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.

Statute 24 campaign: context, progress so far and where we go from here

The foundation of the strength of the Statute 24 campaign has been staff-student solidarity.  After initially forging alliances in 2015 to successfully combat the university administration’s attempts to casualize academic staff through Teach Higher, we have since preserved and fortified these relationships through regular meetings, concerted efforts on campaigns against TEF, Prevent and insecure and exploitative conditions for hourly paid tutors, and lending our solidarity to strike action, staff Assemblies and pressuring Senate and Council.  The significance and reach of these alliances was embodied in our occupation of the Slate, where we explicitly called on the University to concede to the 6 demands of Warwick Anti-Casualisation’s fantastic campaign for fair teaching conditions at Warwick and ultimately won union recognition for hourly paid tutors.

Through our combined resistance as students and staff over the past few years, we have achieved significant victories that could not have been won if we had remained divided and atomized.  It has been through harnessing and further cultivating these alliances that the Statute 24 campaign has drawn strength and borne fruit – with the plans to reform the Statute successfully delayed after a series of motions of opposition were passed in departments, the Student Union and UCU; a staff Assembly occurred and overwhelmingly voted to oppose the reforms; and awareness-raising and social media campaigns, public meetings and demonstrations of strength were staged.

A key facet of the strategy to delegitimize Teach Higher was negative press – exposing the scheme for the programme of casualization that it truly was, belied by the university narratives promising an overhaul in the conditions of hourly paid staff to streamline bureaucracy and introduce more parity.  The language of ‘efficiency’ – a deceptive and ubiquitous pretext for the kind of deregulation fundamental to the neo-liberal agenda – was dominant in the rhetoric around Teach Higher, and through effectively dismantling this coded language and exposing the real nature of the scheme, we began to reclaim control over the narratives.  The same was true of the Statute 24 reforms – except that, this time, there was even less pretence from university management that this was anything but a power-grab, another flagrant attempt to shift institutional power away from workers in favour of bosses.   Locating this set of proposed reforms as an attack on academic freedom, and perhaps even more importantly as one element of a series of broad ranging assaults on the protections, job security and conditions of workers, was essential.

Through this we anchored our campaign in the ideals of protecting a vision of education as a public and social good, conceptualizing this not as an isolated campaign but a sustained resistance against damaging institutional changes within Higher Education which have presided over service and course cuts, wage suppression and unprecedented privatisation and casualization nationally and locally.  This enabled the formation of broad coalitions, and rooted the campaign in the sustained infrastructure and collective power generated by students and workers on campus in the fight back against the Higher Education reforms, maintenance grant cuts, pay cuts, Prevent, precarity, etc.  Our struggles must be broad-ranging, unifying, and robust, emboldened by a horizon of the more just, emancipatory and democratic education system we are striving towards.  We must not simply struggle against the removal of a particular Statute – but for a fundamental shift in the balance of forces within the university, a democratization of its opaque and privately-controlled structures, and fair working conditions and dignity for all staff.

With swathes of job cuts announced on campuses across the country, and perhaps soon threatening Warwick, this infrastructure and ideal – and not simply a reliance on fire-fighting which situates us always in a position of scattered retreat – will become ever-more important to ensure we continue to expand our resistance and advance forwards.  The recent inspiring victory of SOAS Justice For Workers – a complete end to casualization across all sectors of the University – should hearten us in this context, and offer a pressing moral and strategic insight into the important potentialities of organizing service as well as academic workers, uniting all sectors of the university community against the common enemy of management.

This control of narrative was one of the reasons we staged the protests on the university open days at the end of the year.  Whilst the sleek branding and glossy PR campaigns of the open days would have prospective students believe Warwick University is an enlightened, dignified and progressive institution, we know this image is false.  When students have been resituated as ‘investors’ and ‘consumers’ by disastrous neo-liberal reforms in education, we recognize threatening the illustriousness of the university’s reputation, expressed chiefly through the ‘sales pitches’ of open days, is a particularly significant point of pressure.  Indeed, it was the looming threat of open day disruption, as a culmination of sustained campaigning efforts, that eventually forced the university administration to scrap the Teach Higher plans.  Year on year we have disrupted university open days – for a variety of reasons and causes – and we realized that continuing this tradition would impact considerably the scales of calculation of management in pushing through the reforms to Statute 24, and embed the alternative narrative of a free and liberated education further into the everyday culture of campus.  Through both exerting pressure on management by interrupting their otherwise immaculate marketing strategies, raising awareness amongst parents and prospective students about the dangers and injustices of such reforms in Higher Education institutions, and reclaiming campus as a space of militancy, resistance and dissent – once a common sense of student life – we hoped to express the power and creativity of our campaign.

As such we engaged in a noise demo in the Oculus building on the first open day, specifically targeting the Why Warwick? events orchestrated by management to further their marketing ploys.  We distributed thousands of leaflets, engaged in many conversations with parents and students around the importance of opposing the reforms to Statute 24, and effectively countered their ‘sales pitch’ of league table rankings, employment statistics and satisfaction survey results.  We are students, staff, social agents, members of a collective and a community, not instruments of metrics, markets or management: both morally and strategically we believe our presence on open days is powerful and necessary.  The central position we occupied in the Oculus entailed our banners emblazoned the windows of the building for all passers-by around central campus to see, whilst our earnest chants of student-staff solidarity reverberated through the space and beyond, galvanizing attention and conversations and infusing campus with an incendiary political energy.  Later in the day we dropped a banner off Senate House, further fostering the exciting militancy that had – rather than the university’s branding – marked the first impressions of prospective students.

