Sunday, January 02, 2011

A critique of Brecher on universities and the neo-liberal revolution

In the current Chartist magazine Bob Brecher writes on universities and the neo-liberal revolution.
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.
So we have the two conflicting needs served by education of continuity, the majority, and renewal, the task of a small minority of graduates or institutions? Whether these are "needs" of capital or "needs" of society is left unclear.

When Brecher argues that "[those who] do concern themselves with renewal will have in mind only those forms of renewal that serve, rather than undermine, the ruling order" he is negating the existence of left parties and groups who seek renewal of society through undermining and overthrowing the ruling order.

Why does Brecher write "we should not be surprised that Cameron has a BA in Politics, Philosophy and Economics (I'm not joking) from Oxford"? Does Brecher find it funny that there is a PPE degree? Or does he find it funny that someone should have studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics and not be a socialist? Just as studying humanities subjects does not necessarily humanise the individual, the way, the truth and the light do not all appear to everyone who has followed the path of PPE. In any case Cameron and Clegg have both "proceeded MA" and relinquished all rights to their BA degree, as is the Oxbridge way.

How do you jump from saying an increasingly complex capitalism "needs [flexible] workers with more and more skills and more and more knowledge" to saying 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." The "old division" does not necessarily follow from the need for workers with more skills and more knowledge and more flexibility (whatever that means).
[I]t 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.
Now "no one has seen fit to locate [the Browne report's] 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" is a claim of bewildering chutzpah. Does he mean that I, Bob Brecher, am the first to locate the recommendations as part of a neo-liberal putsch? Most people I talk to, some of them academics and some not, see everything this Con-Dem government does as part of a neo-liberal realignment.

It is, almost, beyond dispute that universities are a recognised public good. A university is failing its community if it does not dominate the culture and debate in its region. Also society benefits from having skilled and knowledgeable members but there has always been a private benefit to the individual from higher education. The individual often gets confidence and satisfaction from understanding how to come to terms with how the world works, or at least how a part of the world works, and, often, is paid more than those who haven't been through higher education. So universities produce a public good and, at the same time, a private good for its alumni. That has always been the case, even since William of Ockham's time.

Later Brecher asks why neo-liberals need to marketise the universities.
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?
That is bollocks. That's more a description of the demands of a command and control economyy than neo-liberalism. Surely neo-liberalism requires that people believe in the tenets of neo-liberalism. It does not require "that the majority of people are taught not to think clearly and not to question what they're told". Neo-liberalism as a doctrine may be something I don't like and oppose, but it has its own logic and its own problems that require clear thinking to overcome. The neo-liberal doctrine of renewal through creative destruction also requires a reqular questioning of orthodoxy to do things in new ways.

Does Brecher suppose there are courses in universities on teaching people how not to think clearly? Surely it's more likely that people are just not taught how to think clearly. At the moment hardly any English universities have modules on critical thinking that teach logic and reasoning skills.

Just because the neo-liberal creed is being driven into universities that does not mean universities are neo-liberal vehicles. There is no necessary causal relationship between how a university, or university department, is funded and what it teaches. When Brecher asks "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" surely the answer is those who know that that is what they need to do if they want to do what they want to do. It's not about being rich it's about coming to terms with a debt that you're not going to have to consider paying while you're still a student, even a postgrad. The debt may deter some people; it may attract some people in the way that some people prefer to pay to go to an attraction rather than to a cost-free art gallery. At the moment we don't know the debt's impact.

The next bit
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.
is just more speculative bollocks. Why will these subjects "become bereft of critical content"? It's an interesting, and agreeable, definition of "teach" to only include subjects with critical content but can you teach calculus critically, and if you could, should you?

Yes, we can all agree that the Con-Dem government is taking advantage of the current fiscal crisis to drive ideological change.
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 √©lite 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/).
It is a mistake to "value our students simply for what we can get out of them or what they might earn in the future", irrespective of Browne's intentions. If you don't see it as an egregious mistake it is still the wrong thing to do even if they are Browne's intentions. And, I think, Brecher, believes it is the wrong thing to do. If it is the wrong thing then, it is mistaken, even deliberately so.

As I understand it, all, bar one, of the higher education institutions in England are incorporated as private charities. The single exception is the Guildhall School of Music which is part of the Corporation of the City of London. So legally all, bar one, of England's universities are already private institutions.

Now we are heading to the conclusion:
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.
Yes, it is important to understand this is an ideological attack on universities and society and is merely disguised as a cost-cutting exercise. That's fine and dandy. To then say "this year's planned bonuses for top bankers amount to three times current public spending on the universities" has no relevance to anything unless the money available for banker's bonuses is appropriated by the government. As an argument it's like saying that the money spent on scratch and sniff lotto cards each week is twice current public spending on universities. There is no connection, it's just 3 oranges added to a pomegranate. Now this final paragraph is fine.
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.
I have very little disagreement with the conclusion but the arguments used to reach the conclusion are a mix of speculation and ranting polemic with little evidence to back them up.

As always unite and fight against the neo-liberal agenda.

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