifies knowledge and places market values above all else.

What is it that so many rush to defend?

The future of the university hangs in the balance and the instinct to defend it against a wholesale attack seems to be an obvious response. But what is it that so many rush to defend? Could it be that rather than seize our placard shields, we should instead rejoice in the downfall of the institution? Or should we perhaps seize this opportunity to search for ways to re-imagine the university and radically transform its inner workings, to look at the actual functioning of the university, to question the kind of subjects it produces and the form of market-led ‘common sense’ that it reproduces?

The Value of University Education

Traditionally, universities have been regarded as elite institutions of learning and research that benefit the privileged minority who can afford the time and the money to attend. Following the Second World War, the role of the university within society grew to accommodate the country’s need for a trained workforce. Public investment into university grants for tuition and maintenance was justified on this basis, and a major expansion in the number of universities occurred. More recently, the university has been undergoing a gradual move into the private sphere, a process that has gathered pace over the past few months.

In 1997, an integral shift took place when Sir Ronald Dearing identified the student, rather than collective society, as the main beneficiary of university education. Dearing’s assertion provided a rationale for the introduction of tuition fees, which were implemented in 1998 under the Teaching and Higher Education Act. Six years later, under the Higher Education Act 2004, the cap on fees tripled from £1,000 to £3,000. Last year, on 12th October 2010, the Browne review published recommendations to remove the cap on fees altogether. Subsequently, a vote was passed in parliament to raise the cap to £9,000—an opportunity seized by universities at various ends of the country and league tables that were facing crippling cuts.

The introduction and rise of tuition fees has not only shackled students with debt ‘time bombs’ set to detonate after the student has left university—creating what George Caffentzis calls the condition of ‘debt peonage’—but in doing so it has distorted the nature of student-educator relations and led to a major shift in the perceived role and value of higher education. Universities are increasingly run as businesses, with students as consumers and lecturers as creators—or at least deliverers—of products. Knowledge has become a commodity that can be bought and sold, its ‘value’ determined by its ability to provide financial returns on investment to students and skilled labour for employers.

In the latest White Paper on higher education, ironically entitled Students at the Heart of the System, the government outlines its strategy to facilitate the full appropriation of higher education by the market through the wholesale restructuring of university education. With a cursory nod to the role of education in broadening intellectual horizons, the paper is clear in its view that the role of higher education is to contribute to economic growth and the human capital of students. Most worrying perhaps is the expectation that the only knowledge worth pursuing is that which will appeal to market demand, guarantee a job for the student at the end, and turn a healthy profit for investors in the process. To this end, The White Paper states, ‘[e]mployers may help to meet a student’s tuition costs in return for a commitment from the student to work whilst studying, and a commitment from the institution to align course content to their specific needs’. Established bodies will be appointed new roles to oversee this process, with the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) assuming the position of ‘consumer champion for students and promoter of a competitive system.

Comparing the Incomparable

It is already the case that universities must compete with each other to access funding. However, with a diminished pot of funds and more competitors setting up their stalls, the marketplace is set to become increasingly hostile. In order to place themselves in an advantageous position, universities must perform well according to assessment criteria decided by HEFCE, based on the publications of the academics in its staff.

The implementation of quantitative assessment mechanisms to determine the allocation of funding, research parameters, and course outlines serve to facilitate the all-encompassing marketisation of education. The Research Excellence Framework (REF) and the National Student Survey (NSS) are two such mechanisms intended to assess the ‘quality’ of teaching and research, in order to facilitate ‘fair’ competition. While details are yet to be finalised, the likely method of assessment will be based on grading the quality of research produced by a university department using a sample of articles per academic, where articles appearing in top-ranked journals receive higher grades.

Alongside the REF, the NSS acts as a customer satisfaction questionnaire in which students grade ‘the university experience’. The White Paper states that ‘universities will be expected to publish online summary reports of student surveys of lecture courses, aiding choice and stimulating competition between the best academics’. These will contribute to the creation of league tables and the reduction of qualitatively discreet experiences into supposedly like for like comparisons.

