Towards a Radical Infrastructure: Counter-Reforming Higher Education

by Jamie Melrose

18 February 2018

‘The tide is starting to turn’. Students are demonstrating for the decidedly non-utopian demand of free education. The Labour Party committed to ‘cradle-to-grave learning that is free at the point of use’. We’re told it was students wot won it for Corbyn. The unceremonious demise of Toby Young. University staff will soon be striking to defend their pensions. In short, there are many reasons to be cheerful about the future of Higher Education (HE). But the structure of the university itself shows precious little indication of the institutional reformation required to make good on that which is good in Labour policy.

Generations of Higher Education reform have done the trick. Tuition fee ideologues are the establishment class in HE. Without a redistribution of power, a democratic revolution within the University, supporters of the current HE regime will spin tuition fee uncertainty into a pretext for financial overhaul. Together with the threatened drop in EU revenue and labour, missing tuition fees could further justify the extension of HE marketisation, supporting a distinction between profitable and non-profitable academic activity that would see cuts and the proliferation of casual contracts.

The opportunity of the Corbyn moment requires a healthy dose of reflection, a move beyond the romantic notion that universities are the contrast to the unedifying barbaric carry-on outside their walls. Although the press love to give the impression that HE is a left-wing, neo-Marxist free-for-all, conditions on the ground – the University as workplace; a site of scholarship and knowledge production – correspond to a quite different reality. A positive, emancipatory politics of education, shaped by participatory democratic governance and characterised by a radical redistribution of power away from our current HE leader caste, needs to be integral to the actual workings of the University. It is high time to bring the current HE highs of political society into the day-to-day grind of HE civil society.

Neoliberal heartlands

Corbyn-approved Secretaries of State are one thing; the legwork necessary to make the current radical Labour ‘project’ more than a buzzword, quite another. As pointed out by Alex Williams, welcome as the gains of Corbynism have been in the political sphere, it is not so within other centres of power and influence: ‘[w]ithin the management of schools, universities, hospitals, and local government, a managerialist form of neoliberalism is firmly implanted within structures and processes, as well as operating as a worldview for managers’.

Universities are a prime case in point, unlikely to simply transition because Corbyn works in Number 10. Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) are tough theaters of operations. Subservient to the dictums of Thatcherite new public management, they are veritable hives of neoliberal practice, of market construction and discipline and a ridiculously well-remunerated leadership firmly in charge, albeit with some welcome news of late in the case of Bath’s Dame Glynis Breakwell. The modern HEI exists primarily to garner revenue, offer corporate research and development and meet employers’ perceived training needs. Students are customers not citizens; staff are either leaders or workers to be directed by the leadership class. Dominant is a mechanistic, quantitative, tick box rationale to the meditative process of learning – an approach assailed a decade or so ago in Mary Evans’ Killing Thinking: The Death of Universities (2004) – and instrumental research practice that privileges following the money: ‘[i]t matters little, we know, what research is done; all that matters is that the research grant has been captured. It matters little what goes on in the classroom, as long as the students complete a survey showing favourable figures for official and audited reports’. Educational virtues in the modern HEI are essentially byproducts of HE productive endeavour.

This mode of operation is now threatened. In the referendum result on tuition fees served up by the General Election, the public seems less comfortable with the idea that the cost of HE will be borne by generations of the indebted – the revenge of the 2010 occupations. That the existence of fees is now negotiable is a considerable advance; generations of indebted students are adamant that fees, rent and the cost of living in general are just too damn high, and that the postponement of payment is no corrective.

Along with this totemic matter of fees, the anti-austerity drive in HE is evident also in industrial heavy lifting by staff at the London School of Economics, the University of London and SOAS, and in the current University and College Union ‘Sacker’s Charter’ campaign at Leeds University. Also there has been Newcastle UCU’s successful attempt to ward off reductive, top-down performance management. Attempts to cut corners and pay, and make it easier to hire and fire indiscriminately are being resisted at the University of Manchester. Plus, the big splash in November last year concerning the mass casualisation of teachers and researchers in our HEIs, supporting UCU’s and other groups anti-casualisation efforts, has held up the ‘corporate business model designed to reduce labor costs and to increase labor servility’ to a wider audience.

