Universities Back From the Dead?

by Tom Cutterham

Sinéad Murphy, Zombie University: Thinking Under Control Repeater Books 176pp ISBN 9781910924518 £8.99
Matt Myers, Student Revolt: Voices of the Austerity Generation Pluto Press 240pp ISBN 9780745337340 £12.99

A few weeks ago, the marketing department at my university invited me to take part in a hashtag-driven social media event to celebrate how great it is to study, live, and work there. Examples from last year’s effort featured golden-hued photographs of the ‘historic’ buildings and enthusiastic notes about attending meetings, writing papers and getting down to work in the lab. One colleague had tweeted, ‘really enjoyed assessing 1st year project presentations this morning.’ And honestly, I’m sure he really did.

This year, the whole thing went a little differently. ‘#MyUoBDay starts with thinking about the massive salary of our VC, the numbers of staff on casualised contracts, and the fact that we should be on strike in solidarity with colleagues at institutions elsewhere were it not for punitive new trade union laws,’ read one popular tweet. 'Embarrassed to be studying here on #MyUoBday,’ wrote a student, ‘because our uni is one of the very worst for how our staff are treated.’

With most of the pre-1992 higher education sector in the middle of strike action against drastic cuts to staff pensions, and the Vice Chancellor’s half-million-pound pay-packet featuring regularly in the newspapers, these kinds of responses might have been predictable. But the social media team pressed on anyway. There were still plenty of smiles and century-old brick on display. It’s just that they were joined by threads like the ‘confessions of a cleaner’ from the local Unison branch, narrating the poor conditions and management of the lowest-paid workers on campus.

Tensions within British universities have ratcheted up over the last couple of decades: between the executive privilege of senior management and the worsening terms of increasingly casualised staff; between the imperative to produce research ‘outputs’ or ‘impact’ and the drive to secure ‘student satisfaction’; between the values of higher education as a mission and the marketisation of degrees as a qualification for employment. They began to intensify even more quickly when the coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats came to power in 2010, proceeding immediately to the threefold trebling of tuition fees, in spite of the Liberal Democrats’ pledge to vote against fees altogether.

In Zombie University and Student Revolt, Sinéad Murphy and Matt Myers give two quite different angles of vision on the processes at work within the neoliberal university of our times, and on the prospects for resistance and reversal. Published late last year, both of them read differently against the light of this year’s strikes. For those of us seeking to defend our universities from the attack they have been under, and at the same time build a better educational ideal, each book has something to contribute that should make us feel uncomfortable – and all the more determined.

‘I often find myself now to be the liveliest person in the classrooms that I teach in,’ Murphy writes early in her book. Her students, studying philosophy at Newcastle University, ‘seem dissociated. Jaded. Old before their time.’ Zombie University aims to account for this situation, by describing the transition we are now embarked on, from what Gilles Deleuze and Paulo Virno called the ‘society of control’ to something else, the ‘post-control’ society. Universities, by this account, are the ground zero of a zombie state: a way of living in which capital can rule us without Foucauldian discipline, without control, but none the less completely.

In this emergent era, Murphy argues, thought itself – ‘critical thinking’ – has become the problem. Because we no longer take anything for granted, least of all foundational ideals or ideologies, there is no longer anything worth criticising. Students can’t be shocked by the idea that something they had once assumed was fixed and certain is, instead, historically and socially constructed. They can’t be excited or provoked by a critique of something they believe in. ‘Old before their time,’ they have already stopped believing.

But, Murphy goes on (quoting Virno), this ‘most brazen cynicism is these days accompanied by unrestrained sentimentalism.’ She notes how the word ‘LOVELY’ hangs from the ceiling at her university’s café-bar ‘in enormous letters and apropos, apparently, of nothing.’ The same affective register marks the most saccharine products of the #MyUoBDay exercise. This display of sentiment and, most of all, enthusiasm, is part of the work that universities now ask from students: something presumably intended to counteract their pervading cynical detachment, but which is bound only to deepen it eventually.

This investment of sentiment into otherwise inanimate forms of life is a task that reaches beyond the university itself. Once, a degree was framed as a route to employment. Then it became employability, a state of potentiality Murphy associates with the society of control. What’s next, if the Higher Education Academy’s advice is any guide, is graduates’ capacity for ‘self-identification’, which Murphy interprets as a move along a spectrum from ‘expertise’ towards ‘creativity’. In other words, what future employers can hope to gain from graduates is less critical thought than a capacity to creatively, enthusiastically identify with one’s employer.

That very act of self-identification, of course, is also at the heart of what it is to work at a contemporary university. #MyUoBDay, for example, was directed not primarily at students, but at staff. Lecturers labour just as much under the twin burdens of cynicism and extorted sentiment as any student. What makes up academics’ work (when we are not performing for student evaluations in the classroom) is now mostly ‘creative writing’, in the form of endless form-filling, about our notional research: ‘the very busy business of seeming,’ Murphy writes, and one might add, of seeming happy about it.

