CC by Pete Birkinshaw BinaryApe/flickr

CC by Pete Birkinshaw

Student protests in England, particularly London (and Sussex), have captured the attention of the media in recent weeks. John Harris’s piece in the Guardian provides a clear snapshot as to what is going on and the bubbling up of multiple, individual sources of disquiet which when viewed together paint a picture of a fundamental shift in the nature of the relationship between student and institution, employee and employer, community and corporation. London’s abolition of the Union and its replacement with a ‘services provider’ might seem like a subtle and almost trivial, technical change to those outside the system, but the fact that such is being enacted is an indicator that this is ideologically driven. Corporate management clearly wants to tidy up the messiness of all this ‘scholarly community’ stuff.  The old ideas of what a university is have had their day and quaint though they may be, a modern fee-charging, global brand needs to move on and consign these quirks to a ‘history’ section on the website. This is, after all, part of an accelerated process of business process re-engineering that will result in a pared-down, lean organization coordinating a series of service level agreements with a diverse portfolio of providers (For more of this ilk, see Steven Poole’s, “Who touched base in my thought shower?”).

A few years ago, we’d have laughed about the paranoia of those who warned of such a trend. Now, we’re seeing it enacted, “red in tooth and claw”, in the streets of London. That the University of London, established to open up and broaden education, is now characterized by a detached senior management with salaries inflated far beyond that of the bulk of their employees and has to protect itself with police cordons and indeed police patrols through the corridors of their institutions, is something that would bring utter dismay to their founders and all those who have spent their lives preaching the value (not the price) of education as a great leveller, a means to personal empowerment and the enrichment of cultural life.

Now it is so:  fees set so high that the loans will never be repaid (despite the government being prepared to sell off the loan book to anyone with a white van and a baseball bat), a working life that is being extended with each passing budget, and, saddest of all, a consensus amongst all three major Westminster parties that this is the future of higher education (with any disagreement being confined to the details of interest rates for repayment or varying levels of charge).

Of course there is resistance too amongst the academics. Campaigns and petitions, seminars, debates and cries of ‘defend’, ‘resist’ are increasingly heard – well in cyberspace at least.  But therein might be the problem.  Those who might be expected to be on the side of a more progressive, less ‘business-facing’ view of higher education run the danger of painting themselves into a corner. When you start ‘defending’ and ‘resisting’ then you need to be pretty sure about what it is exactly you are defending. Should your energies and passions be put into a system that was far from democratic, participatory or egalitarian? Is it worth defending a patriarchy, a hierarchy of prestige (rather than of actual talent and achievement), a system that still excluded many and which saw little real solidarity or shared understanding? Aligning with notions of ‘defend’ and ‘resist’ is almost, it could be argued, the first step towards defeat.

Surely what is more powerful is to provide a real alternative vision that is radical in its intent and properly participatory in its actions.  Without this, the ‘resistance movement’ could easily be characterized as merely protective of a cosy, comfortable, middle-class and conservative (small c) set of privileges. How many of those now discomfited, for example, put up with Labour’s introduction of tuition fees – the first major step on the road to commodification? How many tolerated the early introduction of the corrosive  management language and processes that are now running rampant across the sector; or the league tables, when their institution seemed comfortably ‘up there’ ; who, amongst themselves, disparaged less well-established institutions, spoke of ‘mickey mouse’ degrees and sneered at any suggestion of their own offspring doing anything but listing Russell Group institutions in their Ucas applications?

We talk of ‘defending the public university’, but what is it? It’s certainly not what we had five years ago, ten years ago, twenty. Or maybe it was in those romanticized ‘60s? Not according to poor old Professor Higgs, whose cards were marked by his anti-apartheid protests and who even in the 70s and 80s was regarded as unproductive.

Rather than defending, we should be building. Shaping and forming something new; yes, that builds on the old enlightenment ideals but, for a change perhaps, actually implements them and extends them to all in society. We need to face up to the fact that so many of the values we might espouse in our more passionate outcries, are just that, ‘espoused’ but never fully, really, ‘enacted’.  But we need also to be sophisticated in our understanding of the inherent complexities of organisations that are built on nurturing sometimes uncomfortable and conflicting ideas, that consensus in operational matters needs to be empowered by dissensus of perspectives. That passion and commitment to ideals is also measured by action and effort, and not tarnished by hankerings for hierarchy and prestige.

A campaign, then, to build something new, something to which we can rally students, staff and citizens and which paints a picture of alternative ways of being, that reminds us that things need not be as they are, or as they were. That’s the kind of campaign worth ‘defending’.