Scrapping of fees, industrial action: students and HEI are articulating grievances and winning concessions from the government and HEI ‘state-lets’. They are challenging the internal political economy that dictates HEIs’ business models. There is, though, another aspect to the rebellion over fees that should not be overlooked. The headline victory around tuition fees can be construed not as a blow to the neoliberal University; rather, a welcome win for a consumer, unhappy with the unequal exchange between service user and service provider. This is the ‘value for money’ point, its lead advocate, headline stealer Andrew Adonis. The HE market is not the issue; it is the present policing of the said market. HE quangos to the rescue please.

Worryingly, Adonis’s media blitz is having more of an impact in the deliberations of HE movers and shakers than any consideration of the practical reform of the neoliberal university as constituted. As HEI decision-makers, aware that fee rises won’t wash, scramble to think up ways to secure alternative revenue streams and redistribute costs, the categorization of the student-as-consumer, investing in a measurable increase in their human capital, remains untouched. HEI senior and middle managements, far from seeing the tuition fee ‘crisis’ as unpicking their conceptions of their institutions, are keen to placate their punters.

Left unchecked, the response to fees cuts is likely to be a crude emphasis on the customer’s campus experience. Distracting talk of the political choices of HE will be kept to a disciplinary minimum in the classroom, and the expectations placed on overworked precarious staff, dependent on managerial patronage for further work and thus highly exploitable, will be ratcheted up. This is a recipe for more reactionary institutional austerity, driven by the debt-based financing panic that supports many HEIs’ growth, coupled with classrooms focussing on reductive, measurables deliverables.

A hotbed of radicals?

Along with ‘value for money’, the HE talking point of choice recently has been the brewing culture war letters to VCs and rows over free speech. The Daily Mail’s McCarthyite counterblast follows much rumbling on the cultural right; the Adam Smith Institute’s report in March, ‘Lackademia: Why do academics lean left’ set the tone earlier this year. Academics are apparently a bunch of lefties, corrupting our kids with their promotion of the European Union, transgender rights, sexual freedom and the perils of global warming. Here we have the Daily Mail versus The Guardian axis: a comfortable battleground for many academics and pundits to drop social media bombs.

To be against the Daily Mail and the Torygraph is a home game for academics. Such positioning functions, too, as a useful diversion. It glosses over the material determinants of the modern HEI, and their continual reproduction in academic and academic-related practice, in the dictats and managerial jargon of Vice-Chancellors, Faculty Deans and Heads of School. Academics can virtue signal a comforting progressive, left-wing worldview, contra the Mail and Trumpian chaos, while ignoring their tacit and overt contributions to all manner of neoliberal ills. Such is the current contradiction of the University ‘left’ (although terms such ‘liberal’ and ‘centrist’ are perhaps more apt to capture the politics of your average academic.)

In everyday behaviours, such as the transfer of risk by line managers putting teaching and research staff on precarious contracts, or in the general consent with the reproduction of a research ecology in which the duty of those in academic roles is to suppress research not bearing a market value, there is a good deal of academic culpability to go around. When it comes to the acquiring and refashioning of knowledge, for the Campaign for the Public University’s John Holmwood, ‘academics have acceded to the wider environment that has eroded academic freedom and non-utilitarian claims about the public value of research’. On matters that determine the architecture of HE, who occupies decision-making positions, academics (and students, too, if HEI Students’ Unions are be judged on how much they afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted) have largely ceded the internal political ground to Vice-Chancellors and their leadership teams.

Speaking to staff at various HEIs, views differ on the reasons for such acquiescence. A senior academic at a London university points out that given the class composition of academia and its individualised working style, academics have no incentive to challenge power. They do not consider themselves workers. He notes that “some of the most ‘critical’ academics, who routinely denounce hierarchy, power and so on in their writings become the leading petty-authoritarians of middle management, critical only to keep the system ticking over”. This echoes the thoughts of another, non-London university member of academic support staff: “there is generally an inverse relationship between the radical leftism that an academic likes to refer to during lectures/professional discussion and their willingness to engage in class-critical activity within the workplace….all too often it is relatively low paid, insecure, staff, academic and others, who do more than their fair share to oppose the marketisation and other neo-liberal trends within UK HE”.

Another academic is more optimistic. Things are changing: “colleagues at UCL have successfully fought their way onto the senate; at Newcastle University the ‘Raising the Bar’ initiative was resisted; Aberdeen University colleagues have issued a manifesto to ‘Reclaim the University’. Academics are slowly beginning ‘to have their consciousnesses raised’ faced with ‘the audit culture, overwork, insecure career paths, impossible demands, punitive performance management, a crisis of mental health, a rollback of gender equality”. A junior academic, working at a Yorkshire HEI, is more despondent: “…everyone muddles through as best they can. The rules get set externally and we all try to exist in them. And exist, survive, is all that seems possible most of the time…I don’t think we are going to achieve much beyond damage limitation until there is some unity with the ‘outside’ – ideally from a progressive government”.

