Thursday, May 06, 2010

Resisting the closure of Middlesex philosophy

This is an object lesson in the neoliberalisation of universities. This is what happens when everything about education is subordinated to markets, internal competition, and the needs of capital accumulation. Students at Middlesex have decided to occupy the Trent Park campus after learning that the university's world class philosophy department was to be closed. Nina Power has written about the closure for The Guardian here, and the Save Middlesex Philosophy website has a FAQ for people who want to understand the politics behind it all. The main thing you need to know is that the University makes money from the philosophy department, one of the few that promotes critical political engagement and doesn't simply regurgitate Anglo-American banalities, but the University's administrators and vice-chancellor evidently think that by closing down philosophy and focussing on teaching other subjects they can make more money. But they can make more money out of teaching other subjects only if they reduce the proportion of fees income spent on running those courses. And indeed, this is a trend in universities everywhere.

So, regardless of the fact that the department is a financially viable and highly esteemed locus, it is to fall victim to the market-based logic of rationalising and down-sizing. This is a logic that is being actively extended throughout all of the public sector, and it is happening in higher education in part because of the fees system. Neoliberalism, the marketisation of every aspect of society, and its subordination to the goal of 'economic growth' (thus, implicitly, to the needs of capital), is driving these changes. At just the same time as successive governments, from Major to Brown, have driven an unprecedented expansion of the higher education system the better to create a skilled workforce, the state's capacity to fund provision through taxation has been run down. The shortfall has been made up by fees, as part of a set of market-driven reforms first championed by hard right Tories intent on reforming the system along American lines. In fact, when the Blair government introduced fees, it won a defector from the Tories over the latter's opposition, one Robert Jackson MP who had long agitated for such changes. New Labour, introducing these reforms, also made it clear that it would ensure that more funding, from fees and from the public purse, would be made available for those subjects that served "the evolving needs of the economy". Education was to be fundamentally re-organised in order to make up for the profound shortfall in private sector investment in R&D and training in the UK economy.

Following on from these market-driven reforms, one of the few remaining motivativators for any higher education institution to invest in non-vocational arts and humanities is to create a brand 'reputation'. As the Save Middlesex Philosophy website points out:

Middlesex University has declared the decision to close Philosophy ‘unavoidable’. It involves it giving up its previous research policy of ‘supporting excellence in research’ and thereby effectively giving up on ‘academic reputation’ as a significant factor in its market position.

Yet some other universities in a similar situation are taking the opposite course of action – intensifying their focus on research excellence and emphasising the integration of research into teaching – in order to build ‘reputation’. Some are also emphasising the practical need for an element of humanities or ‘liberal arts’ teaching across the whole range of subject provision.

A radical shrinkage in non-vocational arts and humanities subjects is therefore certainly not ‘unavoidable’. However, given the narrowly corporate management culture sweeping through UK universities, it is a clear and present danger.

So, if the university has a reputation for excellence in research that is attractive to students and which draws funding, what has led to the university abandoning this reputation as a marketing strategy? There is also an element of asset-stripping involved. The UK's higher education system is subject to a 'Research Assessment Exercise' every five years, which awards funds to departments depending on how successful they have been. Now, I am not going to defend these exercises. Their measurements of productivity and success are hopelessly irrational, and the idea of distributing funds according to a peer-reviewed competition between institutions and departments is modelled precisely on the market-based logic that I wish to indict. Middlesex philosophy needed no endorsement from such a shambolic exercise to prove its worth - nevertheless, it obtained the government's blessing, and further funds were released. Those funds continue to be disbursed until the next assessment is carried out, even if the department closes. Thus, the officially measured success of Middlesex Philosophy has given the university administrators a reason to close it down.

There is, so to speak, a history of this kind of execubot management at Middlesex. Back in 2006, it was announced that history courses were being dropped. Got that? History. Why was this subject being abandoned by the university chiefs? Well, although it was one of the few history departments to specialise in black history, and though it had a wealth of archives and collections that made it unique, it wasn't making enough money. Given such an approach, it seems obvious that the university's administrators have long settled on a strategy of abandoning quality, excellence and an all-round research programme. Instead, like most other aspects of the public sector, it is being down-sized for the purposes of market efficiency.

But, the neoliberals, and the rash of narrow-minded corporate technocrats that they have brought in their wake, need not always win the day, and do not. That is why the students are in occupation, and why they are spreading their campaign far and wide, beyond the campus buildings themselves. They recognise that this is a systemic problem, and that if students and lecturers only respond to each instances of cuts, redundancies and closures on an individual, fire-fighting basis, they won't win. But if different campaigns unite, if they win public backing (in the form of petitions, say) and if the trade unions and student unions can be forced to support these struggles, they might win a far more decisive victory than they bargained for.