"Our turn to talk": why we should listen to Occupy LSE

Universities are increasingly becoming factories, churning out obedient citizens and “human capital.” It's time to fight back.

Harry Blain
30 March 2015
LSE entrance

The LSE's polished brand is being challenged. Flickr/Mikhail Dubov. Some rights reserved.At the London School of Economics, many of the pamphlets and posters across the campus advertise events like “Be an entrepreneur for a day” or “How to become the next George Soros.” This may not be unique to the LSE, but it is no doubt central to its narrative: come to this institution, pay the fees, go to the recruitment fairs, and graduate with a well-paid job, perhaps in the City of London. Remember, above all, our big sales pitch: “our most recent average starting salary was £29,400 for undergraduates and £35,000 for postgraduates – well above the national averages.”

The LSE brand is powerful, and extends beyond the apparent financial success of its graduates (though the average salary figures are skewed by high-paying jobs in the City). It continues to produce impressive, often controversial research. Its Centre for the Analysis of Social Exclusion recently released a report on “the changing structure of inequality in the UK”, illustrating some of the deep inequities in the British labour market, while its history has been shaped by towering radical figures like Ralph Miliband and Harold Laski. 

Phil Baty, the editor of the Times Higher Education rankings, recently praised the LSE’s ability to again strengthen “its position among the 25 most prestigious universities in the world – as judged by 10,000 expert, senior academics. Given that there are around 20,000 higher education institutions in the world, this is an outstanding achievement, and puts the LSE among the elite of the elite. Such a stellar global reputation will help to ensure that the LSE continues to be a leading light – attracting global talent and investment into London and the UK!”

But it is precisely this image – “the elite of the elite” – that is currently being unmasked and challenged. There are good reasons to take this challenge seriously.

“University is not a factory!”

On March 18, I was surprised to see the usual posters on entrepreneurship and careers in finance displaced by the simple message: “Our Turn to Talk.” Hanging from the LSE old building – often the spot where we take photos with our parents, ensuring we get the school’s logo in the background – was the banner, “Occupy LSE.”

At its core, this is a movement about redefining the principles that drive our education, captured in the rallying cry “University is not a factory!” Readers of openDemocracy will be familiar with the increasing sense, not only in Britain but across the world, that education has become a commodity; degrees “marketed” on their utility in a “competitive job market”; courses “sold” on their ability to equip us for the “knowledge economy”; institutions and academics “ranked” according to their status and prestige.

How do we confront this? Tuition fees are a good place to start, and the first demand of Occupy LSE is that the university “publicly lobby for education as a public good to be funded by a progressive taxation system and to be free from tuition fees for both domestic and international students.” One of the architects of the modern tuition fee system is a Professor of Public Economics at the LSE, Nicholas Barr, who has since lamented that the plan was not well sold: “I said to Tony Blair, call it a graduate tax!”

Professor Barr’s view – that a system of tuition fees is necessary and desirable if properly explained – reflects how “progressive” minds in Britain have accepted what the sociologist Ronaldo Munck calls “necessitarianism”: the belief in the inevitability of the market’s triumph in society. This belief is the basis of modern neo-liberalism, and can be seen in the language of Will Hutton in a 2013 article for the Guardian with the title: “Britain’s intellectual powerhouses must not become the preserve of the wealthy.” “Of course graduates should pay fees for their education over 30 years of their subsequent working life”, he wrote. “Of course universities should promote ever wider access. Of course universities should do more to feed business with the lifeblood of scientific and technological knowledge.” University, in other words, is still a factory, designed to “feed business”, but we should aim to put a nicer face on it.

Welcome to the Free University of London

The Free University of London takes over the Vera Anstey Suite. Author's image.

“The epitome of the neoliberal university”

That’s essentially where the “progressive” perspective lies today, exemplified in the Labour Party’s radical alternative to the Coalition’s £9,000 annual fees: £6,000. Conservative governments may be more aggressively pursuing an American-style education system – like in my native Australia, where the Education Minister last year mulled over collecting student loans from deceased estates – but the bigger concern is the way in which former parties of the left have turned their back on free education.

Britain, nevertheless, is an outlier compared to the rest of Europe, where university education is either free or relatively affordable; not to mention Scotland, whose First Minister recently spoke at LSE and asserted “I will defend the principle of access to education being on your ability to learn, not your ability to pay as long as I’m in politics.” We may fear that we’re turning into America; the rest of Europe fears that they’re turning in to us.   

