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.