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According to the holy doctrine of neoliberal economics, market competition encourages efficiency, innovation and increased quality of service for consumers. Given the marketisation of UK universities in recent years, and particularly following the withdrawal of higher education funding in 2009/10, we are presented with another opportunity to test this article of faith.
Indeed, it is in these terms that many of the recent developments at Lancaster University, appear to us. A momentous shift has taken place in the whole texture of the University: concrete flags have been replaced with granite; new signs and red-cladding mark out and encase this space; the Learning Zone glares away into the night, replete with ‘relaxed work spaces’ that appear to have been imported from Silicon Valley. As a third bank and plans for another junk-food outlet are unveiled, the college bars are being transformed into themed ‘venues’, and the Students’ Union into a branded corporation administering a portfolio of student-orientated businesses. Over the now-retro 1960s modernist vision of the university, we are seeing another very different modernist image being imposed.
This ‘old’ modern vision was rooted in the progressive promise of postwar welfare-capitalism, instituted by a Labour government buoyed into power on the swell of class-antagonism following the war. If the rapid postwar expansion of higher education was chiefly about meeting changing economic needs, it also contained a promise of a different, more equal society. As well as training workers for this new economic environment, they also instilled ways of thinking, being and belonging – i.e. the ideology – necessary to discipline and adapt these workers to these new work patterns. But, a side effect of all this was that in doing so universities became a mechanism for social mobility. The new economic needs opened higher education up to working class people, and in the process gave these young people the opportunity to come together, to learn and to pick up subversive attitudes as they challenged and altered the hierarchical structures of the universities they were attending – and society in general.
I tell you, you could smell this in those old flag stones of Alexandra Square. That’s why the dug them up and put down all that granite. There’s nothing neutral about aesthetics. The new façade says: this is a place of efficiency, of innovation, of customer satisfaction. The whole University has been made over in this image. In restructuring the University the managers have merged shopping mall with entrepreneurial hub; the spectacle of ‘modern’ technology and ‘smart’ professionalism has been synthesised with the package holiday village, or the out-of-town retail park. Education is readily becoming a seamless ‘interactive experience’ that we must passively contemplate. More, the University is ceasing – has ceased – to be a counter cultural space infused with the legacy of postwar progressivism. Every sign I pass now speaks a neoliberal agenda.
This new image is intimately connected with the marketisation of higher education, for in a sense it is a temporary ‘solution’ to an intractable problem. That problem is that, in this new environment,Lancaster University must compete with other universities. Its very survival is pinned upon being able to generate competitive levels of profit and to attract sufficient investment.
There are several ways of doing this. One is to intensify the exploitation of workers and, in line with this, lecturers face a continuing pay freeze and cuts to their pensions, whilst being asked to take on more work than ever before. Meanwhile, cheap postgraduate Teaching Assistants are being paid peanuts to cover the gaping discrepancy between teaching hours and teaching budgets, with many being asked this year to teach second and third year modules, whilst class sizes grow year on year. The Library staff has also been decimated, whilst many admin staff have also disappeared, despite campaigns against admin redundancies by students and staff last year. In order for all this to appear acceptable, it must be called ‘efficiency’.
Another method is to find new opportunities for profit accumulation. We are seeing this too. Thus we heard last week that the Vice-Chancellor has approved the opening of another ‘Lancaster’ campus in Ghana, in partnership with private investment company CMA Investment Holdings, despite ‘concern’ in the senate that this development has not followed democratic due-process and that it constitutes ‘a business venture, with no long-standing commitment to Ghana’ which could consequently ‘result in damage to the reputation of Lancaster University’. This novel form of neo-colonialism appears to be a major part of Lancaster University Business Strategy, with Lancaster now having partnerships with institutions in India, Malaysia, Kazakhstan, Brazil, Jordan and Pakistan. The controversy of the Ghana partnership also calls to mind the equally contentious decision to buy-up neoliberal think-tank the Work Foundation – although, whether this generates any profit is uncertain. One way or another, all of this – the circumvention of democratic processes, partnerships with dubious investments firms and international profit-farming – is called ‘innovation’.
A third method is simply to make more money out of students whilst offering them less. A problem here, however, is that brazen austerity would not be tolerated by staff or students. Thus, whilst tuition-fees have doubled and trebled and research-based modules and less lucrative courses are scrapped, swish new catering facilities are opened, bars are refurnished, a flashy new gym is installed. These new ‘services’ simultaneously project an image of prosperity that conceals the increasing paucity of our education, whilst also providing new means of extorting profit from students. Likewise, accommodation has been ‘upgraded’: now 65% of rooms on campus are ensuite, whilst ‘town houses’ provide ‘futuristic’ living solutions. One can shit in one’s own bedroom, providing one can pay for the pleasure. The University promotes this as ‘high-quality’ student accommodation, but at the same time it charges almost double the rents available in the city. Improvements in ‘quality’ translate directly into increases in profitability. Beyond this, the fragile promise of social mobility has evaporated as the University pushes grades up to AAA and focuses on overseas recruitments in order to attract an upper-middle class contingent with money to burn. All of this is called improving ‘quality’ and increasing ‘customer satisfaction’ – or the ‘student experience’, as it is also known.
The true content, then, of these terms – efficiency, innovation, quality – is the escalating need of the University to find new ways of exploiting students and staff. With this realisation we find that everything in this new environment appears to us upside down. Consequently, we see that everything must be overturned.