The Assault on Universities: A Review

In Articles on 30 November 2011 at 9:45 pm

Nina Power

Around 50,00 students took to the streets of London on 10th November 2010 to demonstrate against the proposed higher education cuts. Andrew Moss Photography. CC BY 2.0

What will higher education in the UK look like in a few years’ time? What can we do right now to save it? If the coalition government’s vision in the Browne Report and subsequent White Paper is to be implemented in full we can imagine several things, all highly undesirable: a two-tier university system in which rich and well-placed middle and upper-middle class students dominate the Russell Group even more than they do already; these institutions, now being able to set their own fees, can charge Ivy-League rates whilst ignoring the all least attempted meritocratic supplement of US college scholarships; students at these institutions will be able to study a wide range of subjects, including those in the arts and humanities – Philosophy, History and Classics will thus return to being the preserve of a cultured elite. In the second tier, private providers will take over those institutions unable to survive the loss of the block grant and who lack land and other resources to weather the sudden loss of income: degrees here will be shorter, perhaps lasting two years rather than three or four, classes will run before and after people go to work, or at weekends, and much of the provision will appear online. Smaller subjects will have disappeared due to a supposed lack of demand and the awkwardness of fitting them into the timetable. Endless feedback forms will attempt to reassure the student that he or she is first and foremost a “client”, unless he or she is involved in any political action on campus or elsewhere, in which case the new squatting laws will immediately be applied, turning the student from consumer to criminal faster than you can say “domestic extremist”.

Police will increasingly be brought in to work as security staff, while swipe-card points will be installed and activated across campuses; any meeting that involves discussion of police or organising student protest will be heavily monitored, with applications having to be in to the student union for such events weeks in advance. Meanwhile, lecturers will be increasingly asked to spy on their students, to monitor their absences and report any suspicious behaviour, all the while ensuring that the same student is nevertheless constantly satisfied with the course and the teaching. Students will “share” heavily securitised and policed campuses with large groups of business people from companies paying a lot to the university for use of rooms and catering; academic conferences will have been deemed unable to continue when those organising them have been asked to rent rooms at competitive prices, so these have been scrapped, unless outside funding for them has come from multinational corporations, the arms trade and government bodies.

“The students who took to the streets were not defending the education factories we so resent, but were fighting back against education becoming more of what it already is” – Ashok Kumar

Anyone involved in higher education in recent years will recognise some, if not most, of this depressing vision of university education where the opportunity for (above all) working class students to study subjects in serious depth has been significantly eroded, with debt putting increasing numbers off, and term-time employment, necessary to keep afloat, eating into the time students can put in to attending class and working on essays. And just as working class students are increasingly placed at a distance from the earlier widening participation agenda of the mid-20th century, those universities most committed to this agenda, the post-92 institutions, are suffering earlier and harder than their Russell group peers. As Des Freedman puts it in the introduction to this collection, these are the institutions that ‘do not have the international students, research contracts or established “brands” to help them withstand the removal of public funding’. It should be added that when these institutions, despite the odds, do have world-ranked research departments, that money is nevertheless not redirected from the older ‘research-oriented’ institutions as a whole: ‘Now is not the time!’ the government cry. “Pockets of excellence” do not mean pockets containing any cash….

The Assault on Universities is the correct title for this collection of several short, sharp essays on the past, present and future of the university. What we have seen, not just under the current government, but for many years now, is an assault, part of a long-wave of attacks on the integrity, economic status and relative independence of the university that has caused terror, acquiescence, revulsion, opposition and anger in fairly equal measures among staff, current students and future students alike. It would be impossible, of course, to cleanly extract an image of the damage being done to higher education from the broader swathe of cuts that are currently being inflicted on every part of the social body; but, as many of the contributors note, the student protests of late 2010 and early 2011, and the occupations that grew out of the Gaza protests several months earlier were hugely significant. The current worldwide occupy movement, the August riots, the Arab Spring, the sluggish but potentially massive movement in the unions, the new waves of student protests on US campuses, not to mention the on-going struggles against education reform in Chile and elsewhere are all related – how exactly we may not have time to articulate before the next round of “austerity measures” and resistance to them, but very clearly things have changed, or are changing at high speed. We always think we live in interesting times, but sometimes we actually do.

