We need to support the potential university strikes – but we need to do far more…
The University of Leeds are currently facing massive cuts. The lecturers union, UCU, has balloted for strike action and members have voted overwhelming in favour. However, Leeds Student Union have recently started an “education first” initiative actively campaigning against the potential strike. We should support the strikes based on the immediate impacts alone – job cuts, restriction of research, and increased class sizes. This is a concern for students, parents, and anyone who thinks education should be about social betterment rather than lining the pockets of the rich. However, there are much broader and more important reasons to support this strike, and to do far more.
The Tragedy of Neoliberalism
Since the mid-1980s the academy has undergone a process of neoliberalisation. The Keynesian welfare model, where universities were supported with public funds, has been eroded and substituted with a wholly competitive market logic. Not only do students compete with each other in order to get into the “best” universities, and then in order to obtain the best grades, but this competition is rolled out throughout the whole institution. This means academics competing with colleagues in their departments, for funding, status etc, but also departments competing with other departments within the same institution. This pattern repeats itself throughout the whole university system, with institutions competing with other institutions. Increasingly other universities are discussed as “competitors” in the educational marketplace.
However, all is not well, the neoliberal economic model is in crisis; possibly even in its death throes. This crisis is being felt throughout the world. Here in the UK it has already meant the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs and the planned implementation of cutbacks in public expenditure. Universities face cuts of £2.5 billion. At Leeds University the Vice Chancellor has prefigured these planned cuts, so that it can maintain the ‘competitive edge’. These cuts are exacerbated by an accountancy error that resulted in the loss of £100 million. The same VC that wants to impose these cuts earns £237,000 a year (last figures published – 2007-08), the Prime Minister earns £197,689 (May 2009). The VC lives in Southampton and flies to Leeds once a week, because he doesn’t want to live in Leeds! This is another example of a dead financial system – as we lose our jobs and our houses, those at the top continue to count their bonuses.
As once was the factory, so now is the university.
Where the traditional ‘drivers of growth’ used to be found in the Fordist assembly lines churning out tv’s, car parts and kitchen utensils, the university today is symbolic of an economic system that demands the constant enclosure of knowledge. The commodification of ideas has put knowledge in competition with itself, where the ideas that ‘win’ are those than can turn a quick buck. The antonym of evolution, this process is rolled out across the whole of society, rapidly homogenizing our imaginations and reducing our capacity to think anything that hasn’t got a price tag on it. What’s the value of an idea if you can’t sell it? The university has become an “edu-factory”, whilst our societies are becoming “social factories”. In the words of a text published at recent occupations at Universities in California:
“We work and we borrow in order to work and to borrow. And the jobs we work toward are the jobs we already have. Close to three quarters of students work while in school, many full-time; for most, the level of employment we obtain while students is the same that awaits after graduation. Meanwhile, what we acquire isn’t education; it’s debt. We work to make money we have already spent, and our future labor has already been sold on the worst market around”.
This is the “higher education experience” that Leeds Student Union and Mandleson wish to promote and protect.
Avoid the bite of the ‘zombie’ economic model!
The current neoliberal economic model is dead. Stripped of its life blood of privatization and speculation, and with debt at an all time high, the neoliberal economy has now fully realized its role as the blood-sucking Hollywood zombie. Like the undead feeding on its prey, this rotten economic model continues to unveil its policies in a desperate attempt to keep itself going that little bit longer. First the post office, then the bin-men, and now the university; these are the last gasps of a dead economic system desperately trying to keep itself moving. With each bite, its prey becomes infected with the same morbid logic; the same precarity, the same redundancies, the same pay cuts, the same exploitation, all tied up in a dead system whose face is getting closer and closer to hitting the pavement.
Towards an Autonomous university, towards an Autonomous society!
“Gone is the old project of creating a cultured and educated citizenry; gone, too, the special advantage the degree-holder once held on the job market. These are now fantasies, spectral residues that cling to the poorly maintained halls”. Communiqué from an Absent Future
It is through debate, struggle and the re-appropriation of ideas, not just in the university but across the whole of society, that we can start to realize our freedom to think and live without the whip of precarity. It is through the establishment of alternative educational practices that we can start to value ideas for the laughter they bring or the freedoms they inspire – the creation of spaces where we can burn the price tags and instead appreciate the value of ideas themselves. We must resist the pathogen of zombie neoliberalism that corrupts our desire to learn, research, create knowledge. Inside and outside the academy, from the university to the post office, we must start to create the society we really want to live in – rethinking the role of the university in society is only a small step in the generalized reclamation of life that we must all undertake.
Our struggle is not a defensive one. We do not wish to preserve the university as it is, an elite and insular institution that reproduces the inequalities in our current society. We don’t care about theories of governance, corporate strategies, or how art ‘should’ be done – we don’t care for teaching or learning how to control our imaginations! We must create a university which bases itself on entirely different values: for now we will call this the ‘autonomous university’. How do we build this autonomy? Through the occupation of the spaces where we work, play and consume and the re appropriation of this time and space for our own ends. Imagine working to produce what we need, to learn so as to enrich our lives, to wake up looking forward to Monday. Imagine a world on our own terms.
“Everything that we know is up for sale”. No longer.
Strike, Occupy, Transform!