The mere suggestion that universities should be democratic is often viewed with incredulity or suspicion. When asked in a debate about whether the University of Birmingham should be more democratic the Vice Principal Adam Tickell said that he didn’t think that the university should become a soviet republic and that the most important thing was “good governance” (him in charge). This article aims to set out why universities should be democratic and the severe dangers that result in putting higher education in the hands of university managers, the government, and the economic elite.
Different Forms of Co-ordination
Education has to be co-ordinated in some way, and if we do not chose democracy and self-organisation then the alternatives are either hierarchy and command or the market/exchange. Most systems of co-ordination mix these three mechanisms to greater or lesser extent. The current system of Higher Education is primarily a mixture of hierarchical and market forms of coordination. Internally the university is extremely hierarchical, Vice Chancellors have more concentrated power than a CEO of a publicly limited company, without even accountability to shareholders. Externally they must compete for students, and research grants on a quasi market. But the rules of the game are commanded down by the government.
What mechanism we choose for running education, fundamentally depends on what kind of education we wish to have. Education will obviously reflect the priorities of those who have control over it, and will tend to reproduce the ideas with which it is run. Education is of fundamental importance to society as a whole as it determines the kinds of ideas upon which our society is based and the way that it develops.
The importance of education
The importance of emancipatory ideas and struggle in society cannot be overstated. The last few hundred years of European society has truly shown us the incredible horror and brutality that can be produced by unchecked power structures, deference to authority, and oppressive ideas. After the horrors of the first half of the 20th century the idea that the primary function of education should be to create reflexive individuals willing to challenge power was widespread. This is a lesson that has clearly not been learnt, but that we forget at our peril.
When education is accessible to everyone, and left to primarily self governing mechanisms (or even often without them) it almost always tends towards creating emancipatory ideas and action. Education allows us to analyse the world around us and gives us tools with which we can change it. It takes exertions of power to take education away from these sort of ideals, to repress people’s free desires for a better society. Marketised education does not make sense if you analyse it in terms of doing better research or teaching people better; the reforms are about creating different kinds of graduates, ones that fits more productively into the society that they wish to create.
Education for the market
One of the clearest examples of the marketisation of education is the creation of information on how many students on each course at each university pay back their loans. David Willets has said he finds it “incredibly frustrating” that these measures do not already exist. What this means is a total subordination of university to the interests of business. Universities will be judged not on the intrinsic, or educational value of their degrees but on the extent to which their graduates are valued by the market.
A marketised education system means that students lives are controlled by our future employers, not just when we are in work, but constantly as we must jump through hoops to gain the upper hand over other students. This hollowed out life- being constantly forced into things that are good for the CV- is categorically opposed to real education and learning.
Education for the government
The current reforms, and the general process of neoliberalisation within universities, also empowers the government to set their own priorities for education (often almost indistinguishable from those of business) ahead of those who work and study in it. The government is increasingly intruding on any idea of education as a free exchange of ideas. Last week we learned that Michael Chessum was arrested for protesting without the permission of the state, and that the police had attempted to spy on student activists from Cambridge.
This trend towards violence against students follows far more serious violence and incitement by the state against various oppressed groups. The attack on benefit claimants through atos assessments, sanctions and workfare, and the government’s unbelievable dehumanisation of immigrants are truly horrifying signs of the kind of society we need to avoid.
If we are to take ideas, debate, and a decent society seriously, then education should stand as a clear challenge to the government, not a capitulation to it. David Eastwood, the Vice Chancellor at Birmingham, has cheered marketisation in, every step of the way. He was on the Browne Review that set fees at £9,000, he writes in the Guardian arguing that the problem with higher education is too much public involvement, and last year he did a fringe event at Tory party conference arguing that universities should be setting up free schools. The idea that he is the best person to guard something like a university is frankly laughable.
Our Demands set out a number of very moderate ways in which the management of the University of Birmingham could stop attacking the interests of staff, students, and the community. Whether it is lobbying against our interests, closing vital courses because they don’t fit the universities’ “strategic vision”, squeezing as much profit out of students as they possibly can, or a culture of secrecy and attempting to outcompete other universities; the senior management continually shows no regard for the community whose work they depend on.
Education is far too important to be left to the likes of David Eastwood and David Willets. The urgent task of everyone involved education should be increasing the power of students and staff to shape the way it runs.