25 May 2011

Event: The Crisis of the University and the Educational Significance of the Fees: Reducing the 'Deficit' or Fashioning Subservient Human Beings?

Friday 27 May 2011, University of Salford

"Man is no longer man confined but man in debt. One thing, it's true, hasn't changed - capitalism" (Deleuze)

A one-day discussion seminar jointly organised by PhD students and staff members of the School of Humanities, Languages and Social Sciences (University of Salford, Manchester)

The 'cuts' and 'fees' imposed by the lib-con government amount to the entrenchment of a new regime of control based on an extremely doctrinaire and contagious political ideology (managerialism) and guaranteed by a new bondage (compulsory debt-financing). Repeated over and over again, the idea that 'reducing the deficit is absolutely necessary' ends up imposing an attitude of resignation in the face of what is taken as inevitable. Yet, we must ask: Why is the 'deficit' so bad for governments and so good for students? What if 'being in debt' is not just an economic matter, but a coercive pedagogy and a moulding mechanism to produce a particular kind of human being? Why is it that academics, students and support staff allow themselves to be managerialised, that is, pitted against each other?

These and other questions will be addressed in the seminar; topics to be discussed include: The politics of higher education and the question of university autonomy, self-government and academic freedom today. The rule of finance: financialisation and compulsory debt-financing. Managerial indicators of 'quality' and 'satisfaction': what kind of human beings lie behind such indicators and result from their use? The academics' attitude and response to the politics of privatisation, marketisation and corporatisation of the university.

Confirmed interventions from:

Sarah Amsler (Aston University, Birmingham), Peter Bratsis (University of Salford), Bob Brecher (University of Brighton), Jeremy Gilbert (University of East London), Will Jackson (PhD, University of Salford), Sukh Johal (University of Manchester), Karel Williams (University of Manchester), Bob Jeffery (PhD, University of Salford), Carlos Frade (University of Salford)

Friday 27 May 2011: 10:30 – 6 pm
Clifford Whitworth Conference Room (Clifford Whitworth Library), University of Salford (Greater Manchester)
(90 yards from Salford Crescent train station)

ALL Welcome

For further information contact: salforduniagainstcuts@googlemail.com.


05 May 2011

Brainpower for Sale?

Roger Rees of the Open University's faculty of Social Sciences reviews The Global Auction, a new book on the marketisation of higher education, and examines the implications for universities and their graduates.

As Gordon Brown’s time as PM drew to a close, Peter Mandelson said Britain had too much ‘financial engineering’ and not enough ‘real engineering’. When the banking crisis hit, UK manufacturing employed three million people. In contrast, financial services employed six and a half million. At the start of a new century, the former ‘workshop of the world’ had just three world class sectors – pharmaceuticals, arms production and financial services. And as the crisis developed, finance shed 100,000 jobs between 2007 and 2010.

The Coalition government's response has been to proclaim a “re-balancing of the economy”. What can this mean? A key element involves creating a ‘knowledge’ or ‘magnet’ economy with higher education as a critical component. Marketised universities are intended to attract to our shores (‘like a magnet’) a world eager to employ our graduates. Other nations (implicitly Asian, South American and Eastern European) can supply low-skill, low-wage manufacturing labour, while Western nations, like the UK, provide the high-skill, high-wage brainpower – a global economy of ‘body’ nations and ‘head’ nations. That’s the knowledge economy model in a nutshell. It suggests a bright future for British universities and their graduates.

The Global Auction presents a very different picture. Its authors (sociologists from Cardiff, Bath and Leicester universities), cogently challenge the 'opportunity bargain' at the very heart of the model – that is, students financially invest in their higher education and acquire high-level skills in return for the opportunity to obtain high-income knowledge jobs.Based on interviews with hundreds of global corporate executives and national policymakers, authors Phil Brown, Hugh Lauder and David Ashton argue this opportunity bargain is crumbling in the face of four developments.

The first is the explosion in world student numbers, doubling in the last 10 years. India aims for 30 million graduates by 2025. China plans 35.5 million by 2020. The latter has already built a Higher Education Mega Centre – 10 universities on one island with 120,000 students, 20,000 academic and 50,000 support staff. With room for a further 80,000 students!

Meanwhile, low wage economies have undergone a quality-cost revolution. They are now capable of making low-cost products to world quality standards. Trans-nationals, taking advantage of the graduate boom, are placing R&D facilities alongside factories in those countries, close to booming new consumer markets. They are bolstered by government policies and local graduate brainpower. China’s shift from military research, for example, has helped boost its expertise in areas of solar energy and electric engine technology.

Digital Taylorism is also gathering pace – that is, white-collar, professional work is broken into elements, which are standardised, computerised and can then be delivered by low-skill, low-wage labour. The seemingly endless computerised ‘telephone tree’ in which you eventually, get through to an operator who can only respond to a specialised area of your query, is one digital Taylorist example we are all now familiar with. Complex white-collar skills are turned into globally mobile, bite-sized, digitised choices. Ominously, an online distance-learning university could provide its content, using such techniques, from anywhere in the world. Wherever the labour is cheapest. A relatively high-cost base in the South of England may not be the only option!

These three developments then fuel a fourth: a global 'war for talent'. A world awash with graduates becomes prone to forces directly undermining the opportunity bargain. Many Western graduates may get opportunities alright but they involve long hours, job insecurity, lower pensions, declining career prospects and lower wage levels than they ever expected (or borrowed for). Already a third of graduates in England who took education loans in 1998, have yet to pay a penny back, failing to reach the required modest re-payment salary level.

All these trends make the ‘head’ and ‘body’ nations concept look simplistic (not to say neo-colonialist). And then the plan to make the UK a knowledge economy becomes a fairytale. So, if the authors are correct, what are the consequences for UK graduates and their universities?

