Communism and free education

'Omnia sunt communia'

A short blog inspired by a long banner.

Some students today unfurled a giant banner. In simple white type on black, one side simply read 'communism'. On the reverse, 'omnia sunt communia'. Not being versed in latin, an accompanying leaflet translated and gave some context. Meaning 'all things in common', it was a slogan from the German Peasant's War of 1524-1526, when the peasantry rose up against princes and church to fight for heaven on Earth (literally, being radical Christian heretics).

As such, it harks back to a time before communism became associated with the word 'party', still less 'state'. Communism not as an ideology of manifestos and political groups, but as a movement of thousands of ordinary people struggling against poverty and tyranny. What has this got to do with education? Well, often when education activists talk of free education it sounds as if they're talking about a lost golden age, an age of grants not fees, of intellectual freedom before the instrumental logic of the REF.

This golden age is presumed to have existed sometime in the post-war period. But is it a case of rose-tinted spectacles? In 1950, just 3.4% of the generation went to university. There may have been greater intellectual freedom, and monetary freedom too in the form of grants, but it really was an elite affair. By 1970, still less than 10% of the generation went. It was still a pretty exclusive club. Despite this, at Sussex in the early 1970s there were a whole host of struggles including rent strikes, student occupations, workers' strikes and assessment boycotts. The golden age wasn't all that golden.

Today, somewhere between 40% and 50% of each generation goes to university (as high as 50% for women, lower for men). But the price of this has been the loss of freedoms - both intellectual and financial - as rising fees have replaced grants and modularisation and assessment have reduced education to training. Capitalism once offered free education for an elite, it now offers debt-burdened training for the masses.1 In Brighton, where 46% of people have degrees, a local business website boasts the town's

economic profile means that the workforce is used to working flexibly and creatively and tends to have high-level business and customer service skills.2

The universities feed the call centres. So if we want free education for all, we can't look back, only forward. When we reject the logic of privatization and profit, without knowing it, we echo the insurgent peasants who declared 'everything in common'. Capitalism has expanded access to universities the only way it knows how - by turning education into a commodity and universities into businesses. But free education requires a free society. When we talk about free education against the state drive to market, we implicitly pose the question what kind of society could do that - and what kind of movement could get us there. Perhaps the struggle itself will prove the best education.

  • 1. Obviously it still also educates the elite too, e.g. PPE at Oxford.
  • 2. Hat tip to carver for sending me this link.

Posted By

Joseph Kay
Feb 12 2013 20:36

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  • Capitalism has expanded access to universities the only way it knows how - by turning education into a commodity and universities into businesses. But free education requires a free society.

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Comments

Steven.
Feb 13 2013 11:51

Hey, good blog, but one question: what is REF?

Joseph Kay
Feb 13 2013 12:03

Ah sorry, I'll add in a link. It's the 'Research Excellence Framework', basically Ofsted for academics, in terms of its function.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Research_Excellence_Framework

Spikymike
Feb 13 2013 13:51

Some valid points here - as to the conclusion:

Perhaps, but..........'' 'We' implicitly pose the question what kind of society....'' depends on who the 'we' refers to (the general run of students and lecturers, most campaigners, the left, the SolFed) and what is meant by 'free education' and a 'free society'.

Not if the meaning goes no further than the self-managing of roughly the same institutions with 'free' as in no payment. But maybe, if it means the de-institutionalisation of education and it's integration into the everyday function of life in a human community?

It might even involve 'burning down the universities' at least metaphorically speaking!

Not sure how to translate that into Latin!

Soapy
Feb 13 2013 21:41

Isn't this sort of similar to from what I've understood to be one of the main reasons for the uprising in Tunisia? Being that there were a bunch of university grads there walking around unable to find work and people were naturally pretty pissed about that.

Chilli Sauce
Feb 14 2013 20:42
Quote:
A short blog inspired by a long banner.

LOL. And I mean actual LOL. laugh out loud

Joseph Kay
Feb 14 2013 22:01

So today the vice-chancellor (salary c.£250,000) put out a textbook divide and rule statement, 'silent majority', 'represents no-one', 'the workers oppose the occupation' etc. So the catering staff in the building, who are being outsourced, sent some food up to the occupation:

Joseph Kay
Feb 14 2013 22:37

there was also a not-so-veiled threat to cut teaching budgets to compensate for the loss of commercial revenue from the conference centre. he really is a panto villain, who now has private security escort him around campus.

madashell
Feb 15 2013 08:16
Spikymike wrote:
Not if the meaning goes no further than the self-managing of roughly the same institutions with 'free' as in no payment. But maybe, if it means the de-institutionalisation of education and it's integration into the everyday function of life in a human community?