The following open day we engaged in a silent march around campus, after hearing rousing speeches from SU representatives, workers and activists, to symbolize the repression of free expression and dissent that would result from the reforms of Statute 24.  We donned co-ordinated clothing, released flares, distributed flyers, dropped banners and marched through various buildings key to the university’s image and reputation.  At the end of the march we tore the tape from our mouths, entered the Oculus building then marched to central campus in a flurry of flares, chants and vibrancy, unshackled from inhibitions and constraints on free thought and expression, and unleashing finally and fully our collective strength.  We again garnered much attention, with all of campus aflame with our narrative, our actions embodying the significance of free expression and dissent in a context where those principles are under threat.  This ended the term’s campaign on an empowering note which would signal things to come in the new academic year.  Despite people being bound up with exams, lower numbers than we might have hoped on the actions, and the end-of-final-term-political-inertia setting in, these actions were a success, and set a precedent for the scope and escalation of resistance in the new term.

It is important that we are not recuperated by, nor tether ourselves to, the bureaucratic machinations of the Senate and Council as we enter this new cycle of struggle.  As discussed in a previous blog post, there has been some opposition to the reforms by members of Senate, and under pressure from concerted student-staff campaigning changes have been made to the proposed reforms, with the amendments under review by an internally formed working group.  Another Senate meeting has since passed, and it appears still that little has changed, with the elucidation of the proposed amendments to the reforms pushed back to the Senate meeting in October.

We must be vigilant, maintaining pressure and not letting up with our actions until these proposed reforms are thoroughly defeated.  Such tactics of postponement and tokenistic review are repeated time and time by such formal bureaucratic committees: adjust the proposals largely superficially and cosmetically so as to appear responsive to the democratic demands of trade unions, student unions and the pressure of activists, thus placating these efforts and jamming them in lumbering processes of prolonged tinkering until the pressure subsides.  Again, in this context of obfuscation, we must be clear in our narratives: no superficial alterations or accommodations of ‘stakeholder concerns’ can realign these reforms in the collective interests of students and staff.  As with policies such as TEF and Prevent, these reforms to Statute 24 are fundamentally damaging, intrinsically designed to attack the rights of workers.  These vague ‘working groups’ and opaque bureaucratic procedures are located entirely on the terms of management, and we should not be taken in by them – our opposition to the reform of Statute 24 at the behest of management must be firm and absolute.

As such, the horizon of struggle is clear: we must continue to pressure Senate and Council to oppose the reforms outright, as the motions passed in numerous democratic forums and departments within the university mandate.  We have won concessions and delayed the implementation of the reforms, but we have not yet won.  Warwick UCU have recently passed a motion to consider the potentialities of industrial action against the reforms to Statute 24 – this is incredibly significant and a development we wholeheartedly support, particularly as the power of trade unions has been dramatically enfeebled by neo-liberal reforms and this would signal the expansion of trade union resistance beyond narrow pay disputes.  Alongside agitating for such industrial action to occur if necessary, we must continue to broaden and strengthen alliances and the reach of our campaign, pursue a series of creative stunts, demonstrations and militant actions to maintain pressure, and convince broader layers of campus of the necessity of opposing these reforms through forums, public meetings, open letters, flyering etc.

We must do so with optimism, acknowledging that victory is possible, that the forward march of casualization and marketization is not inevitable and we can develop the collective power to resist and overcome.  We must do so with confidence, expanding the infrastructures of struggle we have already formed, taking stock of our previous victories and drawing inspiration from them.  We must do so with hope, that a different kind of education and society is necessary and within our power to enact together.

The National Education Service as a Radical Vision for Free Education

This blog posts explores some of the radical potentials of demanding a National Education Service within the Labour Party and beyond. It is based on a talk given by a WFFE activist to the Non-Aligned Leftist Forum society on ‘What is the left’s vision for education?’

The National Education Service (NES) was a policy proposed by Jeremy Corbyn prior to his election as Labour Party leader. It is now, nominally, Labour’s flagship education policy. However, little has been written about it beyond a couple of articles by Corbyn. The recent National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts conference, hosted at Warwick by WFFE activists, further developed those ideas, making them both clearer and more radical.

So what is the NES all about? There is an explicit analogy to the NHS and welfare state – the NES is to be ‘cradle-to-grave’ and ‘free-at-the-point-of-use.’ It is also sold as providing skills and lifelong learning in order to allow workers to adapt to economic and technological change. This is framed as both a way to give workers ‘opportunities’ and a way of providing skilled workers to businesses in order to boost productivity. Taxation to pay for the NES is justified on this basis; according to Corbyn, companies should be willing to pay ‘slightly more in corporation tax’ because they recognise the ‘business case for investing in staff.’


The framing of the NES is a classically social democratic one: the state will deal with producing and reproducing human capital and social infrastructure which will benefit capital – in turn capital is expected to contribute to the costs of these policies. There is a tension here; education is described as a ‘collective good’ which provides working class people with ‘opportunities,’ yet the NES is also framed as an ‘investment’ designed to aid productivity and capital accumulation. Social democracy has been extensively criticised for its symbiotic relationship with capital; this relationship allows improvements for (some) workers to come at the expense of continued alienation and exploitation, and the exclusion of more marginalised groups from the settlement. Indeed, the NHS (which the NES is posed as analogous to), is a prime example – it has in large part relied on an imperialist ‘brain drain’ of healthcare professionals from the global south, and like all policies of the 1945 Labour government, was premised on the profits of the Empire. Thus, there is always a tension at work in radical anti-capitalists’ defences of social democratic policies and institutions. How can anti-capitalists defend policies which are explicitly designed to maintain the conditions for exploitation and accumulation?

