On the Politics of Consultation

*A critique of the government’s HE Green Paper consultation process by a Warwick for Free Education Activist. Please consider signing the petition attached beneath.*

The Green Paper consultation is a charade. This is not meant simply in the context of it being anathema to our principles as a group organizing towards free education – the Green Paper proposes nothing short of the complete marketization of the Higher Education sector which, for all their rhetoric around social mobility, will inevitably result in the further casualization of the University workforce, cuts to the already most underfunded and disadvantaged Universities and their replacement by private entities, the slashing of courses that are not amenable to the interests of employers and capital, rent and fee hikes, cuts to student support such as maintenance grants, Disabled Student’s Allowance and the student nursing bursaries, and the distortion of education from a common good into a commodity. ‘Social mobility’, whether we indeed believe this phrase a token substitute for the presence of genuine justice – more a re-arrangement of individuals within fixed social hierarchies rather than an abolition of the hierarchies themselves – it fails even on its own terms, serving as a smokescreen to conceal the upward redistribution of wealth operationalized by market mechanisms.

‘Teaching excellence’ seems, by extension, to mean the expansion of an increasingly insecure workforce which is bound into compliance by metric regulated performance management and mounting workloads – as if ‘excellence’ is indeed interchangeable with ‘exploitation’, where the maximum possible amount of labour is extracted at the minimum cost, within a climate of intense bureaucratic pressure and relentless target acquisition. ‘Student choice’ seems an equivalent of ‘consumer choice’, which is afforded an incongruous priority in the title given that this document was in its first instance formulated with no broad input from students themselves, and actively hinders the expression of our voices in the modelling of its consultation questions (not to mention the proposed mechanisms of restriction of Student Unions in the framework of the repressive Trade Union Bill, constraining the democratic will of the student body). It seems, then, ‘student choice’ is a façade intended to disguise the real interests guiding this document – those of bosses and corporations.

‘Student choice’ is rendered little more than a token appeal and performative platitude within this context: which in truth reflects not an autonomy to manoeuvre within Higher Education as one wills, in pursuit of passions, creativity and personal flourishing, not a democratic control over the content of one’s education, but an ability to differentiate a selection of University options from a range of sophisticated branding and varying fees, functionalized by a value-for-money, career prospects oriented calculation. ‘Choice’ seems to afford less and less power to us, and more to the whims of employers – with whom the modern University is so intimately connected – as if the market is the ultimate arbiter of not only self-determination but quality. The optimisation of an assortment of skills compatible with specific career trajectories, the necessity to subordinate our futures to the greed of a range of bosses, apparently encapsulates in it all the dimensions and aspirations which might define ‘choice’. This term exposes itself, and the market framework in which it is situated, as hollow, with the best options available to those who pay more, and all those ‘choices’ culminating in the same indebted, exploited condition, and indeed riven with the broken promises of an austerity economy and a precarious labour market (after all, for all the Government’s proclamations of more people from disadvantaged backgrounds being afforded access to Higher Education, broader social and economic inequality has only deepened under their rule).

On its own terms, even, the private provision of education is, as with the privatisation of other spheres, set only to lessen quality, as Universities will be afforded more streamlined access to funding and degree awarding status, ultimately tailored towards recruiting the largest possible intake of fee-paying students and the mass production of degrees at the cheapest possible cost. We only need to look to the ailing state of Further Education to recognise the ills of market administration of public goods, where four out of 10 colleges are now threatened by closure or merging.

But, beyond this initial title, the language of which continues unapologetically throughout the consultation document, the entire façade of consultation is unravelled as little more than a superficial tapping in to the already most privileged voices within a policy framework fixed in principle and intention but malleable on some technicalities. It is an ostensibly equitable process of debate which is situated on the terrain and terms of the powerful. Again, the language of ‘choice’ betrays itself here, never entailing the determination and formation of our education in accordance with student voices, but simply the expression of those voices by proxy through the market and elite figures, borne out by the patronising assumption that we as students do not know what is in our best interests, but that those decisions are best rendered by the (unstable, destructive, prone-to-crisis) market.

Indeed, there is little opportunity or capacity to raise an opposition in principle or totality to the Green Paper, to challenge the essential notion of the market provision of education. Instead the questions are leading, inaccessible, naturalising of market mechanisms, and intended to advantage voices already situated within positions of power. For example, looking at question 12(a) – “Do you agree with the proposals to further improve access and success for students from disadvantaged backgrounds and black and minority ethnic (BME) backgrounds? Please give reasons for your answer” – this manipulation is manifested. After all, if we were to answer to the contrary, that would entail that we were opposed to the concept of improving access to education for disadvantaged groups – which, as a group committed to liberation, we are of course not. This question is not structured to facilitate the expression of opinions which refuse the very idea that market mechanisms safeguard social mobility.

