Imagining the Socialist University

Ben Moore considers what the socialist university would look like, and why its needed.

Universities are currently on the frontline of attempts by the UK government to drastically reshape education. One symptom of this – although far from the only one – is the recent conflict over proposed reductions in pensions provided by USS, the main university pensions scheme, which led in March 2018 to the largest strike ever seen in UK higher education. Strikes were eventually called off in April, though without a final solution being agreed. Consultations between USS and employers continue at the time of writing.

The strike followed a controversy that erupted in January 2018 around the appointment of the right-wing journalist Toby Young to the board of the new Office for Students (OfS), the body that since April 2018 has had the job of regulating universities in England, including administering the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), distributing funding, ensuring that ‘Prevent’ duties are followed, and ultimately granting or withholding of university title. While many commentators pointed out that Toby Young’s history of misogynist, discriminatory and apparently pro-eugenics comments made him highly unsuitable for this position, some also drew attention to his lack of experience in higher education, which amounts to two years spent on a doctorate he did not complete. Even the government seemed somewhat embarrassed by Young’s appointment, sneaking the news out at midnight on New Year’s Eve, apparently hoping the country would be too inebriated to notice. Although Young eventually resigned from the role under public pressure, much less remarked upon was the make-up of the rest of the OfS board, which includes 6 members with a mainly or entirely business background (coming from DLA Piper, Boots, HSBC, Norton Rose Fulbright, Credit Suisse and Eukalia training), but only 5 whose main experience is of working or studying in a university (including one student member), as well as 3 members who have a primarily policy or administration background, including the chair.

Why does this matter? Because when the board of OfS looks more like the board of a corporation or a product regulator than a gathering of educators, it suggests that universities will be assessed not as communities of knowledge but as providers of a consumer service. The job of universities is confirmed as producing work-ready graduates in service of the market. This is not a secret, but the overt aim of the new regulatory regime, supported by the recent extension of Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) rules to university degrees, which means they are now considered under the same rules as fridges or toasters. The former universities minister, Sam Gyimah, even called for universities to be compared through ‘MoneySuperMarket’ style rankings. This would, it is imagined, allow students to play the university market like rational economists, making data-based decisions to maximise personal gain.

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Protests in Leeds

Although these changes seem to aim towards the transformation of the university sector into a classic private market, there is an unacknowledged hypocrisy in the government’s approach. On the one hand, prominent Conservative MPs such as Jo Johnson have called for changes that would allow more private providers to emerge and challenge existing universities, pursuing a rhetoric that relentlessly stresses student choice and the ‘student experience’. On the other hand, the much-vaunted freedom of the market only seems to apply when universities do what ministers want them to do. As an article published last year by the university policy website WonkHE points out, the government has responded to the inevitable failure of the university market by ‘continually attempting to correct’ it through interventionist means (article here). The hypocrisy involved is evident in a speech made by Theresa May in February 2018, when she launched the Conservative Party’s policy of forcing universities to reduce tuition fees on certain courses, particularly the humanities (not coincidentally the site from which the university’s most powerful ideological critique emerges) and potentially requiring them to provide shorter (2-year) undergraduate degrees. These policies have since been overshadowed by the chaos of Brexit, but they should not be ignored. The attempt to devalue the humanities and turn universities into teaching machines that churn out graduates at as high a rate as possible (while simultaneously degrading the time available for university research) betrays an anxiety that, if left to their own devices, universities would notchoose to differentiate courses by fees, or to slash the length of degree programmes. The rhetoric of market freedom is, then, actually cover for the desire to exert centralised control over the university system while also degrading the shrinking, but still persistent, public perception of universities as institutions operating in the public interest. Such a view is being replaced by a model that sees universities and students as individualised, rationalised and wholly quantifiable – which is to say controllable.

How might we begin to move away from this vision of the university as a neoliberal education factory and start to rethink it in socialist terms? The first stage is to take a broad perspective on the historical function of the university, and to identify the key ideologies that underpin it. We could begin by recalling that the European university system dates back to the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, when universities such as Bologna, Oxford and Salamanca were granted charters, and that it was from the beginning a semi-independent institution for teaching and study attended by a small fraction of an already small educated male elite. This origin encapsulates the central problem that still remains for any attempt to transform the university into a socialist institution: how to make open and egalitarian a body that is premised upon elitism and exclusion, while maintaining its (proclaimed if not always enacted) values of intellectual rigour and independence?

