The neo-liberal revolution in British Higher Education

The British higher education sector is facing cuts of a greater severity than other areas of public service which are hardly being spared themselves, such is the enthusiasm with which the current coalition pursues its radical anti-state sector agenda. The cuts are being accompanied by a sharp rise, a more than doubling, in tuition fees that, at over £3 000 per annum, were already tremendously high by Western European standards. The combined effects of the cuts to government funding of university teaching and the rise in fees amount to nothing short of a revolution in British higher education. The revolution is a multi-facetted one, yet only one dimension of it, the tremendously increased costs to students, is being discussed to any extent, with the result that the true nature of what is happening remains almost uncommented on. Little is as yet being said, for example, about the numbers of lecturers who may lose their jobs, the departments that may close, or the universities that may face bankruptcy. Yet even these potentially disastrous consequences are only a part of a bigger change. What is planned is effectively a privatization of the university system as state funding of it is shrunk to a much smaller proportion of its overall income. One could argue that, when New Labour brought in the £ 3 000 per year tuition fees, we were already well on the way to a marketized system, but the marketization was partially compensated for by state funding that still expressed a recognition that the university system was a collective, public good. It is this recognition that is now to be swept away, with very little public debate as yet about its consequences. At the same time, the remaining state funding is not to be distributed equally across all areas of the curriculum: so-called STEM subjects (Science, technology, engineering and maths) and perhaps languages are to be at least partially protected while others (notably the humanities) are, it seems, to get nothing at all. This selectivity is justified by its defenders in terms of national economic performance and economic competitiveness: in the process, education sheds any broader civilizational or, heaven forbid, critical role and becomes merely an instrument whose role it is to support the economy.  At the same time, and as part of the same set of interconnected processes, students are cast very firmly in the role of customers whose collective task it will be to discipline universities and their staff by their allegedly informed consumer choices: paying twice as much as before, or more, or pushed towards economically ‘useful’ subjects, students will be, it is felt, hyper aware of the value of their degree on the jobs market and will shift their resources away from less bankable courses and less prestigious universities. Faced with this customer pressure, the theory goes, universities will be forced to deliver greater student satisfaction and, notably, to improve on teaching standards that, we are told, are too poor, although no studies are cited and no evidence produced, such things presumably being part of the tired arsenal of self-indulgent academics nostalgically attached to critical thinking. The depressing thing is that none of these changes are really surprising: to some extent they merely confirm processes that have been underway for a considerable number of years, in the universities as in other areas of public service. Yet they also represent a very sharp radicalisation of the sort that only an event of the dimensions of the current crisis would permit and again underscore how the crisis is being instrumentalised by the political right, applying its own dose of shock therapy.  

There is of course something paradoxical about the whole process underway. What is being presented as a removal of state interference and liberation of educational consumers is in fact being driven by the state, as evidenced not least by its setting of the rules about student loans and its distortion of market mechanisms through selective funding of subjects. The irony here is that Humanities subjects that seem likely to suffer greatly as the cuts bite have been very popular with students: it seems that many of those educational consumers not put off by the already high levels of student debt choose subjects deemed not to be of immediate economic utility. The state now clearly feels the need to persuade its ‘freely’ choosing consumers to choose in ways more in line with its own priorities. Whereas once the student was to be educated as a rounded citizen, he or she is now to be an entrepreneur of the self, making wise investment choices when selecting a university subject, calculating the profit-loss ratio between lifelong earnings and long-term debt, ready to take his or her place in the entrepreneurial society, alongside the entrepreneurial university and the enterprise state [1].

We have been here before, of course. A key part of the Thatcherite revolution was the aim to generate new subjectivities: the mass sell off of public housing and of state owned industries combined with the calculated and sustained attack on trade unions was meant to produce a nation of share and home owning individualists, no longer dependent on collective instances or tied to traditional solidarities. This new revolutionary wave is meant to continue the transformation. Yet something has also clearly changed: despite the many traumas associated with the changes it wrought, Thatcherism could at least seem to make a positive appeal by its promise of a democratisation of home and share ownership. Now, what is being democratised seems to be debt and constraint: we are all competing against each other and to compete effectively, we must take on debts that will constrain our future choices. As neo-liberalism’s seductions wear thin, the constraints must be cranked up.

