Adventures in the sausage factory: a cursory overview of UK university struggles, November 2010 – July 2011

Nearly a year after the attenuation of a wave of further and higher education struggles against state-led ‘decomposition’, Danny Hayward looks back at the faultlines within this resistance and the future which follows its defeat

Submitted by Django on February 12, 2012

Decomposing Higher Education: Stage One

During the 1990s, as the transition of the British economy to a giant services station continued apace, and as British manufacturing shriveled into a kind of nostalgic mantelpiece ornament, British politicians and ‘independent observers’ cast about in search of a new ‘driver’ for long term British economic growth.1

In their quixotic quest for a saviour, or at least for a convenient footstool for the financial services sector, the politicians turned to the universities. And the British universities seemed the perfect solution to Britain’s long term macro-economic discontents. Their mix of dreamy spires and robust benchmarking in international league tables offered the kind of synergy that management consultants are willing to die for. On the one hand, cutting edge global competitiveness; on the other, feudal nostalgia. The State had found what it needed. Quicker than a stock market flash crash, a thousand thousand page reports were commissioned on how best to exploit this invaluable national resource. The future seemed golden. A ‘high-skill economy’ would revolutionise domestic production. In the tiny but overheated imaginations of public policy planners, the ‘stream’ of British university graduates would meet a stream of capital credit from the booming financial services industry, and these together would make up a river which would fertilise the fields of national capital accumulation. Dynamic entrepreneurs would live together in harmony in this bucolic postindustrial paradise. And then the dotcom bubble burst. And then growth failed to accelerate during the upturn in the business cycle. And then the credit crisis happened.

The slow death of this particular accumulation fantasy concluded on 12 October 2010 with the publication of a report on university ‘sustainability’. The Browne Report – named after the ex-BP Chief Executive who chaired the review leading to its publication – advised that the State withdraw almost its entire financial subsidy to university teaching. The report advocated a new system of financing in which the degree holder rather than the State would be liable for the costs of her education. English students, who since 1998 had been required to pay a ‘top-up’ fee to complement the State’s inadequate student subsidy per capita, were now to acknowledge that, as the ‘primary beneficiaries’ of their degree in view of projected future earnings, it was their responsibility to bear the majority of the costs.2

Exploiting the crisis rhetoric which had echoed and re-echoed in the bourgeois media since 2007, this moral argument was immediately desublimated into an argument about economic necessity. As Browne wrote in his Executive Summary, a degree is of benefit both to the holder, through higher levels of social contribution and higher lifetime earnings, and to the nation, through higher economic growth rates and the improved health of society. Getting the balance of funding appropriate to reflect these benefits is essential if funding is to be sustainable.3

The new ‘balance’ which Browne proposed would involve the removal of the cap on university fees, set in 2010 at £3,290. The cap would be raised to £9,000 on the understanding that state subsidies for teaching in English universities – still £4.4 billion in 2011-2012 – would be scaled down to near zero, with a continuing (though in absolute terms equally reduced) subsidy only for those students in disciplines where education is more capital intensive. These were the so called ‘STEM’ subjects: Sciences, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Because even the one time Chief Executive of BP is aware that most students cannot afford to pay £9,000 per annum plus monies for accommodation and maintenance, Browne’s proposal was that the new fees would be financed in the first instance by an expanded system of state loan provision. Education would be ‘free at point of access’ in the sense that students would be guaranteed access to credit both for their fees and for their living costs. These students once graduated and earning more than £21,000 per annum would repay their loans at either rates of interest fixed to inflation or at the rate of inflation plus 2.2 percent, depending on how far above the repayment threshold their wages fell. On the specifics, Browne’s report adopted a kind of studious evasiveness: it was not clear (nor is it now) what level of earnings would constitute a high earner, and readers of the report were expected to accept its myriad bullet points and graphs as a comforting proxy for detail as yet plainly undecided.

One month later, while several thousand students celebrated in the courtyard, the windows of the Conservative Party headquarters – now referred to, after the area in Westminster it was situated in, as ‘Millbank’ – were kicked in. While police looked more or less helplessly on, the building was trashed. It was the riotous opening ceremony for several months of unusually intense domestic education struggle. The following analysis, focusing on the period from late 2010 to mid-2011, will dwell at length on what one gentleman correspondent in the London Review of Books called, in reference to the Browne Review and the state policy which it partially inspired, ‘the tired debate on class’. It will do so because the possibility for effective linkage between a narrowly ‘education-based’ and a broader class struggle seems to me to derive from the failure of the process of domestic capital recomposition which growth in the university sector was intended to ‘drive’. This includes the signal failure of university expansion to produce an extensive ‘high-skill’ service sector, or, in other words, its failure to assure anything other than highly- policed jobless or at best ‘casualised’ misery for most of its graduates; and because I’m unconvinced that there is much of interest to be said about the function or structure of British Higher Education or about the Humanities without reference to class organisation and class values; and because with the benefit of a half-inch of hindsight it is easier to itemise the class foundations of many of the most widely canvassed arguments against increased fees and university ‘marketisation’.

