By Sebastian Wright
Lecturers and students alike nowadays cynically describe university education as a ‘factory’. This is, of course, a term of abuse – just think of the disturbing image from Pink Floyd’s The Wall of a conveyor belt of comprehensive students dropping into the mincing machine and emerging as a string of sausages out the other side.
The notion of the University as a mechanised profit machine is where the term derives its critical force. When the philosophy department at Middlesex University was shut down, the ‘Save Middlesex Philosophy’ campaign’s occupation strung an enormous banner out of a first floor window reading: ‘The University is a Factory[.] Strike! Occupy!’ The slogan became the emblematic image of the campaign, and hanging above a neoclassical statue with fist pumped into the air, it endowed the campaign with an uncompromising, industrial proletariat aesthetic that served to reinforce its militant credentials.
Yet as the campaign wore on it became less clear how far the campaigners would be willing to take the slogan literally. As was almost inevitable, educational idealism crept back into the vocabulary—talk of the department’s outstanding research scores, of the nobility of the humanities against the dehumanizing levelling of business utility thinking, and suchlike idealistic proclamations, became rife. In speeches given at different campaign events both Tariq Ali and Paul Gilroy stressed the need to fight for ‘high quality education’ and advised a tactical coalition with conservative professors—and even that well-known man of letters, London Mayor Boris Johnson—in order to fight against the philistine effects of market pressures in higher education. The conclusion of the campaign, where the prestigious research centre housed in the department, the Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy (CRMEP), was relocated to Kingston University, leaving some lecturers and all of the undergraduate students behind, reflected the drift towards the idealism of research over and above the University as a site of industrial struggle.
But is this attitude of treasuring the nobility of education against the mediocre levelling processes of educational marketisation the correct approach to take? Or should we rather accept that the University sector already operates according to Taylorist management practices and simply fight within this given arena for egalitarian principles and for self-management? At The Commune’s day conference, From Crisis to Upheaval, the session on University education flagged up a number of troubling trends, regarding which deciding between the above paradigms would seem crucial.
The first point to come up was a critical reflection on the lack of political engagement of ‘radical’ academics—Marxist or otherwise—and how there seems to be no translation from critical thinking in the scholastic debating chamber to actual support for struggles taking place even within their own workplaces, including for the cleaners who sweep their departmental corridors. More generally, this separation of University based critical theory from actual movements was considered not to reflect well on the left’s cherished role for the University as a bastion against capitalism, insofar as the separation of the economy of theory from the economy of struggle actually works in the interests of capital, not against it. For instance, during the occupation of the SOAS directorate over union-busting deportations of migrant cleaners, very few of the overwhelmingly lefty SOAS staff came outside to show any solidarity during the rallies. Renowned Marxist philosopher, Slavoj Zizek, strolled past the rally with apparently little interest.
The second point to be raised was the tendency towards casualisation amongst University staff. This includes the increasing composition of temporary staff, workers on sessional teaching contracts, and the way the increasing burden of work is being shifted to PhD students who are remunerated at a rate that is wholly inadequate to draw a living from. For example, 4 hours teaching a week during the academic year, which is calculated at 10 hours including preparation time, will net a teacher around £2,600, and this includes the marking of all the essays and the answering of emails and possibly office hours too. By contrast, a full-time junior academic in the University of London, can be expected to start on about £39,000 a year, for a similar amount of teaching. The point of this comparison is not to foment resentment against those on decent work contracts, but rather to show how—structurally—graduate students as an exploited class in the University’s internal economy, are used to depress wages, limit full time job openings, and operate in sync with the tendency towards pay-per-hour lecturers across the University sector as a whole.
Why, then, do PhD students opt to take on such work, and why do lecturers accept sessional contracts? After all, this teaching work is competitive to acquire, and if one does not take it there will be plenty of others willing to do so. The answer lies in the relationship between students and education, of which the PhD student/causal worker represents the limit case. For what drives PhD student teachers is resume building; what drives casualised University workers is staying within the system. In both cases, consciously submitting to exploitation is premised on the belief that the future will hold out better things to come: that temporary pain will pave the way to long-term success. It is a hedge on the future. In caustic, deadpan prose a theoretical text from the Occupy California movement puts it well:
Graduate school is simply the faded remnant of a feudal system adapted to the logic of capitalism—from the commanding heights of the star professors to the serried ranks of teaching assistants and adjuncts paid mostly in bad faith. A kind of monasticism predominates here, with all the Gothic rituals of a Benedictine abbey, and all the strange theological claims for the nobility of this work, its essential altruism. The underlings are only too happy to play apprentice to the masters, unable to do the math indicating that nine-tenths of us will teach 4 courses every semester to pad the paychecks of the one-tenth who sustain the fiction that we can all be the one. Of course I will be the star, I will get the tenure-track job in a large city and move into a newly gentrified neighborhood.[i]
These observations highlight the role of fantasy intrinsic to University system at every level. Students take out large amounts of debt in order to finance their degrees on the hope that it will improve their job prospects. PhD students submit to teach these students—and take out more debt to support their underpaid work—on the hope that it will one day lead to a permanent job. PhD students graduate, fail to find permanent work, but accept woefully remunerated casual teaching in order to stay within the system, on the chance that they still may have a shot at that precious position that will one day be theirs. Undergraduate students finish their degrees, and accept unpaid internships for years on end—if mummy and daddy’s wallets are sufficiently endowed—so that they still might have a shot at getting a professional job. If this fails to materialize, never mind, Masters programs will happily take them in for anything between £4,000 to £20,000 a year to perpetuate the illusion.
It is not so much the case that the University education system stands outside the political economy of Western capitalism, then, as much as it is intrinsic to and reflective of its overall tendencies. This is why attempts to appeal to some noble, idealistic, higher ground that University research supposedly occupies is not only subscribing to a fiction, but a convenient fiction critical for the very depoliticization and exploitation undertaken within the system.
The upshot is that if there is somewhere to start in organizing within Universities is should not be for some transcendent cause of ‘high quality education’, but instead to make transparent precisely the materialist workings of the educational economy. The cleaners’ struggles that are currently taking place within Universities are a good start. The same principle should be expanded to teaching staff too. And, ultimately, to the consumers of the University’s goods, the students, who are increasingly going into deeper and deeper debt to finance their studies. Only from this starting point of thinking the University’s role without illusions can the more tricky questions about the future of education be addressed.