We must always point to possibilities beyond what we are ‘defending.’

We can see this at work in the experiences of student activists. As activists, we ‘defend education,’ protect ‘public universities,’ and fight cuts to services. However, we have also found it necessary to point out major structural problems with universities as they exist now. This is why ‘free education’ has come to encompass much more than abolishing tuition fees. I would argue it has more often come to mean a set of critiques of the university; to call for ‘free, democratic, liberated, etc.’ education is to point out how the social democratic and neoliberal universities have systematically failed to meet those criteria. Campaigns like ‘Why Is My Curriculum White?’ have revealed curricula to be Eurocentric and calls for a liberated curriculum have shown how they regularly exclude the work and perspectives of people from the global south, women and non-binary people, people of colour, disabled people, and LGBT people. In practice such demands mean a very significant reorganisation of universities’ teaching, admissions criteria, hiring practices, etc. Other activists critique the university as a capitalist enterprise – one at the forefront of exploitative labour practices, landlordism, and the creation of lifelong debt. Free education activists have been at the forefront of labour struggles within universities and many are now helping organise rent strikes. I will return to these critiques of the university later and suggest how they relate to the NES.

National Education Service – some key concepts

Several important aspects of a National Education Service come out of Corbyn’s writing on the subject and subsequent discussions.

  • The Comprehensive University – this would mean ending the division between higher and further education institutions and the selective and exclusive nature of universities. This is similar to the principle of comprehensive schooling – the same education, for everyone, with no entry requirements. In practice this means abolishing universities as they currently exist. For example, Oxford University would merge with Oxford Brookes as well as local further education colleges; in their place would be a single institution open to, and democratically accountable to, the local community and students. It is clear how this would start to break down the elitist concentration of capital and resources in institutions like Russell Group universities.
  • Modular learning – based on the idea that you don’t have to be a student and study a particular degree course in order to learn about something. This becomes possible with the breakdown of HE/FE divisions to form the comprehensive university; anyone can study a module offered by any local teaching institution. In my opinion the implications of this for mass, working class education are massive, much more so than the entry of – some – working class people into universities. If, for example, you’re doing a course in plumbing or carpentry at an FE college in Coventry, why shouldn’t you be able to take a module in history, English literature, or sociology at the University of Warwick? Is there any good reason for this absolute division of mental and manual labour which says that a carpenter or plumber can’t also take an interest in history, poetry, or feminist theory?
  • Lifelong learning – strongly related to modular learning. A move away from the ‘student’ as something you are full-time for a few years – people should be able to access education as a significant part of their life, alongside other things, at any stage in their life. Importantly this should not just be framed as a way to ‘retrain’ workers in the face of ‘economic change’ but as a right to education as a transformative, creative, political, or even ‘just’ an enjoyable activity.
  • Ending ‘elite’ education – alongside the comprehensive university there would be a parallel process at the school level to provide a truly comprehensive education. This means no more grammar, free, academy, or private schools. Further, schools should not try to model themselves on the cultural and academic norms of (former) private and grammar schools.
  • Universal access and childcare – arguably one of the most laudable parts of Corbyn’s proposals for the NES is his focus on providing childcare as well as financial support for those wishing to study. As with many other activities, many women’s ability to access education is limited by childcare responsibilities. Patriarchal society imposes the burden of social reproductive labour mainly on women. Social reproduction is the labour of maintaining the household, raising children, supporting (male) workers – it is vital to the continuation of capitalism but generally not recognised or paid for as such, forcing women to take a ‘double shift’ of waged ‘productive’ labour alongside unwaged ‘reproductive’ labour. Free childcare is thus a vital feminist demand and the NES is an important framework in which to raise it.

Critiques of the university and of students as a ‘privileged’ group

It is important to begin this section with the caveat that students are by no means a universally privileged group and that universities can be sites of impoverishment and oppression for many of us. However, at an institutional level there are ways in which students are privileged over non-students. I was struck by this when I recently visited one of the main public libraries in Sheffield. The sociology section was one small shelving unit which was pretty small and contained mostly entry level or popular works (including Russell Brand’s ‘Revolution’!). We can compare this to our university library at Warwick which has more on any given aspect of sociology than the Sheffield library had on the subject as a whole; and that library is only serving around 25,000 people.


Security barriers in the library – the installation of similar barriers in Bologna was cause for a student occupation and clashes with the police

Universities must be understood as fulfilling a particular function in class society. They exist to produce knowledge necessary to the functioning of the state, capitalist corporations, cultural institutions, the military, etc. They also reproduce class divisions by producing the next generation of managers, administrators, and technicians of capitalism. Older elite universities like Oxford, Cambridge, and Durham have always been ruling class institutions and have accumulated huge pools of capital on that basis. For example embodied in their endowments or in grand old buildings. Newer elite universities like Warwick have forged their identities as ‘business universities;’ here the link to capitalist industry is explicit and, in many departments, includes direct corporate input into curriculums.

The University of Warwick has a long history of collaboration with local business elites, including historically monitoring of students’ and academics’ links with local worker struggle.

When coming across large accumulated pools of capital we should always ask where it came from and what social relations – indeed, violences – allowed it to be accumulated. Marx wrote in Volume 1 of Capital that ‘capital comes [into the world] dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.’

Rhodes Must Fall In Oxford, for instance, highlights that libraries and even whole colleges at Oxford are literally built on the proceeds of slavery and colonialism. More broadly this is true of many ruling class institutions and of social democratic institutions which are largely funded by the accumulated profits of imperialism.