Well, global corporate recruitment is now focused on elite institutions. Why waste resources looking down the league tables when there are plenty of graduates at the top? The tendency for UK universities to opt for £9,000 fee levels is an indicator of the intense competition developing to brand themselves as members of that educational elite.

But such recruitment practices exacerbate wealth inequality and social division, since the elite show little sign of broadening their intake. Oxford still draws 90% and Cambridge 89% of their students, from professional and managerial family backgrounds. To those who have, shall be given. And employers, in a graduate glut, demand behavioural competencies. Not just a top degree but self-confidence, communication skills and “social fit”. Again, the elite have an edge. So the curriculum will incorporate a greater employability focus.

The unenviable longer-term prospect looms of a wealthy identikit management elite, atop a majority pyramid of graduates whose financial investment in their own education has misfired – their opportunity bargain turned sour. What will happen to creativity under such circumstances, Brown and colleagues ask, the real source of future national innovation?

Universities could face reduced student numbers as potential applicants notice the bargain only works for a minority. The number of universities subsequently declines and with few exceptions, those that remain specialise within an ever-narrowing curriculum, attempting to support an elite profile internationally. Marketisation after all suggests market niches. Specialist engineering universities? Management universities? Science universities? With corporate sponsorship, containing broad implications for critical analysis and research? Or, as one commentator has suggested, 'consumerversities' offering a different kind of opportunity bargain. One selling a greater chance of their graduates entering a given employment field or some/all of their money back?

Brown, Lauder and Ashton’s alternative to what they view as this dystopian educational future draws attention to the two nations most doggedly pursuing a free-market economic approach to Higher Education – the USA and the UK. Here the financial rewards for managerial elites, based on measures such as short-term shareholder value and severe organisational cost cutting, have become obscenely skewed and social inequality has sharply increased. Twenty five percent of working families in the USA now exist on poverty wage levels. They contrast this with others (including China and India) where the state has heavily and directly intervened economically, regulating development and inward foreign investment, committed to long-term infrastructure and education policies to boost overall economic capacity.

The authors call for more effective corporate regulatory mechanisms, longer-term economic strategies, wider stakeholder considerations, a more active role for international agencies promoting social justice, societies which are prepared to reward co-operative, as well as market, contributions. Could these be the kinds of features encouraging economic analysts to recently suggest Northern Europe, including Scandinavia, will become the powerhouse of the future global economy?

If the very readable, powerful and unsettling analysis contained in The Global Auction holds true, the UK is currently set on what Brown, Lauder and Ashton suggest is the global slow lane. One in which the country’s universities and their graduates will pay a heavy and uncomfortable price, economically and socially. Every member of the current Cabinet, let alone every university manager, should read and engage with the issues this work raises. Sadly, in the current headlong dash to the latest commercial business model (‘going forward’ of course), all too few are likely to do so.

This piece was first published on the Open University's Society Matters blog.


26 April 2011

On Bullshit, the Big Society and Other Bollocks

By Gordon Finlayson

“One of the most salient features of our culture” observed the Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt “is that there is so much bullshit.” Frankfurt advances a theory. The bullshitter’s statements reflect his indifference to the matter of their truth or falsity. That makes his deception distinct from, and in one respect worse than the liar’s. For the liar, who intends to deceive by presenting as true what he knows to be false, honours the truth in his own perverse way. Frankfurt observes that the realms of advertising and indeed “the closely related realm of politics, are replete with instances of bullshit so unmitigated that they can serve among the most indisputable and classic paradigms of the concept.” Politicians are prone to bullshit because they are required to have opinions about things they don’t know, and because they often say things merely for effect. Bullshit is among their chief weapons of mass distraction.

Recently 28 learned societies and subject associations signed a letter calling for the removal of the mention of “The Big Society” from the ‘delivery plan’ of the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), on the grounds that research funds should not be hijacked by Government initiatives, let alone party political ones. Let’s call it the BS initiative – an acronym apparently not spotted by its architects.

[See the full article at Discussion Point: http://www.discussion-point.com/ArticlePage/article/bs-big-society]


01 April 2011

Burying the Haldane Principle

Andrew Chitty argues that The Coalition Government has not only traduced the Haldane Principle, but has now more or less openly politicized the field of University Research through its influence (tacit or explicit) on the Research Councils.

The Haldane Principle is the principle that researchers (or the research community) rather than politicians should decide where research funds should be spent, therefore that the Research Councils that make decisions about funding should be autonomous from political control.

The progressive instrumentalisation of Higher Education under New Labour led to serious concerns that the government was abandoning the Haldane Principle. See for example Philip Moriarty's article 'Reclaiming academia from post-academia' (Nature Nanotechnology, 2008). By contrast at first the Conservative Liberal Democrat Coalition gave the impression that they were reaffirming the Principle. In his first keynote speech as Minister for Universities and Science in May 2010 David Willetts said "I support the Haldane principle and a stable framework for the science and research budget. They give freedom to academics and make this country a prized destination for international talent."