And so the following will attempt an anatomy. Since I assume that the majority of its readers will not be working class teenagers but will instead be the ‘kind’ (the class) of person who might be apt to make a case for Higher Education as a ‘social good’ or for the value of academic ‘autonomy’, its objective (insofar as it has one) is to call for a materialist reevaluation of those categories.

The Timid (‘Anti-Market’) Battle Cry of the Professoriate

Much indecorous intellectual mud wrestling followed the publication of Browne’s Report. Disgruntled academics jostled in their in house organs (the Times Higher Education, the London Review of Books) to complain about the declension from social democratic principle. The official complaints of the liberal academics were several. Their arguments were initially provided with a great deal of airtime. They might be worth summarising at the outset. Firstly, Higher Education is a ‘social’ and not as Lord Browne’s report implies a ‘private’ good. Secondly, higher education is a noble practice, requiring time for ‘reflection’ and ‘contemplation’ and unable to thrive where a report on research productivity has to be mailed to the oiks in human resources every fifteen seconds on weekdays (or, if not to them, then to their bureaucratic imagos assigned to the assessment of research ‘impact’). Thirdly, students and lecturers ought to possess a collaborative relationship in which each party is entitled to challenge the other, and this relationship cannot survive after student-consumers have been raised onto a throne made of cheap beer and unfinished essays and declared sovereign. Fourthly, the State’s athletic genuflection before the golden calf of ‘market-discipline’ is asinine, because closer inspection reveals that it is forced to build into its new funding system checks and safeguards to prevent student choice from perverting the supply of labour-commodities to employers. In short, quoth the enlightened professors, human calculators like Lord Browne were welcome to perform their tricks in the private sector kennel assigned to them – and the Orphic journalists of the Financial Times were welcome to sing their praiseful rhapsodies – but the wholesale supervention of market logic on the sweet cloisters of English Higher Education was a gross imposition not to be tolerated. There are, the professors argued, values which cannot ‘flourish’ in the sprit vacuum of a market, and whether those markets are ‘natural’ or ‘artificial’, these high values must be preserved against the ‘consumer relativism’ to which idiotic political beefcakes like David ‘two brains’ Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science, are likely to defer, as surely as Pavlov’s dog to its bell.

Some of these complaints were borne out by later developments (to be discussed below); but in any case these were popular arguments, aired in well circulated journals and often dressed up with close textual reference to the relevant state policy documents. The documents were routinely sneered at for their febrile adherence to basic standards in business speak, ripped off from superannuated management textbooks now patiently gathering dust in the Sale sections of university bookshops. The cool and careful periods of State paternalists of the distant past – i.e., of the mid-1960s, from an era before Thatcherism, the destruction of the coal mining industry and the wholesale degeneration of the educated English of the enlightened bourgeoisie – were reconstructed and elegised.

Nevertheless the arguments suffer from an obvious explanatory deficit. Accounting for the changes in Higher Education, Stefan Collini writes that

British society has been subject to a deliberate campaign, initiated in free-market think tanks in the 1960s and 1970s and pushed strongly by business leaders and right-wing commentators ever since, to elevate the status of business and commerce and to make ‘contributing to economic growth’ the overriding goal of a whole swathe of social, cultural and intellectual activities which had previously been understood and valued in other terms. Such a campaign would not have been successful, of course, had it not been working with the grain of other changes in British society and the wider world. Very broadly speaking, the extension of democratic and egalitarian social attitudes has been accompanied by the growth of a kind of consumerist relativism.4

It is surely necessary to resist this account. On its terms, a business ideology, supported by a heterodox or confused alliance of free market think tanks and ‘democratic and egalitarian social attitudes’, has marched its rag-tag banner into the heart of the British State. The enemy and victim of this alliance is the University, which relies on a strict hierarchy of values and on the ‘educational judgment’ which (it is implied) is exclusively competent to arbitrate between them. It is the characteristic feature of this kind of argument that it demands the restitution of a paternalist social democratic system whose internal decline was what accelerated the ‘privatisation’ of formerly public institutions in the first place: the argument takes a prurient interest in the inability of markets to assure their own self-reproduction not, as it might at first appear, in order to demonstrate the deep relationship between UK Higher Education and the full market system in its crisis, but in order to convince markets that its contradictions are amenable to resolution if only academic counsel is heeded. The real relationship of English Higher Education to the wider British ‘business climate’ – in whose toxic environs new graduates are currently expected to suffocate – and the relationship of the wider British business climate to the total global capital – is therefore perfectly obfuscated. This is not surprising, since academics have not until now been the principal victims of large scale economic crisis.

