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Defending not Defunding the Public University

Further and higher education in the UK is under attack. Neoliberal restructuring has reached colleges and universities across the country. University tuition fees have been increased by up to £9,000 per year and education has increasingly become a commodity to be purchased on the market. Not everyone has, however, accepted this outcome as Prof. Andreas Bieler and Dr. Adam David Morton argue.

On 15 June, 2012 lecturers from across the various disciplines and from locations throughout the UK met at the University of Nottingham in the workshop For a Public University, organised by the local UCU association and supported by the Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice (CSSGJ), the Centre for Research in Higher, Adult & Vocational Education (HAVE), and the International Political Economy Group (IPEG) to discuss how best to organise resistance and to debate alternatives.

The transformation of higher education in the UK is at full speed. The cuts in government funding and the simultaneous increase in tuition fees of up to £9,000 per year have dramatic implications. While universities emphasise the need to attract private finance, students are pushed towards courses with direct employment possibilities. At the same time, employers ask for closer co-operation with universities not only in relation to research but also in terms of the development of teaching curricula. The main focus is clear: education should be directed towards business interests in order to strengthen the UK economy.

One outcome is that higher education is increasingly commodified as universities exist in the shadow of the market, as Gillian Blease depicts in the accompanying illustration ‘Pencils’. The space for critical thinking about society has been eroded, substituting students’ ability-to-learn for consumers’ ability-to-pay. Academics have themselves become subject to the charge of irrelevance unless direct policy-impact is embraced. The critical theoretician is cast adrift as indolent and idle in the race to inform statesmen, to become prophets for science, to make profits for business.

Without collapsing into nostalgia for some non-existent ‘Golden Age’, the workshop was kick-started by two panels. The first was on Pedagogy and Knowledge with two joint presentations, from Sarah Amsler (Lincoln University) and Sara Motta (University of Nottingham) and Gurnam Singh (Coventry University) and Stephen Cowden (Coventry University). The second panel was on Restructuring and Marketisation with papers from Andy McGettigan (a freelance journalist on critical education) and Susan L. Robertson (Bristol University).

The devaluation and overwork of the academic was the focus in the joint paper by Sarah Amsler and Sara Motta but they set this within the context of the erasure of difference (race, gender, and class) within the neoliberal space of the university. Their stirring feminist critique revealed how ‘academic mothers’ and ‘academic others’ are excluded, made invisible, and marginalised in the spaces of today’s universities. Instead, they seek to rupture marketised education by aiming to bring the different experiences of joy, laughter, and play back into the classroom, as the posts on the Beautiful Transgressions blog site also reveal. The impoverishment of the student experience at the level of pedagogy was then the focus of Gurnam Singh and Stephen Cowden. Consumerist pedagogy has become increasingly dominant in recent years, which socialises students into treating knowledge as an expendable commodity with a shelf life. Instead, problem-posing education was advocated based on the critical pedagogy of Paulo Freire in which students are pushed, challenged, and provoked. For Freire, critical pedagogy means that ‘the teacher is no longer the one-who-teaches, but one who is himself taught in dialogue with the students, who in turn while being taught also teach’.

The world of university finance was exposed by Andy McGettigan in which new forms of capital were analysed that are underwriting and reshaping higher education. Specifically, an overview of bond issues by British universities was presented. Bonds are a form of borrowing for large capital projects (new buildings and infrastructure), fixed over periods as long as 50 years, on the basis of which the lender receives an annual interest payment, or coupon, and at the end the original sum is repaid.The University of Cambridge has been considering what would be the largest bond issue ever from an English University at £300 million and universities such as Sheffield, Nottingham, Manchester, York, and Lancaster have issued bonds to private investors. As McGettigan reports, one result is that Standard & Poor’s have provided Lancaster, Bristol, Nottingham, King’s College London, Sheffield and others with investment grade credit ratings. Another consequence is that the university sector may well be on the edge of a flood of this type of borrowing that on such a scale would come with clear strings attached.