The disadvantages incurred by counter-hegemonic behaviours are certainly ever-present. At the University of Bristol earlier this year staff were threatened with disciplinary action if they were seen to support their Students’ Union boycott of the National Student Survey.  What kind of professional, overworked, stressed and underfunded, with a family to support, can afford to stand alone contra power, risk their chances of capability-linked career advancement and challenge institutional policy?

This is precisely the point. There is a material struggle in HE that has hardly begun. The turn in the educational tide being rightly celebrated by the left is a chance for further vigorous praxis-orientated critique of the HE workplace, something far removed from the ostentatious displays of pride that HE liberals take in their public opposition to Brexit and right-wing crazies. While some impotently argue for an academic ‘guild’, unless HEI state-lets are directly challenged, in the form of collective workplace efforts to redistribute wealth and power away from those who currently hold it, change is unlikely to occur.

The state of the uni

To recap, the endorsement of Labour’s proposals to scrap tuition fees is rightly an endorsement of the anti-austerity movement. And, along with grassroots activity, industrial action, and direct pedagogical intervention, (such as campaigns like ‘Decolonise the Curriculum’) these are more than crumbs of comfort. However, these advances have to be seen in a more material context. Important contributions, they are essentially defensive so long as they leave intact the current distribution of HE power.

This requires a broader conception of HE. Fees and Brexit naturally dominate media bloviating, but other equally important parts of this government’s policy platform have been critically sidelined in comparison with these wedge issues. Jo Johnson, the former Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, and the only marginally less dangerous Johnson brother, has been doing his merry thing in HE for a good few years, and initiatives such as ‘HERA’ and ‘TEF’ are the result. HERA is the the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 – which came into being despite reformist mole-grubbing from the Labour frontbench and peers, sneaked in before the General Election. HERA extends the 2010 tuition fees vision of HE. With the TEF (Teaching Excellence Framework) as its main tool, it is designed to further create and maintain an HEI regulatory architecture, to ensure HEIs charge differential fees and not simply opt for £9k plus. Johnson’s successor, Sam Gyimah, will largely follow in his orthodox HERA footsteps.

The TEF determines a crude league table dividing institutions into gold, silver and bronze – which, following refinement, will allow them to vary fees in the future. TEF-conscious HEIs are already in full survival of the fittest mode, bigging themselves up and cast aspersions on others. No matter that the metrics of the TEF have nothing to do with quality of classroom teaching, as freely granted by its Chair. Billboard war is where it’s at, with prominent posters of grinning, highly satisfied students at train stations across the land. There is, according to a former aide to former HE minister Lord Willetts, a ‘touch of the Wild West’. University battles university.

HERA relaxes restrictions placed on new HEIs, so called ‘alternative providers’, to come onto the market and start offering services. In keeping with other privatisations, HERA institutes a new watchdog, the Office for Students (OfS) to approve and accredit market incomers, making sure some standards – unlikely to be labour ones – are kept. As for research, funding has been centralised with a merger of existing national funding bodies under the sway of a new body, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). In these anti-establishment times, research monies remain firmly bound up with state capitalist strategic priorities.

Together HERA, TEF, UKRI and Jo Johnson set the pace. Of course, there are have been limits to their power. With the decision of the government to cap fees, (a grossly insensitive act of state intervention for hardline ideologues), the HERA-TEF-Johnson plan is compromised. And of course, if May out equals Johnson out, Gyimah in; but the talented, committed crew of civil servants and HE ringleaders is a less ephemeral proposition. A cursory glance at the 2017 HE Power List or the board of the Research England Council only confirms, in its current collection of petty sovereigns, the absence of a heterodox alternative to Johnson’s vision amongst the people governing the day-to-day operation of higher education.