Student Struggle: November 2010 – March 2011

The 2010-2011 cycle of UK student protest began with the smashed windows of the Conservative Party HQ in Millbank; accelerated into a long sequence of occupations alternately (and often simultaneously) serious and farcical; dwindled into the introspective political manoeuvrings of an activist core during the long sequence of marches and demonstrations which culminated in late February; and, at last, sublated itself in the black bloc which formed at the Trades Union Congress demonstration on 26 March.5

During that time its composition underwent a sharp expansion and contraction, as its initial – pre-eminently white and middle class – formation expanded to incorporate black and Asian inner and outer city youths, only then to dwindle again, to the agonised puzzlement of the students who were therefore denuded of their ‘movement’.

For those whose last recollection of a domestic popular protest was the anti-war march in 2003, the spontaneous redesign of conservative party HQ was, if nothing else, refreshing. All those chairs forever doomed to be used as seating, how tedious – why not hurl them through this window. The riot also put a swift end to the ideological hegemony of the National Union of Students – which, stocked as it was (and is and will forever be) with vapid centre-left aspirants with designs on a parliamentary career – proved unwilling to endorse any campaign demand which might get up the noses of the politicians whose endorsement could aid their prospects at future party political meet and greets. At the beginning of the academic year in October 2010 the NUS was conducting a gloriously lacklustre campaign to ‘freeze’ the fees, i.e., to maintain 2010 fee levels for all future students, beating its chest and demanding a reversion to Labour Party endorsed social misery. This was a compromise oddly inconsonant with the destruction of the Tory Party headquarters. The NUS’s (then) president Aaron Porter, who, whatever his failings, was just about cunning enough to know when he might be stepping on the toes of his future benefactors, instantly squirmed into the arms of the national media to denounce the actions of the 2000-4000 participants in the ‘splinter demo’ at Millbank. The splinter demo, Porter declared, was ‘despicable’. The NUS was committed to peaceful protest and orderliness and the rapid introduction into students of diversified repertoires of soft skills; interested viewers could read its policy documents online.

All this had occurred by 12 or 13 November. The ideology of what might distastefully be called the organising core of the student movement was not as visibly reactionary as the NUS’s, though, as the above ought to suggest, it would be hard to be more prodigiously reactionary than Aaron Porter. The germane features of that ideology (and allowing of course for significant individual departures from it) can be worked out of a narrative of events running from the aftermath of the Millbank demonstration until the protest planned for the day of the Commons vote on 9 December.

The standard metaphorical vocabulary for the emerging student movement is now as fixed as the new fee regime: during the weeks of November, a ‘wave’ of university occupations ‘spread’ or ‘swept’ across the country. The spirit of ‘68 was reborn, before being farmed out for a photo shoot in Vogue and used to sell some T-shirts. Already this phraseology is very disgusting and boring. The occupations were of course in fact waves, big and small, long and short, depending to a large extent on the class profile and region of the institution in which an occupation took place; its physical infrastructure; and the (shall we say) quasi-autonomous ideological commitments of the most active participants. There were long occupations at UCL, Cambridge, SOAS, Bradford and the Slade, a short, strategic occupation at London Met, abortive occupations in Camberwell and Birmingham, a Deleuzian occupation at Edinburgh.6

The list could continue. There were, nonetheless, enough marked continuities in the statements issued by occupying students to attempt a brief sketch.

First, University occupations tended to demand that their managements resist cuts to state provision for British Higher Education.7 he argument was often framed in terms of imprescriptible rights, in this respect pace the endless avowals to the contrary in the commemorative headstones quickly erected by radical publishers – less 1968 than 1789.8

As one of the more imperiously insipid student slogans ran, Education is a right, is a right, is a right, education is a right, not a privilege. Most students in the English university system have of course always had most of the things which they have a right to (which isn’t to say that life is sweet) – but it is this which above all and unstoppably invests the word ‘rights’ with its magic aura. In their ‘Education is a Duty’ – which includes in its footnotes its own representative smattering of quotation from student occupation communiqués – The Wine and Cheese Society of Greater London suggested that the materialism of the student movement was ‘a strangely mediated and submissive materialism’, which is to say that it tended to accept that the principal function of ‘UK HE’ is to generate economic growth; and also to agree that finding yourself stuck between the contracting mandibles of the ‘labour market’ after the ‘free’ champagne at the graduation party has run dry was not, after all, so bad.9

