Why S**t Decisions Get Made in FE

Of the many things that have been revealed through the manifold crises leading up to and including the Covid 19 pandemic, a consistent theme has been the UK government’s unwillingness to respond effectively. This, I argue, is endemic of UK policy since at least the late 1970s, a result of pieces of the state being carved off to sate the appetite of private market-based solutions to public service issues.

This is particularly acute in Further Education (FE); which will be the main focus of this essay. The ideological obsession with creating a ‘market’ in FE, with students becoming ‘consumers’ of education has led to a proliferation of bureaucracy, reform and bad decisions layered on top of each other over many years. However, the issues discussed are not isolated to FE, indeed the reader may have their own examples of this wider malaise that has infected delivery of public services across the UK.

I think it’s really useful to look at this issue through the lens of the writing of Mark Fisher, whose ‘K-punk’ blog articles analysed contemporary culture through his theories of capitalist realism. I focus on Fisher because he himself had experience working within FE during the New Labour era, and many of his writings and conclusions on and around this identify issues that still beset FE – mistakes we are doomed to repeat.

To move forward we need to recognise the inherent tension that exists between state intervention and the neo-liberal drive toward marketization of Further Education, why this methodology inevitably fails, and from this learn how we as educators, students, policy makers and activists can imagine a way forward. Because, as Fisher himself stated ‘we have to invent the future’. [1]

‘Today education is to be determined by the needs of business. Of course, such a tendency has always been present, but there is almost no contesting it anymore.’[2]

So what ideology underpins the way FE is administered in the UK? The government wishes FE providers to attract learners, and funds them on this basis. More learners equal more funding, so wired into the very nature of this is an inherent competition between providers over individual learners in order to attract funding and remain financially solvent.

The most recent (at time of writing) funding reform is yet another attempt to bring employers and businesses even closer to how funding will be deployed in Further Education[3] through their articulation of the skills they need for their businesses. Proposals include payments linked to successful progression of a student into employment, as if immediate employment and conversion of a student into an economic actor should be the sole function of Further Education. Fisher identified this tendency as ‘business ontology’ which emerges from the era of capitalist realism in which we reside – ‘the only things that actually count, the only criteria that matter are related to businesses’[4].

This business ontology not only infects the control of funding for Further Education, it by definition includes framework of control and bureaucracy to ensure that it is maintained; ‘Within Education we have seen a creeping spread of practices, language and rhetoric from business. And this has spread into teaching, into the kind of self-policing and self-surveillance teachers are required to perform’[5].

There is deception hidden in business ontology too. It brings with it a promise that ‘it liberated us from bureaucracy, that it was only old Stalinists and crusty social democrats who obsess with bureaucracy[6]’. But when it comes to its application, business ontology and neoliberalism ‘have nothing to do with the freeing of markets, and everything to do with class power’[7]. By introducing the language and culture of business (targets, corporate plans, investment strategies, business loans to keep providers solvent etc.), ‘the language of planned targets has come back, like the return of the oppressed’[8]. I am reminded of the podcast Trashfuture, who describe this phenomenon as; ‘like the Soviet Union, but shit and more expensive’.

Business ontology cuts deeper than even this, spreading itself throughout the body of Further Education. This system does not increase efficiency, writing from his lived experience of working in FE, Fisher writes:

‘If you are a teacher sitting at home filling in lots of forms of quasi-business rhetoric, you are not going to teach a better lesson the next day […] So what is the function of these practices? Well one is obviously discipline and control: control via anxiety, control via the destabilisation of professional confidence’[9].

This reinforces the business ontology as well as creating a culture of anxiety that is essential for its maintenance. However it also allow us a glimmer of hope – organisation and a sharing of our anxieties is the first step to combating this ontology.

Getting a place at the table

A reliance on businesses as the sole agency to articulate skills needs and, by extension, the funding to underpin this leads to a number of issues. The main and recurrent issue I have encountered in my career in FE policy is that by its nature, reliance on employers really comes down to reliance on employers who have the time and resources to be involved in this activity. This means that the process only includes employers of a certain scale, those larger businesses with training and Human Resources functions that can engage in this. Therefore, we already have made one in a series of compromises in engaging with ‘employers’ as an abstract.

Of this subset of employers, we have repeatedly seen the larger businesses that are closer to government (through their lobbying arms or connections to key decision makers in and around government) able to excerpt their influence on skills reform and get a place around the decision-making table. It is of interest (and an essay in itself) that Trade Unions are marginalised or not initially involved front and centre in these conversations.

A reliance on businesses also limits the skills being articulated; they will always seek to meet their immediate skills needs, it is not in an employers interest to train a potential employee (which the student is always viewed as) in skills that will enrich them or encourage them to move into other jobs or beyond their workforce. This limits the skills that are needed by the employer, and limits the skills that the state feels are ‘needed’ at all – Fisher identifies this when writing about the cuts in response to the financial crisis of 2008: ‘judging for all the rhetoric, you’d think education and the arts were drains on the economy, rather than the highly successful “businesses’ they in fact function as’[10].

Funding rules, a catalogue of reform

Leaving aside, for now, the issue of employers deciding how skills and funding should be directed, we then focus on the next ‘tier’ of necessary bureaucracy the free market model dictates – that of funding rules and eligibility criteria.

