After the tuition fee protests, before the market-friendly White Paper on Higher Education was silently abandoned, there was a crucial space for reflection on the English university. Was it facing a neoliberal attack? Or essential reform? What was the ideal university? And how could it be realised?
The OurKingdom section on ‘Capitalism and the University’ has been wound up but the project to set up a market in higher education, launched by New Labour and intensified under the present government, is still very much with us.
We launched the section seven months ago in the hiatus between the demonstrations, walkouts, occupations and rallies that greeted the trebling of tuition fees and David Willett’s White Paper that was designed to embed private operators and intense competition into the sector. To talk of a hiatus does not mean, of course, that nothing was going on: the secretary of state was busy meeting with representatives of large US for-profit operators like Apollo and Education Management Corporation while students, criminalised by police largely for the crime of taking direct action to defend free education, were being dragged through the courts.
The intention of the section was to highlight the various ways in which neoliberalism has been inscribed into the fabric of university life as well as the system of higher education as a whole. We dealt with the implications of both serious policy proposals, like those in the White Paper (and its historical antecedents), as well as the more ridiculous developments like the venture by the celebrity academics-turned-shareholders in the New College of the Humanities. We highlighted the unwelcome intrusion of ‘Big Society’ discourse into research funding as well as the creeping instrumentalisation of research culture in the last twenty years and, in particular, focused on the impact of corporate agendas on research in the natural sciences. Several articles reflected on the continuing student struggles including the redefinition of the concept of student power, the emergence of the student as consumer, the role of occupations and even a student perspective on the remit of the incoming Director of the LSE. We only managed to touch the tip of the iceberg of a growing number of alternative higher education projects, epitomised by the Social Science Centre and the Free University – but we are confident that these perspectives will not be absent from future pages of OurKingdom.
The White Paper that appeared in the early summer confirmed our fears and validated the need for a specific OurKingdom section. It allowed for a much greater role for private capital, liberalised the very idea of the university, fetishised the conception of students as consumers and entrenched market discipline into the core of the university structure. It was met with intense opposition, including the publication of an alternative white paper, condemnation from education unions, indifference from vice-chancellors and yet more student occupations in the months that followed.
Then in January 2012, the government announced that it was not planning to go ahead with the legislative agenda tabled in the White Paper. Knocked back by serious public opposition to its reforms of the NHS, welfare and pensions, it has decided to pursue a liberalising agenda through stealth, ie not through the limited scrutiny afforded by Parliament. While this is certainly great news for those opposed to privatisation, it hardly marks the end of the battle given that the university system has already been reshaped by tuition fee rises, withdrawal of teaching funding for arts, humanities and social sciences subjects and the ‘core and margin’ model of funding that is set to increase the social polarisation of HE.
So the issues highlighted in the ‘Capitalism and the University’ discussion remain live and topical. The determination by pro-market forces to re-write the rules of higher education—to instrumentalise research, to commodify students, to quantify student satisfaction, to privatise provision and to monetise the system as a whole has not disappeared. There will continue to be a need for public discussion about the role of our universities and for mobilisations to defend the concept of the public university. A campaign to boycott the National Student Survey is next on the agenda.