In the months following the occupations, large numbers of student ‘activists’ generated whole data nests of thrilling online gossip about the availability of new ‘horizontal’ organisational media, at last superseding such inherently totalitarian technologies as the telephone and the human mouth. This particular circle of indulgent introspection was squared by enthusiastic nothings about ‘generational’ divides, including especially polemics against the elder ‘generations’, living it up with their totalitarian landlines and cars and their plunging private sector pensions, in a position invidiously contrasted to the impecunious underfunded British student of 2011, whose part time call centre job and 1/267 prospects of graduate employment were the result of insufficient abstemiousness by ‘baby boomers’ in – one assumes; the argument was always vague – the 1980s. Like most transiently appealing forms of social analysis, this one was obviously generalised from the social circumstances of whichever student chose to voice it. Few students with access to column inches – and this itself is often if not always a function of social privilege – said much about the closure of elderly people’s day centres and other state resourced institutions then being retrenched from under the feet of the proleterian retiree, but then the users of elderly people’s days centres cannot often be fruitfully accused of implicit totalitarianism (nor, for that matter, do they often appear to boom).10

All this first person plural posturing about ‘networked resistance’ would have been more laughable had it not had a social guarantor. This is to say that, unlike the liberal ‘anti-market’ professors, the students did pay attention to some basic facts of social exclusion. At about the same time as the Browne Report was thumping onto the desk of every education journalist in the country, the Schools Minister Michael Gove announced that the State would be cutting the so-called ‘Education Maintenance Allowance’. This was a derisory grant paid out to students over the age of sixteen conditional on attendance. The grant was means tested and set to between £10–30 per week. (A note: since the maximum pay out was set around £20 per week below the monies paid out to British unemployed benefits claimants of comparable age, EMA would be better known as Education Below Subsistence Allowance, but we’ll stick with the recognised designation in what follows.) Student activists regarded the cuts to EMA as a means of forging cross class solidarity with expropriated college students. In this respect they were not exactly incorrect.

If you type ‘We’re From The Slums Of London’ into the search bar on YouTube you can watch a video from 9 December. It’s very short. In it an Asian teenager, hat on and masked up, makes his case: ‘We’re from the slums of London, yeah? How do they expect us to pay £9,000 for uni fees? And EMA, the only thing that’s keeping us in college – what’s stopping us from doing drug deals on the street anymore? Nothing.’ He doesn’t look like one of the ‘youths’ that left parties like to use as props to invest their campaigns with some local colour. Nor does the transcription do justice to the statement, which is not muttered from a crib sheet but spat out in hot disgust. This might in part be because the speaker is addressing a camera held by a white bourgeois journalist. The footage is not untypical. When I arrived late for a demonstration at Westminster Bridge at the end of November, a kettle had been put in place. Those who had travelled South from the University of London Union building in Bloomsbury were safely ‘contained’. As I walked down the street the first group of people whom I noticed on my side of the police lines were a dozen black and Asian teenagers, male and female, all in school uniform. One of the kids, standing about five yards from the police line, leaned down to pick up a discarded Socialist Workers Party placard. The police watched him as he placed the sign under his foot and, nonchalantly enough, snapped off the stick. This was not the way that most students used placards.

At the demonstration on 9 December this kind of low level readiness for confrontation determined a much wider arc of collective action. Fighting between ‘protestors’ and police was ferocious: temporary fencing was ripped up and used as barricades or as shields as appropriate; groups of teenagers masked and hooded then used the bent and torn remnants of this fencing to smash out the windows of the Treasury; and in the square where the main kettle had been fixed in place, police lines were broken repeatedly. A friend providing legal observer functions in the kettle in Parliament Square spoke to a kid who had somehow acquired one of the larger police issue riot shields. He advised the kid that if he was going to carry the shield then he should for fuck’s sake cover his face. The kid replied that he’d rather go to prison than spend £9,000 a year going to uni.