Furthermore, following consultations, BIS went on to produce a 'clarification' of the Principle as the appendix to its document 'The Allocation of Science and Research Funding', published in December 2010. Most of this appendix was anodyne, stating for example on the one hand that "Ministers should not decide which individual projects should be funded nor which researchers should receive the money", but on the other that "there are decisions that ultimately must be for Ministers, albeit informed by external advice; these include the overall size of the funding for science and research and its distribution between the Research Councils …". But there were two interesting points in it. First, it defined the Haldane Principle very narrowly:

The Haldane Principle means that decisions on individual research proposals are best taken by researchers themselves through peer review. [My emphasis - AC]
Traditionally the Haldane Principle has been understood to mean much more than this: that decisions on which areas of research to fund should be taken by researchers themselves. Second, the appendix went on to address this question of areas of research as follows:
In addition, every Government will have some key national strategic priorities such as addressing the challenges of an ageing population, energy supply or climate change. The research base has an important role to play in addressing such priorities and the Research Councils, with the support of independent advice, have proposed research programmes to tackle them. It is also appropriate for Ministers to ask Research Councils to consider how best they can contribute to these priorities, without crowding out other areas of their missions. But it is for the Research Councils to decide on the specific projects and people to fund within these priorities, free from Ministerial interference.
The gist of this paragraph is clearly that it is legitimate for the government to indicate to the Research Councils what it considers to be 'key national strategic priorities' and to expect the Research Councils to allocate a proportion of their funds addressing them.

This itself is strictly speaking a derogation from the Haldane Principle as traditionally understood. But if we look further into the BIS document it appears that the government has gone much further than indicating 'key national strategic priorities' in influencing - in one way or another - the allocation of Research Councils' funding. I take three examples from two Research Councils.

First, from the ESRC. The BIS document says that:
ESRC has developed a focused investment strategy for the coming period, which will centre its investment around three newly defined national priority areas which are critical to the UK economy and society. They are:
- Economic Performance and Sustainable Growth
- Influencing Behaviour and Informing Interventions
- A Vibrant and Fair Society
Let us look at the second of these priority areas, 'Influencing Behaviour and Informing Interventions'. The ESRC Delivery Plan for 2011-15, also published in December 2010, states that the aim of this area is "creating a better understanding of how and why people and organisations make decisions, and how these can be managed or influenced". It goes on to talk about investigating "how interventions can promote a beneficial change in the behaviour of citizens", "how people and groups might respond to different information and interventions" and "the appropriate role of public policy in terms of coercion through legislation, persuasion via incentives or social marketing, or coherent combinations of approaches".

All this is suspiciously reminiscent of the so-called 'Nudge Unit' set up by Downing Street to investigate ways of getting people to behave better through environmental signals, following David Cameron's enthusiasm for this idea (see for example 'David Cameron's "nudge unit" aims to improve economic behaviour', Guardian, 9 September 2010, and 'Nudge unit: how the Government wants to change the way we think', Belfast Telegraph, 3 January 2011). In fact the 'social marketing' referred to in the last quote above is in effect an earlier version of 'nudge theory' (see Spotlight on Social Marketing #3: Behavioural Economics, Bristol Social Marketing Centre).

The suspicions increase if we compare the following pair of sentences:

From the home page of Richard Thaler, the Chicago initiator of 'nudge theory': "[Thaler] investigates the implications of relaxing the standard economic assumption that everyone in the economy is rational and selfish, instead entertaining the possibility that some of the agents in the economy are sometimes human."

From the ESRC Delivery Plan: "Many recent government policies have assumed that people will rationally make the 'right' decisions when given better information on climate change, diet, or financial instruments but this approach has clear limitations."

What is going on here? It looks very much as if the ESRC has either succumbed to political pressure to direct funding into research that will support the 'nudge' idea, or else has independently decided to direct funding in this way in the hope that the government will look kindly on it in making decisions about its own future funding. Either way we have a practice that deviates radically even from the BIS document's diluted version of the Haldane Principle. For developing 'nudge theory' is by no stretch of the imagination a "key national strategic priority", on a par with "addressing the challenges of an ageing population, energy supply or climate change". Rather it is a pet idea of David Cameron's.

Second, from the AHRC. The BIS document tells us that: that among the "highest priorities in arts and humanities" are "communities and big society" and goes on to say:
A major thread of activity will be focused on communities, including leading the cross-Council 'Connected Communities' programme. AHRC will systematically address issues relating to social cohesion, community engagement and cultural renewal contributing to the 'Big Society' initiative.
If we look at the AHRC's Delivery Plan for 2011-2015, also published in December 2010, we find four mentions of the Big Society. One speaks of 'the contribution of AHRC plans to the "Big Society" agenda', while the most extensive says that the Connected Communities programme (which has been running for some time) will 'enable the AHRC to contribute to the government's initiatives on localism and the "Big Society"' in a number of areas. To take one of these areas:
Values and concepts: recent speeches on the 'Big Society' have made use of key behavioural or evaluative concepts that can be difficult to pin down such as fairness, engagement, responsibility, mutuality, individualism, selfishness. In addition key related ideas are frequently used by proponents: liberty, trust, civility, justice, citizenship and common interest. Research clarifies and contextualises these.
Again, it looks as though either the AHRC has been leaned on to fund research that will 'contribute to the Big Society agenda' or it has decided to fund such research itself in the hope of gaining favour with the government. Again, either way this deviates from the BIS document's statement of the Haldane Principle, for the 'Big Society' is not a 'key national strategic priority'. Rather it is another idea embraced by David Cameron, albeit one which he has made a central plank of the policy of his party.

