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The Future of our Universities: Part 2

Verso Books31 March 2017

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Our universities are at breaking point. Governments have systematically imposed new procedures regulating funding, governance, and assessment, forcing them to behave more like business enterprises in a commercial marketplace than centres of learning. This week on the Verso blog, writers respond to Speaking of Universities, Stefan Collini's cogent analysis of the marketisation of higher education. Speaking of Universities is 40% off until April 2.

In this latest post, Nina Power suggests ways that we can improve our universities, Malia Bouattia on why we need a complete transformation of our society’s approach to education, and Adam Elliott-Cooper examines universities as neocolonial spaces.

See also: Professor Akwugo Emejulu's essay on the exclusionary relations at the institutional core of our universities.

Part 1 of this round-up was published yesterday.

The Neocolonial University: On Freedom, Fascism and White Fragility by Dr. Adam Elliott-Cooper

Many of the institutions and practices of the British university were developed in the context of colonialism. Britain once ruled over the most expansive Empire ever known, was the largest slave-trading nation in human history and boasted the most powerful army in the world. The call to decolonise the university is growing louder in Britain and around the world via movements such as Rhodes Must Fall in South Africa and ‘Why is My Curriculum White’ at UCL. These movements draw attention to the logic of colonialism that is built into and, in some cases, reproduced by universities. It is perhaps little wonder that the principles the colonial project held dear – such as militarism and racism – are still with us in the old centre of Empire. British universities receive tens of millions in funding for military research. The far right still target universities in an attempt to influence the spaces of knowledge production that created and legitimised the racial thinking of Britain’s colonial past.

Such neo-colonial strategies rely on a particular set of freedoms – the freedom to debate the merits of fascism for example, or to hear from the plucky IDF spokespeople about their adventures abroad – that are currently under threat. According to one website, ‘the Free Speech University Rankings’, over 90% of universities employ policies and practices which censor freedom of speech. These range from equality policies that seek to protect the rights of trans students, to democratically elected students unions banning fascists from using university resources as a platform for the dissemination of their ideas. Enter the liberal defenders of free speech, gallantly defending the rights of all people to say and think what they wish in UK universities. Such defences of free speech reproduce the logic of freedom that defined the liberalism of Empire: that of positive liberty (the freedom to). Having the freedom to offend, insult or incite hatred must be defended at all costs, even if autonomous groups of people decide they would rather their resources were not used for that purpose.  But there is another freedom, negative liberty (the freedom from) – a freedom from the racial, homophobic, transphobic or xenophobic violence which is almost always accompanied by the fascistic speech which helps us identify and understand it.

The freedom to is the freedom of the powerful, and it is this concept of freedom that underpinned the logic of Empire: the freedom to invade, exploit, extract, exterminate and replace the ideas of one nation or society with that of the coloniser. The freedom from such impositions, an anti-colonial freedom which is exercised in direct opposition to freedom of the coloniser, was and continues to be central to the liberation of oppressed peoples across the world. It therefore stands to reason that the liberalism which decries student unions and their representatives from resourcing events with high-profile speakers, from Peter Tatchell to former Israeli army officer Hen Mazzig, have little to say about how systems of power impose defacto limits on freedom of speech in universities. The fees and debts which prevent poorer students from accessing these institutions in the first place, or the border bureaucracy that blocks the freedom of those who are not British citizens (even if their parents and grandparents were citizens of the Empire), fall outside of these narrow conceptions of freedom.

The oppressed remain invisible, their freedoms of speech and thought implicitly less significant than those of the celebrities on the speakers’ circuit, whose access to campus resources and the ears of students we are taught to expect and accept if we truly value ‘freedom’. All the while, Muslim students are criminalised by Prevent, monitored, questioned and even imprisoned for reading the ‘wrong’ book, students from the Global South battle Home Office deportation threats and poorer students are excluded through financial barriers. At best, these neoliberal champions of liberty treat the most marginalised students the same as high-profile career campaigners of the right, reproducing the existing power imbalances many unions are attempting to challenge. At worst, this muscular neoliberalism normalises fascism and imperial violence, separating speech from its consequences and undoing the few victories being won against the destructive ideas and systems that continue to reproduce the colonial power relations of the British Empire and its afterlife.  

Dr. Adam Elliott-Cooper received his doctorate from the School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford. His research focuses on state power, race, policing, resistance movements and post-colonialism. 

"What we are fighting for is a complete transformation of our society’s approach to education" by Malia Bouattia

Who owns the university? This is one of the most striking questions in Collini’s new book. Unlike the standard response one might expect to such a question – that students, staff, and the local community own the university – Collini pushes his reflection further and argues that the University belongs to no-one as such. Rather than selling any goods, Universities are places that depend on the intellectual efforts of an unquantifiable amount of people and factors beyond the institution itself, in both time and space. He writes:

What a ‘customer’ ‘buys’ from an individual university is not a ‘product’ or ‘service’ that that university has created: it is access to a complex intellectual and cultural inheritance that is only maintained and passed on in the present by the combined efforts of scholars and scientists all over the world, a population that is frequently mobile and constantly being renewed.

At first, this can sit uncomfortably with current forms of political action in Higher Education over the future of our sector, which generally answers Collini’s question within the binary he rejects. Indeed, to managers and government ministers who tell us that the university should be governed by profit-seeking and private interests, our movements have responded with a vision of education which emphasises the ownership of the university by students and workers. These two approaches can appear contradictory.

