What is the marketization of Higher Education and how do we fight it?

The refrain cannot be repeated enough: pension cuts are simply one symptom of the marketization of the HE sector which harms students and staff alike.  But what precisely does it mean to say university fees, pension cuts, the casualization of work, and a myriad of other significant changes within HE are bound up together by the destructive agenda of marketization?  Reassessing the fundamentals of this argument seems essential to understanding the forces set against us and thus consolidating a vision of our common interests.  Without these common understandings, we will struggle to formulate a cogent case that the immediate short-term sacrifice of lecture attendance on strike days ultimately benefits all of us collectively in the long-term.  We also risk foregoing the development of a strategic orientation that recognizes the necessity of struggle, organizing and collective action: for it is marketization’s calculating and ruthless force, its undermining of any notion of democratic culture within university, that renders these means necessary and effective.

‘Marketization’, at its core, refers to the attempt to forcibly create a ‘market’ within HE: the restructuring of education such that it functions like a business.  It would be amiss to suggest this process has not been ongoing for much longer than simply the past decade; however the trebling of tuition fees in 2010, and the accompanying brutal austerity regime implemented with the recapture of power by the Conservatives, accelerated this process immensely.  Swingeing cutbacks in university funding were compensated for by a massive escalation of the debt burden on individual students, conspiring with the widespread privatisation of services and infrastructure on campus to form a cutthroat culture in which the imperatives of profit and competition now dominate over an impulse to service the public good.  The most recent bout of HE reforms have reinforced this, with programmes like the Teaching Excellence Framework explicitly subordinating teaching to the demands of employers, tuition fees further raised, and access of unaccountable private providers into the HE sector eased.

‘Unprofitable’ courses that do not conform to the demands of business have been cut; corporate expansion projects and landlordism proliferate as welfare services are underfunded and inordinate rents loom; ‘subsidiary’ companies such as Unitemps have been established by Universities to ‘internally’ outsource service work under poorer terms and conditions; teaching work is increasingly undertaken on piecemeal contracts with few protections or benefits, ever more regimented by untenable and constricting metrics; management salaries soar – resulting in scandal after scandal over exorbitant VC pay – as more and more students and early-career academics struggle to make ends meet; democratic structures are usurped by private-sector bosses and held hostage to the pressures of ‘financial pragmatism’.

These are the tensions which underpin the current pensions dispute: it is a much broader struggle over the purpose of education itself.  When students and staff alike are relegated to sources of revenue by the university, exploitation abounds: worsening conditions and intensifying workloads for staff are reflected in gutted support funding and ever-more encumbering debts and costs for students.  The resources available to us are diminished as ever more is extracted from us.  Gambling staff pensions on the stock market is thus consistent with this logic: long-term employment security and benefits that would have been thought of as given decades ago have been decimated by an onslaught of deregulation.  The instinct towards the public good – such as affordable rent or the fair treatment of staff – is eschewed as a burden to the bottom line, deepening inequality in the university and in turn across society.

This culture is responsible for broad-reaching political pacification, as students are compelled to vie against one another to secure the most advantageous ‘returns’ on their fee ‘investment’, the pressure to advance economically overriding education as a creative and exploratory pursuit.  The demands felt by staff simultaneously intensify through the unremitting and nebulous imposition of parameters of ‘customer satisfaction’ upon learning.  We are thus pitted against one another as consumers and deliverers of a mere job-training service, rather than united as a community.  We become anxious, divided, and atomized.

These dynamics form the ideological framework in which we are played off against one another during industrial action.  We must refuse the narrative that poses staff as our enemies: but rather acknowledge the sacrifice many particularly casualized academics are making to uphold the ideal of education as a public good and protect our collective well-being.  This is not simply a functional argument that as marketization deepens teaching conditions will deteriorate, constraining learning conditions as a consequence – nor even just an argument of reactive urgency, that such drastic attacks on staff rights demand a visceral solidarity from students as striking is always a last resort.  Those arguments are important, and we should not undermine that people are desperate – that livelihoods are being gambled with, that the motives of profit are indeed callous and merciless, that if we are to be defeated a precedent will be set for the wholesale evisceration of employment rights across the sector.  However, we must not collapse into a fatalism which poses this strike as a necessary evil: but rather an unprecedented and courageous unleashing of union strength from the enfeeblement of decades of anti-democratic neo-liberal reforms.  We must be bold enough to follow through on the argument that employment rights can only be upheld and extended by an exercising of collective power and solidarity prepared to act combatively against the craven and aggressive impulses of profit – the very impulses that have made work more stressful, unstable and uncertain across the whole of society.

Ultimately, our collective conditions, and the future of education itself, depend on our acting and standing and banding together.  This is especially true because students are not only future workers but also are increasingly workers right now, forced to balance studies and part-time work due to heightening financial uncertainty: we all have a collective stake in fighting the race-to-the-bottom over working conditions. This must not be the end point – but a catalyst for a revitalized movement to reclaim power over our universities.  Action like this should indeed be understood as epitomizing the public educational ideal: a transcending of traditional boundaries of thought, an unapologetic testing of prevailing power structures, a resistance against impotence and disillusionment, a reassertion of the political against the economic, an experiment in how to relate to one another and organize ourselves differently, an enacting of an alternative and transformed vision of the university.  We must seize on this as a rupture of renewed possibility for organized resistance – not as a testament to retreat.  Marketization has sought relentlessly to fracture and disenfranchise us.  As a community, we must become powerful again.  We must join the picket lines because, quite simply, they are our picket lines too.

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