No. 2: October-December 2011

Bob Brecher

British Universities

Academic Foresights

How do you analyze the present state of British universities?

As from next year, tuition fees will go up to £27000 for three years (with just a few universities charging marginally less for some of their courses); the teaching grant for the arts, humanities and social sciences will be abolished and for other disciplines drastically cut; and “private providers” will be invited to “enter the market” -- just as in the USA many of them are being exposed as scams. At the same time, the universities are to be forced into ever-closer co-operation with business, into teaching students to be entrepreneurial and to subvert disinterested research into government-directed propaganda. Already the Arts and Humanities Research Council has declared that it will focus on the Prime Minister’s “Big Society” in its funding decisions; about 40 members – out of 900 or so – resigned in protest. (1)

In short, the neo-liberals’ political control of the universities is being extended even as the state’s financial responsibilities for them diminish. (2) Perhaps the clearest single example is this. While government control over student numbers remains, there is one exception: there is no cap on the number of candidates who do particularly well in their A-levels (effectively the university entrance exams), of whom the “best” universities will be able to recruit as many as they like outside the official quota. Of course many academics and commentators have noticed that this contradicts the government’s rhetoric about increasing social mobility, since of course it’s the richest parents’ children who, on the whole, do best at school; they’ve pointed out that just five British schools out of about 2000 send more students to Oxford and Cambridge than the rest put together (3); and everyone’s scratching their heads about the obvious contradictions (4). But these aren’t contradictions at all. They constitute a carefully thought through policy designed to achieve political control by forcing universities and the people who work in them to cut their own intellectual throats and to sacrifice academic integrity to their mortgages – in part through the well-documented tactic of “shock and awe”. The UK government – together with their all too many collaborators in the universities – are taking advantage of the so-called economic crisis to drive the neo-liberal revolution, just as they are doing with the National Health Service, the Social Services and every other vestige of the welfare state. The neo-liberal revolutionaries who have seized power in the UK have clearly read their Althusser on ‘ideological state apparatuses’ and their Naomi Klein on The Shock Doctrine. They are well aware of the danger that a well-educated public might pose to their power and are doing whatever they can to neutralise anything resembling a critical education by changing it into training for the great majority, in the knowledge that the small, rich minority who will continue to be taught to think -- at least a little -- will constitute no threat to the new political order.

“Lord” Browne, a failed ex-CEO of BP, was appointed by the then Labour government before the 2010 General Election to head a commission to report on higher education, a report that has formed the basis of the present government’s mandate-free White Paper (policy proposals for debate in Parliament) on Higher Education. This pernicious document reflects all too well the “thinking” of this superannuated spear-carrier for the neo-liberal revolutionaries. Here is his conception of the value of the universities: “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.” (5)

And that’s it. Now, of course the universities have always served the two contrary needs of continuity and renewal. If the numbers are small, this is no problem: the majority of that small minority can be safely relied upon to deal with continuity: the universities of Oxford and Cambridge in particular have performed that task magnificently for centuries on behalf of successive ruling élites. And the small minority of the small minority who concern themselves with renewal are most likely to have in mind only those forms of renewal that serve, rather than undermine, the ruling order. But this internal contradiction is a problem for today’s neo-liberal capitalism, UK-style. 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 them to be “flexible”, of course. So universities have to be made to reinstate the class divide, where once that could safely be left to the school system and while pretending, naturally, that the UK is no longer a class society (see Owen Jones’s brilliant Chavs). 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 that this repugnant ideology entrenches as an integral part of the neo-liberal fundamentalists’ opportunistic revolution.

In your opinion, how will the situation likely evolve over the next five years?

Given the dearth of effective opposition, the outlook is catastrophic in the universities as everywhere else -- apart, perhaps, from the streets of north London. Unless people in the UK act to sweep away the mandate-free bunch of multi-millionaires – nearly all of them graduates of Oxford or Cambridge, of course – who are stealing from the poor to line their super-rich friends’ pockets even more deeply – and let’s remember that the richest people in the UK are today even richer than they were before the recent “financial crisis” – things in the universities will just get worse. In five years’ time, if the Tories win the next Election (and even if they don’t, given the Labour party’s devotion to neo-liberalism) the universities will be staffed by part-time piece-workers dedicated solely to making sure their students give them good marks in their evaluations of the “product” they’re buying; a much smaller number of élite “researchers”, busily doing whatever “research” and obtaining whatever “results” the government demands; and students who can no longer tell the difference between education and entertainment and who will go on to become the docile consumers of politics that the neo-liberals rely on not to rock the boat.

But why now, in 2011? The neo-liberals desperately need to marketise the universities. First, because neo-liberalism demands that the majority of people are taught not to think clearly and not to question what they’re told, in case they learn how to rebel effectively. Second, if the universities can be suborned into functioning as vehicles of the neo-liberal creed, then they will do more than most other social institutions to reproduce and enforce that creed – apart from the media, where more than 50% of journalists have been privately educated. Not only will “students” come to believe that everything and everyone is a commodity, but their teachers will be forced to become at once products and producers of the same ideology.

What are the structural long-term perspectives?

There will be no longer term for any universities apart from the élite few: Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol, LSE, Imperial College and UCL. The rest will be unrecognisable as universities, having been merged with Further Education Colleges or taken over by “private providers”. The last vestiges of resistance still alive in the universities today will have disappeared. Today’s younger academics will have emigrated to countries who have chosen to invest in their universities rather than suborning higher education, and they’ll be followed by a lot of young people who see no point in paying a fortune for the rubbish on offer here when they can get a decent education for far less on the Continent. Worst of all, the academic profession itself will have become neutralised. Why? Because one central impact of the £9000 tuition fees (£9000 per annum is the current limit, but of course the government intends to allow them to float freely wherever the market takes them as soon as they can get away with it) will be that the only people going on to postgraduate work and thence into the academic profession will be the leisured offspring of the very rich. No one else will take on the massive additional costs of postgraduate courses and doctorates (for which fees are already rising) in addition to the massive debt they’ve already accrued as undergraduates.

The UK will soon be safely back in the early nineteenth century, where there was little danger that anyone but those too dim to enter the Church or the Army would become a university teacher. Unless, that is, the neo-liberal revolution implodes.

  1. (1)See my essay on No more Browne-Nosing (LRB blog, July 3, 2011).

  2. (2)See my essay on Universities and the neo-liberal revolution, November 2010.

  3. (3)Source:

  4. (4)See for example the Times Higher editorial for 4 August, and “AAB policy will hand ‘more resources to the social elite in the same issue.

  5. (5)Browne Report, 2010, p.14.

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Bob Brecher is Professor of Moral Philosophy and Director, Centre for Applied Philosophy, Politics & Ethics at the University of Brighton, UK. He writes on theoretical and applied moral philosophy, medical ethics and higher education. His most recent book is Torture and the Ticking Bomb (Wiley, 2007)

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