It is true that the modern history of universities in the UK has been one of gradually expanding access, from the founding of London University (now UCL) in 1826, which broke with the Oxbridge requirement for students to be practising Anglicans, and then began to admit women in 1868, to the post-war establishment of universities such as East Anglia, Kent and Warwick. The transformation of polytechnics to universities in 1992 opened up the sector further, but also abolished local authority control, so that university policy became for the first time fully centralised. The era of free higher education which ran from 1962-89 broke down further at this point, mainly because participation had grown rapidly, from 8.4% in 1970 to 33% in 2000.[1]This vast expansion of access to universities led to a major ideological transformation in the way they were understood however, which ultimately worked against many of the benefits the expansion had brought. The shift was not inevitable, but rather defined by key political decisions such as Tony Blair’s 2004 introduction of loan-based tuition fees and the subsequent escalation of the programme by the Coalition government in 2010, when fees hit £9000 a year. As Robert Anderson puts it, writing for the History & Policy research network, the system had been redesigned so that students were ‘conceived of as customers exercising choice in paying for a product in a market – and no longer as citizens exercising a social right’.[2]It is this new status quo which the OfS is designed to police and protect, though it comes into being at a moment when the system is manifestly beginning to fray at the edges.

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Jacques Lacan (1901-81), whose work can help us think through the problems of the university today

History and politics alone are not enough to understand the forms of thinking which underpin the university system however, or to appreciate how these have shifted in the UK in recent years. We can turn here to Jaques Lacan, whose seminar XVII, originally held in 1969-70, discussed what he calls the ‘university discourse’. Lacan associates this discourse with the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who worked at Cambridge from 1929 to 1947, though he would, ironically enough, have been hard pushed to survive in the current academic climate, given that he produced no major publications between the 1920s and 1950s. As Lacan characterises it, Wittgenstein’s approach proclaims that ‘the world is supported only by facts. No things unless supported by a web of facts’.[3]This is the outlook of Charles Dickens’s Mr Gradgrind, the educator in Hard Times(1854), who states: ‘what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but facts. Facts alone are wanted in life’. While Gradgrind is a caricature of Victorian education, Lacan shows that the belief in truth and knowledge he represents shores up the ‘myth of the ideal I, of the I that masters, of the I whereby at least something is identical to itself, namely the speaker’.[4]Traditionally, the university discourse has meant guarding this myth of mastery through the claim to identify, control and distribute truth and knowledge. But such mastery extends beyond facts, since one of the main goals of the university discourse is to reproduce itself, in service of which it produces subjects, which is to say graduates, who are themselves bearers of the abstracted, fetishized form of truth-knowledge that is the university discourse.

Yet we have now reached a point where universities are frequently no longer in control of this truth-knowledge discourse, which is rather determined by the economically-driven society the university was once supposed to stand apart from and pass judgement upon. One symptom of this is that the 2:1 degree, regardless of its content, has come to be seen as vital for many students, for whom it signifies not knowledge but a certain ‘exchange value’ of knowledge that can (so the hope goes) be traded for a decent job. Another is the periodic media and political outrage over so-called ‘Mickey Mouse’ degrees and courses, during which universities are revealed to be failing in their role as guardians of knowledge.

At the same time, the growing managerialism and bureaucratisation of UK universities has brought with it a gradual but persistent shifting of the location of the university discourse from lecturers and professors, as was the case when Lacan was teaching, to government-appointed external bodies (such as HEFCE, QAA and their successor OfS) and non-teaching university managers. This is a local manifestation of a global trend: universities in Sweden experienced an increase in administrative staff seven times greater than the increase in academic staff between 2001 and 2013, and while the number of non-academic employees at US universities has more than doubled since 1987, the proportion of teaching by full-time staff has decreased (articles hereand here). Nowadays, an extensive apparatus of reviews, assessments, league tables, excellence frameworks, surveys and measurable student outcomes enforces its own form of truth-knowledge, one which, like the old university discourse, is presented as identifiable, unified, manageable and transmissible. The irony for students is that this system, which claims to speak in their name, in fact divides them against themselves, turning their experiences into data points that are ultimately used not to help them but to support an economised view of the world that sees success and failure in terms of growth rates and market values. In the process, it seeks like the old discourse to turn students into carriers of a belief in its own account of truth – which is, of course, wholly insufficient to deal with the massive destabilisations of truth being enacted by the likes of Trump and Brexit.