This sort of anecdotalism is obviously pressingly limited as social analysis, but without the self-willed and emphatic arrival of working class teenagers in ‘the movement’, the student discourse would have degenerated into polite badinage about the emancipatory potential of open source and web 2.0, i.e., it would have become nothing more than the public witterings of the self-anointed representatives of moderately disgruntled middle class 20-somethings who, if anything, were likely to benefit from the new fee regime, since one of its effects would likely be a long-term reduction in the uptake of Higher Education degree-commodities and, therefore, a (statistical if not perceptible) easing of competitive pressures in the graduate labour market. Because working class teenagers did, fleetingly, ‘enter the movement’, i.e., burst out into the streets, the demonstrations from late November onwards were more defiantly and generally disruptive than the demonstration in early November, despite Millbank and despite much more enthusiastic brutality on the part of the Metropolitan police and its specialist public order units.11

Wanton press releases from the Met confirmed this fact, as the authoritarian PR service pumped out anxious declarations about how ‘extremely disappointed’ the service was ‘with the actions of many protestors’, who were evidently becoming more confrontational, quicker and more spirited, more prepared to abandon routes and disregard ‘advice’ issued by frantic ‘organisers’ wherever the balance of forced on the ground demanded it.

Rapid diversification in class composition also meant (for a moment at least) an expansion in the geography of confrontation. Out in the provinces, college students began to mobilise, and their actions were often taut with energy, in some respects more akin to the Bristol riots which flared up in April than the banner waving exercises which NUS Executive Officers like to fantasise as they vegetate with their desk toys. A report from the Brighton demonstration gives a good feel for the pulse of a mob intelligence acting without any prompt from a Guattari-citing Masters student:

2000 people, 90 percent school and college students, marched: they ignored the designated end point for the demo and set off on a volatile and cheerful meander, with periodical attempts to block roads. When the police attempted a kettle it was broken: of those who broke the kettle and didn’t disperse, 200 went to take refuge in the new occupation at the other, less ‘political’ university [Brighton], where they were refused entry – then went into the bobo shopping streets and got kettled. 400 (school and college kids mainly, with a few, cheerful homeless guys) went off mob form to attack Vodafone, then looted Poundland (’I got three Toblerone’), before arriving cheerfully at the other, kettled group. The police crumpled under the strategic pressure – they were outnumbered and uncertain – and released the group they were holding. The 400 then set off expressly to block roads and cause maximum disruption, launching an attempted attack on the police station before heading to the roundabout at the pier to block it. There, the momentum failed and the police successfully kettled 100 of the slowest.

Students who urged ‘EMA kids’ to join their demonstrations and whose political organisations printed placards that said ‘defend EMA’ did understand that it was working class teenagers who would suffer in truth from the imposition of fees, much like the youngest of them would suffer in truth from the retraction of exiguous below subsistence bursaries for impoverished college students. But what the students in their descants on cross class solidarity didn’t much mention was that it was working class kids who were likely to suffer in truth from the whole exercise in the conversion of ‘stagnant’ state welfare into ‘dynamic’ private sector policing; and from the imperious drudgery of wage labour which it is no longer accurate to say is ‘on offer’, when increasingly it is compelled on threat of starvation; and from the long convulsive contraction of British capitalism in general. Drifting right through the discourse on ‘building the movement’ was the stench of class contempt. Its principal form was the assumption that ‘deprived’ working class College students wanted nothing more than to be like ‘us’. It assumed that they wanted to be like us in a particular sense. Working class students might be strung up on a different (lower) rung of the labour market, but we would delegate to them our own snuff of social aspiration. Did we not have a universal right to it?

Such a view of social aspiration is inherently appealing to bourgeois students, because the contradiction in its ideal of universal bourgeoisification is always resolved in their favour. The formal right of access to degrees – in this respect like the formal right of access to citizenship or to legal representation – makes no specification of what the content of a degree is or ought to be: but training can be dire and suffocating whether it goes on in a call centre or the University of Sussex or an asylum. And yet the bourgeois conception of educational justice is not only ineffectual in resolving the contradictions of class, soothingly renamed ‘relations of exclusion’ as per the official lexicon of top down social management. The conception generates another limitation. By imputing to working class teenagers the desire to ‘protest’ up to the point where they resemble us in the cracked mirror of our own (bourgeois) sociological concepts (i.e., up to the point when they possess the minimal resources required to compete with us – at a safe disadvantage – in education and labour markets), the conception tells us nothing about the real complexity of class based impulses or aversions or about how they might be put to work ‘on the ground’ in the production of a real movement against capital and its servant institutions. I’ll come back to this point, as they say, in conclusion.

