The higher education debate exposes the need for a new approach to social organisation, large and small

While we must respect the organic nature of our institutions, we must also accept them as social constructs. We need to develop a new approach to social organisation that is radically democratic, encourages accountability and works to resist tribalism.
Rosemary Bechler
6 January 2011

Peter Johnson’s lament for ‘the university’ brilliantly conjures a lost age and it will be hard for any reader however much they disagree not to feel a real stab of nostalgia. There must have been an age when a scholar was a scholar and knew his classics; when a priest knew what it meant to be a holy man and preferred prayer to pederasty; when a regular workingman felt solidarity instinctively and did a hard day’s labour taking pride in his skills; when an employer cared for his company and not just profits; when the House of Commons debated; when MPs were honoured for being, well, honourable; a time when, even if they were difficult as they often were, women knew their place; and when, as he says, you didn’t ask what is a university for, let alone for goodness sake what might be its function! It was what it was: a university.

The first thing to say is that it is very easy to mock the expression of that sentiment now, in our own time. It expressed the presumption of a period that held that our governing institutions were organic not conceived, inherited not made, and could therefore be fought for and died for with the assurance that they expressed what we are.

Within this worldview the ‘meaning’ of the university too was like the meaning of life - both were God given. And, of course, the traditional university that Peter conjures up was originally a clerical institution. The education it provided was general and not limited to those intending to be priests. But all praised it together at evening song.

We cannot return to this time. We cannot even half return to it. We are all too conscious that our institutions are socially made. If they are not to be justified by market competition they still have to be justified somehow or they will crumble from lack of inner-belief. For while Peter complains about what is being imposed on the universities from outside – and rightly so – they have no inner comeback.

You can see in some of the intense debates about the purpose of education that have exploded amongst the UK’s latest student population, the rejection of the ‘you-may-want-to-feel-solid-but you-must-melt-into-air’ imperatives of the global marketplace. This places them on the side of those who see part of the point at least about learning being for its own sake. Like self-discovery this can’t know the ‘output’ it wants beforehand, let alone demand a metric of its average annual salary after one year, as the Browne Report envisages. This puts the spirit of the student movement on the conservative side against market forces, hence the delicious irony of Peter’s intervention. Who, in the clash, are the conservatives? 

But the dominant ideology of the student protest seems to be a traditional socialist one thoroughly opposed to any tradition except its own. For this conservatism and tribalism there surely is no serious future apart from its remarkable capacity to preserve and reproduce itself unchanged. I wish all socialists would read articles like Tom Nairn’s new reflection on Ernest Gellner as well as the work of Gellner and Tom himself (e.g. The English Postman). But the thrust of the argument - that people have to attach themselves to their communities and that globalisation generates differentiation - suggests that they won’t. Cass Sunstein observed the phenomenon that people will use the web to read what they already agree with and work around the harder-to-combat objections to their world-view, leaving them to be characterised as beyond the pale by their community’s spiritual gatekeepers.

Tom argues in Gellner’s footsteps that “particularity” is the essential characteristic of human life, hence the failure of big theories of capitalism and globalisation. The global corporations however have adapted to this all too well, with their massive investment in differentiated market research, product placement and the manipulation of choice.

It seems to me that any political and cultural way forward has to develop forms and means of deliberation that are not alienated from the public. Paul Hirst (who was one of the student activists when Leicester University was occupied in 1968) was perhaps the first thinker to argue for the importance of the nation state and against the theorists of globalization, while insisting all the while that the nation was the primary arena for democracy – for representing ‘who we are’ in the world as a whole in the ongoing transformation we call modernity. But what he realised was that this democratic nation had to be filled with secondary, local arenas that it protected and sustained while national politics itself needs to be thoroughly democratised with proportional voting and a democratic constitution.

There is no way back to Peter Johnson’s organic university. We need universities that are conscious of their place and role, are accountable for what they do and answerable for what they fail to achieve, above all to their students and staff but also to society as a whole. If the mechanism for achieving this is not to be the market, or at least not exclusively the market, then it has to be democracy. Only, clearly, not democracy as we know it.

This is where, it seems to me as an outsider observing the student debates, the arguments over whether or not it is a leaderless movement are so important. In the narrow sense there are obviously leaders, opinion formers, organisers, prime movers and those who want to listen, follow and join in without speaking or suggesting. And we are all aware of the tyranny of uncodified, informal, and supposedly structureless syndicates! These are yet another form of the ‘organic’ denying and masking the advantages for those who run things behind the scenes (giving them power without responsibility).

The fundamental challenge thrown up by the idea of a leaderless movement, however, goes wider than this. The question it raises is whether there is an alternative way of running things for everybody. Can we develop ways and means of deliberation that release energy, permit and encourage invention and exploration, and return to assess consensus and assent. The way forward does not have to be decided by a cabinet or committee whose immediate concern after it has taken a decision is who is for it? and who against? and how will troublemakers be managed? At the moment it always is. Unlike the market, politics in capitalist societies is all about closure and tribalism. The left is as prone to the cultivation of these kinds of hatreds as the right. If the market is ever to be governed for the good of society as a whole, it needs a democracy of deliberation that is even more open, inventive and energetic than the profit motive. 

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