I was surprised she didn’t list, among her examples of cynical sentimentality as ‘a kind of sickly icing’ that envelops daily life, the ubiquitous case of the first person to raise their hand after an academic seminar, who must inevitably start by saying, ‘Thank you so much for such a wonderful talk.’ We all do it. If students must strive to parlay their three or four years at university into jobs that might one day pay off their debts, it’s staff who have to play the long game, and it’s they who most risk being totally consumed by the zombie university.

The jaded blankness of Murphy’s students finds an eerie parallel in Paul Mason’s introduction to Student Revolt. Reporting on a campus occupation in 2010, during the upsurge of student activism that Matt Myers chronicles in his book, Mason found the tone of the proceedings discomfiting. Instead of the ‘fiery, male’ debates of his own youth, he witnessed ‘a series of monotone, highly qualified, suggestions,’ replete with twinkling hand-gestures. As Mason later wrote, ‘There is no ideology driving this movement and no coherent vision of an alternative society.’

Myers doesn’t exactly disagree with Mason about that. In Student Revolt, he takes a deliberately detached position, acting the neutral oral historian who lets his participants speak for themselves. Since those participants range widely across the political spectrum, and hail from all sides of the dispute over top-up fees, a model of coherence was always unlikely. Yet there’s a tension, all the same, between Mason’s attitude of bemused condescension, and the tale of anger and humanity that Myers tells. He was, after all, part of it too.

Trebling tuition fees at English universities, from £3,000 to £9,000 per year, was one of the first accomplishments of the austerity regime inaugurated under David Cameron in 2010. It wasn’t the beginning of the marketisation of higher education in the UK. That started long before, and only accelerated with Tony Blair’s introduction of the first fees in 1998. It’s 2010, though, where the current acute trajectories of neoliberalisation really began. And, more to the point for Myers, it’s to 2010 that we can trace a substantial resistance movement.

At the centre of Student Revolt is the demonstration of 10 November 2010, that saw the Conservative Party’s Millbank headquarters briefly occupied by student protestors. But sprawling out from that ‘Millbank moment’ were further marches, numerous occupations, and a network of friendships that at least partly outlived 9 December ‘Battle of Parliament Square’ (a phrase Myers doesn’t use) and the final Parliamentary vote for fees. Students rarely went into the movement with the kind of coherent ideology and strategy Mason would have preferred. But many came out of it with an undimmed commitment to the struggle against austerity.

Myers is right to connect the experience, including the police brutality that helped fuel anger at the time, to the persistence of free education as a radical political movement eight years later. Under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, the repeal of tuition fees is Labour Party policy; under Malia Bouattia from 2016-17, the National Union of Students became the campaigning union it had failed to be in 2010. While many at the time expected to fail, that didn’t make the gesture of resistance futile. Without the struggle then, things would be so much worse now.

Academics and related staff, as represented by the University and College Union, play a largely ignominious role in the final chapter of Student Revolt, ‘Why Did the Students Lose?’ Protesters won vocal support from figures like the Unite General Secretary Len McCluskey, and many lecturers backed the resistance at their institutions. But most of the activists Myers spoke to were left wondering, ‘Where were the academics? Why didn’t they go on strike? They did nothing.’

* * *

One of the most remarkable things about the last few months of strike action by UCU members has been the support shown by most of our current students. They have spoken out, joined picket-lines, and gone into occupation across the country – generating imagery reminiscent of the ‘Millbank generation’ to which many of their younger lecturers (including me) belong. These students aren’t just out there to defend our pensions. They’re there for a bigger cause: the ideal of the university as a community of learning, not another neoliberal marketplace.

It’s not hard to understand, with Murphy, why today’s students are cynical about their university experience. The institutions most explicitly devoted to ‘critical thinking’ are also among the ones most deeply implicated in the reproduction of a debt-laden, stress-saturated future for us all. If all our terminal degrees can’t help us keep our own managerial barons from robbing us blind, what does that say about the value of the education we can offer?

Yet what the strikes and student solidarity have shown is that there is, assuredly, still something worthy of critique – and that critique, backed up with sacrifice, unity, and commitment, can still occasionally find a purchase on the shape-shifting forces of zombification. Murphy closes her book with the thought that thought itself is nothing but retreat, unless it is concerned with something outside of itself: unless, as Kant had it, we dare to think. Nothing could better illustrate such daring than the students who are fighting for a kind of education they have never known themselves.

Cynical sentimentality is hard to escape. We should be cynical about a union leadership that hasn’t really changed its tune since it let students down, and let fees pass, in 2010. We should be cynical about a deal that leaves in place the crooked structures of a pension scheme controlled by management elites. Perhaps it is mere sentiment, nostalgia, that finds hope in the light of a flare held aloft, in a hand-daubed placard pledging faith in struggle and solidarity. Wherever we are now, it’s certain we’ve got far to go. But is it possible, at least, to dare to think the university may come back from the dead?