The basic contours of the problem are now clear. A partially successful opening up of access to universities has taken place, but only at the cost of an extreme shift in the social position of the university and its leveraging into a pseudo-marketised institution. This process has been accompanied by a shift in the location of the university discourse, which retains all the power Lacan identified but is no longer under the control of the university; instead it is shaped by administrators, government and the logic of business. These changes require continual work to maintain, not least because there remains resistance in the system, as last year’s strikes attest.

In order to move towards a socialist university from this point, at least two things are necessary. The first, as many have already pointed out, is to change the economic basis on which universities are organised, and thereby to redefine their social role. Crucially, however, this change cannot succeed unless it is accompanied by a transformation of the university discourse, which must not only be transferred to a new location, as has happened over recent decades, but challenged and if possible dismantled.

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Jacques Rancière, The Ignorant Schoolmaster (1987)

One the one hand this is a political problem, but lessons from the classroom also have a crucial role to play. We might do worse than starting with Jacques Rancière, whose 1987 book The Ignorant Schoolmaster considers what might be learnt from Joseph Jacotot, a lecturer in French Literature who moved to the Netherlands in the early nineteenth century, and found himself in the position of teaching Flemish students who spoke no French at all. Rather than trying to teach his students French, Jacotot asked them to intensively study a bilingual edition of a text originally published in French, and then to write in French about what they thought they had read. Their success was swift and surprising. For Rancière, this anecdote shows the anti-democratic structure of traditional forms of education. The mastery of the pedagogue takes the form of a double gesture in which the teacher first declares the students ignorant, and thus in need of education, and then ‘appoints himself to the task’ of lifting this ‘veil of ignorance’.[5]It is precisely this faith in explication as the only route from ignorance to knowledge that maintains the hierarchy of knowledge on which the university discourse is based. In current parlance, this becomes the turning of students (i.e. consumers) into work-ready graduates (i.e. commodities).

As Rancière notes, however, the best knowledge we have is that of our mother tongue, which is not taught to us but something we teach ourselves when provided with the right circumstances. The socialist university would learn this lesson, creating an environment for students in which, as Rancière puts it: ‘someone has addressed words to them that they want to recognize and respond to, not as students or as learned men, but as people; in the way you respond to someone speaking to you and not to someone examining you: under the sign of equality’.[6]This would not only be the case for students, but for all members of the university, so that the socialist university would have no distinction between teaching and research (which would be very different from the current degrading of research in many disciplines). Indeed, this lack of distinction might be its very principle. All members of the university would be understood as intelligent learners, without master explicators. The socialist university would in this way reject the mastery of the designated outcome that tells students where they will end before they have begun, which tells them that this degree will prepare them directly for that career. The point would not be to make degrees less socially applicable, but precisely the opposite; it would entail the opening out of possibilities so that students and staff are able to think widely and freely about the applicability of what they are studying without it being dictated ahead of time.

Such a conception of the university perhaps seems utopian, especially from our current position, and it leaves open vital economic questions that must also be addressed if it is to become a truly socialist institution. Nonetheless, Rancière’s thoughts on Jacotot at least begin to provide an alternative vision than the stultifying university discourse, which the current government is trying desperately to cling onto even as its limitations grow ever clearer.


Ben Moore is co-editor of Everyday Analysis and lecturer at University of Amsterdam.

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[1]Parliamentary briefing, http://researchbriefings.files.parliament.uk/documents/SN04252/SN04252.pdf, p. 14.

[2]‘University Fees in Historical Perspective’, http://www.historyandpolicy.org/policy-papers/papers/university-fees-in-historical-perspective

[3]Jaques Lacan, Seminar XVII(New York: Norton, 1991), p. 60.

[4]P. 63.

[5]Rancière, The Ignorant Schoolmaster(Stanford: Stanford UP, 1991), pp. 6-7.

[6]Ranciere, p. 11.

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