The waters around the AHRC's funding of the Big Society have been somewhat muddied by an Observer article last Sunday. For, apart from reporting the strong reactions of academics to the fact that the AHRC had directed research funds to advancing the Big Society idea, the article also claimed that the government had explicitly told the AHRC that "research into the 'big society' was non-negotiable if it wished to maintain its funding at £100m a year". On Monday the AHRC issued an 'Important statement' that hotly denied this particular claim:
We did NOT receive our funding settlement on condition that we supported the 'Big Society', and we were NOT instructed, pressured or otherwise coerced by BIS or anyone else into support for this initiative.
On Monday an AHRC spokesman also said in a THE piece that "the [AHRC] delivery plan had referred to the Big Society to help policymakers understand the concept of Connected Communities":
"You use the language the people you are talking to understand," he said. "People think this means we are going to have more and more control from the centre, but we don't see that at all. We are doing our damndest to make sure everything remains at arm's length because that is how it should be."
The response to these two points by the AHRC is rather obvious. Political influence over the AHRC's decisions does not have to take the form of direct threats by the government to withdraw funding; all it needs is that the AHRC's decisions are designed to pander to the government's wishes so as to prevent such a withdrawal. And the AHRC Delivery Plan in fact does much more than use the Big Society idea to help politicians understand an already existing programme; it explicitly reorients that programme in the direction of the Big Society. Hence the Delivery Plan's all-too-frank reference to "the contribution of AHRC plans to the 'Big Society' agenda".

Third, the ESRC again. Let's look back at the ESRC's last new priority area, 'A Vibrant and Fair Society'. Can we detect the further influence of the Big Society idea here? We can. The ESRC's Delivery Plan only uses the term 'Big Society' once in its account of this area, but the idea of the Big Society is everywhere. The general aim of the area is "developing ways to enhance the role and contributions of citizens, voluntary sector organisations and social enterprises to create a vibrant national and global society". The questions it addresses include: "What are the roles of citizens, voluntary sector organisations and social enterprises in the devolution of powers to local and neighbourhood levels?", "How can we improve social mobility and community wellbeing through voluntary action and social enterprise?", and "How can the operational effectiveness of social enterprises, charities, and voluntary organisations be improved?" All these are core Big Society preoccupations. So again it looks as if a coach and horses is being driven through even the weak BIS version of the Haldane Principle.

How much more of this kind of disregard of the Haldane Principle will we find if we investigate the different Research Councils' Delivery Plans for 2011-15 (available from the bottom of http://stormbreaking.blogspot.com)? And what do we make of it? Should we shrug and say that perhaps the Principle is dated anyway and we should move on? A reason not to is that the Principle was formulated for a good reason: to guard against corruption. And is there not something corrupt about public money being directed, by whatever mechanism, to research that will advance the personal enthusiasms of the Prime Minister, or the political projects of his party?

Meanwhile, ordinary academics will feel that in order to be successful in attracting grants (which increasingly in British universities are not a luxury but a necessary condition of keeping one's job) we had better start mentioning the Big Society, or nudge theory, or whatever other of the governing party's ideas have found their ways into the Research Councils' Delivery Plans, in our applications for research funding. Better yet, we should start to remould our applications and our research plans so as to advance these ideas. And if we do that we will become in our own small ways party to corruption. That is the way with corruption: it starts at the top but in the end it goes all the way down.

Some supplementary notes (5 April 2011)

(1) I should qualify my assertion that "traditionally the Haldane Principle has been understood to mean ... that decisions on which areas of research to fund should be taken by researchers themselves". The history of the principle is more complex than this suggests.

The principle is named after Richard Haldane, whose Haldane Report of 1918 recommended setting up Advisory Councils under a Department of Intelligence and Research, to oversee 'general research', as opposed to research conducted by other Departments for their own ends (see pp. 31-35). These Advisory Councils later evolved into the Research Councils. The term 'Haldane Principle' was apparently not coined until the 1960s, when Lord Hailsham used it to mean that research and development should be conducted "through an independent council of industrialists, scientists and other eminent persons and not directly by a Government Department itself". Since then the 'Haldane Principle' has been invoked periodically to summarise a general ideal of the independence of Research Councils from Government in allocating research funding, but it has never been defined precisely.

The nearest thing to an authoritative interpretation of the principle under the last government was by John Denham who in a speech in 2008 asserted "that researchers are best placed to determine detailed priorities; that the government's role is to set the over-arching strategy; and that the research councils are 'guardians of the independence of science'". This gives already gives quite a lot of scope for governments to dictate Research Councils' decisions, depending on how far one can stretch the notion of an "over-arching strategy". The appendix to the BIS document, by interpreting the principle more narrowly so that it refers only to "decisions on individual research proposals", extends that scope further. But the prioritisation of nudge theory and Big Society research by Research Councils is clearly incompatible with the principle under either of these interpretations.

For discussions of the principle and its history see:
Would Haldane mind, in principle?, Nick Dusic, 2008
The 'Haldane Principle' and other invented traditions in science policy, David Edgerton, 2009 (see section 3)
The Haldane Principle, Bill Wakeham, 2009
Putting Science and Engineering at the Heart of Government Policy, Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee, 2009 (see paras 138-159)

(2) A petition to remove "The Big Society" as a strategic area for AHRC funding was started on 29 March and has so far reached 2700 signatures. Unfortunately the petition speaks of the Big Society as one of the AHRC's "six strategic areas for research funding". This looks incorrect. The AHRC Delivery Plan states the AHRC will support five existing cross-Council themes (Connected Communities, Digital Economy, Living with Environmental Change, Global Uncertainties, and Lifelong Health and Wellbeing). It also announces four new priority themes of its own (Care for the Future, Translating Cultures, Digital Transformations, and Science in Culture). The Big Society is not named as a separate theme. Rather the Delivery Plan's statements about contributing to the Big Society agenda are in the context of the Connected Communities theme. What the AHRC needs to do is make it clear that it will not prioritise any research project over others simply on the grounds that the project makes such a contribution.