Closing the morning session, Susan Robertson revealed three clear logics shaping higher education: (1) the logic of neoliberal globalisation that is bringing about changes in the constitutions of states across the world; (2) the logic of comparative competitiveness based on the supposed ‘first mover’ advantages of universities establishing, for example, branch campuses around the world; and (3) the logic of competitive comparison based on attachment to and obsession with world university rankings in league tables. As also revealed on her blog site GlobalHigherEd, Susan Robertson discussed mechanisms of power within these logics that include a temporal dimension (in terms of the frequency of rankings) and a scalar dimension (in terms of the heightened number of ranking exercises). Reclaiming the agenda therefore entails proposing more democratic and emancipatory reform of the university in the twenty-first century, as argued by Boaventura de Sousa Santos.

The final panel – Contested Visions of the Public University – was then dedicated to discussing potential alternatives to commodified education. Joyce Canaan (Birmingham City University) pointed out that there are ways forward within universities as well as outside. There is still space, she asserted, to pursue a course of critical education in university settings, combining classroom activity with critical outside engagement. There is a clear need to resist fatalism, especially considering that we often push against open doors, when we try to engage students. This is no more the case than in Scotland, as Terry Brotherstone (President of UCU Scotland) indicated. Key social educational institutions had always been separate from England and it should be no surprise that universities played a strong role in the emphasis on democracy in Scotland from 2009 onwards. A recent report on governance and pay recommended ‘the abolition of bonuses for principals and an end to pay rises above average awards given to all staff . . . staff and students should be represented on remuneration committees and calls for an investigation into whether university leaders should be included in the rigid grading systems that determine the pay of most academics’ (see the Guardian17 February 2012). Once implemented in Scotland, English universities may find it difficult to resist similar calls for more accountability of Vice Chancellors and senior university management more generally.

Outside universities, Joyce Canaan pointed to a range of current initiatives including the Free University of Liverpool, the Tent City University of the Occupy London movement, as well as the Social Science Centre, Lincoln based on the co-operative model. Andreas Wittel (Nottingham Trent University) in his paper questioned whether Higher Education can ever become a true commons, since it would inevitably require ‘free’ academic labour, whether it is based largely on online resources or placed more locally, as in the above examples. Ultimately, workshop participants concluded, it will be important that struggle both inside and outside formal higher education institutions is waged in order to push back the drive for commodified education.

That these struggles are not new was made clear in the presentation by John Holford (University of Nottingham). There was already a struggle to open up universities to members of the working class during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries involving people such as Harold Laski. At that time, internal critics of universities discussed with external reformers, while others advocated the setting up of radical alternatives, separate from existing universities. Ultimately, it was these struggles that pushed for mass higher education, which made university education available as a public good to increasingly large parts of society.

There is no reason why such a movement could not succeed again.


Andreas Bieler and Adam David Morton

Published inInternational Political Economy


  1. Mike Killingworth Mike Killingworth

    It may be a small point, but what is the difference between a university issuing a bond to finance capital projects and its asking the State for a subvention to do likewise, which the State then funds by issuing a bond itself?

    What has changed, as the HBSC fiasco demonstrated, is that British and other first-world graduates are now competing with Asian ones who can be paid a small fraction of what their Western counterparts need.

    The race to the bottom runs ever swifter.

  2. Although you raise a small point, Mike, we think this an important one. Our response would be that, of course, Universities themselves have been created on the basis of tax-payers’ funds. So, with this in mind then neither the issuance of bonds by the state nor individual universities would be the way forward in financing public universities. Entering into the markets of casino capitalism to finance universities in line with neoliberal ideology would be something to reject if we value protecting the status of public institutions in the promotion of social and economic justice. In short, higher education, or education more generally, or the health service, are public goods and should, therefore, be financed via taxes.

  3. Mike Killingworth Mike Killingworth

    Er, no. I see no problem with revenue funding from students (admittedly the loans need to be interest-free, and the number of scholarships far greater): when it comes to capital expenditure, how do you think the tax-payer provides the funding except through bonds? Capital expenditure is not funded through revenue – unless you’re Transport for London, who don’t know their *rse from their elbow. Quite why you want universities to join them I’ve no idea.

    I don’t know how long universities have been “public goods”: certainly not when Oxbridge were turning out clergymen in the 19th century and before, or when the “civic” universities were set up to produce qualified professionals (not least from Dissenting families) – I don’t doubt that academic integrity is a thing of the past, but is that so much of a problem? Surely the problem lies rather in people supposing it exists when it doesn’t – rather like those who believe what they read in the newspapers…

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