Pt. 2: Framing the Fight, Narrating the Alternative
This is the second part of a long chat I had with the Zac and Connor from the Red Square Movement.
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We’ve talked about tensions within the ruling class in their attitudes to higher education, that one side wants to shrink the sector and make it more like the old days, while another wants to grow it and make money from it. Are there any other points of weakness in the Tory vision of marketisation that we can exploit, do you think?
For me, the major contradiction centres on the failure of ‘human capital’ model of higher education I described before to make life better for young people. Life’s been getting really shit for them, the future is getting bleaker. This is widely accepted by the most mainstream of NGOs and is confirmed by report after report. The promise of underpaid, precarious work, in-work poverty, not being able to afford or save for a mortgage, anxiety about climate change, debt, depression – these all haunt young people as they enter higher education. For those that don’t go to university, the situation is even worse, creating a resentment towards graduates that is fueled by the Tory-fabricated ‘culture wars’. I think there’s a very clear narrative that we can create about how the last decade or so of Tory policy has made life significantly worse for someone growing up today. Crucially, austerity and privatization have meant that young people will be worse off than their parents, breaking one of the key tenets of capitalist ideology: meritocracy, the idea that if you work hard, you will be rewarded, and the related idea of social mobility: that education improves people’s life chances.
Basically, each generation is getting worse off than the one before. And now has to face the prospect of total environmental collapse. This is bad for capitalism, and its particularly bad for neoliberalism, which relies on the idea of ‘human capital’, which is hereby shown to be false. Relatedly, the persistent stagnation of the post-2008 years, when confronted with the massive expansion of higher education, also shows that a degree is no labour market silver bullet. Neoliberals, mystified by their own ideology, have things entirely the wrong way up. Education doesn’t create jobs. Investment in the real economy, which we haven’t seen for a long time, creates jobs, which can be filled by the educated. Higher education isn’t helping anymore. It is broken. If you can politicise this in a way that points to the damage done by neoliberalism, then you can build support for an alternative, as well as with other parts of the education sector – schools, colleges, prisons, etc – and the public sector more widely – the NHS, social care youth services etc – that have suffered a similar fate. As I’ve tried to articulate in a number of articles, I think the alternative has something to do with a new municipalism, hinted at by stuff going on in Preston and by ideas like Public-Commons Partnerships, and a kind of grassroots ecology that could ground what Mike Neary calls a ‘University of the Earth’.
Yeah, I mean, that fills me with hope and certainly resonates with some of the stuff we’ve been talking about in the Red Square Movement. But the scale of it is quite overwhelming. But yeah, it feels like that’s the way that we meet this kind of thing by going beyond it and saying, after this big cliff edge, once you graduate, actually, you know, life is fucked over there. Like there isn’t a thing over there for you to go to. Despite all the positive mood music at your university.
I totally agree. I guess that you can say, higher education is meant to lead to a better life. Education should be available to everyone whenever they want it. Because they enjoy it, not necessarily because they have to get a job. Higher education was meant to be something that bettered your life that led to way out. I think that’d be a very powerful thing. But I also don’t necessarily agree with it.
But it’s all about the narrative, isn’t it? I think so. One of the things I learned at Coventry University, where we led a really big, forward-looking campaign around subsidiarization, was that the average member just wasn’t there yet. Like, you know, the thing we’re fighting for is over here, and then most people’s consciousness is over here. So, as a UCU branch, we’ve got to get you over to there. At first, people working in the main University just didn’t get why people working in the subsidiaries was important to them. They didn’t really know they existed, like they didn’t know that there were deprofessionalised academics in CU College, CU Scarborough, CU London and CU Services, teaching higher education. Because the University had pulled the wool over their eyes, as well as everyone else’s, by pretending they were just colleges or professional training services. I knew about it because I was in one, during the summer at least. I had been teaching pre-sessional English in the Department of English and Languages, as an hourly-paid Lecturer. Then they moved us all to CU Services, and put us on inferior ‘Tutor’ contracts, with a private pension (with 5% employer contributions compared to 16% in the Teacher’s Pension Scheme) and no UCU representation. So I started campaigning. It was hard enough to get my colleagues to stick their necks out and fight for union recognition, but when we got as far as a statutory ballot and needed Coventry University UCU members to back us up, it was so difficult to get people to care.
As a branch, we realized we needed to create a narrative that explained what was happening in the subsidiaries in terms of what was happening more widely, in the main university and in the sector in general. Which is why we got into all this Taylorism stuff. I remember picking up a copy of Harry Braverman’s Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century – a stone cold classic of 1970s Marxist sociology – and it just laid it all out for me. I saw that what Coventry University was doing by moving lecturers into subsidiaries, and creating these for-profit colleges under the CU Group umbrella, was not just old fashioned union busting, but de-professionalising academic work. This was just Taylorism, but via innovations in corporate form. The logical conclusion to this, we proposed, would be for fewer salaried ‘star’ academics in the ‘centre’ making materials for precariously employed, non-academic ‘tutors’ in the periphery, while also bringing in as much research income as possible. In other words, higher education in these subsidiaries would become like serving Costa Coffee – tutors would need minimal training to deliver education as a commodity on-demand. This model also fit very nicely with the shift to online learning, in which these academics could in principle produce material to be taught across the world, like a fully commercialized global, digital Open University. Not only has this prediction been borne out by the Open University’s creation of its own ‘platform university’, FutureLearn (which, ironically, Coventry University uses for its online provision), but is even more important now with COVID rapidly digitalizing higher education.
