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Does capitalism need mass higher education?

The neoliberal paradigm is economically dead but ideologically still very active especially in the education sector, which has assumed a far more business-like and 'entrepeneurial' value system.

The neo-liberal paradigm died economically in the 2008 crash the consequences and fall-out of which we are still living with, as wages and standards of living continue to free fall. But ideologically the neo-liberal paradigm remains as strong as ever. As various commentators have noted, this is zombie capitalism, dead, yet still very active, cannibalizing what is left of social wealth and public resources. Education is a key example of this. David Willetts, Minister of State for Universities and Science exemplified the Demolition Government’s willful institutional vandalism by building on New Labour’s neoliberal initiatives and moving over wholly to a tuition fees system for university funding. This has given neoliberalism the economic underpinning for a tremendous ideological re-functioning of the purposes of Higher Education. The values or ideology of ‘entrepreneurialism’ are now coursing through the HE system. Yet the gulf between words and the reality of an economically dying paradigm show themselves constantly. Entrepreneurialism—which sounds dynamic, active and wealth creating—has come to mean for more and more people self-employed, insecure work  – often in the personal services sector. Even within the terms of capitalist economic activity, this hardly counts as value producing activity; it merely counts as people surviving off the disposable incomes of others.

Ideology necessarily corrupts the meaning of words, and the implications of that for an education system which has those words forced down its throat is profound. The corruption of the meaning of words is a necessary consequence of an economy as skewed towards the elites as our broken economy is. Take the traditional Enlightenment liberal virtues of tolerance, diversity, equality and reason as an example. Initially neoliberalism did not need liberalism, while liberalism regarded neoliberalism (or Thatcherism as it was then known) with horror. But by the 1990s, in order to secure itself, neoliberalism had to tilt from brute coercion and start to reproduce itself with a greater role for consent. Liberalism was to become a key ideological resource in this, fashioning a rapprochement for liberalism with the new rising power of capital. In the UK this transformed the political culture of both the Labour Party and the Conservative Party, as embodied in their leaders, Tony Blair and David Cameron. As Zizek noted, multiculturalism became the logic of late capitalism. The openly reactionary values of racism, sexism, homophobia and xenophobia exemplified by Thatcherism, were to be officially replaced with public commitments to equality and diversity in order to integrate significant sources of discontent into the neo-liberal framework. The extent for example to which young black people have been weaned away from an earlier politics of radical anti-racism, anti-imperialism and anti-capitalism, in favour of entrepreneurialism, suggests that this second phase of culturally progressive neo-liberalism has not been without its successes. 

Liberalism’s traditional commitment to the virtues of education were similarly appropriated by the neoliberals. Tony Blair made education one of his key policy areas along with his special advisor, Andrew (subsequently Lord) Adonis. Education was to be the driver of social inclusion, but it turned out that ‘inclusion’ meant the entrance into education of private providers, such as the Harris Academies (run by Philip (subsequently Lord) Harris, a carpet salesman) that now controls 35 primary and secondary schools in the south-east of London. The scramble for Academies is about establishing market share before they are finally transformed from their not-for-profit charity status—from which huge salaries to senior managers can still be leveraged by top slicing tax-payer money per student enrolled—into fully-fledged profit-driven operations. Thus education goes the way of other public services and becomes a source of revenue for an increasingly rent-seeking, parasitic capitalism that, in the UK especially, has little commitment to invest in the productive sector.

What happens to the liberal notion of advancement through education when the economy is skewed around a low-wage, low-skill service sector for the ‘proles’ and for the professionals, financial services, real estate and advertising – jobs that all require a fair degree of institutionalised lying? What happens is that advancement through education becomes itself a lie – except for the elites who enter the top jobs through the nexus of private schools and Oxbridge and go onto dominate the state apparatus, business sector and the media. A recent report by the Commission on Social Mobility and Poverty, chaired by arch-Blairite MP Alan Milburn, recognised the domination of the elites through the channel of education. But while liberalism in the political sphere can diagnose a problem, it cannot recognise that the source of the problem derives from the inevitable inequalities generated by a failing economic model (capitalism) still less formulate solutions to those problems, since that would inevitably mean encroaching on the prerogatives of private property and the market. 

If education is working well for the elites, the prescriptions for making it work well for the majority become more desperate, more colonised by the logic that causes the problems in the first place. Within education, ‘employability’ for the majority—who do not benefit from the networks of privilege—is becoming an increasingly prevalent pressure, threatening to transform the curriculum according to what business minded educationalists think business wants or needs. The employability agenda can seek to do no more than equip students to compete more effectively with each other. It cannot change the ratio between graduates seeking graduate level jobs and actual jobs available. Only cutting the number of people going to universities can do that—a regressive measure—or allocating greater investment, both public and private, into the economy, including the social economy. The latter though requires a confrontation with capital and its vast hording of wealth in the banking and financial system.

Capitalism’s need for universal and high quality education is very likely in terminal decline. The lack of investment in the productive economy shows that the mainspring of capital responsible for allocation and accumulation is busted. New technology will continue to displace jobs. Globalisation will continue to push capital eastwards in search of profits from cheap labour. But the clock is ticking. Labour in the east will gradually make the same claims on capital that made labour in the west ‘unaffordable’. Then where will capital go? What will happen to democracy? Let us hope that enough people get access to sources of critical education—that might now migrate away from the formal schooling/University system—to not only diagnose the problems down to their roots, but also to offer solutions outside the framework of private ownership of social wealth. Then words will mean something once again.

This article is part of the Education strand of the Liberalism in neoliberal times series that OurKingdom is running in partnership with Goldsmiths, supported by the Department of Sociology. You can read Gholam Khiabany's introduction to the whole series here.

Liberalism in neo-liberal times logoLiberalism in neo-liberal times - an OurKingdom partnership with Goldsmiths, University of London

About the author

Michael Wayne is a Professor in Screen Media at Brunel University. His latest book is Red Kant: Aesthetics, Marxism and the Third Critique (Bloomsbury 2014).


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