Similarly, looking at Question 7, in relation to the Teaching Excellence Framework, “How can we minimise any administrative burdens on institutions? Please provide any evidence relating to the potential administrative costs and benefits to Institutions of the proposals set out in this document” – we see the unfair advantages and weighting provided to the voices of certain individuals within this consultation. There is no opportunity to express the perspective that metrics in themselves are detrimental constraints to exploratory, imaginative and cooperative teaching, or indeed that teaching quality and the positive purposes and effects of education are quantifiable at all. It is obvious, also, that those who are most capable of providing evidence and statistics will be perceived as more legitimate and thus will be assigned more significance by those mediating the consultation. Those most capable of providing evidence will be those already in positions of institutional power, familiar with the logistical mechanisms of such already existing projects as the Research Excellence Framework. By extension, the voices which will most influence the outcomes of this consultation will be those with already vested interests who are familiar with navigating existing structures of power. The terms of the debate are set with particular principles, in such a manner as to unfairly advantage those already invested in those principles.

Further to this, the consultation is an incredibly long, complex and technical document, which – for all the Government’s rhetoric around ‘student choice’ and increased access – is heavily inaccessible to students and those without specific institutional knowledges, thus restricting our input and exposing ‘choice’ not so much as an expression of popular control over our education but an embellishment of the allure of varying degree ‘investments’.

Thus consultation entails a kind of perfunctory and performative appeal to negotiation within the context of a predetermined political and economic agenda. The parameters and logic are static, and non-negotiable – but some of the nuances can be bargained over. Not only do we reject vehemently the format, language and terms of this debate, but rather the very notion that our victory should emerge from such channels or that our resistance should be contained within their deceptive legitimacy. Whilst we have not discouraged engagement with this consultation, nor have we encouraged it, nor validated the notion that such engagement should be the extent of our democratic stake in educational policy and processes.

We fundamentally reject the notion that an ability to effect minor adjustments to a programme of market principles set by an unaccountable and detached ruling class should be the only legitimate expression of democratic will – and, indeed, we contend that our principles of participatory and open democracy as a group are incompatible with such a consultation. Indeed, this consultation reflects the elitist and exclusive nature of our parliamentary channels, dominated by the interests of private gain and profit. Further to this, we believe conciliation with that ruling class is impossible, especially one so committed to austerity and neo-liberalism as the Tories: we recognise that our vision of education can only be effected by the mass, militant and grassroots movements of students and workers nationally and internationally, as it has been won in Germany and elsewhere.

Exercising our democratic voice individually and in private, through an incredibly dense and technical consultation intended to marginalize student voices, is a poor substitute for collective control over the structures and content of our Universities and education, and this is the goal we agitate towards. We recognise the interests of the Government and corporate elites as antagonistic to our own, and that to contain our struggle entirely within their ‘legitimate’ channels and consultations is not only to moderate and recuperate that struggle, but to validate defective and tokenistic models of democratic engagement, and to belie the fact that the Government answers not to discursive engagement but, in its final instance, to the market. It is there, through protest, agitation and disruption, that we must assume leverage to halt this Green Paper and its catastrophic proposals for Higher Education.

Anything less would be to dismiss where the battle lines have been drawn and to acquiesce to the assault on education as a public good. Whether the Tories were voted in or not (and 24% of the electorate is hardly a significant democratic mandate) – we recognise the necessity to be actors in our own struggle, that moral agency is not internal to the dynamics of the state but frequently outside and in conflict with it, and that to abandon our fight to ‘legitimate’ appeals to the conscience of an unconscionable Government is to result only in a betrayal even more severe than that which defined students voting en-masse for the Liberal Democrats in 2010 on the (subsequently broken) promise of halting any tuition fee rise.

Our fight is not situated in artificial consultations but on the streets, in occupation, in mass political education on our own terms, and in collective struggle against the forces that will not hesitate to decimate public Higher Education.

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Sign our petition below to call on and pressure Warwick University management to oppose the Green Paper.

https://docs.google.com/a/estudiant.upf.edu/forms/d/1eSJI5RwyN8_ChwvTqgQVYSeYR2SpB_FXLz8pOs8fN6w/viewform?c=0&w=1

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