Surely some things are abstract and specialised enough that this isn't really possible though? How do you integrate, say, complex number theory or particle physics into the everyday function of a community?

I'd argue for the opening up of these institutions, not their destruction.

Spikymike
Feb 15 2013 13:51

I suppose if you ''open up'' some institutions enough they might then 'melt' into the wider community? A 'human community' is still a complex web of different activities and does not exclude some people specialising (at least for some of their time) but specialist knowledge and learning does not have to be as compartmentalised as it is now or only contained within the particular form of the University as we know it today still less it's physical expression. We might also expect that there is more flexibillity as between different activities, and also that theory and practice are more integrated, in a society which is not based on the capitalist division of labour and it's associated hierachies and self-interested professional rackets. Of course even if 'particle physics' education survives in some form 'sociology', 'business management' and many others, including probably some science subjects, the mainstay of the current University system, will not.

What all that might imply for the actual messy process of revolutionary change is anyones guess, but some burning down is perhaps just as likely as occupations and alternative uses.

Chilli Sauce
Feb 22 2013 20:22

Nevermind.

Skraeling
Feb 23 2013 00:59
Joseph Kay wrote:
Well, often when education activists talk of free education it sounds as if they're talking about a lost golden age, an age of grants not fees, of intellectual freedom before the instrumental logic of the REF.

This golden age is presumed to have existed sometime in the post-war period. But is it a case of rose-tinted spectacles? In 1950, just 3.4% of the generation went to university. There may have been greater intellectual freedom, and monetary freedom too in the form of grants, but it really was an elite affair. By 1970, still less than 10% of the generation went. It was still a pretty exclusive club. Despite this, at Sussex in the early 1970s there were a whole host of struggles including rent strikes, student occupations, workers' strikes and assessment boycotts. The golden age wasn't all that golden.

Today, somewhere between 40% and 50% of each generation goes to university (as high as 50% for women, lower for men). But the price of this has been the loss of freedoms - both intellectual and financial - as rising fees have replaced grants and modularisation and assessment have reduced education to training. Capitalism once offered free education for an elite, it now offers debt-burdened training for the masses.

Nah, unis were once training grounds for the capitalist class, and managerial strata. But maybe since the early 1960s, with the expansion of white collar office work, and the expansion corporate and state bureaucracies under the keynesian class compromise and the fordist society they opened up a bit. One reason among many there was a student revolt in the late 60s/early 70s was becos lots more working class peeps were going to edu-factories - and they were going to get training in office work, in corporate and state bureaucracies, as researchers, clerks, office johnnies, paper pushers, and technicians etc. Hardly an elite! Tho of course some were headed for the capitalist class and managerial heights.

Not sure where you got the figure of 10% in a generation going to uni in 1970. I'm not from the UK but it was a much larger proportion in other high income countries. And if you add in those going to technical schools/polytechnics (dunno what it's called in the UK) it would be much higher. In any case, I don't think the elite is 10% of the popn - from studies from the 1970s i've seen the capitalist class and top managers are put at about 3-4-5%.

So i'd see the continuing expansion of unis as training grounds for proles as part of long-term trend, not something unique to this time period. In short, it simply reflects the rise of white collar work over blue collar work since the 1950s and 1960s. Of course, there is the lingering perception that univ students are 'privileged' - which in many ways they are, and have been - but that does make all of them 'middle class' in the 1970s or now (under the marxist/class-based anarchist view of class).

Caiman del Barrio
Feb 24 2013 15:36

Sympathetic article in (yep) Vice on the Sussex occupation: http://www.vice.com/en_uk/read/students-at-sussex-university-are-into-their-third-week-of-occupation

Folks have done well there to maintain the momentum.

wojtek
Feb 26 2013 00:02
Quote:
...

TA: The most visible banner at one of your rallies belonged to a communist group. Are the more radical groups hijacking and damaging this campaign?

HR: In terms of that banner, I know the people who made it and they are close friends of mine.

The image of those guys is of super punks and radical Stalinists. But they aren’t demanding a Soviet state university, they just want to see a democratic decision making process.

Hopefully it will dispell some pre-conceptions people have against them. They are perfectly sensible people going about making themselves heard in a sensible manner.

You can’t tell people to not bring banners, it’s freedom of expression.

On the back is a phrase in Latin which translates as all things communal or something like that.

If we stick together we are far stronger...

http://www.theargus.co.uk/news/10250101.The_Big_Interview__Student_protester_Hugo_Redwood/