The Assault on Universities: essays from the frontline of England's higher education sector

The privatisation of English higher education is bitingly analysed in this essential collection of essays. Does the book mark a new wave of opposition to corporate ideology from within England's universities?
Jeremy Seabrook
15 November 2011

The Assault on Universities: a Manifesto for Resistance ed. Michael Bailey and Des Freedman, Pluto Press, 2011.

When my generation received our first instalment of what was then called a State Scholarship in the autumn of 1957, we did not think ‘Yippee, something for nothing from the government.’ We felt it an honour as well as an opportunity, and recognised that we had a duty, not only to our families but also to society; and our response was to take up careers in teaching, social work, administration, the arts and further study. In our zeal we were scarcely touched by the hedonism of the sixties.

It was a strange paradox that when Britain was much poorer than it is now, the country could still afford an expanding higher education sector, increases in spending on health care and welfare. As the authors of this collection of essays on the privatisation of higher education urgently write, we should be sceptical about the recent dramatic impoverishment of a Britain in which the Financial Times still sees fit to publish a weekly supplement on How to Spend It. This is an ideologically driven austerity that has turned private bank debts into public burdens, exploited by the true liberals of the present government to cut government spending, reduce the state, and create a new dose of public squalor that will drive the people into the arms of private providers of just about everything

The archaic response of my unworldly generation is now regarded by the knowing and cynical of these late wise times as delusion. But to those struggling against the current multiple attacks on academic freedoms, the eclipsed values of public goods and the collective advantage of educating the young – particularly from poor backgrounds – still serve as a source of hope and a model of what a civilized society might mean. The transformation of students into consumers (for the most part on borrowed money, with debt burdens that will tether them ever more tightly to a society that now has them firmly by the wallet), will compel them to ‘choose’ courses that will provide them with the highest income and status in their subsequent career, and at the same time benefit, not society, but the economy, emblem now of the supreme good.

The anger of the essays in this book (evident also in this OurKingdom piece by the book's co-editor Des Freedman) is passionate and deeply felt. But it has to be asked: where has the academy been in the years when market society, of which it is now victim, has been in the making? One might have anticipated an earlier awakening against the corporate ideology of those who are, after all, custodians of free and creative thought, independent ideas and research beyond the conventionally thinkable.

It should come as no surprise that higher education, like every other social institution, is in the process of being re-made in the image of the market. The history of industrial society has been of increasing enclosure of all collective and common goods which are then sold back to us. Just as common land was enclosed, so the less material commons of knowledge, culture and belonging, all the free gifts of humanity, have been alienated, re-packaged and made available to us only in the form of some item of consumption.

So it is with the privatisation of education. If the humanities are out, does this mean inhumanities are in; if liberal arts are a distant memory, are the illiberal arts now the highest form of learning; if the public good has been abolished, does this mean public evils are now acceptable?

The essays in this book are, at the same time, an indictment of the invasion of the ubiquitous market into what were the sacred groves, and equally a lament for the time when education was seen as a means to change the world. Alas, the world has changed anyway, and largely without benefit of education, for it bears little resemblance to the society which we, in our post-war innocence, or even the idealists of 1968 foresaw.

The manifesto at the end of these essays is less persuasive than the indictment of what has happened. The transformation has already been accomplished, and individual destinies have, for the majority, overwhelmed social and communal objectives. Whether the student demonstrations of 2010 – and those yet to come – represent anything more than a rearguard action by those disadvantaged by the great increases in fees, or a more enduring revulsion against the social fragmentations, inequalities and eclipse of social hope, it is too early to say. It would be good to think that the contributors to this urgent and essential collection are articulating a new wave of action against this lengthening neoliberal period, since it is clear that the age of frugality is strictly for the poor, and hence simply another stratagem in the conservation of privilege. 

Jeremy Seabrook is an author and journalist specialising in social, environmental and development issues.

Housmans Bookshop is hosting a book launch for 'The Assault on Universities' on November 23

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