Each mechanism serves to compare the performance and increase competition of academics, departments and universities delivering qualitatively different courses. With research funding being tied to departments’ REF performance, research will be guided by performance in league tables ahead of all other values. All this results in students taking on more debt for an ‘education’ stripped of its integrity, lecturers being forced to carry out ‘economies exercises’ and departments, even whole universities, being allowed to fail because they are not compatible with the market logic.

To summarise, the university system—and education per se—is increasingly being understood as nothing but an investment opportunity. The ‘value’ of education is found in its ability to facilitate a student securing a higher wage in the future; the debt and fees taken on become understood as the stake placed in an entrepreneurial gamble to increase future ‘returns’. Framed like this, it makes perfect ‘sense’ for students to pay for their education—after all, isn’t it their ‘free’ choice to assess whether education is ‘worth it’? What is to be garnered from this is that the various changes to the university system, from the introduction of fees to the REF, are part of a process that fosters an economic subjectivity—what Foucault termed homo oeconomicus—whereby the ‘rational’ way of seeing the world is as a series of economic decisions. Whilst the negative impacts of the current reforms in terms of access to education, course content, research goals, etc., are widely documented, it is the cultivation of this economic subjectivity that is perhaps the most consistent and worrying theme in the operation of the contemporary university.

Desiring Transformation

The Really Open University (ROU) emerged towards the end of 2009 and represents an ongoing process of exploration and experimentation regarding the functioning of the university and its role in society. It is comprised of people from within and without the university who desire the realisation of a free and empowering education system where creative and critical thought is fostered. Having perceived the contemporary university system as increasingly being organised according to a self-perpetuating economic logic, one which advocates the reduction of knowledge to a commodity useful only to the extent it can provide returns on investment, the ROU does not wish to defend the university but radically transform the very rationale that currently dominates higher education.

To be clear, there is no alternative ROU product being peddled, nor any desire to compete with existing institutions through the creation of a new model institution. The ROU does not intend to prescribe an alternative system. Rather, the ROU seeks to understand the university and its role in society, to explore ways and means of reclaiming pedagogical space and the quest for knowledge towards the betterment of society and ultimately, to facilitate a multitude of transformations. To this end, the ROU has embarked upon a process of understanding and challenging the university in its present state by opening up spaces to critique, intervene and re-imagine.

Significantly, the ROU does not simply want to offer a critique of the university but to create dynamic examples of knowledge relations. So far, the ROU has hosted a three day event, Re-imagine the University, at the University of Leeds; collaboratively produced a journal by the same name with the Roundhouse Group; reclaimed space in empty retail units to host open discussions; and, spoken out against direct attacks within the University of Leeds through the publication of the regular newsletter, the Sausage Factory.

While the ROU has no blueprints for a future system, it has published three ‘reforms’ that place the university on a new trajectory with human and ecological welfare at the heart of knowledge sharing and research. Imagine the Abolition of all Fees and the Institution of a Living Wage; a Debt Jubilee for all past students; and, the Abolition of the Research Excellence Framework and the National Student Survey…. These ‘reforms’ are not the answer, but by explicitly targeting those factors, which encourage the development of economic rationality within higher education, they attempt to reclaim the production and dissemination of knowledge from an economic logic that restricts the potential of knowledge itself. They represent the ROU’s belief that we need to move beyond the reactionary defence of higher education and into a realm of progressive transformation.

Amy Clancy is a graduate student in Architecture at the Centre for Alternative Technology, Wales. She works and resides in Leeds and is an active participant in the Really Open University. More information can be found on the Really Open University blog

Editor’s Correction: Earlier version mentioned “Gordon Brown” when it was meant to say “Lord Browne”. This was an editor’s mistake, not the author’s.


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