4 Ideas for the Comprehensive University

by Tom Cutterham

2 November 2015

On 4 November thousands of students will march in support of free education at a national demonstration called by the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC). Jeremy Corbyn has endorsed the event, having made free education one of his flagship policies during the Labour leadership campaign. With the government planning to scrap maintenance grants even for the poorest students, we need to build a united resistance to the agenda of fees and cuts.

But resistance is never enough. We also need a better idea of what we’re fighting for. Properly free education can’t take place within the structure of existing institutions. Even in the era of full grants, the university has always been a means of reproducing class domination. An alternative is necessary in which the university fulfils its promise to be truly universal, open, public, and free. As the historian Selina Todd recently argued, the idea of comprehensive schooling could be an analogy worth building on. In that spirit, here are four ideas for a vision of the comprehensive university:

1. Abolish the single-subject degree.

As the academic and blogger Adam Kotsko has argued in a US context, separating higher education into highly specialised disciplines makes no sense as a general model for teaching and learning. Rather than going deeper and deeper into just one subject, students must learn to think critically and creatively across a range of areas. To meet the challenges of an uncertain future, they need to get comfortable with diversity and flexibility.

More importantly, the way to fight the tyranny of technocratic experts and create a strong participatory democracy is to give people the skills and confidence to engage on all sorts of terrains. This would be the job of a comprehensive higher education. It’s also a reason why any such programme will be met by elite resistance.

2. All universities should be open universities.

Being a student should involve learning to live independently of family or carers as much as possible, but not independently of society itself. Purpose-built student housing and self-sufficient campuses encourage segregation between students and the communities around them. For some students, that makes university a training-ground for isolating executive lifestyles; for others, it exacerbates the feeling of being out of place.

Instead, universities should have no borders. Both physical resources (libraries, sports facilities, cafeterias) and intellectual ones (lectures, classes, training, access to academic expertise) should be open to all. As universities create platforms for lifelong learning and engagement, the distinction between student and non-student should become increasingly invisible.

3. Treat universities like utilities, not businesses.

Scrapping fees is just the start. We should also sack every vice-chancellor, and stop wasteful spending on marketing. Like water and electricity, education should be provided wherever it’s needed – not turned into a branded commodity.

Universities should be brought into public control through modern mechanisms of networked and devolved democracy. Like schools, they should have boards of governors that include local people as well as elected student and staff representatives.

What’s more, the Conservatives’ attack on local education authorities (LEAs) should be reversed. As part of a comprehensive lifelong education service, universities should come under their oversight too. Meanwhile, get rid of the Research Excellence Framework and scrap the proposed Teaching Excellence Framework, along with the associated bureaucratic waste.

4. Make universities centres of research for the public good.

We should be clear that research isn’t a pointless, ‘academic’ exercise. It’s not inward-facing, and it’s not an add-on to teaching. It’s the core of a larger intellectual culture, both scientific and humanistic, at every level from local to international.

Yet universities today are made to act more and more like closed systems of intellectual property production and consumption. As quasi-businesses, they have to create and protect income streams, while at the same time they lose out to extortionate academic publishers which profit at enormous rates from academics’ writing and research. That system needs to be dismantled and rebuilt on public, democratic premises, with results freely accessible to everyone.

A comprehensive university system would be one in which both education and research were properly free – no longer the tools of profit or class domination. Owned and supported by all of us, democratically controlled and open to everyone, universities have the potential to preserve, build, and disseminate the common intellectual resources of humanity. That’s the future I’ll be marching for.

Photo: Kai Schreiber/Flickr

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