Universities largely began as elite institutions for the children of the ruling class. The picture has been complicated now by mass entry of working class young people into Higher Education – in many ways a genuine and important victory for the class. However, access to university is still stratified by race and class. More fundamentally the rollout of universities is based on an expansion of elite institutions to be more ‘inclusive’ – they are still selective and the ‘best’ universities are only looking for the most ‘bright’ and ‘talented’ working class youth to bring into a middle and upper class institutions. Working class experience of entry into university often reflects this, and graduate earnings map more closely to social class prior to university than to the fact of being a graduate. One study found that:

Graduates from richer family backgrounds earn significantly more after graduation than their poorer counterparts, even after completing the same degrees from the same universities.

This is where the idea of a comprehensive university comes in. It would be non-selective and not oriented purely to producing ‘employable’ graduates but to lifelong, flexible learning for all. It would effectively mean the abolition of the university as a distinct institution. Thus universities’ often state-of-the-art facilities and extensive academic libraries would be open to the community at large and control of universities’ capital would be democratised and shared with chronically underfunded FE courses.

No more highly securitised libraries and study spaces, no more key-card access! Access to academic libraries and online journals for everyone!

Working class education, the NES, and grassroots struggle

The NES, as I have conceptualised it here, is more than a policy proposal – it is a potential theoretical approach analogous to ‘free education’ which relates to many struggles, demands, and principles. As such I think it is important to think beyond the Labour Party and policy-makers so I’m going to highlight a few struggles which I think point towards the principles of the NES.

Students in Bologna have sought to put into practice the demands suggested above about free access to libraries and study spaces. When management sought to set up barriers to further enclose their library they physically removed them and reclaimed the space through occupying it. As our statement of solidarity with the students states:

The occupation was an absolute success: the space was crowded and busy, and people were even seen studying in the corridors. Without notice, the Chancellor called the police a few hours after the occupation started, who immediately charged the people inside, destroying tables, chairs and other studying material. To resist, the students started a demonstration around the University which was also violently dispersed by the police forces. Nevertheless, assemblies continue to take place, and the fight will continue.

In addition to expressing our solidarity with the fight against enclosure of study spaces and police presence on campuses the statement noted that:

Warwick’s own first occupation was in the library in 1969 in solidarity with students at the LSE who were fighting against the installation of metal gates around their campus. These gates were designed to increase management control over the LSE and create a more exclusive gate-kept community. Warwick stood against such moves then, and we stand against them today.

The borders between ‘university’ and ‘community’ are not fixed, and how porous they are is a matter of struggle as the examples of the Bologna and LSE occupations demonstrates.

As was already highlighted above, Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford can be seen as advancing a critique of the university. The campaign is seeking to get the statue of British colonialist and racist Cecil Rhodes removed from Oriel College. They have also points out other parts of Oxford built on the proceeds of colonialism – e.g. the Codrington Library, built using funds left in the will of a notorious slave trader. This campaign is important in advancing a critique of elite universities as they relate to capitalism, the ruling class, and colonialism; it is also telling that Oriel made the decision not to remove the statue after an incredibly wealthy individual threatened to cancel a £100m donation.

Such institutions really ought to be abolished and their control by wealthy individuals broken. Let’s expropriate racist multimillionaires and tear down their beloved statues.

In this context, I would argue, dissolving Oxford University into a city-wide comprehensive would be a profoundly radical expression of class and racial justice which no amount of greater ‘inclusion’ of working class students and students of colour into the uni could match. The occupation of an empty Wadham College building by student activists and its conversion into a homeless shelter is a good start!


Finally, if we see the NES as promising a right to free, universal, lifelong education then the labour movement has a vital part to play in realising this. The length of the working day has always been a central part of class struggle – our labour-power is a commodity which capitalists purchase and then use to produce value. What this means is that they want to get as much out of us as possible for as low wages as possible. If it was possible they would like to pay us barely enough to live on and to work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Of course, there are physical limits that prevent this, but the question of how much a worker needs to work in order to earn enough to live is also a question of the relative power of workers and bosses.

Bearing this in mind the labour movement can assert a right to lifelong intellectual development and education in a concrete rather than abstract sense – the right to sufficient free time to take courses alongside work, and of work that does not take so much out of us that we have no capacity to think, reflect, or read outside of work hours. Struggles over the working day, wages, and perhaps even a basic income can provide the material basis of this right.


In communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he [sic] wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.

Karl Marx, The German Ideology

I want to end by highlighting the radical implications of a system based on lifelong modular learning rather than universities as 3-year degree factories.

In my mind it points to a post-capitalist society, one in which divisions of mental and manual labour are broken down, as are the class divisions which enforce this divide. A society which truly enables people to be well-rounded, free human beings. A National Education Service, in social democratic or radical form, will not give us that society – but it does point in the right direction. As student activists in California wrote in their Communique From An Absent Future:

We demand not a free university but a free society.  A free university in the midst of a capitalist society is like a reading room in a prison.

I would argue that a creative rethinking of the institutions we take for granted in capitalist society, even superficially progressive ones, can help us fight for that free society.

On the ‘militant minority’ and the fight for justice at SOAS

A WFFE activist reflects on the controversy surrounding the recent SOAS Justice for Cleaners demo and the role of direct action that pushes the bounds of legality and respectability in social struggles.

