Saving philosophy from the suits

The long march of market mechanisms through Britain's cultural institutions has accelerated. Is there a business/state case for philosophy and humanities?
Sarah Amsler
18 May 2010

Nowhere have the battle lines of neoliberal power in education been drawn more clearly than in Middlesex University’s recent decision to close its renowned department of Philosophy, and in its brazen refusal to engage with either the student-led movement to challenge it or the much wider expressions of outrage from the international academic community. Now two weeks on, with the sit-in-cum-occupation phase of the student protest complete, responses to the news have shifted from incredulous confusion to hardened resistance as the full significance of the university’s position – for Middlesex, the public university, and democratic life more generally – has become increasingly clear. But interestingly, so too has the intellectual and political necessity of critical philosophy.

Initially, protests against the closure took the predictable form of appealing to what was presumed, ironically or otherwise, to be a shared sense of reason in university governance. Letters from across the world, written by rank-and-file colleagues and many of the world’s leading philosophers, detailed both scholarly and institutional arguments for keeping the programmes (or at least the conversation) open. Middlesex boasts one of the largest MA philosophy programmes in the UK, is home to the highly regarded journal of Radical Philosophy, was the university’s best performing research unit and houses some of the country’s most eminent Continental philosophers. More strategically, much work in the department was recognised as ‘world-leading’ in the state’s latest recent Research Assessment Exercise, and faculty have contributed nearly half their combined earnings from tuition and research to the university’s budget. Given this record of scholarly recognition, academic accomplishment and institutional contribution, it was asked, why is the department actually being closed?

According to Ed Esche, Dean of the School of Arts and Humanities, the decision to close the department was ‘simply financial’, as it will be ostensibly more profitable for the university to teach ‘Band C’ rather than ‘Band D’ students. What does this mean? Each year, the Higher Education Funding Council of England allocates universities a certain amount of money according to various criteria in teaching and research. One funding stream distributes money according to the numbers of students universities teach in particular types of disciplines. Students fall into different ‘price bands’ and thus embody unequal monetary values. ‘Band A’ includes students studying clinical medicine, dentistry and veterinary science; this year, worth £15,788. ‘Band B’ includes scientists, pre-clinical medical students and those in engineering and technology. Requiring cheaper technology and expert labour to educate, their value drops to £6,710. ‘Band C’ includes anyone studying subjects involving studio, lab or fieldwork projects; £5,131 per year for each of these. And ‘Band D’ students, including philosophy and ‘all other subjects’, annually rake in a mere £3,947 from the state. In terms of sheer "market" value, therefore, Esche has claimed that Philosophy can make ‘no measurable contribution to the university’. Leaving aside pressing questions about the present will to ‘measure’ everything social in economic terms, however, we can see that even the financial logic contains its own contradiction: HEFCE’s differential disciplinary allocations are meant to level provision of resources, not create surplus value. The logic bodes badly for students on the other end of the market as well.

In reality, therefore, the loss of Middlesex Philosophy is part of an ongoing business-state campaign to decimate the humanities and social sciences in British academe under the aegis of neoliberal ‘progress’, now green-lighted by the government’s assurance of savage cuts to public spending in the coming year. The programme of marketizing and commodifying higher education began so many years ago that it seemed almost banal when all UK universities were subsumed under a new Department of Business, Innovation and Skills in 2009, or when universities began referring to students in terms of ‘key performance indicators’ and ‘clientele’. Perhaps this tolerable, slow-boiling to death of political sensitivities inside the university is why students and academics across the country are now radicalizing outside of business-as-usual, in other recent struggles to save philosophy programmes at Kings College London and Liverpool, for example, or the sustained student campaign to oppose job and discipline losses at Sussex, and internationally. Both the closure and resistance at Middlesex are parts of this wider global struggle. The crassness of its declared justifications is singularly appalling, and as the department’s directors have said, it has particularly regrettable implications for philosophy education in the UK. But it is most alarming because, intensive campaigning notwithstanding, the swiftness of its execution in the face of massive discontent and opposition from academics and students alike, and the seeming lack of any need for accountability or political engagement, illuminates just what sort of crushing power we are now confronted with in our universities and other public institutions.

However, the anaesthetized method of this closure is also a purifying and perhaps transformative revelation: the emperor has finally admitted there are no clothes. It is not about education or research or knowledge after all. The decision did not need to be convincing in academic, professional or pedagogical terms. It was, as the dean said, ‘simply financial’. We knew it all along, but now it is confirmed: no philosophy, no matter how good, can be evaluated according to what Max Weber once called the ‘sheer market principle’. And in a world of capitalist realism, nothing that is beyond the value of profit can have recognisable public value at all. There. Perhaps now we can liberate ourselves from the temptation to valorise intellectual work by squeezing it into the narrow, instrumentalist criteria of what Alex Callinicos has called the ‘Orwellian’ inspired Research Excellence Framework, in the hope that we will find spaces there to create critical possibilities. Perhaps we will finally realise that there are -- as yet -- no ears to receive arguments about the importance of humanizing education, the power of ideas and research to transform the world, or the necessity of critical capacity in a frighteningly possibility-limiting social system. These should not be revelations at this very late stage in the long march of capital through our cultural institutions. Yet we remain incredulous.

But perhaps this surprise is still a good thing. Shock, disgust and anger confirm that all is not lost – not the department, neither philosophy nor education, and not the potential for organised collective struggle beyond individual institutional battles. But as the stakes to save public education and public intellectual life are raised, which they will be in coming months, even this last possibility is not guaranteed. It is true as Slavoj Zizek writes that we must dare to believe that ‘our side no longer has to go on apologizing; while the other side had better start soon’. This is nowhere more obvious than at Middlesex now, where at least a reversal of decision, far more than just an apology, has been in order all along. But if we don’t soon mobilize collectively against the neoliberal transformation of universities and public life now, we stand to lose much more than we can either imagine or repair. The wagons are well on their way down this path and we would be wise to jump off, barricade and reroute now, for as Michael Apple once wrote, ‘it’s a long walk back’. It’s good that we still have such rich, creative traditions in critical philosophy and resistance to help us make the way.

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