(3) Here are some other recent comments on AHRC and the Big Society:
Willetts and the AHRC: Big Society or Big Brother?, James Gordon Finlayson, 28 March
The AHRC and the "Big Society", Gary Banham, Inter Kant, 28 March
The AHRC, The Observer, and Mr. Haldane’s Principle, Iain Pears, Future Thoughts, 28 March

Research must not be tied to politics, Stefan Collini, Guardian, 1 April

(added, 7 April:)

That AHRC/Haldane dust-up, in chronological order, Jane Sumner, A Blind Thermometer, 29 March
Don't play politics with academic freedom, James Ladyman, New Statesman, 30 March
The latest on the AHRC, "The Big Society", and the Government, Thom Brooks, The Brooks Blog, 5 April
AHRC rejects Observer allegations, AHRC, 7 April (a second response by the AHRC to the Observer article)

Andrew Chitty


18 January 2011

Universities and the Neo-Liberal Revolution

By Bob Brecher

Here is John Stuart Mill, the intellectual founding father of “traditional” liberalism:

Universities are not intended to teach the knowledge required to fit men for some special mode of gaining their livelihood. Their object is not to make skilful lawyers, or physicians, or engineers, but capable and cultivated human beings. … What professional men should carry away with them from an University, is not professional knowledge, but that which should direct the use of their professional knowledge, and bring the light of general culture to illuminate the technicalities of a special pursuit. … And so of all other useful pursuits, mechanical included. Education makes a man a more intelligent shoemaker, if that be his occupation, but not by teaching him how to make shoes; it does so by the mental exercise it gives, and the habits it impresses. (Inaugural Address to the University of St Andrews, 1867)
And here is “Lord” Browne, the failed ex-CEO of BP and spear-carrier for the neo-liberal revolutionaries in today’s mandate-free government:
Higher education matters because it transforms the lives of individuals. On graduating, graduates are more likely to be employed, more likely to enjoy higher wages and better job satisfaction, and more likely to find it easier to move from one job to the next. (Browne Report, 2010)
What, then, is going on? Education has always served two quite contrary needs: continuity and renewal. Now, provided the numbers are small, that is no great problem. The majority of that small minority can be safely relied upon to deal with continuity: the universities of Oxford and Cambridge have performed that task magnificently for centuries. And the small minority (of the small minority) who do concern themselves with renewal will have in mind only those forms of renewal that serve, rather than undermine, the ruling order. So we should not be surprised that Cameron has a BA in Politics, Philosophy and Economics (I’m not joking) from Oxford; his sidekick, Clegg, a BA in Social Anthropology from the same institution. This presents a problem for contemporary capitalism. It needs to engage the vast majority for its project – as consumers, if not as producers. And as it becomes more technologically complex, so it needs workers with more and more skills and more and more knowledge: with the increasing pace of technological change, it also needs those workers to be “flexible”, as Browne so disarmingly tells us. In short, the old division between those fit only for secondary modern schools and those who can be permitted to enter grammar school needs to go much deeper and to go on for much longer. Universities themselves need to instantiate that class divide across which a few may safely be allowed to cross, as they will never constitute a sufficiently large body, let alone a sufficiently organised one to constitute a threat. Hence the falsely egalitarian ending of the “binary divide”, between universities and polytechnics in 1992. Hence, too, the supine acceptance by “Universities UK”, the Vice-Chancellors’ club, of what the government is doing, and indeed the support of its élite, the “Russell Group”, for massive increases in tuition fees.

So again, it comes as no surprise that the most noticeable thing about academic responses to the Browne Report is that no one has seen fit to locate its recommendations in the context of the government’s commitment to using the so-called economic crisis as a pretext for initiating a neo-liberal revolution beyond Thatcher’s wildest dreams. It is as though its plans for the universities were ignorant, spiteful, blatantly illogical or all three. But they are not; and unless we understand government policy for what it is we have not the slightest chance of overturning it, whether in the universities or elsewhere. The transformation of the universities from being a public good, and recognised as such, to being at once providers of private consumables and a vanguard of the values thus entrenched is an integral part of the neo-liberal fundamentalists’ opportunistic revolution. Let me give just a few examples, taken from the universities’ trade rag, the Times Higher Education (THE). One commentator tells us that ‘The Browne proposals risk creating a two-tier system under which most institutions, serving the greater majority of students, “will be offering a worse – and also more expensive – experience”’ (‘Review’s quality drive branded ‘dangerous’, 4 Nov. 2010). But the proposals risk no such thing at all: they are carefully designed precisely to achieve it. Of course downgrading ‘to “non-priority” status’ of the arts, humanities and social sciences will be ‘a disaster for the nation’s intellectual and cultural life that undermines the very idea of the university’ (‘What price the soul of a university?’, 28 Oct. 2010). But for the avatars of neo-liberalism this will be not a disaster, but rather an opportunity. Compare Milton Friedman’s disarming honesty in the Wall Street Journal, the bankers’ trade-rag: ‘Most New Orleans schools are in ruins, as are the homes of the children who have attended them. The children are now scattered all over the country. This is a tragedy. It is also an opportunity to radically reform the educational system’ (‘The promise of vouchers’, 5 Dec. 2005).