In terms of creating a political narrative to build solidarity across the Coventry University Group, the point here is that any academic could be next. Courses at CU Coventry like Business Studies, for example, were already in direct competition with those at Coventry University. So if the University decided to close the traditional version, it could still be offered in the subsidiaries, and the Lecturers moved there at a cost saving. More likely, however, in the short term, the University would outsource its non-academic functions. Which is why we tried to work with Unison and Unite on a joint campaigning and negotiating strategy. This was met with little support. But perhaps now they regret this, because this has also now started happening. This narrative really helped get the academics on board, which was crucial when the University sacked all the PSE teachers after they won union recognition, and employed them in the University’s student temping agency, thefutureworks. Posters saying ‘I’m with Aisha’ – the false name given to the brave comrade who spoke out to The Guardian’s Aditya Chakrabortty as part of his expose – appeared all over campus. Academics started to see the struggle in the subsidiaries as a struggle over the future of the profession, and the defence of union representation as a moral defence of colleagues’ human rights.
So how does this translate to the generational crisis you described before, do you think?
The message has got to be about the future being better, and as part of this, pointing out that marketization doesn’t deliver on its promises. As I said, the key material contradiction within the ideology of human capital, and this is really important, is that higher education doesn’t create jobs. It never will, it never has. The whole Tory gamble with higher education – aside from barefaced profiteering and corruption – is that expanding HE will regenerate the stagnating economy. This is the argument I made in the pamphlet, Markets, Monopolies and Municipal Ownership. My parents benefited from Thatcher’s neoliberal revolution. My dad came from a working class family and was the first to go to uni. He studied Accountancy, which got him good jobs that he hated until he retired. Now he watches Space X videos. My mum, who is German, came from a single parent family, moved to Coventry to live with my dad, had me, went to Warwick University and landed a job in Coventry University’s Modern Languages department. They bought a house which went up in value, and now they live comfortably in the countryside. I bummed around until I was about 23 and then went back to college to do my A Levels, also went to Warwick University and studied philosophy, graduated in 2009 just after the Financial Crisis. I couldn’t get a job, so bummed around in London for a couple of years until I had to move back to Coventry, eventually following in my Mum’s footsteps and teaching a bit of German. I was on hourly-paid contracts for six years until someone I knew offered me a full-time job as a Journalist, on a secure contract and with decent pay. I recently bought with my partner our little terraced house in a nice bit of the city – but I was over 30. So eventually I did ok, but it took me much longer.
For people going to university today, it’s a totally broken system. Badly managed COVID prevention measures have disrupted education at all levels, and the labour market is an absolute mess. Those poor graduates that had started working before COVID were probably either on the front line of the pandemic working precariously in the services sector, or thrown out of work completely. The combination of the 2008 Financial Crisis – the effects of which we are still living with – and the pandemic have scarred young people’s career prospects for good. In a way, higher education is hiding a problem in the economy. So, in essence, what you can do is point to the contradiction by pointing to what’s actually happening in the real world. A lot of academic critics of marketisation don’t do this, they keep their analysis within the higher education system, as if it were somehow autonomous. But the meaning of higher education is not to be found in the history of the University of Berlin, or in the tracts of educational philosophers, but in the role it plays in social reproduction. The problem with higher education is not that people aren’t choosing the right universities or degrees. It’s that the economy is broken. And you have a whole generation of students for whom this really matters. So if you can get this across, and shift the blame from academics to the government, who are avoiding addressing the problem and making it worse by relentlessly pursuing a market that will never exist, then you have a potentially explosive situation, in my opinion.
What about climate change, how does that fit in? Because it does feel like iwe have to be talking about the climate crisis as a student movement now. And we have to be looking outwards, as you said, breaking out of just the critique of higher education and linking the two. Because it just makes sense. We’ve got this whole cohort of people who’ve been in ivolved in the climate strikes, who are now arriving at uni as well. And we’ve got this big moment in November, the Conference of the Parties in Glasgow.
Yes of course. This whole narrative that higher education is a mess because the economy is broken links really well with the climate crisis, because the solution to both is the same. A green industrial revolution, even within a capitalist framework, would produce good jobs, which then higher education could fill with graduates. So in a sense, the idea of a Green New Deal, whether you agree with it or not, provides universities with a new social function and would give millions of young people a better future. If you combine this with something like Labour’s National Education Service, and you have a progressive vision for free education at all levels that would provide hope for young people, and a key mechanism for a ‘just transition’ – because all those people thrown out of work by the pandemic or by automation would be able to go back to college or wherever and find meaningful work saving the world. It’s a no brainer. To pay for it, as UCU suggests, you levy a tax on the corporations that benefit from the ‘human capital’ work that education does for them, or just get them to pay the tax that they bloody well owe!
If I was going to summarize, I would say just start with the outside world and then build your strategy out of that, because the narratives is already there really. You’ve just got to fill in the gaps, you know, between the climate crisis and the generational crisis. More neoliberalism will just make things worse and making things worse, looks fucking horrible. It looks like the end of the world. But the trick is doing that in a way that doesn’t scare people off, isn’t it?