Higher Education, austerity and “the market”

In Uncategorized on October 18, 2010 by chr1sr0berts

So then, Cable, Clegg, Cameron, Osborne and Willetts now all seem to be relishing “the cuts” in various fits of macho posturing. To begin with let’s just have a quick look at their educational CV’s. They were, all of them, the recipients of free university education and four of the five studied various forms of arts, humanities or social science subjects.

David Willetts studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics (at Oxford)
George Osborne studied Modern History (at Oxford)
Nick Clegg studied Social Anthropology (at Cambridge…)
David Cameron studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics (at Oxford)

Odd that they do not consider these “non essential, non core” subjects worthy of public funding, at least with regards teaching them – the research in these subjects will still receive some public funding, though at a much reduced %. By implication, this approach also makes certain ill founded assumptions about the divide between research and teaching. The bedrock and foundation of university study was always that research feeds into and directly relates to teaching.

What is being proposed is the privatisation of arts, humanities and social science study in the university sector. This matters a great deal. What I intend to do here is to trace a link between the proposals for AHSS in universities and the general neo-liberal trend in wider society … I can’t remember, is there any such thing as society or not?

There are a couple of narratives that have taken hold of late. The first is “the appalling mess Labour left us in”. The very idea that it was labour (alone) that got us into the mess in the first place is quite a compelling story especially for those of a conservative or a (C)onservative disposition. New Labour were certainly catastrophic, and you’ll not catch me defending them, but they pretty much continued the neo-liberal ideology that has dominated political discourse since the mid 70’s. One doesn’t need to look too far to see that barely regulated financial services, capital and currency speculation, all manner of stock market gambling and increased privatisation of public services – precisely the style of social organisation spelled out by Milton Friedman, Friedrich Von Hayek and the Chigaco School of economics – is at least in part at the root of this. So the idea that it’s all Labour’s fault is so stupifyingly idiotic that it’s barely worthy of comment, though comment we must precisely because it’s the mantra of the ruling coalition.

To analyse the extent to which it is not “all the fault of labour” and by way of explaining the neo-liberal orthodoxy allow me to map out one or two (probably well worn, but no less important) examples: Services that people *need* and that basically underpin social infrastructure have no place in, nor should be subject to the whims of the oh so euphemistically titled “market” (with all its associations of honest guv market traders selling you an apple with a wink and a smile). Essential services – such as having your bins emptied each week – is a classic case. In a bid to display how much money can be saved, services are “outsourced” to private companies. Serco; Sodhexo et al come in, take council tax payers money to undertake a service that was previously supplied by the council. Serco (for instance) claim they can do it cheaper – which they almost always do – but at various other social costs. Services decrease in quantity and quality – collections every other week instead of each week – and staff are fired in a series of ‘efficiency saving exercises’, meaning of course an increase in unemployment in the community with the commensurate increase in benefit payments. The “outsourcing” produces very few benefits or beneficiaries other than for the private corporation whose share price rockets, and whose profits go up precisely because they receive the funds but then are free to sack/underpay staff and reduce the service. The upshot is always at the expense of service users/people that pay for said service via council tax. Local community job losses; Local community suffer a loss of service. I use this as an example, but, crucially, it is precisely a model of neo-liberal capitalism whereby everything is privatised (incl university education). Nobody benefits other than shareholders and owners of companies. It’s exactly the same with PFI and here The example provided in the link is interesting and important. In it, Monbiot outlines that PFI schemes in the NHS are essentially a licence to print money for private corporations. Precisely because of the need “to be seen to save money” governments and local service governments (councils) have to remove certain capital expenditure programs from their books. For a full explanation I urge you to read more here: Of course these measures do not actually save money at all, it only seems like it saves money in the short term, by transferring the building costs to private companies. Often what is left is a 30 year lease that the taxpayers have to pay in order to rent the hospital infrastructure and building back from the company. The companies often recoup the building costs within a matter of months or years effectively meaning that they then sit back and watch the profits roll in for 25 years or so.

This is the current environment and it’s a fully marketised economy whereby everything is transferred onto the shoulders of individuals. “Want an education? Pay for it at a market rate” Despite the fact that education is a public good, a socially, culturally informed citizenship should be a valuable and valued goal…but according to the dominant theme, which is *precisely* based on the above model of neo-liberal “market knows best/everything” those that receive the education are the only beneficiaries. This is a preoposterous assertion, it requires quite a leap of faith, but tragically, it’s playing well in the shires and not difficult to see why and how. We’ve had over 30 years of this individualised market approach, so essentially an entire generation raised on these values. The very idea of a social contract, or a public fund to which everyone contributes in order to pay for essential services that maintain social infrastructure is frowned upon and deemed unrealistic/idealistic.

Let us assume, for the sake of argument that many/some state/govt services are poor, or poorly run, or waste money. In theory at least we have certain democratic rights which we do not have when it comes to private companies. So, the aim is to ensure (somehow) that they work better NOT to transfer it all to the private sector whose only goal is the accumulation of profit and have no such democratic infrastructure that calls them to account – the market approach, i:e if they’re not good enough, then people won’t use the service therefore they’ll suffer in that way is the only recourse….but essential services do not work that way, we don’t have the choice, and the poor certainly do not. Even if our democracy (such as it can be called this in the first place) is a poor imitation, and our ability to hold services to account is problematic, to wholly discard them in favour of a marketised approach seems a little “baby and bathwater” to me. Strive to make them better, make them more accountable; make them serve interests of society….Instead of that we have “nah, sod it, we’ll transfer it all to private companies, in a sort of “brave new world” style market utopia”. This is an appalling way to carry on, but I fear that’s exactly where we’re going.