LSE certainly feels like, as student activists put it, “the epitome of the neoliberal university.” The most embarrassing evidence of this was the 2011 revelations of the school’s willingness to accept gifts from the Gaddafi family, with more recent concerns stemming from its “streamlined” new code on ethical investments. The chairman of the LSE Council and Court of Governors is Peter Sutherland, who is also chairman of Goldman Sachs International and former chairman of BP; and the “Sheikh Zayed Theatre”, in our impressive New Academic Building, is named after the former Emir of Abu Dhabi, a token of appreciation for his family's financial support.

LSE occupation

Reclaiming the voice of students. Flickr/lusciousblopster. Some rights reserved.

Yet – as we well know – LSE is not the only university run like a business, which is why Occupy LSE’s call for divestment from “exploitative and destructive organisations, such as those involved in wars, military occupations, illegal blacklisting of workers and the destruction of the planet” has been so passionately echoed and supported.  

“Forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old”

This call for a “new society” is found in the preamble to the constitution of the Industrial Workers of the World. It has inspired the pursuit of an ambitious “pre-figurative politics” based on new forms of expression and organisation in our everyday lives, rejecting arbitrary authority and hierarchy. This is a key element of the Free University movement, with the principle of “directly democratic, non-hierarchal and universally accessible education” being actively practiced in the workshops and discussions (for details, see the Occupy LSE Facebook page) taking place within and outside the Vera Anstey Suite, normally a space reserved for the university bureaucracy, now re-named the Free University of London. The wider aim is to embed this principle of “genuine university democracy” in the LSE through greater institutional transparency and “the formation of an Independent Review Committee comprising of academic staff (1/3), non-academic staff (1/3) and students (1/3).”

Underpinning this is a call for the LSE to publicly lobby against the government’s recent Counter-Terrorism Bill, which carries eerie requirements for monitoring “radicalisation” on campuses. Anyone remotely familiar with the recent history of counter-terrorism at universities in the UK should support this demand. Just ask Mohammad Gul, a law student at Queen Mary University, whose five year prison sentence was upheld in 2012 under Section 1 of the Terrorism Act for uploading videos to YouTube of Iraqi and Afghan insurgents fighting American and British military forces; or Hicham Yezza and Rizwaan Sabir, students at the University of Nottingham, who were arrested and held for six days in May 2008 after the university’s registrar informed police that Sabir had downloaded an al-Qaeda training manual, and emailed it to his classmate (for a Security Studies class). Critical thinking and dissent, the most basic values of higher education, are under threat, and in desperate need of protection.

Stand with us

Education is not about churning out obedient citizens, ready-made for a career in an economy designed by distant corporate and political interests. In any case, such careers prove elusive for many graduates today. The reality, instead, is “overqualified and underemployed”: casual, low-paid, often unstable work – with a mountain of debt. Graduates are, in this sense, becoming part of that “dangerous new class”, the “Precariat”, sharing the experience and the consciousness of the LSE workers on zero-hours contracts, whose employment rights are a central demand of the Occupy LSE movement.

After initially taking a conciliatory stance – stating that “exchanges between the group and LSE security staff have been positive”, and even reportedly including the Occupation in the welcoming presentation on the school’s open day – the LSE now appears to be taking a harder line, vaguely promising dialogue and piecemeal compromise while considering legal action. Looking at our demands, I have already been told by students that “they will never agree to that”, “there’s no way that will work” or “no chance.”

We’ve heard such apathy before. But history, as the novelist Philip Roth noted, is about discovering how the unexpected becomes the inevitable. The pessimists should take even a cursory look at the history of political activism at LSE, and then, on some level, they might re-discover it. And this is a movement extending well beyond LSE, to the UAL students occupying the reception area of the Central St Martins College of Art and Design; the graduate students on strike at the University of Toronto; and the inspiring student occupation of the University of Amsterdam. Far from dissipating, this wave of political activity has spread, with students from King's College London and Goldsmiths the latest to begin occupations (see Occupy KCL and Occupy Goldsmiths). 

Stand with us. Or, at the very least, listen to us, because the Free University of London is not just a physical space, but an angry and passionate collective voice – one that won't be fading away.

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