On Monday, hundreds rallied at the School of Oriental and African Studies to protest the imposition of a new 5-year outsourcing contract upon the cleaners of the University.  After 10 years of fighting and winning numerous demands management have still refused to bring them in-house, despite calculations that this move would even be cost-neutral.  This betrays a deep ideological commitment to privatisation common across educational institutions in the UK.  After the rally, an occupation of management corridors ensued with noise, graffiti, and other property damage, and messages of solidarity were strewn in spray-paint across the walls of campus.  The backlash from some parts of the SOAS community has been condemnatory and inflamed.

  1. The rally was radical, broad-based and explicitly anti-management 

    It was an incredible act of unity, bringing together UCU, Unison, Palestine Society, Black Student’s Campaign, United Voices of the World and #FeesMustFall activists. Many interesting and salient connections were drawn: such as the acknowledgement that many private companies engaged in outsourcing and exploitative employment practices were also complicit in maintaining the checkpoints that police and restrict the lives of the subjugated Palestinian people.  This is a campaign that has evolved to situate itself and struggle within complex intersections of racial, economic and social justice: advocating for BDS, fair working conditions for the most marginalized workers, against border controls, for greater democratic control over educational structures and an ousting of managerial bureaucracy. 
    Cries of ‘no justice, no peace’ were raised alongside calls for bringing the cleaners in-house and for the expulsion of management.  And yet some of the internal forces within this campaign, notably the union bureaucracies, have rallied alongside the liberal tendencies within the populace to condemn the vandalism of management corridors.   As always, their attempts to de-fang and pacify struggle are unwelcome, and clash with their professed conviction at the rally that there is no common ground or trust to be found with management, that dialogue had failed, and disruption is where our power is located.

  2. The graffiti is both insignificant and entirely significant

    The SOAS Justice 4 Cleaners Campaign has been organizing for 10 years. Despite intimidation, continual threats, and even physical deportations by a violent and oppressive management, it has remained firm and resolute.  Despite prior promises and assertions that the cleaners would be brought in-house, the University has not remained true to its word and has decided to sign an outsourcing contract for another 5 years.  The campaign has won numerous victories including holiday pay, sick pay, pensions, and the London living wage, and has done so through an uncompromising and militant stance which has refused mediation and conciliation and maintained the necessity of disrupting business-as-usual to force change.  In the framework of a management and employment structure which positions cleaners as disposable resources, which routinely silences them, and which has frequented attacks on their dignity, security and wellbeing, the campaign has had little choice but to adopt such tactics.
    After 10 years of organizing, management is still betraying the cleaners and imposing their ideological agenda of privatisation, and it is only material damage that will force their hand – they have demonstrated again and again that there is no capacity to manoeuvre on the terrain of conscience, that there is no better nature to which we might appeal or good will we might sway, reaffirming that the interests of management and the University community are always in conflict.   This is a contradiction that is fundamentally present and sharpening across all Universities, and we must be prepared to do whatever needs to be done to challenge exploitation – even if that means offending the respectable sensibilities of some.  There should be no compromise on injustice – and the graffiti symbolized this, and was an inspiring act of reclamation.  It should be maintained that drawing a moral equivalence between the damage to a wall and the damage to the lives and wellbeing of workers is misguided and deeply poisonous.  We should not assimilate into the logic of management – their distorted moral criteria of condoning racialized violence yet condemning property damage should not be our frame of reference.  This dominant framework of ‘respectable’ conduct and protest only serves to protect the structures of power we are opposing.
  3. This campaign has a life entirely of its own 

    The SOAS community is somewhat unique, in as much as it has always been a hotbed of student activism and progressive thought. This is in part due to its academic structure and courses, in part due to a Student’s Union which is actively engaged in grassroots campaigning (but still permeated by the same flaws as any other SU and acting as a buffer to struggle, as aforementioned) and, I would contend, mostly because sustained, robust struggles such as SOAS Justice 4 Cleaners have comprised a large section of its recent history and shifted popular consciousness.  There is therefore a generalized predisposition towards left ideas (though dominated by an identity politics which fetishizes individual moral purity), and a culture of resistance which is more developed than the majority of campuses around the country, particularly considering the context of it being exam season and the rest of the student movement suffering demoralization and a loss of vitality nationally.
    This was no better demonstrated than in the wildcat strikes which occurred in response to the suspension of union activist Sandy at the end of last year, which organically and spontaneously shut down the University with a hard picket with just one day’s notice.  Combined with the rent strikes occurring at UCL and Goldsmiths, the resistance to cuts to catering staff at Manchester, the #DontDeportLuqman campaign at Sussex: these powerful, militant and localised activities could well coalesce into a horizon of revitalized struggle for the student movement.  SOAS Justice 4 Cleaners has and continues to consistently carry that flame, and must be supported.

  4. The backlash: liberalism under the guise of radical left language and principles 

    The backlash has by and large adopted a different rationale relative to the usual overt reactionary response – perhaps testament to the more left-oriented composition of political identities at SOAS at large – of denigrating the protestors as unenlightened ‘thugs’ and ‘vandals’. It has largely assumed the form of branding the campaign ‘ableist’, ‘unsafe’, even ‘culturally appropriative’, and latching on to the painting of ‘Black out now’ on Richard Black’s (a member of management) door to brand the campaign ‘racist’.  Of course, no campaign is immune from oppressive tendencies – we are all moulded and conditioned by an oppressive world.  And yet a genuine on-the-ground knowledge of the composition, practices and goals of the campaign would be sufficient evidence to dismiss many of these cynical attempts at delegitimization.