Why is it that neo-liberals need to marketise the universities, almost as much as they need to marketwise the NHS? First, because neo-liberalism requires that the majority of people are taught not to think clearly and not to question what they’re told, lest they rebel. Second, and this is even more important, if the universities can be made into vehicles of the neo-liberal creed then they will do more than most other social institutions to reproduce and enforce that creed. Not only will “students” come to believe that everything – and perhaps everyone – is a commodity, but their teachers will themselves be products of the same ideology. For who but the rich will be able or willing to take on postgraduate work once they’re already tens of thousands of pounds in undergraduate debt? The arts, humanities and social sciences, in the few élite institutions in which they remain, will function as finishing schools for the wealthy, taught – if that is the right word – by their own. Everything else – from engineering to physics to business to design – will become bereft of critical content, taught – again if that is the right word – by people who understand themselves to be “delivering” quantifiable commodities to their customers. So again, it will not be ‘a huge mistake’ to ‘value our students simply for what we can get out of them or what they might earn in the future’ because ‘they will in turn estimate our value by what they can get out of us’ (‘Hefce chief: prepare for tough journey’, THE 28 Oct. 2010). On the contrary: that is exactly what Browne intends. The neo-liberal revolutionaries know exactly what they are doing and why. They intend to take advantage of the current “crisis” – the ideological power of which is n inverse proportion to its material reality -- by encouraging the élite universities to go private in frustration if for no other reason, forcing the “bottom of the range” into the hands of commercial companies such as Kaplan and BBP and slowly strangling the rest as any sort of public institution. At least some academics are coming to realise this, and have just formed the Campaign for the Public University (http://publicuniversity.org.uk).

So what is to be done? We must understand the ideological nature of the ConDems’ attack on the universities and not be sidelined by their disguising it as a cost-cutting exercise: this year’s planned bonuses for top bankers amount to three times current public spending on the universities. We have to understand and oppose it, not in isolation, as though it concerned the universities alone, but for what it is: a genuinely revolutionary policy. Students, administrators and academics need at once to take themselves seriously as members of a university and to join forces with all the other workers, paid and unpaid, whom the multi-millionaire fundamentalists around the Cabinet table regard as so much dross. Most pressingly of all, academics have to understand, realise and use the power that as academics they have. A good starting-point would be to refuse to act as the self-interested egoists too many of them have become and whom the neo-liberals would have the rest of us become; to refuse to compete with one another, whether within or across institutions, or with other groups of workers; and to make a new reality of what was once known as solidarity.

Bob Brecher (Professor of Moral Philosophy, University of Brighton)

This article first appeared on the Science for the People website on 3 January 2011.


02 December 2010

Message from Professor Simon Jarvis

Dear friends and colleagues,

I attach a link to an interview which I gave recently on local radio, in case, like me, you wish to oppose the assault which is currently in train on the humanities and social sciences, and in case, if so, this might divert or hearten you. Please forward to anyone on whom it might have the same effect(s). Apologies to anyone for whom this is already old hat.

My bit starts at around 14.08:


If you are moved to further action, you might want to consider joining a campaign in which I am involved: Humanities and Social Sciences Matter. Our statement follows below. You can sign the petition at


If you should like to register support for the Cambridge occupation, you can do that at:


Good wishes to one and all!


Britain has an higher education system that punches far above its weight internationally, especially compared to the USA and Europe. The productivity and creativity of our arts, humanities and social sciences are one of Britain's great economic and cultural success stories. Yet the Coalition Government is poised to jeopardise all this needlessly and irresponsibly. There is no defensible economic basis for its proposed changes: these will only increase public expenditure in this and the next Parliament.

The nationwide scale and duration of this week's enormously peaceful student demonstrations reflect this deep skepticism about the Government's reasons and reasoning.

We believe that:

1. Everything our universities have achieved should not be recklessly risked after three weeks reflecting on the deeply flawed 'Browne Review'; 2. The block Arts & Humanities teaching grant should not be summarily slashed on this basis; 3. We need a public enquiry to create a positive vision for British universities fit for the 21st century.

The Coalition Government is not offering any such vision - theirs is neither fit for our children, our economy nor our future.

If you believe in this too, please visit our campaign website http://humanitiesmatter.wordpress.com and sign the petition you can find there.

Simon Jarvis


21 November 2010

The End of the Public University in England

By James Vernon

I graduated from the University of Manchester in 1987 with no debt. I paid no fees and received a maintenance grant to earn a degree in Politics and Modern History. If my seventeen year old son were to follow in my footsteps he would graduate with debts of at least £50,000 and were he to study in London that could rise to £90,000. In the space of a generation we have witnessed the destruction of the public university.

The Browne Report released last week, and effectively rubber stamped in the savage public sector cuts announced yesterday, was simply the final nail in the coffin. Under the beguiling but misleading title 'Securing a Sustainable Future for Higher Education' it effectively announced that university degrees are no longer considered a public good but a private investment. Accordingly, it is the individual student, not the public, who will pay its cost. Tuition fees will rise from £3,225 to a minimum of £6,000 rising to a potential ceiling of £12,000. State funding will fall from £3.5bn to just £700m - a total of 80% but a 100% cut in areas like the arts, humanities and social sciences that apparently have no public utility.

The cost of a university education may be charged to the individual student but they will be forced to pay for it through the sort of debt-financing that governments across the world now consider so inappropriate for themselves. The scale of national debt is so ruinous we are told it requires emergency austerity measures (like all state intervention these days couched in the inevitable military metaphor of Osborne's 'war of welfare and waste'). Students, meanwhile, will be encouraged to take on loans based upon an imagined future income. They will effectively gamble that the loan will eventually pay-off by enhancing their future job prospects and earning power. It will be a hedge against their future security. What are effectively sub-prime loans are guaranteed by the state. Higher education is now modeled on the types of financial speculation that has helped get us in to this mess.

It is thankfully still just about inconceivable that primary and secondary education could be treated in this way - indeed, Osborne claimed he would be investing more in these areas. There at least it seems education remains something that serves a public and social function. Clearly something magical occurs when one turns eighteen and your education becomes a matter of personal not public gain.

