Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Live-blogging 'The Politics of the University'

Andrew Vincent, professor of political theory/philosophy, speaking on The Politics of the University. Summary of his take on recent university developments (as much as I could type).

Questions: what's politics, what is a university? Defining politics by distributing significance, patterns of order, utilising collective power etc. University: there's no one pure vision. 2 main senses:
1. a corporate community of scholars and teachers dedicated to knowledge and scholarship for its own sake. Derived from medieval principles of liberality: a broad and wide-ranging education and education for the free (liber) man.
2. a functional institution serving the demands of the state and the economy: training students for particular jobs. The university has to be 'useful'. This version developed alongside the modern state.

Many universities try to cover both formations to some extent. Universities have ideological characters. People say that since the 1980s, universities have become infected by neoliberal ideology. However, it's more complex. Universities are political entities, and are saturated by ideological ferment, despite managerial denial. Classical European and Anglo-Saxon liberalism, conservatism and radicalism are all present. UK institutions seem not to have been infiltrated by totalitarian ideology (nationalist, religious etc.), unlike European institutions, such as under the Nazis, and elsewhere. Oddly claims that law, business etc. might have been relatively unscathed, but to me, these seem like prime grounds for totalitarian ideology.

Employability skills as potentially totalitarian/functionalist?

3 broad ideologies affected UK unit: conservatism, social democracy, and neoliberalism. Traditional conservatism is akin to European liberalism. Social democracy is similar to socialist and corporate conservative traditions. Neoliberalism shares ground with conservatism and classical liberalism. It is epitomised in Cardinal Newman's The Idea of the University. It proclaims the civilising intention of the university institution: a training ground for an intellectual aristocracy or 'national clerisy', in an unequal society with a tiny élite. It still haunts the imaginations of those who fear the modernised, functional university, equality, state growth and democracy. From 1919, the University Grants Committee introduced state funding: to the horror of anti-statists. Kingsley Amis, 1960s: 'More [students] will mean worse'. The liberal vision was being destroyed by expansion and state-driven curricula.

Minogue, 1970: expressed anxiety at expansion, state cash and late 60s student riots and radicalism. University independence was under threat from state involvement in education, from a conservative position. All expressed apprehension at social-democratic intervention.  The private University of Buckingham was established in 1970 by the conservative elite: Woodhead, Peacock, Beloff, O'Hear. Thatcher laid the foundation stone and became its first Chancellor. Proclaimed as 'freed' from state control, though some traditional conservatives distrusted the 'free market' aspect. But for many, elitism, small classes and independent curricula were guaranteed by privatisation. Not to make it more responsive to the economy, but to retain elitism.

The Welfare State university is another model: an inclusive community of assistance to all citizens. Labour 1945-1970 aspired to some kind of Better Society. University expansion was part of this: more institutions and more students. The state took control over most university finance. Hayek and co hated this state intervention as tyrannous. But it aimed at social justice, equality, full employment, full rights to all citizens, the extension of state funding of education, the right to social minimums, the desirability of a mixed public/private economy with state planning.

Universities were a part of this Keynesian Social Democracy. It critiqued unregulated free markets as inefficient, socially destructive and socially unjust. Student grants were an attempt to allow all citizens to enter HE if they had the intellectual ability. This was popular and central to the 1920s-40s-born population. SD triumphed eventually over classical British liberalism (i.e. laissez-faire). It became the social norm, and an expectation rather than a conscious ideology. Privatised prisons, health, university fees etc. would have been seen as fringe madness. But the arguments for social democracy were gradually forgotten as people moaned about taxes.

Added to this was the random but constant growth of Tory/New Labour/coalition neoliberalism. It overlaps with conservatism but has different emphases. It's the ideology which caused the 2008 economic crash. Its basic tenets are the value of the unregulated free market as the most efficient allocator of resources. Obsessed with deregulation and private wealth creation, and the dismantling of the state and of collective workers' organisations of any kind. Dedicated to constant growth. It appeared in the 1950s in the UK (Institute of Economic Affairs), but was popularised by Hayek and co. Early work was particularly interested in universities and laid the ground for Browne: education as a private good, to be paid for by the individual, who should become a consumer. The Adam Smith Institute and the Centre for Policy Studies were also cheerleaders for converting the Conservative Party to neoliberalism. David Willetts was a former CPS director: now Universities Minister (damn it). Gradually the moral case was replaced by the economic case to appeal to ministers on funding grounds: the faith-based element was present but hidden.

The student as consumer was at the heart of this neoliberal model. The state relinquishes control. The elite model is abandoned: the student-consumer becomes the discerning customer, not what the traditional conservatives wanted at all. This idea is applied to all state services, even though the private sector (e.g. banking) has been proved to be utterly destructive. Public services are being made to pay for capitalist neoliberal disasters: this is the function of hegemony. Privatisation is still proclaimed as the solution for public services, with little opposition.

Since the 2000s, academic managers and leaders have adopted the discourse of neoliberalism, presented as neutral truth, 'common sense' or realism. 'Choice' trumps all other ideas. Universities form businesses, conduct marketing, undertake 'esteem indications' and surveys. Private income is lionised. Students are encouraged to pursue self-interest: public service is derided. What of the future? The banking crisis seems not to have penetrated the ideological carapace of the education sector so far. The Browne Report (2010) is a symptom of an ideological hegemony. It reinforces pre-existing neoliberal premises. Browne is the disgraced former head of enormo-polluter BP. It inspired the 2011 White Paper, 'Students at the Heart of the University': free markets, no state intervention, private goods are multiple, public goods are unimportant, all societies are constituted of self-interested utility maximisers - hence fetching student choice (while rigging the market in certain ways, e.g. protecting medicine and certain other subjects).

Neoliberal Education = atomised individuals unintentionally benefitting other people, if at all. The purpose of education is to reap individual rewards. Education is pursued after cost-benefit analysis. This will drive up quality. Only what you pay for is valuable. Department and institutional competition will drive out poor teachers, universities and students thanks to the invisible hand effect. Market-efficient institutions will cannibalise 'inefficient' ones. Competition will be introduced at any cost, and the failure of some institutions is welcomed. The closure of some courses will also be welcomed.

But there's something new on the way, a new ideological hybrid. Neoliberal nostrums still saturate the discourse, but there are problems. Previously public services are difficult to make work in the private sector. How do train services compete, for example? Universities don't have shareholders or pursue profits. They don't have genuine competitors, and owners can't overthrow management. Resistance to neoliberalism generates 'the worst of all worlds'. The Tories don't want 'choice': if all students chose engineering or medicine, the system would collapse. So state subsidies are built into those disciplines: a tiny recognition that there is public good involved.

The market is rigged by student numbers and tiers of fees. It's a state command structure AND a market economy dressed up as 'student choice'. The state must artificially create and rig a market to get this insane structure to work. In the next stage, private providers will be supported by the state - which looks like the state socialism of the bank bailouts. All subjects other than medicine are 'not important to the wellbeing of society' (Browne) and therefore should be abandoned to the vagaries of the free market.

The challenge is to force this weird hybrid onto academics, who care about ideas? We have to be manipulated and retrained by continuous audit to demonstrate that we're already part of a market. Temporary staff are much easier to dominate, and they're cheaper. Insecurity makes them pliant. Private sector management techniques: PRP, staff development review, appraisals, promotion procedures, REF, nagging to acquire external income - all these things are part of a disciplinary system of functionalism - and they damage real teaching and real research. The Student-Consumer will, think the neoliberals, be the final nail in the coffin.

One further aspect of this hybrid. If a university continually audits and monitors its staff, it faces a blizzard of administration. What do they do with this trivia? They create thousands of administrators. Private companies cut administrators for profit: universities won't have to do this. The fastest growth area in UK and US universities is administrators. Teaching numbers are stable. Academics don't administer: administrators have little understanding or interest in academia. They are the foot soldiers of the audit culture. That is their raison d'être. Best practice. Benchmarking: discourse used as a weapon, not for a purpose. Committees, away days and retreats are a substitute for action. Income-generation is achieved by the means of teaching, rather than teaching as the end of administration. Universities are for distributing investments for the efficient utilisation of resources: not for educating students for the public good.

Governments are frustrated by academic resistance. This market-discipline + auditing + rigged market tyranny + 'professional' administrative control is the neoliberal revenge on the educators. It has begun to eviscerate what was a genuine public good. The dignity of the university is now a huckstering, greedy, shallow institution. Ideology masquerades as reality. Universities aren't and shouldn't be businesses, whatever politicians and VCs want. We aren't driven by personal greed. Collegiality and the love of ideas motivate us: we're degraded by this hybrid of managerialism and neoliberalism: our profound shame is that we don't seriously challenge this discourse. Our everyday activity is an affront to our values. Managerialism administration isn't neutral, or economic reality: it's ideological. We act as though they're true - and thereby sell the pass. We need to resist. This ideology will be supplanted… one day. What level of cultural, intellectual and moral damage will it do to our society along the way?

Q+A session:
private providers will cherry-pick. Elite institutions will remain prestigious. Ex-polytechnics will be under massive pressure. Private institutions aren't universities.

UK universities will be amongst the most expensive in the world: that and visa changes will deter overseas students.

Q: Does deregulation of fees lead to the original elite conservative institutions which are still universities, and a hinterland of non-universities?
A: Yes, I think that's true. Some at Oxford etc. welcome this - they can't lose. Unless the auditing culture affects them too. They whine about the demands of chasing external income too. This might interfere with the formation of these separate sectors. Audit culture is seen as a gross interference in intellectual culture at the elite institutions too. If it diminishes, then these elites would be laughing. Civic universities are integral to their communities: the thought that that historical development might diminish to fly-by-night corporate provision might horrify the old-fashioned conservatives. It would be massively destructive.

Q: Most politicians are Oxbridge - they won't be hugely concerned seeing local institutions sinking.
A: There is a strand of conservative concern for local institutions. But Osborne, Willetts etc. are thorough-going neoliberals.

Q: Orwell, 1984: put your faith in the proles - i.e. students. This move to redescribe students as consumers assumes s/he is fully-formed and fully-informed [which seems impossible]. This discourse hides the fact that they aren't fully-formed. They change their minds, and as they immerse themselves in self-education, will develop in gloriously unpredictable ways. There's a potential for resistance here.
A: We want dissatisfied students. If they're satisfied, something is wrong! [See Plato: it's better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied].

Q: It goes back to Major's dissolution of the Uni/Poly divide. The ideological impact on students isn't just consumerism. The impact on their lives of massive amounts of debt will be huge. They'll be like US students who can't refuse to participate in the labour market on the employers' terms. It silences the critical voices of the intellectuals.
A: That's one view. Another view is that it's not so organised, and is a response to Austerity Britain. Most ministers couldn't care a toss about universities and just want to cut. The weakness of this second argument is that arguments about fees and alternative financing were being kicked about by neoliberal think tanks as far back as the 1960s, e.g. the IEA pamphlets. Government funding of universities is actually going massively up due to the new loans system, so it's more likely to be ideological than the austerity/cuts agenda. It's a very focussed attack in Browne and the White Paper. It's the most radical agenda for a generation: 'poverty-stricken trivia' with an incredibly poverty-stricken view of a human being', which makes the Robbins report look gentle and civilised.

Are human beings simply economic fodder, or people whose needs we need to care for? I was heartened to see the revolting students put bricks through windows. Banks can afford them. Students aren't highly leftwing now or in the 1980s, and I wouldn't see government policy as an attempt to stop students becoming left-wingers, though they do see academics as left-leaning. The idea of lecturers being forced by all kinds of prompts to become market actors gives them some satisfaction.

Q: To what extent is this European or global, or is there an Anglo-Saxon/European schism?
A: I don't quite believe in globalisation in a positive sense. Neoliberalism has patchily affected a range of countries. In education, it's also patchy. Germans are puzzled by what's happening in the UK. In Sweden, the beginnings of the neoliberal ethos can be glimpsed. Australia tends to follow the UK a few years behind [any comment, MfD?]. The All-Administrative University is a recommended read: case-studies of US institutions' manic audit/grant-chasing culture.

If I had university-age kids now, I'd send them to Maastricht University: all-English tuition for €1400 euro, or Trinity College Dublin. Many European universities feel that no sensible British student would spend £9000 p.a. for a potentially crap education from a private British place when s/he could easily reach a good university in a magnificent city like Barcelona.

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