    We must be critical of the strain of politics within the student movement that condemns militancy as uniformly exclusive and unsafe – not only does this patronise oppressed groups and prescribe on their behalf what form of action they can engage in, it is also ahistorical with regards to how oppressed people have won their freedoms and glosses over the power dynamics at play.  The neo-liberal university is inescapably constituted by injustice, exploitation and a distinct lack of safety – no one knows this more than the 9 cleaners callously deported from SOAS in 2009 – and we ultimately cannot negotiate, will, regulate or abstract that structural oppression away: it must be actively confronted, and fought.  We must be wary of those who wield and co-opt left principles against us, in order to frame us as enemies within regardless of political ties, allying themselves with the management and state seeking to crush us.

    It is interesting to note that some peoples’ commitment to opposing injustice apparently seems conditional on not marring the sanctity of property with a smear of paint – which is telling of how capitalism re-aligns our moral priorities, and is something we must challenge.  Indeed, taking stock of the backlash from demo and non-demo participants alike, it might be imagined that the #FeesMustFall speaker at the demo was party to a struggle that blocked the tuition fee hike through closed-door negotiation and sitting around the table and not through fighting with cops, occupations, property damage and other militant street tactics.

  5. This was a new kind of escalation 

    Despite how management and the liberal account might like to frame the tactics and actions that ensued after the rally, they were not conducted by a specialist and hardened black-bloc clique. We must be careful to not assimilate into such narratives which draw dichotomies between the ‘ordinary’ student or activist and the seasoned militant – again, these narratives are often propagated by the capitalist media and structures of authority to demonize and fragment us and delegitimize effective resistance – but this action was a spontaneous force of its own, inspired by and emerging from a generalized atmosphere of frustration, betrayal and anger.  To suggest those engaging in militant tactics are not also engaged in the groundwork of mobilizing and organizing generally within the campaign would be deeply disingenuous.  To conceptualize the campaign itself as homogeneous, and not a site of complex internal political tensions – where bureaucratic forces may act with undue influence, especially shaping outward facing narratives –  would also be insincere.
    It would be a misstep to characterize this protest as simply a flash of insular, spectacular resistance wishing to revive the spectre of ‘neo-anarchism’.   The readiness of students to risk their own safety, degrees and futures to support workers relentlessly exploited by management should be considered courageous, not condemned as adventurism.  This was the climax of a long, hard-fought and gritty process of escalation, including convincing hearts and minds, rallies, dialogue, and a diversity of tactics, and I hope this spirit can persist to force management into retreat – and inspire waves of resistance elsewhere.  Where the student movement often falls into rhythms of ebb and flow with the turnover of each cohort, the SOAS Justice 4 Cleaners campaign has provided an essential infrastructure and repository for the collective history and struggle of the past 10 years within SOAS – this must be an example to the rest of the student movement.

On ‘Shared Space’


Screen Shot 2016-03-21 at 22.03.07 Image: http://christianhubert.com

What does the ‘shared space’ represent? A sleek, sanitized, metropolitan homogeneity that can enable optimal marketing to prospective student ‘investors’? An accelerated and enhanced circulation of transport, and by extension capital, through the University structures? A further privatisation of public space and an appropriation of the imaginary of the commons?

The construction of the shared space is an attempt to replicate the dynamics and aesthetic of the metropolis, but it is not just a microcosm of that landscape – it is an active creation of the metropolis itself, an extension of it, a reinforcement of it, but also a transformation of it. That is to say that Universities exist not only as spaces in which to reproduce and supply capitalist structures, but to innovate their advances, to legitimize them, to expand them under its intellectual branding. Indeed, the metropolis often now actively constitutes itself around the local University…

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Capitalism, Austerity, and LGBTQ Liberation

I think it’s important to dismantle the dichotomy between ‘welfare’ and ‘politics’.  Liberation groups often maintain that the personal is the political, but this sometimes does not manifest in practice.  I know this has alienated me from its spaces: as working class person, no matter how many socials or discussions I attend among other LGBTQ people, my grants are still being cut, my future prospects within a labour market bludgeoned by austerity and precarity are bleak to say the least, and many young LGBTQ people like me are enduring drastic cuts to benefits and informed by the Tories that we do not deserve the living wage because we are not ‘productive enough’.  The forces that are damaging our personal welfare are inherently political, pursuing particular ideologies, motivated by certain vested interests, exercised through the framework of state and corporate power.  These forces necessarily enmesh all of our lives, mould our socio-economic conditions, and entrench the polarization of resources and wealth towards the already rich.  There are concentrations of power with ultimate influence and authority over our lives, which operate structurally and beyond the control of any one individual – bosses and landlords, the Government, the police.  The power dynamics that are manifested in our personal relationships and interactions are microcosms of these hegemonic forms of power.

The institution of marriage is a good example of the convergence between the political and the personal, which LGBT campaigners have long struggled for inclusion within.  The traditional domination of men over women within this context is still rampant, but not in the abstract: marriage was engineered to secure, naturalise and maintain this power relation, to position women as meek and deferential, their economic independence and social autonomy surrendered to their husbands as sanctioned by the state.  In that sense it has always served as a primary reproductive unit within capitalism, resituating and privatising reproductive labour to the home such that the daily restoration of the husband’s capacity to return to work each day, manifested in cooking, cleaning, washing, ironing, even having sex, could remain invisibilised and thus unwaged.  This dynamic has not changed with the inclusion of mostly cis, gay white men into the structure of marriage, but rather has redefined queer identities to adhere to these classical gender roles.  We know that these gender roles are not in any way essential to who we are: they must be imposed and forced upon us, policed and maintained by socio-economic structures.  These gender roles are intended to model and discipline our desires and affections, thus being the primary source from which LGBTQ-phobia emerges if we deviate from the rigid and binary personalities they expect of us.