When education becomes a private investment not a public good the principle of universal provision necessarily falls by the way. It used to be a central pillar of the British higher education system that all institutions offered a similar range of degrees at the same price (if not with the same prestige). A degree in biochemistry at Cambridge cost the same as one in cultural studies at Liverpool John Moores. In making students customers of educational services Browne opens up the English and Welsh university sector (Scotland has it own more sanely run system) to the vagaries of student demand. Different universities will compete with each other charging variable rates for different degrees depending on the quality of their service and the branding of their product. Everyone recognizes that Departments and programs be cut, many will be reduced to teaching factories where the link between teaching and research is severed, and some campuses will close altogether or be sold off in pieces.

As so often in Britain when business is the model we are told this is how things are done in America. Indeed, it is. Last week the State University of New York cut its programs in Classics, French, Italian, Russian and Theater. In the last two years the University of California has raised its tuition by 32%, introduced furloughs for its workers that represented an effective 8% pay cut and are now seeking to restructure the pension packages of its employees.

There are however real differences between the American system and the model being developed in Britain. The now ailing public universities in America existed in a diverse sector with privates (ranging from the small liberal arts colleges to the Ivy League campuses with their enormous endowments), community colleges and the rapidly expanding for-profits like the online degree factory the University of Phoenix. Private endowments and federal programs like the Pell grant scheme enable both public and private universities to at least be seen to maintain 'access' to a diverse student body. Yet even they seem unable to prevent the fortification of privilege amongst those social and ethnic groups most able to take the loans to gamble on their futures. The rest are likely to be driven in increasing numbers to for-profits who offer a faster, cheaper, denigrated, on-line education.

The lessons to be learnt from the American experience are that fees will continue to rise, unequal access between rich and poor will become structural to the system, and the for-profit sector will grow. Buckingham University, once the only for-profit private in the entire UK, may well become the model. In July, the Minister responsible for higher education, David Willetts, made BPP (now owned by the University of Phoenix the largest online for profit in the US) the second for-profit capable of granting degrees in the UK. With Obama's administration accusing Phoenix and co for using public funds and federally guaranteed student loans to leverage more private debt from students the for-profts are turning their attentions to the UK. Encouraged by David Willetts the for-profit sector awaits in the wings hungry to buy up or 'rescue' the publics that will surely fail in the years ahead.

Many politicians and university administrators present the Browne report as a reasonable response to the expansion of student numbers at a time of austerity and shrinking public budgets. Quite apart from the falsity of the choice between rising student fees or reduced numbers of students it is an argument that belies the length, depth and scale of the present crisis.

Firstly, it is not unique to England. Across Europe and the Americas students and their teachers have been protesting against the same processes: the public disinvestment of higher education, rising fees and levels of student debt, the expansion of management and administrative systems for measuring efficiency or 'excellence' of services, the quest for new fee-paying consumers online or overseas, the casualization of academic labor, the restructuring of pensions. Yet, the destruction of the public university in England is widely seen as a test-case where these processes are unraveling faster and further than anywhere else.

Secondly, the storm has been brewing for decades. There should be no wistful nostalgia for a once pure public university. In the nineteenth century the great 'redbrick' provincial universities were founded on the alliance between industry and ivy. In the post-war period a good deal of academic research served a decolonizing state uneasily placed in the cold war arms race as the student protests of the late 1960s recognized. It was hardly news then when in 1970 Edward Thompson railed against the erosion of intellectual life and academic governance by the captains of local industry that ran Warwick University, Ltd. And, of course, despite the faux radicalism of the new universities that enabled the system to expand after the Robbins Report of 1963, universities remained the preserve of a privileged elite charged with running the welfare state with just 457,000 students in 1971 – 14% of the age group.

If the public university had always been a faustian bargain with industry and the state the rules of the game certainly began to change decisively during the 1980s when I was a student. First came the effective freeze on hiring following the Lawson budget cuts of 1981. In 1993 when I was appointed to teach at the Department that had taught me it was the first permanent appointment in over a decade. Next came the stripping of the student maintenance grants I had marched unsuccessfully to protect in the mid-1980s. And then there were the infamous administrative systems for auditing the efficient use of public funds at universities by measuring the productivity of academic labor: research outputs by the Research Assessment Exercise from 1989, teaching by the Quality Assurance Agency in 1993 renamed the Teaching Quality Assessment in 1997. One consequence of this, consistent with the merging of the former polytechnic sector in 1992, was the growing incentives on a frequently dwindling and increasingly casualized labor force to admit more students and teach ever larger classes. Inevitably these auditing systems not only greatly increased the amount of time academics spent talking or writing about the research or teaching they would do if they only had the time to do it. It also catalyzed the staggering growth of management personnel.

New Labour only made things worse. Faced with the systematic under-funding of the universities, the expansion of student numbers (funding per student fell 40% from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s), and the decline in real terms of academic salaries, they answered the call of the last official review of the funding of higher education handed from one government to the other – the Dearing Report. If Dearing enabled the introduction of a £1,000 for tuition (and the final abolition of the maintenance grant in 1999), by 2006 it had increased to a variable rate up to £3,000. The final indignity came with the shift from the RAE measurement of academic's research productivity – which, in the name of generating 'output' had arguably produced a great deal of increasingly specialized and unexciting publications – to a concern with its utility or 'impact' under the absurdly named Research Excellence Framework from 2008. Unsurprisingly, as universities now answered to the Department of Business, Skills and Innovation, impact was measured in increasingly narrow and economistic terms.

Before rushing to join the denunciations of our short-sighted and philistine politicians we have to accept that no-one within the English university sector emerges from this process with much dignity. Administrators have grown fat, plumping up their personnel, enlarging their office and buildings, as well as inflating their salaries. Most damagingly they meekly accepted the economistic logics that drove the auditing of productivity and were naive enough to believe that the introduction of fees would supplement, not replace, state funding. They have turned away from the public they are supposed to serve in the quest for new 'markets': professional schools, overseas students, and creation of empires with institutions that franchise their degrees.