The Higher Education cuts mean a tripling of the cost of tuition fees. By lewishamdreamer. CC BY-NC 2.0

The Assault on Universities thus covers a lot of ground quite quickly, analysing the history of the university in earlier sections, before looking at the current raft of reforms, analysing critical pedagogy and looking at student reaction and resistance both in the UK and elsewhere. Not surprisingly, there is some overlap, but this is no bad thing: the critical reiteration of facts and positions becomes increasingly necessary as the possibility of resisting the assaults becomes narrower and narrower. There are only a few months before fees in the region of £9,000 kick in next year – already the block grant for arts and humanities has been removed and many departments, despite fierce student and staff resistance, have closed or have stopped recruitment in a variety of subjects. What the next few months will bring in terms of resistance – More occupations? Larger protests? Students and workers out on the streets on November 30th? – isn’t yet clear. The recent student protest organised by NCAFC on November 9th provided little more than an opportunity for the Met police’s new chief, Hogan-Howe, to flex his muscles by getting 4,000 police on the street (almost one for every two protesters) as part of his “total policing” strategy. The ongoing prosecution of student protesters from last year has been well-documented, and the police violence noted, although nowhere near as structurally and systematically as would be useful to those confronting police at occupy movements, for example.

In a way, the writers here – a mixture of academics, students and activists, or all at once – perform the very thing that is in danger of being lost in the destruction of universities. That is to say, thoughtful, critical, synthetic and historical reflection. Neil Faulkner asks ‘What is a University For?’ while Jon Nixon asks us to re-imagine the Public Good; Michael Bailey discusses the academic’s relation to truth (via Foucault) while Natalie Fenton in ‘Impoverished Pedagogy, Privatised Practice’ points out that despite the corporate nature of the current university, ‘universities are still public institutions and their arts, humanities and social science departments are some of the last places that can challenge the principle that our lives can and should be ordered primarily by economic utility.’ These are the kinds of academics we needed all along – those who would have told the National Student Survey where to go; those who would, and still do, fight alongside their students; those who resist the marketisation and instrumentalisation of campuses, research and themselves.

But this important collection doesn’t just contain thoughtful and important work on what has been and what will be for those who care about the future of the university. The inclusion at the back of the ‘Manifesto for Resistance,’ which was circulated and signed by hundreds of academics and researchers at the end of 2010, gives focus to the implications that transpire from the sixteen essays and include concrete demands that UK public expenditure should at least match that of the EU average (Britain currently lags 0.7 to 1.1%), that fees be abolished, grants restored and funding for all subjects be reintroduced. But who will listen?

By bobaliciouslondon CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The section on ‘Student Politics’ outlines very acutely exactly what those who make up the university have done: Feyzi Ismail addresses the strengths and limitations of occupations at SOAS and elsewhere, pointing to deep divisions among staff in supporting these actions, while recognising the importance of staff and students siding together against government plans as well as management. As Alberto Toscano points out in his piece ‘The University as Political Space’, this relation is crucial: ‘Under its mild and innocent appearance, “We Support our Lecturers” [one of the early campaigns coming out of the occupations] is potentially quite a subversive slogan (if reciprocated, and translated into a different practice of the university’. The bounds of this ‘different practice’ are precisely the hardest thing to be able to articulate: If the government and management have a plan for higher education, we need one too, and faster than theirs: one that resists and refuses in equal measure to the destruction currently being waged. Where the government’s financial plans are deliberately opaque, we need clarity; where their rhetoric is about clients, consumerism and choice, ours needs – with massive force – to be about access for all, no fees and academic integrity. Our defence, our method, our intuitive way of working –  subtlety, ambiguity and careful reading – runs the risk of being our undoing. We are already on the back-foot. The trick, it seems to me, is not to be simply defending what little we have left, but to be actively campaigning for so much more. As Ashok Kumar puts it in his piece on the student movement: ‘The students who took to the streets were not defending the education factories we so resent, but were fighting back against education becoming more of what it already is’. We need to be both realistic and unrealistic in demanding the possible and the impossible at the same time: imagine a world without fees! With grants! With a government and management that supported academic work as such! What is now seen as impossible was once a reality. Let us demand our fantasy of the good old days in the name of the new.


The Assault on Universities: A Manifesto of Resistance is available from Pluto Press for £13

Nina Power is a Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at Roehampton University. She is the co-editor of Alain Badiou’s On Beckett and his Political Writings. Nina has published widely on topics including Iran, humanism, vintage pornography and Marxism. Her book One Dimensional Woman is published by O-Books. She also blogs regularly at Infinite Thought.


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