This enforcement means not only the branding of products along binary gender lines, our conditioning by social institutions to affirm and emphasise particular characteristics in alignment with the gender we were assigned at birth, but also patterns of economic exploitation and exclusion which devalue ‘feminized’ forms of labour and, in doing so, bind those who are not cis heterosexual men who traditionally perform this labour to the margins, and to disproportionate reliance upon state support (or, perhaps more aptly, state control).  In this context, austerity measures have distinctly racialized, gendered and minority-sexuality implications – precisely because they are an attack on the working class.  If we consider austerity a reinvigorated assault upon our common resources – i.e. a dismantling of state support and public services, the slashing of benefits, privatisation of public assets in every sector from healthcare to housing – it is always those who have been most dispossessed from the traditional reproductive stabilities of the nuclear family and waged work that will be adversely and disproportionately affected.

We see austerity manifested in cuts to community centres and social spaces for LGBTQ people, deepening the isolation to which we are often subject and denying us a space for collective association.  This has further fragmented our lives in a context where everything is individualized, where the logic of capitalism informs us that any trial can and must be overcome by personal striving and aspiration, and that disadvantage and poverty is therefore simply an inevitable consequence of idleness and fecklessness.  We see it manifested in cuts to housing benefits, the dismantling and literal demolition of social housing, and spiralling rents in the private rented sector – all of which is located in the context of a mass housing crisis, rising homelessness, and innumerable and ruthless evictions of vulnerable people.  This, again, has disproportionately affected LGBTQ people, and LGBTQ youth, and especially youth of colour.

LGBTQ people are often estranged from families that are averse to our identities and expression, and thus are forced to rely upon social housing or endure constant insecurity in the private rented sector, where stagnating wages are barely sufficient to make rent from month to month, let alone bills, and where our lives are constantly at the whim of exploitative landlords who seek to profit from our housing needs.  Similarly, the cuts to and imposed caps on benefits have disproportionately impacted us: especially when we are forced from our homes by hostile parents or abusive relationships, we are often left with no other option but to depend on state support to avoid destitution.  Because of such displacement, hardship and interpersonal flux, routine instances of LGBTQ-phobic attacks, and institutional oppression – among other reasons – we are more likely to suffer mental health problems.  We are also more reliant on sexual health services, and domestic and sexual violence services.  All of these services are being systematically dismantled, underfunded or privatised by the Government.  Not only have many of them been lost entirely, some have also been consolidated and streamlined to optimise the use of minimal resources – entailing job losses, overstretched services, overburdened workers (many of them with similar identities to those they support), and a kind of provision which does not have the capacity to address the specificity of our circumstances and adversities.  Specialist services for queer BME women in particular have suffered, for example.  PACE, a mental health service for LGBTQ people, has also recently shut down due to cuts to local Government budgets, yet another casualty of a brutal austerity regime.  The continuing fragmentation and gradual privatisation of the NHS is too adversely impacting healthcare services which LGBTQ people disproportionately rely upon, diminishing access, lengthening waiting times, and straining provision.

And, within the educational context: cuts to maintenance grants, which over half a million of the poorest students rely upon.  Many of those estranged from their families rely upon support like this, and due to enduring employment discrimination of LGBTQ people, when we are charged with the most debt we are impacted by that debt hardest and constrained by it for longer.  This, of course, reflects a broader recomposition of higher and further education, towards a marketplace in which students are customers and Universities businesses.  In this context, Universities are pressured to expand and compete with other institutions, with obscene expenditure on advertising, glitzy buildings and extortionate Vice Chancellor salaries whilst student services are cut, bursaries are attacked, and jobs are casualized, outsourced and lost.

All the antagonisms inherent within the market, capitalism and austerity are more pronounced for our community.   Capitalism relies upon difference, otherness and hierarchy to profit at the expense of the most marginalized; to denigrate the victims of its structural injustices – as scroungers, liars, even ‘threats to our security’ – and thus legitimize those injustices; and to maintain work relations and divisions.  Maintenance grant cuts are an LGBTQ issue, as is the broader onslaught of austerity – and the economic system which underpins these policies does not and cannot operate in the interests of our communities.  We must confront it, and challenge it politically – not simply on the basis of it disproportionately impacting LGBTQ people, but rather because an injury to one is an injury to all.  As long as many live in deprivation and poverty, as long as the majority are exploited for the prosperity of the few, as long as injustice thrives, we must collectively fight for liberation – not for more minorities in positions of power, but for an economic and social system over which we have communal control, in which resources are equitably distributed, and where none are elevated to positions which entitle and reward them for exploiting others.

Join us tomorrow to demand #GrantsNotDebt – and to demand liberation.


The Attack on our Education

As students and university staff, we must recognise and denounce the Conservative government’s transparent attempts to marketise education outlined in the green paper and policy. We must resist this process, ensure it is not seen as an inevitability, and remain vigilant and critical of future plans to jeopardise education, the public university and education as a right as opposed to a privilege. The Tories want education to serve employers and big business – this is no secret. The introduction of fees was the first step towards the full marketisation of the sector, and we can understand the green paper and its latest set of announcements and potential policy as the next move, and an equally violent attack on education. If this consultation reaches legislation unchanged it will be nothing less than the end of public education.