The Last Professors of the public university have hardly fared better. They have been only too content to learn and internalize the new rules of the game in the name of self-advancement. I was one of the new breed of entrepreneurial academics who had only ever worked in this system. I quickly learnt that research grants came to those who spoke whatever language the research councils were speaking in, that one had to recruit postgraduates to generate income, that quantity not quality of publications was the measure of scholarly productivity. Those who went on research leave or won big grants for research projects were happy to hire replacements and assistants on short-term contracts. At the opposite end others seemed content to become stars, to play musical chairs as institutions competed for prestige through big names with long CVs of publications, and to see their professorial salaries climb into the stratosphere in the name of their new market value.

The past twelve months has seen many wake up from this bad dream. As respected individuals, programs and Departments – all festooned in the baubles of research excellence and prestige indicators - have been cut students and their teachers have mobilized. There have been marches, protests, online petitions, teach-ins and occupations. These struggles have been very local – at Sussex, Middlesex, King's College, etc – but those involved were in conversation with or at least virtually connected to protests elsewhere in Berlin, Berkeley and Buenos Aires. It has been on these front-lines that the defense of the public university has begun to be articulated. And it has been the targeting of the arts and humanities in the cuts that has made it possible.

The humanities, along with the arts and even the interpretive social sciences, have become the true test of the public value of higher education. As the recession grips market models of utility and efficiency have surely been exposed as a dangerous fallacy so this is a good moment to re-articulate the purpose and role of humanities and social sciences in ways that justify renewed public investment in them. We could have expected more from those like the British Academy or Arts and Humanities Research Board that institutionally represent the humanities in the UK. Instead, they have effectively caught themselves in arguments about economic impact and the capacity to aid national economic recovery that they are doomed to lose (see the Arts and Humanities Research Council's Leading the World and the British Academy's The Public Value of the Humanities). We should not be surprised then that the Browne Report recommends the complete withdrawal of public funding for the teaching of the arts, humanities and social sciences in contrast to the STEM subjects that will continue to be supported.

The defense of public universities is intricately tied to arguments that can establish the public value of the humanities. We need to get beyond the hand-wringing of those who believe only philistines require the humanities to be justified just as much as the meek reproduction of the government's own vocabularies of impact and value. We can and should remind the world that it is our classes that students want to take. Despite a decade of the rhetorical marginalization of our disciplines in the UK as not relevant there are more studying in the arts, humanities and social sciences (1,073,465 in 2008/9) than in the STEM subjects (829,115) and they are growing at a faster rate (a 28% increase since 2001/2 as opposed to 20% increase for STEM). Indeed, in all likelihood, the arts, humanities and socials sciences are cross-subsidizing the more expensive STEM fields that teach fewer students in more resource heavy infrastructures and laboratories.

Why then do we face increased demand from students for the arts, humanities and social sciences? There is no one reason why students take these classes and we do not need a one-size fits all justification of their public value. There are for sure those that rightly view these subject areas as helping them prepare for the world of work without necessarily providing a clear career trajectory in the social field or the knowledge and culture industries. Students recognize that even vocational training can not ensure life-long careers any longer. Instead they require a set of skills – of critical thought and analysis, of reading and digesting materials quickly, of making presentations and convincing arguments across a range of media – that equip them for a flexible labor market in which they may work across multiple sectors.

We need, however, not stop at these instrumental ends. We should be gratified to recognize that students are no less concerned with becoming citizens of the world. They realize that the humanities provide them with not just an education in the issues and problems that face our global society but the forms of analysis that allow us to connect our particular local experiences to sometimes global processes. They also provide the language training necessary for us to understand the perspectives of other cultures. No less importantly, given the democratic deficit and seemingly growing disenchantment with our political system, the humanities teach our students the critical skills they require to become active and valued citizens of our democratic life. Often they teach them that it is possible to think of themselves in new ways, to discover a new identity and to forge around it a politics they share with others that challenges and enriches our democracy.

Finally, the humanities, like the arts and social sciences, offer us the opportunity to think otherwise. In an age in which the financialization of everyday life appears to demand an economic value is attached to everything we need to be reminded that this was not always the case. The humanities speak to different systems of value, different orders of pleasure and enjoyment, that we can all enjoy – of imagination, beauty, laughter and wonder. It is these qualities afterall that make us fully human, that enable us to appreciate what is unique about our own culture as well as what it is we hold in common with the rest of humanity.

A good deal is at stake. We must defend the vision of a publicly funded university able to support classes in subjects that do not generate economic benefits. This is not the measure of who we are or who we want to become.

James Vernon (University of California, Berkeley)

This article first appeared on the Inside Higher Education website on 27 October 2010.


Valuing the Humanities

A panel discussion organised by the British Philosophical Association with:

Martha Nussbaum (Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and
Ethics, University of Chicago)

Lord Rees of Ludlow (President of the Royal Society, Astronomer Royal, Master
of Trinity College Cambridge)

Richard Smith (Former editor, British Medical Journal; Director, Ovations

James Ladyman (Professor of Philosophy, University of Bristol; co-editor,
British Journal of the Philosophy of Science)

Mark Lawson (BBC Journalist, Presenter Front Row, and Writer.)

Friday 17 December, 2.30-5.00pm
Hong Kong Lecture Theatre, Clement House,
London School of Economics, Aldwych
Followed by a reception in the Senior Common Room

All Welcome


'The Two Cultures' Fifty Years On

As part of the event, WHY HUMANITIES? Onora O'Neill gave the following talk
on 4 November 2010, in Senate House, London. You can find Onora O'Neill's speech here: