The Battle for Higher Education

Michael Bailey and Des Freedman (eds.), The Assault on Universities: A Manifesto for Resistance

Pluto Press, 200pp, £14.99, ISBN 9780745331911

reviewed by Tom Steele

Do we need universities? The radical educational critiques of the 1960s and 1970s, most associated with the philosopher Ivan Illich but carried forward by other ‘deschoolers’, argued that universities were only the end point of an educational system bent on producing conformist individuals, pruned of critical and imaginative capacities, for the capitalist workplace. The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu went on to show how the university functions as the finishing stage in the reproduction of a dominant elite and the reinforcement of bourgeois hegemony.

Marxists of a certain age generally concurred with these arguments and were suspicious of the vaunted liberal credentials of universities. Revolutionary students in 1968 cited Marcuse’s ‘repressive tolerance’ critique of a system that allowed reference to a ‘shadow cabinet’ of left thinkers but rarely let them take precedence in the curriculum. Marcuse also seems to have escaped the collective memory here. In some ways this may be because the student movement of the ‘60s did manage to force radical thinkers onto the university agenda, often by means of new subjects like Cultural Studies and Women’s Studies and interdisciplinary approaches – whose origins can be located in adult educational practices.

Democratic changes were also conceded by the authorities who introduced staff-student committees and allowed students onto senate. These were small-scale concessions and in some cases, as at Leeds University, only resurrected ideas that a previous and long-dead liberal Vice Chancellor (Michael Sadler) had introduced but had long grown defunct. Marxist theorists, like Ralph Miliband, Raymond Williams and Terry Eagleton, have found footholds in universities where they produced important critical analyses of, for example, the parliamentary limitations of British Labourism, cultural politics and the uses of English to limit the narratives of freedom. They were of course few and far between and, it could be argued, served only to exemplify the tolerance of the system towards unorthodox views. With the possible exception of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies under Stuart Hall, there has been no British equivalent of the Frankfurt School or any concentration of Marxist intelligentsia on the French model and many New Left intellectuals, like Perry Anderson, decamped to warmer climates (California).

The essays here raise important questions about British universities but seem to lack any appetite for the old-style Marxist critiques. Perhaps they are more subtle than we used to be. John Walton, for example, makes a good point about the McKinseyist proposition that nothing is valuable that can’t be measured, which casts a long shadow on the humanities. This is combined with the rise of a new centralising managerial elite which conflicts with, and increasingly subordinates, the older collegiate democracy of senate. Nick Stevenson notes how this is combined with permeability to corporate interest as represented on elements of university governance like court, which often appear to determine the university’s overall strategy. As George Monbiot has shown, commercial contracts and endowments in the applied sciences have put the universities increasingly in hock to the private sector.

There is some good discussion here about how government policy has increasingly subordinated university independence to the ‘interests’ of the state. These interests, it seems, are less to do with the public good, as Jon Nixon argues, and much more to do with promoting competitive business – of course, the Tory-led coalition would say that this is the public good. Nixon shows how government policy and corporate pressure combine to redefine the public as one of ‘private interests’ rather than collective solidarity. The state, even the Tory state, is not declining as a force for intervention but shifting its perspective to maximise private competitiveness even if it works against ‘social’ security – which may, in the end, be what causes this neo-liberal version of the state to fail.

The bias towards recruitment of students by elite universities from the private sector and ‘independent’ schools (almost 50% of Oxbridge students come from this sector, which educates only 7% of the school population) continues unchecked, despite the millions pumped into ‘Widening Access’ by New Labour. The major beneficiaries of WA reforms seem to have been young women from middle class families; although the absolute number of students from working class families has risen, they are mostly found in the post-’92 sector. The decoupling of the old polytechnics from local authorities has severed connections with further education and schools and loosened regional responsibility. These, Nixon rightly argues, should be restored for the university sector as a whole. Whether or not the ending of the binary higher education system was good thing is another matter. In Germany, for example, the Fachhochschulen (Universities of Applied Science) are closely related to local business and industry and produce a high level of skilled technical and engineering workers rarely found in Britain. The Labour minister for Education, Tony Crosland, was hoping for something like this when he introduced the polytechnics in 1966 but ‘academic drift’ (and managerial ambition) floated them into the university sector in 1992 where they now sit mostly at the bottom of the ‘performance’ leagues, unsure of what their role is.

New Labour actively promoted entrepreneurialism in universities and the expansion of higher education has not altered the class structure. Rather it has morphed the classic ideal of the ‘social citizen’, orientated towards the public good into the ‘liberal citizen’, concerned primarily about private liberties and personal advancement. The most glaring example of this shift is university fees. Whereas the older dispensation not only offered free higher education but also gave maintenance grants to all on a means tested basis, New Labour introduced fees and cut maintenance, which at a stroke all but cancelled out widening access for working class students. Now from 2012 the Tory-led coalition will cut the block teaching grant by 80% and increase fees to a maximum (for the moment) of £9,000. This leads to increased commodification of courses and a drastic narrowing of the curriculum, as universities decide to offer only what appears most marketable and students demand a level of qualifications to match their outlay. Somehow the idea of education disappears between the contract to pay fees and the handing out of results.