Decomposing Higher Education: Stage Two

While the student movement stumbled into exam season and expired, the State attempted to problem shoot its malfunctioning reforms. Its first error was almost amusing. The Browne report had assumed that, once ‘freed’ to set their own fee level, smaller and less prestigious institutions would scale down their prices in order to remain competitive. Instead, desperate not to besmirch or otherwise tar their pristine brand equity, almost all of the universities set their fees at near to the £9,000 p/a maximum. This act of herd insubordination compelled the State to revise its forecasts for the cost of loan provision, with the result that it could no longer afford to remove the ‘supply side’ recruitment caps whose removal had been one of the principal justifications for fee ‘flexibility’ in the first place. If this doesn’t get you going, just imagine David Willets falling over a banana skin.

As the academic year drew to a close, the government published its White Paper on Higher Education, which, among other exercises in sidetracking and obfuscation, proposed a convoluted quick fix to the above ‘supply side’ problem. The quick fix operates a ‘core/margin’ model which ‘allows’ (translated out of bureaucratese and into English, this means 'forces') universities to compete for students above the State imposed quota. These are drawn from ‘pools’ of students of a certain type – for example, high ranking school leavers. Evidently this model has little to do with the creation of a free market without supply side restrictions and much to do with stuffing yet more competitive pressure into the Higher Education turkey.

But the most important role of the White Paper was to open the UK HE field to ‘new providers’. Describing this process in detail would be exhausting, so the following will offer a stylised sketch. The State proposes to withdraw from the sullen and corporate universities their monopoly on degree issuing powers, distributing this faculty to dynamic, thrusting ‘independent’ institutions promising step changes in efficiency on the intensification/pile-em-high model. These changes in tandem with a steady decline in the resourcing of now existing institutions are likely to lead to the collapse of at least some traditional universities who, once stranded in administration, can be swept up into the steroidal bosom of private providers like the US Apollo Group, whose market leadership in IT solutions allows them to drive down costs by dispensing with previously ‘sticky’ overheads like (e.g.) wages for lecturers. As the CEOs mount their white horses and descend from the sky to bestow the blessings of market efficiency on ‘under performing’ working class institutions like London Metropolitan and Liverpool John Moores, research in the humanities will be increasingly concentrated in a handful of elite institutions, each with a handful of ‘elite’ (translated out of bureaucratese and into English, this means bourgeois) students. The ‘practical’ vocationalisation of all other institutions will work itself out on a model similar to the one currently ‘operating’ (i.e., churning profit) in the US, where capital intensive advertising campaigns lure working class students into programmes of study which issue in devalued degrees, sub-zero job prospects and an insupportable debt burden which bulges further with each passing year until, like a monstrous paunch, it fills the whole horizon. It is a fact well enough known that almost half of ‘propriety’ students at Apollo Group institutions ultimately default.

But these are not new processes. What Andrew McGettigan calls the ‘deliberate under-resourcing’ of UK University’s began perhaps as early as the late 1970s and has accelerated up until now. By a war of attrition, the senior managers of English Higher Education institutions have been reduced to pathological (if fabulously well remunerated) brand custodians, dreaming of founding new campuses in the growth sectors of the Middle East which, until now, have provided Britain with oil commodities and which today, in consequence of that export industry, offer up a new resource, i.e., untapped fields of under-educated bourgeois teenagers, ripe for harvesting. This global context is significant. The decline in per capita funding for English university students might be lamentable, and it might even be ideological in the contemporary sense of that word, i.e., voluntary and not fiscally exigent; but it isn’t clear that maintaining levels of student funding would mean better lives for students. As British capital has ferociously restructured itself there has been a precipitous decline in the number of ‘good’ jobs for which qualified students might apply. This may, in part, be due to ‘the destruction of manufacturing’ (and most readers will know intimately this caricature of the rise of ‘neoliberalism’), but it is also attributable to the increase in global competition in the upper echelons of the value chain, in the misty realms where university graduates with bulky flexible skill sets are expected to thrive most emphatically. This is to say that it isn’t clear that the production of ‘more skills’ by the maintenance of high levels of university resourcing is at all likely to lead to more or better jobs. Between 1995 and 2003 the global supply of university enrolments doubled to 63 million. As a report by the State financed Economic and Social Research Council put it in 2007 – note: in 2007, i.e., before the crisis had caused investors to become doubtful of their own omnipotence – ‘Many [...] companies were increasing the proportion of university graduates within the workforce. But it was difficult to assess whether this reflected an increase in the proportion of jobs involving technically difficult roles or "over-qualification" [...] because "anyone half decent has now got a degree".’ Though employers continue to yammer about a ‘skills gap’, the skills which are referred to are not ‘hard’ (i.e., technical) skills but ‘soft’ skills, which include competencies which could well be programmed into students at secondary school level – IT skills is the primary example – but which are defined above all by repressive pseudo-categories like ‘self-management’, ‘customer-facing skills’ and (best of all) ‘high-end empathy’. In other words, what British capitalism lacks is not educated students but obeisant employees. The employer’s tribal dance to the gods of skill acquisition is nothing more than a prayer that their human resources will acquiesce voluntarily to intensified degradation and, what is more offensive, recognise in that degradation the continued acquisition of ‘skills’. Skill acquisition along these lines is just virtualised accumulation for the exploited.

