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Universities and the neo-liberal revolution

Bob Brecher finds the Browne report on higher education a convenient justification for a new class elitism on access.

'Universities are not intended to teach the knowledge required to fit men for some special mode of gaining their livelihood. Their object is not to make skilful lawyers, or physicians, or engineers, but capable and cultivated human beings. . What professional men should carry away with them from an University, is not professional knowledge, but that which should direct the use of their professional knowledge, and bring the light of general culture to illuminate the technicalities of a special pursuit. . And so of all other useful pursuits, mechanical included. Education makes a man a more intelligent shoemaker, if that be his occupation, but not by teaching him how to make shoes; it does so by the mental exercise it gives, and the habits it impresses. (Inaugural Address to the University of St Andrews, 1867)

This was John Stuart Mill, the intellectual founding father of "traditional" liberalism. Here is 'Lord' Browne, the failed ex-CEO of BP and spear-carrier for the neo-liberal revolutionaries in today's mandate-free government:

'Higher education matters because it transforms the lives of individuals. On graduating, graduates are more likely to be employed, more likely to enjoy higher wages and better job satisfaction, and more likely to find it easier to move from one job to the next'. (Browne Report, 2010)

What, then, is going on? Education has always served two quite contrary needs: continuity and renewal. Now, provided the numbers are small, that is no great problem. The majority of that small minority can be safely relied upon to deal with continuity: the universities of Oxford and Cambridge have performed that task magnificently for centuries. And the small minority (of the small minority) who do concern themselves with renewal will have in mind only those forms of renewal that serve, rather than undermine, the ruling order. So we should not be surprised that Cameron has a BA in Politics, Philosophy and Economics (I'm not joking) from Oxford; his sidekick, Clegg, a BA in Social Anthropology from Cambridge. This presents a problem for contemporary capitalism. It needs to engage the vast majority for its project - as consumers, if not as producers. As it becomes more technologically complex, so it needs workers with more and more skills and more and more knowledge. With the increasing pace of technological change, it also needs those workers to be 'flexible', as Browne so disarmingly tells us. In short, the old division between those fit only for secondary modern schools and those who can be permitted to enter grammar school needs to go much deeper and to go on for much longer.

Universities themselves need to exemplify that class divide - across which a few may safely be allowed to cross, as they will never constitute a sufficiently large body, let alone a sufficiently organised one to constitute a threat. Hence, the falsely egalitarian ending of the 'binary divide', between universities and polytechnics in 1992. Hence, too, the supine acceptance by 'Universities UK', the Vice-Chancellors' club, of what the government is doing, and indeed the support of its élite, the 'Russell Group', for massive increases in tuition fees.

So again, it comes as no surprise that the most noticeable thing about academic responses to the Browne Report is that no one has seen fit to locate its recommendations in the context of the government's commitment to using the so-called economic crisis as a pretext for initiating a neo-liberal revolution beyond Thatcher's wildest dreams. It is as though its plans for the universities were ignorant, spiteful, blatantly illogical or all three. But they are not; unless we understand government policy for what it is we have not the slightest chance of overturning it, whether in the universities or elsewhere. The transformation of the universities from being a public good, and recognised as such, to being at once providers of private consumables and a vanguard of the values thus entrenched is an integral part of the neo-liberal fundamentalists' opportunistic revolution.

Let me give just a few examples, taken from the universities' trade rag, the Times Higher Education (THE). One commentator tells us that 'The Browne proposals risk creating a two-tier system under which most institutions, serving the greater majority of students, "will be offering a worse - and also more expensive - experience"' ('Review's quality drive branded 'dangerous', 4 Nov. 2010). But the proposals risk no such thing at all: they are carefully designed precisely to achieve it. Of course downgrading 'to "non-priority" status' of the arts, humanities and social sciences will be 'a disaster for the nation's intellectual and cultural life that undermines the very idea of the university' ('What price the soul of a university?', 28 Oct. 2010).

But for the avatars of neo-liberalism this will be not a disaster, but rather an opportunity. Compare Milton Friedman's disarming honesty in the Wall Street Journal, the bankers' trade-rag: 'Most New Orleans schools are in ruins, as are the homes of the children who have attended them. The children are now scattered all over the country. This is a tragedy. It is also an opportunity to radically reform the educational system' ('The promise of vouchers', 5 Dec. 2005).

Why is it that neo-liberals need to marketise the universities, almost as much as they need to marketise the NHS? First, because neo-liberalism requires that the majority of people are taught not to think clearly and not to question what they're told, lest they rebel. Second, and this is even more important, if the universities can be made into vehicles of the neo-liberal creed then they will do more than most other social institutions to reproduce and enforce that creed. Not only will 'students' come to believe that everything - and perhaps everyone - is a commodity, but their teachers will themselves be products of the same ideology. For who but the rich will be able or willing to take on postgraduate work once they're already tens of thousands of pounds in undergraduate debt? The arts, humanities and social sciences, in the few élite institutions in which they remain, will function as finishing schools for the wealthy, taught - if that is the right word - by their own. Everything else - from engineering to physics to business to design - will become bereft of critical content, taught - again if that is the right word - by people who understand themselves to be 'delivering' quantifiable commodities to their customers.

So again, it will not be 'a huge mistake' to 'value our students simply for what we can get out of them or what they might earn in the future' because 'they will in turn estimate our value by what they can get out of us' ('Hefce chief: prepare for tough journey', Times Higher Educational Supplement. 28 Oct. 2010). On the contrary: that is exactly what Browne intends. The neo-liberal revolutionaries know exactly what they are doing and why. They intend to take advantage of the current 'crisis' - the ideological power of which is in inverse proportion to its material reality - by encouraging the élite universities to go private in frustration if for no other reason, forcing the 'bottom of the range' into the hands of commercial companies such as Kaplan and BBP and slowly strangling the rest as any sort of public institution. At least some academics are coming to realise this, and have just formed the Campaign for the Public University (http://publicuniversity.org.uk/).

So what is to be done? We must understand the ideological nature of the Coalition's attack on the universities and not be sidelined by their disguising it as a cost-cutting exercise: this year's planned bonuses for top bankers amount to three times current public spending on the universities. We have to understand and oppose it, not in isolation, as though it concerned the universities alone, but for what it is: a genuinely revolutionary policy.

Students, administrators and academics need to take themselves seriously as members of a university and to join forces with all the other workers, paid and unpaid, whom the multi-millionaire fundamentalists around the Cabinet table regard as so much dross. Most pressingly of all, academics have to understand, realise and use the power that as academics they have. A good starting-point would be to refuse to act as the self-interested egoists which too many of them have become and whom the neo-liberals would have the rest of us become; to refuse to compete with one another, whether within or across institutions, or with other groups of workers; and to make a new reality of what was once known as solidarity.