However, what Collini offers is a deeper, more radical (in both the political and the etymological sense of the word) vision of what our movements are about. It highlights that we aren’t simply fighting to wrestle control over places of learning, debate and reflection from the hands of market driven VC’s and governments. What we are fighting for is a complete transformation of our society’s approach to education, learning, and the divisions between the university and the community around it.

In the past year in NUS, we have put the emphasis on ‘liberating education’ – a slogan that aims to capture that our struggle is not simply one against fees, casualisation of work, and the selling-off of education to the highest bidder (although it is definitely all these things as well). A liberated education emphasises both the direct economic concerns of staff and students as well as the broader political questions our movements face.

In recent years it is those broader political questions that have mobilized students the most. Students are fighting for solidarity and support for migrants within universities, challenging attainment gaps and sexist power relations, and forcing open more serious reflections on the nature of mental health and the ways our institutions provide support and services.

Perhaps one of the most striking examples of this is the ‘Decolonising Education’ campaigns, which – far from their depiction in the mainstream media as anti-white which hunts – challenge the euro-centric way we engage with intellectual history and contemporary production, as well as the racial inequalities within our institutions such as the over-representation of black staff in casualised and service jobs and their underrepresentation in the highest echelons of our institutions.

The questions that students have brought to the fore most frequently do not run counter to Collini’s vision of the rightful ownership (or lack thereof) of the university. On the contrary, our struggles have repeatedly emphasised the ways in which the nature of Higher Education, the societal role of our institutions, and the demarcation between the academic and non-academic realms in society need to be both interrogated and challenged. It is through such questions that our vision of education emerges.

We are not simply challenging the increasing control of profit and private interest in education. We are moving towards a different vision for education all together - one that is free, liberated and accessible for all at any point in life.

Malia Bouattia is president of the National Union of Students, focusing on strengthening student representation in education and improving its funding and quality. She tweets at @maliabouattia

Why have universities become so miserable? by Nina Power

Since the tuition fee increase, the cutting of the EMA and funding cuts of 2010, we are familiar with the idea that universities are increasingly grim, hyper-managerial, business-obsessed places. They are generators of debt and anxiety, where the student-consumer is simultaneously centralised yet simultaneously oddly abandoned. But this was never inevitable. As Collini notes in Speaking of Universities: ‘Ours is an enormously wealthy country, one of the richest history has ever seen. We can easily afford to support a high-quality system of public education if we choose to.’ But instead, Universities are at once ‘panicky and dirigiste’. Quite.

Collini quotes the historian Jerry Muller, who notes that ‘the quest for numerical metrics of accountability is particularly attractive in cultures marked by low social trust’. Paradoxically, right-wing leaders now seem to trust students (at least once they have been safely converted from protestors to consumers) over academics. As Collini puts it: ‘a curious inversion has taken place whereby the academics now occupy the demonized role formerly assigned to the students.’  Trust has been eroded everywhere.

How then are we to defend, not just the ‘idea’ of the University, but actual universities as they exist?

Collini welcomes the democratising trend of university expansion, describing the rise from 6% of the population in higher education to 44% over the course of the past few decades; yet describing the university in terms of its ‘value’ and ‘use’ beyond quantitative and short-term measurements seems hard. ‘Consumerist relativism’ reigns and, as Collini notes, we have ‘great difficult articulating the values that inform these common experiences [of life with goals other than wealth-maximizing], and we seem to find it nigh on impossible to make those values and their articulated ideals operative in public discussion of social goods.’

On the back of Collini’s all-too-familiar description of the current state of things, I propose three things that might immediately improve life for everyone involved in Higher Education.

1. An immediate end to fees. This means an instant writing-off of all debts incurred and free education for everyone who wishes to attend university. We are too trained in thinking that things that used to be true and possible must no longer be so because everything tends towards the worst, including our frame of mind. As Collini poetically puts it: ‘The ceaseless rhythm of the waves of everyday life causes a deposit of insensibility to build up that clogs our perceptions and dulls our responsiveness.’

2. A gradual re-establishment of trust.  Let students take the time to let their (understandable) anxiety over debt and their degree mark fall away. Stop the relentless policing of teachers and teaching; or as Collini puts it ‘User dissatisfaction may sometimes be an important sign that genuine education is happening’. Finally, trust administrators and let the pie-chart molesters return to the business world where their boring-arse attitude to money is more relevant.

3. Defend the sublime uselessness of thought. Collini again: ‘Intellectual enquiry is in itself ungovernable: there is no predicting where thought and analysis may lead when allowed to play freely over almost any topic, as the history of science abundantly illustrates.’ Human thought, sadly for money-obsessed managers, is not competitive – it is systemic, collective and infinite – just as our Universities should be.

Nina Power is a cultural critic, social theorist, philosopher and translator. She is a Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at Roehampton University and the author of One-Dimensional Woman.

Read part 1 of this round-up, with contributions from William Davies, Emma Dowling and Matt Mahon, as well as an essay on the exclusionary relations at the institutional core of our universities by Professor Akwugo Emejulu.

Speaking of Universities
, Stefan Collini's cogent analysis of the marketisation of higher education, is 40% off (with free shipping and bundled ebook) until April 2.