In 2008, the then Prime Minister Gordon Brown gave a speech on the skills race. Jetting as he then was around the globe to ‘co-ordinate’ and ‘problem solve’ the global credit crisis, it is perhaps unsurprising that Brown was nurturing some high fantasies. ‘A generation ago,’ Brown rambled, ‘a British prime minister had to worry about the global arms race.’ But no longer, because today, instead, ‘a British prime minister has to worry about the global skills race’. Brown’s comparison was both accurate and inaccurate. It was accurate because, like commodities produced during the arms race, the commodities which a British skills race is likely to produce are non-productive, by which I mean in economic terms a waste; but the comparison was inaccurate also, because unlike (say) the commodity called a Thales lightweight multirole missile, a highly skilled student is likely to become infuriated if he or she isn’t ‘used’. ‘Used’ in this instance of course means ‘paid’. This was not, perhaps, Gordon Brown’s point, as anyone attending one of his after dinner speeches is of course welcome to ask him.

The Future: What Not to Do and How Not to Not Do It

The point of this sketch is to carry us back to what I called above the liberal ‘anti-market’ ideology. I have argued that that ideology appears by virtue of its enlightened sneering to oppose ‘markets’ and to resist their undesirable ‘social outcomes’; but that in fact the ideology does not oppose markets but instead contents itself with a polite request that the university be cordoned off from their operations. This doesn’t work. The ideology does not deserve to be repudiated because it is ‘reformist’ but because it has a class basis. That is to say, it assumes that the ‘values’ which it wishes to protect ought to be protected only within the university and therefore (if implicitly) only on behalf of those who have access to it. And there is a second problem. Conducting a reified tirade against the stupefactions of interested exchange and the idiot grunting of its public policy slaves is surely all well and good, and it might well be a noble thing to prevent the market from encroaching too far into Higher Education, where, who knows, it might wreak all sorts of havoc on the life of the mind. But the limitation of this safeguard is that however much money might in principle be canalised into the swag bags and current account of the UK University Research Councils – students will continue to graduate. (Professors, of course, do not.) And while it might seem somewhat impertinent to conclude an analysis of UK student struggle in 2010-11 with a discussion of life outside of the university, or to slough off to the footnotes and margins all discussion of the good things that do go on in UK Higher Education institutions, the exercise of analytic tact is misguided. The market decrees that students will be thrown out of the university (with or without their certification) even if ‘analysis’ of student struggle remains fixed there, in ascetic restraint, paring its fingernails and hoping vainly for a research grant. What is the future of Humanities Education in the UK? There isn’t any point in asking this question in this forum: if humanities education is worth anything then it will not die after ‘students’ and other members of the proletariat new and old fight for the life resources which provide the precondition for that education. And yet the riposte swells up: doesn’t ‘higher’ education (as in education finer and more spiritual) require independence from the ‘social’? Doesn’t it require autonomy? But this doesn’t mean very much. There must be better forms of autonomy than the type required for the production of ‘basic’ research which – we learn from a University lobby group – contributes vastly more to the haemorrhaging value of HE licensing and spin-outs (the sector specific jargon for commercial enterprise) than so-called ‘applied’ research. These forms would be better worked out spontaneously in the process of collective action than ‘in principle’ at the end of an article. While it might be true that contemplative reflection can in certain respects contribute to the cultivation of social antagonisms, the moment that the struggle for ‘autonomy’ lapses into demands for ‘blue sky thinking’ it becomes the inalienable possession of the official management theory which invented that category and which is stabilised by its propagation.