In a system where it is assumed all students are rational ‘customers’ in a free market, these rules impose a layer of control wherein the government of the day can change who this money should flow to, depending on current economic and political conditions. These rules, by definition, need to be complex to embrace the wide range of life experiences and backgrounds of adult (people aged 19 or over for FE purposes) learners across England (the other nations of the UK have their own funding rules and systems, adding to the complexity of the overall picture).

Therefore, the ideological goal to create a free market in education has, by necessity of government desire to control this free market to their desired outcomes, led to a greater layer of management and rules – ‘an ideology which promised to liberate us from state socialist bureaucracy has instead imposed a bureaucracy all of its own’[11]. Thus is exposed the lie of the ‘free market’ in FE – the fact that the Funding Rules are so extensive is testament to the historic and manifold changes that have been built into these rules to corral this ersatz free market of education.

Fisher digs into this tension between a surface level ‘free market’ underpinned by a machinery of maintenance and regulation, and begins to probe at deeper models of control embedded with this;

‘Neoliberalism is not classic liberalism. It is not about laissez faire. As Jeremy Gilbert, developing Foucault’s prescient analyses of neoliberalism, has argued, the neoliberal project was always about vigilantly policing a certain model of individualism; workers have to be continually surveilled for fear they, might lapse into collectivity[12]

This might seem a paranoid reading of the situation surrounding education, but Fisher brings it up in response to capitalist realism’s prescription of requirements (in this case the Research Excellence Framework), where these are invariably ‘loathed but at the same time complied with’. He notes this is a situation ‘typical of capitalist realism, and is particularly poignant in the case of academia, one of the supposed strongholds of the left’[13].

I am not stating the Funding Rules lead directly to surveillance and atomisation of workers, but the culture they, and the wider business ontology embedded in education, lead us to a context in which individual actors, educators, students, policy makers and activists are marginalised and their expertise in how to best meet needs are pushed aside, replaced with a passive acceptance of the status quo and an underlying anxiety that they cannot create the fully rounded educational experience necessary to face the increasingly complex challenges of our contemporary moment.

To escape this, we must accept that ‘choking off any sense of an inevitable, redemptive future that could be different from our world is a crucial part of the neoliberal project’[14].

‘We have to invent the future’ [15]

So, having identified how far business ontology and the pervasive and corrosive influence of capitalist realism have eroded FE, how are we to respond?

It is easy to be pessimistic. The current government has built on the layers of previous failed free market solutions with its own plans for funding linked directly to employment outcomes, funding ‘simplification’ contingent on businesses having their needs exactly met by a skills system that creates functioning units of economic value rather than a rounded student capable of self improvement, critical thought and able to flexibly respond to an increasingly uncertain future.

To Fisher, the solution is that:

‘Imposing “targets” and assigning funds on the basis of meeting them…will only ever lead to a situation in which bureaucrats and the bureaucratically minded prosper. The way to improve education, and all other public services, is to accept the obvious truth (though such truth is contrary to ideology): most people working in these services are not, in fact, venal, are not motivated solely by what is in the interests of “them and their familee”. So it would be better to hand more control back over to them; by all means intervene if it is going wrong, but don’t assume things work better if they are run by bureaucrats.’[16]

It is up to us, as a community of educators, students, policy makers and activists to trust in our own knowledge and expertise, gather in a community of solidarity and create the better future we want for our students.

AGH July 2021

Writing in a personal capacity.

Twitter: @agladheight

Feature image: Picture of Mark Fisher quote at Goldsmiths, University of London: Loz Pycock (CC BY-SA 2.0): https://www.flickr.com/photos/blahflowers/44513576871/

[1] Tim Burrows, ‘we have to invent the future’: an unseen interview with Mark Fisher, Quietus, (22 January 2017), https://thequietus.com/articles/21616mark-fisher-interveiew-captilalsit-realism-sam-berkson

[2] Fisher, ‘not failing better, but fighting to win’ k-punk, The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher (2018) p525

[3] https://consult.education.gov.uk/fe-funding/reforms-to-funding-and-accountability/supporting_documents/Skills%20for%20JobsA%20New%20Further%20Education%20Funding%20and%20Accountability%20System.pdf (accessed 17/07/21)

[4] Ibid p524

[5] ibid

[6] ibid

[7] ibid

[8] ibid

[9] Ibid, p525

[10] Fisher, ‘The great bullingdon club swindle’ k-punk, The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher (2018) p458

[11] Fisher, ‘How to kill a zombie: strategizing the end of neoliberalism’ k-punk, The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher (2018) p541

[12] ibid

[13] ibid

[14] Graber, ‘Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit’, Baffler, No 19. March 2012, https://thebaffler .com/salvos/of-flying-cars-and-the-declining-rate-of-profit

[15] Tim Burrows, ‘we have to invent the future’: an unseen interview with Mark Fisher, Quietus, (22 January 2017), thequietus.com/articles/21616mark-fisher-interveiew-captilalsit-realism-sam-berkson

[16] Fisher, ‘Don’t vote, don’t encourage them’ k-punk, The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher (2018) p431