Where is France in all this?! Comparing France and the UK, one is struck not only by the capacity of young French people to resist and their high level of awareness of what is at stake but also by the sustained discussion of the impact of neo-liberalism in the French public sphere, not least because public intellectuals still play an important role. A question that would then arise is why the British university sector has not played a more prominent role in the generation of critique. Could it be that we too have been effectively disciplined by the constraints and incentives of the entrepreneurial university? [2]

Martin O’Shaughnessy

[1] To place this in the broader contexts of new modes of governance associated with neo-liberalism, see Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval’s important work La nouvelle raison du monde. See also their article here  , and for a series of video interviews with them, see here).

[2] Two pieces that helped me get my own thoughts straight and which are well worth a look are James Vernon’s ‘The end of the public university in England’ and Stefan Collini’s ‘Browne’s gamble’. You can read them here and here respectively. For a French site devoted to defence of the public university, see here.

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2 Responses to The neo-liberal revolution in British Higher Education

  1. Liz Morrish says:

    Martin O’Shaughnessy’s points about the privatization of English universities, and their intended enslavement to an imagined economic good, are timely. Martin explains that the government cites neoliberal principles of the free market when it suits them, but acts to restrain those very effects when it doesn’t. So students may be consumers, but they may not consume Humanities subject, probably unless they qualify for entry to elite universities. And if the government is to set entry requirements, perhaps even fewer will be permitted to exercise their free ‘choice’. Choice, it seem, must be disciplined by the higher calling of an economic imperative.

    I have contributed to a recently-published volume: The Marketization of Higher Education and the Student as Consumer, edited by Mike Molesworth, Richard Scullion and Lizzie Nixon (Routledge). Essays in the book reflect upon the trajectory towards a market-led, privatized, higher education sector, and the effects on both student and teacher. One essay, by Joanna Williams, argues that far from empowering students, the creation of the consumer identity is infantilizing. For one thing, parents are drawn within the purview of the HE consumer/ stakeholder, further extending the umbilical cord of dependency and surveillance. Taking this together with the current fashion for universities to promote a therapeutic function, with their culture of ‘special situations’, and mitigation of student stress, and we manage to construct a subject who is critically without agency. Let me give examples. I have been mentoring two women students quite closely. One is on her year abroad placement in China and contacted me for careers advice, intimating she wished to use her language in business. I advised her to spend time with UK nationals living and working in her region, since she had mentioned in her emails that there were some around. She replied, scorning my suggestion, saying that these people were all humourless and boring. I had to spell out to her, exactly how she might gain some insight into career options from shadowing people already in those positions. It had not occurred to her, and she seemed to need convincing of her own possibilities to progress to this point. The problem is – she still feels herself to be a child. The second student is applying for teacher training. She is also doing a dissertation on the discourse of coming out stories, interrogating the transition between school and university. I suggested that the dissertation might be a helpful asset in her teacher training application, since homophobic bullying in schools (almost certain to be a theme) is a government priority. She might even offer her expertise to schools and make herself a specialist in this area. I sent her links to several websites. I can guess that they will be ignored. Once again, despite our proud boasts, like ‘education that shapes lives’ etc. etc. – our students are falling short when it comes to seeing themselves as agents. If their entire educational experience has protected them from consequences, trained them to be maze rats and only to ask for entertainment value from their classes – what do we expect?

    How about, as Mike Neary of the University of Lincoln has suggested, we construct the ‘student as producer’?

  2. Pingback: Lazzarato and the governmental power of debt: La Fabrique de l’homme endetté or The Making of Indebted Man | La France et la Crise

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