By Sarah Amsler
It is a time of extraordinary potential for change in UK Higher Education. Labour’s promise to end tuition fees has defied the critics and united many behind Corbyn’s political project. But what will the implications for universities be if this comes to pass? And what can we do to leverage this progress? In this series, the Norwich Radical and Bright Green are bringing together perspectives from across the sector to explore these questions.
‘The university’ is a fertile space within which to practice radical imagining and world-making today. I do not mean that actually-existing universities, in the UK or elsewhere, necessarily provide space for such work. On the contrary, there is ample evidence that the spaces for critique and creative thinking in higher education have shrunk as forces of commodity fetishism, privatisation, competition and authoritarian modes of control have permeated university governance. For more than forty years, academics and students themselves have been documenting the university’s transformation from one type of institution into another; charting its journey in the UK, for example, from being a largely elite self-governing body of learning and research in the 1960s to becoming a largely elite corporation undemocratically managed to maximise competitive knowledge production by the turn of the twenty-first century (the 1963 Robbins Report, 1997 Dearing Report and 2010 Browne Review give some indication of these changes).
While not always a tale of successful resistance, this history teaches us how seemingly fluid processes of capitalist subsumption have been shaped by a plurality of individual and collective struggles against the exploitation of wage labour, the corporatisation of academic life, the production of debtors through tuition fees, the reproduction of social inequalities through numerous systems of privilege and classification, the devaluation and exclusion of non-economically profitable knowledges, and the metricisation and performance management of academic labour and pedagogical relationships. Yet while these struggles have been ongoing in the UK – and, as exemplified by current student and academic union renewal, are in some ways now being revitalised – the corporate university’s need to subordinate its purpose, students, teachers, administrators and caretakers to the values and imperatives of capitalism has inflicted considerable damage on its own psychological, physical and emotional health.
In very recent years, reports of anxiety, mental illness and interpersonal violence in professional relationships have moved from the subterranean spaces of ‘corridor conversations’ into the limelight of the national press. The circulation of the historical rallying cry ‘We are the university!’ during the university strike of Spring 2018 signalled the articulation of heightened class consciousness and defence of autonomy and purpose within the institution, and it has catalysed new debates about related issues such as the value of financing universities with student tuition fees.
These debates are vital, not least because there are millions of people across the UK whose quality of life and possibilities for political engagement are being significantly impacted by the prospect of massive long-term debt (or the decision not to incur it), and by the dominance of commodified and transactional forms of learning in universities. Yet, historically speaking, the question of who should pay for higher education – individuals or the state – is an old one. Students paid fees prior to 1962, after which tuition charges were abolished and grants introduced for full-time, UK-based students (not part-time and international students). A Labour government re-introduced fees in 1998 (swiftly abolished in Scotland in 2000) and trebled them in 2004, with the coalition government trebling them again in 2010. Today’s activists can ask many fruitful questions of these historical struggles over how, why and for whom, the university should be funded – including why the neoliberal model has been so hard to successfully resist, and why academics and administrators themselves have never organised or participated in a serious, sustained or systematic movement to refuse or abolish university tuition fees in the UK. It is worth remembering that while ‘we’ may be the university, many of our members pay a high price to be here.
‘The university’ exists before and beyond the institutions that bear its name
Something is missing from critiques that focus on solely abolishing tuition fees. While it remains an important part of the project, pursuing this goal in isolation serves to reproduce some problematic assumptions that limit our radical imagination of what higher education can be. One such assumption is that the problem lies in whether individuals or the state should foot the bill, rather than in what purpose higher education serves within society more generally. While there have been a number of high-profile campaigns to ‘re-imagine the university’ across Europe, these imaginaries often struggle to question the foundational principles of the existing system. ‘Higher education’ remains stuck within familiar institutions, with their systems of professionalisation and obsession with credentials. This ontological settlement is also bounded by nationalist or internationalist borders which can obscure visibility of the more pluralistic landscape of adult learning and collective knowledge production of which particular higher education systems are part.
‘The university’ exists before and beyond the institutions that bear its name, as well as in multifarious ways within them. While it requires resources to emerge and survive, the university in these forms is already often non-commodified, ‘post-fees’ and in some cases post-capitalist. There are a host of examples, if you know where to look – from the newly formed (post-coup) network of ‘Solidarity Academies’ and research centres in Turkey to the Universidad de la Tierra in Mexico; from the co-operative Mondragon Unibertsitatea in the Basque Country to the subversive AntiUniversity NOW project in London; from adult education classes to free universities to radical informal learning spaces in the UK and beyond. Recent closures of ‘specialist’ university courses, particularly those offering transformative part-time and ‘second-chance education’, has also catalysed the grassroots self-organisation of new independent co-operative colleges which charge very low or subsidised fees for tuition, such as Leicester Vaughan College.
The world is filled with pedagogical possibility for those who wish to explore it. Just as the university as a place and an activity is fertile soil for the radical imagination, so too are the attachments, subjectivities, affinities and ways of life of its inhabitants. While we need not be wholly without the university in order to fight for higher education for all, by learning how not to be wholly within actually-existing university institutions we can begin to breathe other possibilities.
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