Primary, secondary, tertiary, Further and higher Education
All Health services incl dentistry
Criminal Justice – Police, courts etc
Utilities – water, gas electricity etc
Social services
Local council services
+ sundry other essential services underpin and support a social infrastructure and should all be funded via progressive taxation. Markets don’t care for social infrastructure – if you can pay a market rate, fine. If you can’t, tough shit. That’s not a world I want to be a part of.
….but part of it we all are.

It’s within this environment that the Government are able to cut funding for universities by a staggering 79% and to cut all funding for teaching Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. This is not to say that the logic of the market is now immovable, but “the market knows best” narrative become more and more established as “common sense”.

The other oft repeated story is that the cuts are essential as opposed to ideological. When dealing with Higher Education cuts there’s been a great deal of research and critique of Browne Review which demonstrates that this is not necessarily the case. Some of the research and critique is here; here; and a great post here; here; here; the NUS were very quick and very thoughtful here; some good work here; Catherine Bennett and Jonathan Freedland writes well here; Sadly, and crucially, most of those posted links and the people that wrote them are not in a position whereby they influence the formation of public policy.

This Government though are somehow able to sell this Browne Review as “progressive” which, were it not so serious would be utterly laughable. So we see the long established market knows best fallacy rearing its head again. Surely, right now, even if not at any other time, the idea that the market can provide everything that society needs can be seen for utter ideological grabage that it is…. But no, apparently the busted model is now about to be recommended wholesale for higher education.

Yesterday – Sunday 17th October 2010 – George Osborne was waxing lyrical about benefit “muggers”. He said he would be focussing his attention of welfare scroungers who are essentially “mugging the country”. But once, just ONCE I’d like to see the same level of zeal and enthusiasm for chasing tax dodgers like Phillip Green (dodged tax to the tune of £300m); Vodafone (owed tax of £6b but settled, with govt approval on £400m); Lord Ashcroft et al. That we never ever see the same enthusiasm for getting this back is surely ideological.

As an aside – According to 2006 ONS figures – Tax payers money wasted on fraudulent benefit claims = £1.2b; Amount of uncollected tax from very rich avoiding/evading (potato/potarto) obligations = £120b – £150b (it’s difficult to calculate, precisely because these people tend to hide money…and compounded by the proposed cuts to the HMRC tax evasion dept)

Anyway, no matter, let’s demonise those that, often through no personal fault, are unfortunate enough to be unemployed. What I find most astonishing is that at precisely the time when welfare might be most needed – massive catastrophic recession – talk of cutting it to the bone is not just short-sighted, I’d say it was bordering on immoral. This recession, which is bordering on a depression, was not caused by “the bloated public sector” repeat ad infintum Daily Mail, Torygraph; Express, Sun et al but by the activities of unregulated finance capital and their subsequent bail-outs to the tune of £850b

What short memories we all have that now apparently it’s the fault of those that work in the public sector. Bail-outs are what’s called the “socialisation of risk and the privatisation of profits” and we’re about to pay the highest price of all time. Oh and enormous profits and enormous bonuses are back in fashion in the financial sector.

Anyway, I maintain that as always, my task – insofar that I imagine myself arrogant enough to have a public sphere profile at all – is to undertake a form of social analysis that insists on linking together seemingly disparate entities and activities. In a paraphrasing of Gramsci …the task of critical thinking academics, journalists and those with a degree of cultural and social capital is to always ask: “what are the dominant explanatory formats; or the dominant narrative and discourse? Then further; OK what is the plausible story I can write about [insert event] that is not any of the above, at least not wholly in the realm of the dominant narrative. So, for instance, when we look at the enormous con that is PFI for instance, we don’t just see that in isolation, but in fact see it as a manifestation and exemplar of the wider issues (of neo-liberal form of social organization that further enriches some individuals at the expense of society in general). That most – if not all – media organizations continue to report and praise being “tough on welfare and benefits” whilst barely even reporting the scandals of PFI; privatization of all services; tax evading billionaires means that to some extent, many journalists must have internalized the logic of neo-liberal economics. This is inextricably linked to higher education, and in particular, higher education teaching and research in Humanities, Arts and Social science subjects: As just mentioned, one of the critical tasks of (some) academics, is to undertake critical and interrogative research. That we can do so is because of the way the research and teaching culture of universities works and is funded. If this model is discarded then I’m not sure what hope there is for critical scholars. Will we have to “sell our ‘brand’” of research and teaching in the “market place” of higher education? The market will dictate what “works”, higher education then ceases to be about education, critical thought and critical interrogation and instead develops its own self fulfilling *logic* or market where students – understandably terrified by mounting debts and thus the need to find employment quickly – require and acquire only that which will provide the skills necessary to gain employment. So, in order to flourish and stay open, departments and the academic staff within them end up researching and teaching that which will recruit the largest number of students; “train” them in particular skills and then send them on their way to uncritically reproduce dominant themes and ideologies – critical scholarship becomes subordinate to the demands of business (capital). In my field: media, cultural studies and increasingly, journalism studies, it’s crucial that we teach students to think beyond the narrow confines of the dominant discourses. Obviously, and I’m extrapolating here, the full effects are unknowable, but one of the strengths of university education is/was precisely that critical scholars are/were paid to think about these things (and just occasionally assist in the formation of public policy); critique things, even those things which had provided his/her salary in the first place; publish, disseminate; teach. That’s the strength of civilized, fully functioning publicly funded research culture in higher education isn’t it? If left to the whims of the market, what hope is there? What alternatives can be narrated, disseminated and imagined? And what space is left in which to imagine them? What future for a society populated by students – and academics – trained only in the skills that are rewarded by the “market place”?


One Response to “Higher Education, austerity and “the market””

  1. […] a previous post I sought to outline some of the ways in which the Browne Report and the CSR changed the face and […]

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