Following a huge march demanding that the government provides the cash for higher education, one writer commented that ‘the students’ protests have managed to awaken the consciousness of vast sectors of the population about the need for a profound change in the country. What even a few months was considered impossible is now firmly on the agenda.’
So said Latin American journalist Roberto Navarrete reflecting on the huge significance of the mass demonstrations and occupations sweeping Chile this summer. Faced with a higher education system 84 per cent of which is funded by students and their families, whole swathes of Chilean society—from schoolkids to trade unionists— have taken to the streets to demand that the state puts up corporate tax rates to guarantee free education.
All the signs are that they’re winning given that the increasingly unpopular government of Sebastián Piñera has already offered to cut interest rates on student loans and to hike up student grants.
Of course, Chile must seem a long way away from those of us working in British colleges and universities who are starting new terms and where it’s enough just to keep going. Faced with increased class sizes, fewer resources, more administration, stringent targets, heightened insecurity (let alone frozen salaries and insecure pensions), there is an understandable tendency to feel more than a little defensive and to focus our activities on mainly local battles.
But we know, of course, that these domestic concerns are tied to a much bigger agenda which, in the context of universities, involves the government’s determination radically to restructure the whole idea of higher education. The 80 per cent cut in teaching budgets, the wholescale attack on arts and humanities, the trebling of fees, and the outsourcing of courses to private providers signals the determination of the Coalition to force market logic into the provision of a university education. It’s no exaggeration to say that we are facing a serious assault on our universities.
Many of the proposals that were eventually bundled into July’s white paper —more freedom for the private sector, more customer satisfaction surveys, more micro-management of fees and grants at the same time as allowing courses (and even institutions) to close in an allegedly self-regulating market – have been extensively analysed in places like the LRB, this very magazine and via the UCU’s Campaigns team.
Yet we also need to remind ourselves what we are struggling for and not simply what we are opposed to.
As we struggle against redundancies, course closures and resource cuts, we also need to think about what kind of institutions we want our universities to be in the first place: competitors for the provision of ‘employer-led’ skills, depositories for the cash of the sons and daughters of international dictators, adjuncts of corporate research, finishing schools for the rich? Or places that deliver independent, critical and relevant knowledge that has been demonstrated again and again to benefit not just individual students but society as a whole?
We’re all stronger if we link our local disputes to wider movements against the neoliberal reforms that are trying to turn our universities and colleges into corporate beasts that produce commodities more than students and that focus on efficiency more than knowledge.
That is why a group of us have produced a manifesto for higher education with demands placed both on government and universities themselves.
It focuses on issues of employment and equality, governance and democracy, investment and internationalism. It calls, for example, on the government to increase the proportion of public expenditure devoted to higher education to at least the EU average by raising corporation tax and increasing the top level of personal income tax. It also calls for the salaries of vice-chancellors to be capped, for research ethics committees to have more teeth when it comes to projects concerning the arms and nuclear industries, and for institutions not to accept donations from individuals or regimes that refuse to sign up to a statement guaranteeing academic freedom in the host country.
Like all manifestos, it makes ambitious demands that will be extremely tough to achieve. But the point of a manifesto is to raise our expectations, to generalise our experiences and to help draw us out of a defensive mindset into one which believes that both resistance and change is possible. The manifesto has been signed by nearly 1000 academics, support staff and researchers both in the UK and abroad. It attempts to remind us that, in challenging the government’s narrow and destructive attack on higher education, we need to maintain a broad vision of what it is about universities that motivated us to work in them in the first place and why a higher education system dominated by market values will be a disaster for everyone.
We have also published an edited collection of essays, The Assault on Universities: A Manifesto for Resistance (Pluto Press) that provides a broader context for the manifesto demands. The book tackles a range of issues from assessing the impact of marketisation, managerialism and privatisation to identifying new possibilities for funding, conceptualising and defending higher education. It’s meant to be, as John Pilger describes it, ‘a call to arms’ and, given the scale of the attack on our jobs, conditions and the very soul of the university, that’s what we need more than ever. And remember, you never know what, even a few months was considered impossible, might be firmly back on the agenda.