Of course this hits the Arts and Social Sciences hardest and it’s no accident that these are the areas in which most critical and imaginative thinking are to be found. Students are reduced to ‘units of resource’ and departments of study are designated as ‘profit centres’ – no profit, no department. Simple, really. If this is a radically reactionary way of curbing the ‘universalism’ of the liberal university, it is made worse by limiting intake from the lower orders. By scrapping the educational maintenance allowance (EMA) which allowed post-16 year old students to stay on at school or college, the Tory-led coalition effectively disenfranchises working class students, who cannot afford to take on lifelong debt (unlike middle class students, whose debts are usually looked after by their families).

The American educationalist Henri Giroux here sums up this debacle pithily. While for the older generation universities offered opportunities for self-definition and pursuing a career of one’s choosing in a relatively cheap, rigorous and accessible higher education system, offering the hope of a better life, today’s neo-liberal style higher education restricts aspiration to the bottom line: ‘Rather than being treated as a social investment in the future, students are now being viewed by administrators as a major source of revenue for banks and other financial institutions that provide funds for them to meet escalating tuition payments.’ Giroux believes this may be a turning point in American history in which higher education is no longer viewed as a ‘public good’ – and UK plc will surely follow. Ok, the pragmatist replies, Giroux is harking back to a system where only 10% of the public went to university as opposed to the near 50% which now goes. This is true but the point is , except for the elite universities, what is now called ‘university education’ is not at all the same thing as it was then – low teaching ratios, dialogic tutorial pedagogy , well-stocked libraries, opportunities for cross cultural discussion, scholarly atmosphere, freedom from debt, space to mature as a person – because now it is more like a simple continuation of ‘schooling’.

Can there be any return to the old ‘liberal university’ such as served a small élite? Is it even desirable, considering the structural/ideological restrictions noted above? Universities do not exist in a vacuum but belong to a whole educational system which is at all points biased towards a wealthy elite, from the primary school to ancient university. Comprehensive schooling, introduced in in the 1960s, attempted to redress the balance at secondary level but, although Crosland was bitterly opposed to grammar schools, neither he nor anyone in Harold Wilson’s Labour government was prepared to take on private schooling. The historian and educationalist RH Tawney understood the need for a good secondary system if a flow of capable working class students were to get to university, but even he would not touch the private system. For the beneficiaries of private education, universities are simply the logical finishing schools that prepare them for entry in the higher professions, politics and finance.

Private schooling simply has to be abolished before universities can become truly egalitarian. A step towards this might be to impose a quota system, as was proposed in Labour Party think tanks in the 1960s, such that universities would be required to take no more than the proportion of students educated privately in the system as a whole, i.e. 7%. The list could be extended to other forms of grant aided independent schools and whatever form of selective schooling, like academies, are proposed. It should even operate on a regional basis so that northern regions are given proportional access. Private schools under such a system would have little reason to exist since only 7% of their pupils would pass into higher education, unlike the roughly 80% that do so now. Tawney also wanted to see adult education and life-long learning as an implicit part of the higher education sector, so that access to universities by mature students was taken as central to their mission. Universities could be made much more flexible, not only for three/four-year degrees but for shorter periods of full and part-time study, funded by the state and employers, as paid educational leave. These could be credit bearing and accumulate into qualifications a various kinds.

Even if university intake fairly reflected the population as whole, how would this affect the ideological flavour of the university experience? There would certainly be a clearing of the air of private school assumptions of ownership but what about the demands of a neo-liberal economic system? With a much more socially varied intake, including mature workers, universities would look very different. More democratic forms of governance – some of which are suggested in this collection – should be introduced, returning collegiate responsibility and loosening corporate chains. That’s not to say ‘business’ should be excluded altogether, but it should be subjected to the ideals of university independence and democratic accountability.

Relations with government should also be reformed so that the block teaching grant is fully restored but with systems of accountability relating not to entrepreneurialism, as at present, but to ‘the public good’. This would be paid for by raising expenditure to the proportion enjoyed by most OECD countries from corporate taxes. We should also look closely at the Popular Universities of Latin America, where the links between university education and local communities are much richer and provide ways of socialising the benefits to the individual of higher education. Access to university resources, including staff expertise, by local communities and campaigning groups be opened up and made part of universities’ mission. Popular educational movements should be encouraged and funded in all localities (on the democratic model pioneered by the Workers’ Educational Association) and universities encouraged to establish outreach missions in which courses are given in the localities themselves.

This collection gives food for thought along these lines but the essays by and large are too short to pursue the argument and the quality is uneven. As this deeply reactionary government pursues its privatising vendetta on the welfare state, the universities will be a key battleground for progressive social movements and we should welcome the fight back that this collection encourages.