Among the alarming policies, are the following plans:

  • Future tuition fee rises could be imposed by ministers without a vote in Parliament, opening the door to unlimited, unaccountable fee rises.
  • Fees to rise at least with inflation from 2017, for institutions that tick the boxes of the market-oriented Teaching Excellence Framework.
  • The Research Excellence Framework could become even more narrow and metric-focussed –  further restricting academic freedom.
  • New private providers will be given help in the market to cut into existing public universities.
  • At the same time, the government is developing the management of “exit” of institutions from the market – reaffirming that the Tories are planning for public universities to collapse under their attacks.
  • There is also a vague threat of increased government control of student unions, linked to the undemocratic anti-trade union bill currently being put through Parliament – our right to defend ourselves collectively through our unions is likely under threat.
  • The Teaching Excellence Framework (or TEF) will measure universities’ performance on market-oriented metrics, including graduate employment.  This will define “good teaching” as little more than increasing the value of our work to employers and big business. Teaching will no longer be about serving students, it will be about serving our future employers.

Implicit in the promise of funding and rewards for high performing courses and departments, is also the inevitability of further future redundancies and more low-paid precarious contracts.  Already overburdened hourly paid academics will be tasked with providing more “high quality” teaching, leaving them less time to pursue their own research and punishing staff who do not or cannot fulfil the rigid criteria and expectations of the TEF. Moreover, the Trade Union bill vastly limits the capacity for workers to resist such changes through industrial action.

Another worrying feature of the government’s Green Paper on higher education is that it proposes removing universities from the Freedom of Information law.

At Warwick, societies and student journalists have long sought to utilise the Act in order to access information from our somewhat opaque management structure; universities are notoriously shady when it comes to freedom of information, and Warwick is no exception. Given its severe limitations, it is beneficial to students and workers at universities for the act to be strengthened. The Paper doesn’t attempt to argue that the move is in the general interests of students; rather, it argues that current FOI laws put universities at a disadvantage relative to private providers.

If any more evidence was needed that this government plans to fully subordinate higher education, in form and function, under the rubric of the neo-liberal market, this is it.

One of the most alarming and blatantly unjust pieces of policy we’re probably all aware of is the axing of maintenance grants for the poorest students. “From the 2016‐17 academic year, maintenance grants will be replaced with maintenance loans for new students from England” This is a direct attack on the poorest students in education, and makes a mockery of Tories’ talk about ‘access’ and increasing the number of working-class students in education by 2020.

With tens of thousands of pounds worth of debt looming over students, the higher education system evokes a constraining sense of fear and narrow cautiousness regarding our actions at University. We are told that we are here to get a degree, which is sold to us as a necessity in order to secure a happy and successful life – clearly wrong on both counts. Graduate unemployment is at an all-time high, and rates of mental health problems amongst students and graduates continue to soar. In order to make sure each leaves university with a degree, we are taught we must prioritise grades above all else and give ourselves an easy life by following the University mantras. This philosophy of marketization is having a hugely damaging effect on student life, as we are pressured into severely restricting our activities to comply with the neoliberal agenda, leaving little room for exploration, expression and creativity within academia as well as outside of it.

Rather than choosing our degree subjects through a genuine desire to learn and freely explore academia, it is now becoming more frequent for these incredibly important decisions to be primarily based on a prescribed system of risk-assessment and self-management which values academic attainment and employability above all else. Students are finding themselves in this situation upon realising that the burden of student debt will require them to get as high a paying job as possible after graduation. This manipulation of students leaves many feeling alienated and overwhelmed, stuck with a degree which they do not enjoy, which does not inspire them. It’s clear that the priorities the Conservative government have with regards to education do not lie in the hands of students.

The economic debt the majority of graduates become trapped with lends itself to a sense of moral debt experienced by many students in relation to their universities – the neoliberalisation of education positions universities as service providers in an educational market, and our side of the contract necessitates that we consume, but don’t complain or speak out. A trend seems to be appearing in which students are being ground down to passivity and compliance by their indebtedness to their higher education institutions, feeling as if they cannot, or have no right to, resist or challenge the system so long as they “get what they are paying for”.  We simultaneously imagine ourselves as owing to the Government, that we have been awarded a luxury whose cost we must resolve to repay, and as customers entitled to a particular excellency of service because of the money we have paid to our University, placing further pressures on strained staff and re-situating dissent from the streets to feedback forms.  Both mentalities distort the true meaning and unquantifiable worth of education.

Another threat that the Tories have recently posed to education is enforcing the English Baccalaureate if re-elected, meaning that students will have very limited options of subject choices at GCSE level, once again narrowing the boundaries of education and serving the interests of only a very select few students who happen to perform most strongly in traditionally “academic” subjects. Although this does not directly effect universities per se, it could vastly alter the accessibility of higher education to a very large proportion of students, and furthers the concept that, rather than serving the interests of those wishing to learn, the primary purpose of education is to produce an academic elite, a very conservative envisioning of one at that, and to make graduates into easily comparable commodities and “good” employees.  For all the Tories’ statements of poorer students not being deterred from attending University by 9K fees, the problem courses much deeper: the inaccessibility of our education system at all its levels entails that the most disadvantaged students will routinely not achieve as highly their more privileged peers.  When a degree is sold to us as a pre-requisite to gaining a foothold in a ruthless job market and to securing a prosperous life, the increasingly competitive entry requirements of universities leave many feeling as they have no options and no future.

It’s clear that the future of education truly is at stake here, unless we envisage the perfect education system as one that works to serve the needs of the 1% and large corporations, and is seen as nothing more than a tactic for accumulating capital, at the expense of the time, money and futures of students and staff alike. It is a matter of absolute urgency that we must stand against these ideological attacks on higher education, as students and staff, and continue to support the struggle towards a free, democratic and accessible education for all.