It is now 31 August. Two or three minutes ago I received an email which states that 87 departments in Greek universities are now under occupation. The Greek students are acting in protest against a recent education bill, part of the imposing edifice of ‘austerity’ (the word is in this case infinitely euphemistic) now being hammered through the country’s fine and democratic parliament. In the last week, two Chilean students have been murdered by state police; both were participants in a much older and more mature student struggle than the one currently in remission in the UK. In other words, the UK student struggle from 2010-2011, with all of its smashed glass and all of its waves and networks, is already very much old news, as indeed are all of the associated acronyms – NCAFC, NUS, EMA, EAN. Even in the national context the domestic spokespersons of capital are much more hotly concerned with the riots which took place between 6 and 10 August. On the ‘left’ those riots are still treated with a stunned confusion: who among the hordes of those who looted during those five days can be selected as a spokesperson? And how can we communicate our ideas to a political subject who has about as much interest in being the ‘new’ 1968 as Guy Debord had in being the new Burger King? In response to this quandary, and in conclusion, one lesson of late 2010 stands out. As was argued above, students repudiated the suggestion that their ‘rebellion’ was no more than a paroxysm of middle class discontent by pointing to the working class teenagers who attended the street demonstrations which they organised. These teenagers were the ‘EMA kids’. The label did more than stick: it implied an analysis. The analysis in turn implied that what the ‘kids’ had to protest against was the withdrawal of their below-subsistence grant. This was of course in part a claim of convenience, necessary for a practical politics structured around ‘inclusive’ demands. It was, in other words, the sort of thing that could be crammed into a press release and floated out into the media ether to fuel the enmity of proto-fascist newspaper columnists. But it was also an honest assumption. What the ‘middle class’ students had to offer the ‘working class’ college kids was an organisational framework in which those college kids could protest against a particular act of state-led resource withdrawal. And in fact when the college kids acted ‘disruptively’ or violently the middle class students often became perturbed and spoke in wounded tones of their beautiful pacifism and their high ideals, and tugged dolorously at their keffiyehs. That the EMA scheme was a pathetic crust tossed by the State to ‘lower income’ teenagers in compensation for a lifetime spent being churned through an under-resourced and overcrowded state education sector (and for a thousand other iniquities better known to EMA recipients than to their bourgeois comrades) was not on the collective bargaining cards.

But what student demonstrations offered to the working class teenagers in fact was not an ‘organisational framework’. What the demonstrations offered was a material setting in which working class students could partake in aggressive and confrontational collective action in conditions of relative security. It is difficult to make this point without sounding as if one is speaking through a mouthful of Habermasian ideal speech situation. The students did not offer to the working class college kids an ideal speech situation (more than this: all the execrable sign waving and sloganeering at the demos ensured that the students didn’t offer even a passable one): but in spite of the assumption that working class kids just wanted to keep their EMA, it is nevertheless true that the student demonstrations and the middle class demonstrators did offer to working class college kids something for which they had a use. This was not the rhetorical straitjacket of a sensible demand politics, and nor was it 30 quid a week and the promise, sometimes in the future, of a certificate qualifying you to trim the ornamental hedges in the gardens of some of the idealist students you went on the march with, or in any case it was not just these, because the ‘student’ demonstrations also offered to the college protestors the material suspension of the balance of forces whose permanent imparity is active in determining the results of working class struggle. What that material suspension provided for a lot of ‘kids’, in other words, was the opportunity for an intense collective expression of social agency whose object was not peremptorily confined to an inadequate programme of state provision but which could outstrip the limits defined by everyday (isolated) struggle against repressive authority, and which moreover could know each time that it clattered against a riot shield exactly who was on its side. And as the left toils to imagine what ideas it could ‘offer’ to the inscrutable young men and women who went rioting in early August, and as the job market continues to stagnate, and the profits of McDonalds and Tesco to rise, and as the academics continue to bid for a role on the market steering committee and to dream, not of 1968, but of 1965, and as the EMA scheme ends and the housing benefits plunge, and as new students begin to arrive on bright Autumn mornings at the campuses of their chosen training camps – this is something which might yet be worth learning.

For so long as the material conditions in the universities have not been equalised, ‘access’ to university, whether or not it is universal, and whether it costs £9,000 per year or nothing, will continue to mean access to educational commodities of wildly discrepant value, distributed across institutions whose ‘diversity of missions’ at last promotes nothing besides a diversity of class positions. Shall we ask then, access to what? And access to what with what exit onto what? These are questions, in good Beckettian prosody, which will have to be asked in Beckettian fashion, which is to say, again and again. Middle class students might piously hope that working class teenagers will be allowed to ‘access’ universities and become more like them; but in fact the similarity is more likely to become visible not at the ‘point of access’ to universities but, instead, at their exits. And it’s the view from the exit, from which can be seen the greatest expanse of nothing at all, which will perhaps give the clearest indication of how UK education struggle ought to proceed.

Republished from Mute magazine

Danny Hayward lives and writes in London

  • 1Thanks are owed to JBR for György Kurtág and other critical inputs.
  • 2 It’s important to note that the reforms did not apply to Scottish students, where Higher Education continues to be ‘free’ in the limited sense that the State covers student fees.
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