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Goldsmiths strike: Why I may burn my honorary degree

The institution’s escalating industrial action is much more than a dispute over job losses

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
22 July 2022, 4.48pm

Goldsmiths is being condemned to decline as bosses pursue commercialisation

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PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

In July 2019 I was made an honorary fellow of Goldsmiths University. Should I now publicly burn the certificate? For the university seems to have betrayed the values I celebrated when I accepted it.

The speech I gave to those graduating that year had Martin Luther King’s ‘The love that does justice’ as its theme. I reflected on the buildings in the Goldsmiths’ campus named after Richard Hoggart, Ben Pimlott and Stuart Hall. Instead of 19th-century imperialists or 21st-century oligarchs, they represented a democratic tradition, “expert and exploratory”. Hoggart, dedicated to literacy; Pimlott, an exemplary public servant; Hall, a democratic life-force. “Each,” I told the graduates, “personified what higher education should be about and resisted it being marketised and commercialised.”

I wrote in my speech about Lord Browne’s 2010 report on funding higher education. It was commissioned by Peter Mandelson in the last Labour government. The ex-boss of BP asserted that no “objective metric of quality” could be found to guide public investment in higher education. Funding should therefore be decided by students based on the financial returns they could anticipate.

Hall, obviously, but also Pimlott and Hoggart, both of whom were wardens of Goldsmiths, would have been scandalised.

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“In these dire times,” I concluded, “asking what you can do for others is the best way to reach out for yourself… to be a co-creator of society and never just a consumer. It means always using the power of your intelligence, including your emotional intelligence, to make the call that matters, to ask what we can do for others – with love and justice.”

It was well received.

Last December, after a ballot, staff at Goldsmiths began to oppose the imposition of restructuring and redundancies. This was followed up with strike action. It coincided with UK-wide resistance by academics seeking to protect their pensions.

In April, the conflict in Goldsmiths escalated and staff began ‘a marking and assessment boycott’, in response to what they perceived as the intransigence of the administration under its current warden, Frances Corner.

This is much more than a dispute over job losses. Goldsmiths is famous as a high-quality London university with an exceptionally large intake of students from diverse and poorer backgrounds and a commitment to values of access, inclusion and teaching the humanities to strengthen students’ capabilities and capacity for judgement.

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The proposed restructuring threatens this achievement as it seeks to spatchcock Goldsmiths into the corporate marketplace.

An open letter addressed to the warden protested at how “redundancies are being managed by external consultants with no disciplinary expertise”. Published in October 2021, it has been signed by over 4,000 concerned academics, writers, and scholars (including myself) from around the world.

Later, a critique of the administration’s policy was published in openDemocracy by Professor Des Freedman, head of the university’s internationally celebrated Department of Media and Communication Studies. In it he notes that the chair of Goldsmiths’ “hugely important Finance and Resources Committee” worked for the massive global accounting and business consultancy KPMG for 34 years and became a partner. Two years after she retired, she joined the Goldsmith Council. The restructuring is taking place under the auspices of KPMG. Freedman quotes from its report on the need to “optimize” higher education for the marketplace.

The boycott means some students are not getting their assessments marked. This began to impact on those who were graduating. In response to enquiries, on 4 July, Freedman, along with the deputy head of the Media Department, Gholam Khiabany, sent an email to those they knew would not be able to graduate, to update them.

The administration has used this to summarily remove the two leaders of the department from their duties and lock them out of their accounts.

Media and Communication Studies is too valuable in terms of attracting students to be threatened directly. But because many of its staff have a cogent overview of what marketisation represents, they are regarded as “ringleaders” of the resistance. To decapitate them takes the battle over Goldsmiths to a new level.

To tell students that the sole aim of their university years is earn more afterwards leads to demoralisation

Everything I admire about what Goldsmiths achieves, which I lauded in my speech, is being put to the stake by consultants like KPMG and by administrators who regard students as customers and oppose scholars and teachers who speak out against commercialisation.

It is also counter-productive to make ‘market priorities’ the sole measure of success when it comes to education. Societies, including capitalist societies, need people who have the self-confidence to think for themselves and change course. A knowledge of history and culture is essential for this. To tell students that the sole aim of their university years is earn more afterwards leads to demoralisation as well as illness and depression.

So those who run Goldsmiths need to change course. If the loyalty of those who teach at it is spurned and their voices ignored, only exit remains. A great institution, built up by a succession of distinguished heads, will be condemned to a perverse, unnecessary decline. If this continues, those of us proud to be to have been made the university’s honorary fellows should terminate our connection.

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