One of the things that’s striking about the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills’s white paper – which prompted yesterday’s student demonstration in London, seemingly destined not to attract any further media attention due to its lack of lovely, eye-catching, sensationalisable and demonisable ‘violence’ – is the way in which its policies actively try to disrupt solidarity within the university, specifically between students and academics.
(I won’t pretend to have read the entirety of the white paper, only the ‘executive summary’, which provides a general characterisation of the points made in the paper and a summary of how these will be translated into concrete policy. Given that this is the authors’ own summary, I trust them not to have allowed brevity to distort the key points of the document, especially not to have made the document seem more politically incriminating – presumably the point of a summary would be, if anything, to distort the document in a more favourable direction. Nonetheless, comments by those who have read the full document would be much appreciated.)
The white paper calls upon universities to put ‘students at the heart of the system’, with the threefold aims of (i) making HE more sustainably fundable, (ii) improving the ‘student experience’ and (iii) increasing social mobility. To ride roughshod over the details and nuances of how these aims are to be achieved, the suggestion is to make the character and content of university teaching more responsive to students’ opinions, facilitated by further regulation by independent bodies in the private sector. In this way, the government hopes to ‘deliver a more responsive higher education sector in which funding follows the decisions of learners and successful institutions are freed to thrive’ (p. 8; my emphasis).
Now, there are all sorts of critical remarks to be made about the three aims of the white paper – what it means for funding to be ‘sustainable’, whose responsibility it is to supply this funding, why funding should be correlated with ‘success’ and what this notion of ‘success’ means, what ‘the student experience‘ is and why it matters, how this notion fits into a more general valorisation of ‘experience’, how we’re to understand ‘social mobility’ and how it relates to class, etc. – and also about its explicit focus on teaching and the accompanying implicit subordination of research to teaching (at least, in cases where researchers can’t demonstrate concretely the ‘impact’ of their research); but, none of these is the issue I want to focus on here.
What I want to highlight is the way in which the white paper implicitly sets up an opposition between staff and students. In the paper’s agenda of making teaching staff more accountable to students, teaching staff are placed under suspicion, the quality of their work put in question, and moreover students are put in the position of those potentially at risk of receiving teaching of a less than acceptable quality, those in need of guarding themselves against the potential failures of teaching staff and of assuring themselves of the quality of teaching through stricter mechanisms of accountability. What is evident in this schema is that students are encouraged to see themselves as empowered against teaching staff, who in turn are supposed to be motivated to achieve ‘success’ by the threat of unpopularity in the eyes of their students, or rather by the threat of the consequent withdrawal of that ubiquitously sought holy grail, funding.
All of this serves to depersonalise the relationship between students and academic staff, putting mechanisms of regulation where attentiveness to the needs of other people with whom one cooperates in a shared activity should be. It also serves to distort the fact that the real threats students face are the same as those faced by academics – namely, the privatisation, commercialisation, marketisation, corporatisation, or whatever you want to call it, of the university.
The white paper talks about making universities more accountable – an accountability it will enforce through a strict management* of the flows of capital into the university – to students and to private sector employers. But what it tries to get away with all too easily is the suggestion that public universities aren’t sufficiently accountable to the public – something which is only true insofar as the state is insufficiently accountable to the public. Now, this is most certainly true, but the solution is not to open up the universities to the ultimately disempowering ‘an-archy’ of the markets, but to make the state more democratic. This is not even to mention the possibility, seemingly not even on the government’s radar, of making public institutions more independent, more local and autonomous in their internal functioning, whilst keeping them resolutely public – that is, the choice between centralised, top-down management and privatisation is a false choice, perhaps the false choice around which the whole ‘Big Society’ ideology is organised.
So, the message to take away – especially as increasing fees leave students expecting more from teaching staff** (somewhat irrationally, since it has always been quite explicit that the rising fees are only a redistribution of responsibility for funding and not any kind of increase in the amount of funding universities, or teaching staff for that matter, will receive) – is that students and staff musn’t allow themselves to be divided in this way, and must focus on their real, shared problem of fighting the loss of democratic control over the character of higher education in the UK, a loss of control effected by policies like those contained in the white paper.
* This notion of ‘strict management’ must be understood against the background of neoliberalism’s opposition to state management in one sense, although of course there is a kind of state control in play here which is no less involved. Cf. Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978-1979, ed. by Michel Senellart, trans. by Graham Burchell (Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2008).
** I have only anecdotal evidence of this increase in expectations of teaching staff – especially in the amount of traditional, school-style classroom teaching, as opposed to seminar-style ‘facilitation’ – accompanying increasing fees. Empirical studies welcome!