A transformative vision

We need a positive, emancipatory politics throughout HE, one that appreciates that the fight for its future takes place not just in Westminster, but within the dynamic relations of institutional politics. HE workers need to reject the politics of spectacle that puts them outside their own institution commenting or musing on it. Accordingly, the election of all HEI managers –  Vice-Chancellors, Pro Vice-Chancellors, Deans, Heads of School – by all staff and students should be top of the list of popular HE reform.  Managers need to be converted to accountable delegates, entrusted with fostering the type of pluralistic culture in which the student voice is taken seriously and criticising your boss publicly is more welcome than a fart in a space suit. If the business of the University is research and teaching, then let the creators of research and teaching, staff and students, deliberate and determine these two core strands of HEI life. Democratisation should not be overly institutional-centric, however. HEIs needs to orchestrate and build broader community links, with anti-austerity groups for example. In doing so, the denizens of a HEI acknowledge that they are accountable to a range of communal interests, not just local chambers of commerce or developmentally minded, cash-strapped council leaders.

Secondly, we need a constitutionally-enshrined commitment to the systematic improvement of the working terms and conditions of HE staff and students, as well as commitment to quality teaching and research and research not driven by market needs. Bold, innovative research depends on the reduction of now-uniform casual contracts for teaching staff. Junior staff members should have the material means to support their right to question decision-takers and to conduct curiosity-driven research free of the profit motive. The University needs to include all its members in democratic decision making, not just a select elite of top professors. That means that staff and students should not simply be merely given the right to vote on leaders but the opportunity – in terms of workload allocation and time management – to be institutional ‘leaders’ themselves. Building on the Wednesday afternoon tradition, the HEI citizen needs a time and space to govern.

One concrete proposal for moving beyond the current HEI is the co-operative university. Such a shift in operating model for the HEI would certainly tackle the scourge of overweening managerial influence and the competitive, self-regarding promotion of individuals over a commitment to collective, mutual benefit. In an idealised sense, governance would cease to be the preserve of fairly secretive elite, and all participants would have a stake in resource allocation decisions, engendering reciprocity.

Crucially, the co-operative HEI would encourage both a degree of autonomy and a degree of public accountability. This balancing act is a live issue. Labour’s current proposals for a National Education Service no doubt face the time-honoured rhetorical strategy of proclaiming university autonomy from statist overreaching. The social ethos of a co-operative model lends itself both to collective responsibility to a set of communities – national and local – as well as to preserving sovereignty for decisions made on the factory floor. The tension between national and institutional priorities would indeed be present in a collective of HE collectives, but such is the nature of any institution and its fuzzy boundaries between it and other regulatory arrangements. A community of co-operatives would constitute a far more open, honest arrangement than the current elite state bargaining that goes on between the government and bosses club that is Universities UK.

There is a danger that co-operative unis could easily fall into the alternative provider trap. Rather than the political transformation of a given HEI, through the positive reclaiming of HEI governance by student and staff campaigns in concert with similar at other HEIs, OfS-approved co-ops could very well become isolated projects in the market, ultimately shaped by the logic of that market. Their example would have precious little impact on the running and conduct of other institutions. The co-operative university is certainly the primary radical alternative arrangement to the vertical, corporate state-sanctioned HE set-up which we have now, but it is the job of internal institutional struggle to achieve it, lest radical HE activists abandon a whole set of means of production to their current owners and directors.

The beginning of the beginning

Already tuition fees policy is beginning to be moderated. The talk is that Labour’s shadow education secretary is unhappy with the prioritisation of HE over Further Education. The NUS’s ‘pragmatic’ turn under Shakira Martin’s presidency means that the Labour lead on fees has not been sufficiently backed up. The NUS leadership is committed to avoiding confrontation with the government in favour of an eclectic, mildly reformist approach, advocating the heavier weighting of the student voice in the marketplace.

The class of 2010, the occupy generation, celebrating their success, are no doubt aware that they do not have the keys to HEIs by any means. Moreover, perhaps they do not even consider the point to be an institutional struggle. It is question of politicians finally backing sensible policies. But without a more concerted focus on who actually runs our HEIs and to what end, welcome shifts and amendments to our way of doing HE business will be carried out, if at all, by those who oppose them.

The tuition fees victory is, then, a promising sign. The next step is to deepen the public promise of scrapping fees. It involves organising within and through HEIs, across all dividing lines nominally assumed to exist between and within staff and student groups, to oppose our HE masters in continuing to secure better terms and conditions of work for HE citizens, and, to posit a different, co-operative university as the aim of our counter-reformation. The politics of HE ought not to be derived any longer from the leftist predilections an individual may hold; but rather, the state of HE civil and political society, namely, the extent to which HE is fostering the heterodox alternative to the current HEI status quo. In tabloidese: better to have profs who’re lefties than leftie profs.

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