Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Threats to Higher Education

Universities are a site in a major war, according to Thomas Docherty, professor of comparative literature at Warwick University.  Docherty refers here to what Gramsci called the 'war of position' - a prolonged ideological, cultural, even intellectual struggle, which, in some instances, prepares the way for actual change.   Universities in the United Kingdom are swamped by an extraordinary array of 'reforms', brought in not only  by the current ghastly Conservative government, but in fact prepared decades ago during the Thatcher years and then their lightly disguised continuation, the New Labour years.  Fee rises, bureaucratic regulation, 'accountability' based on the positivist crudity of the cash nexus, department abolitions and forced amalgamations, and mandatory redundancies.   Warwick University itself is at the leading edge of this kind of change - hence its vicious campaign against Docherty over the last 2-3 years, and also its eagerness to outsource certain elements of its teaching, in a bid to avoid having to protect young teachers and researchers or extend to them the basic rights of job security, welfare and pension benefits.

Is this situation unthinkable in Ireland?   Not entirely.  We are witnessing large-scale expansion in student numbers, but a massive fall in spending on higher education.  This comes in the context, of course, of the financial crisis and the implementation of austerity policies in the last five years.  The fall in academic staff numbers is estimated at 13%.  Staff right across the university sector - along with their fellows in the wider public sector - have experienced falls in income over the period of the crash of nearly 20%.   Staff-student ratios are worsening, and per capita spend on students is falling dramatically.  So far, government's only proffered solution for this situation is to encourage, or put pressure on, universities to develop further links with industry, and to recruit international students (who pay astronomical 'non-EU' fees).

In a recent essay on academic freedom and the academic boycott of Israeli universities, Judith Butler makes the point that too often academic freedom is discussed as an abstract right.  But, quoting Hannah Arendt, she makes the point that a right may be said not truly to be a right if it cannot be exercised.  Academic freedom must itself be seen as part of a wider or deeper right to education.  If the institutions of academic learning do not exist, or if their operation is constantly hedged and compromised by economic, political or (in Palestine) military and police forces, then academic freedom cannot be said to be operative.   Without wanting for a moment to make foolish analogies between the difficulties of Irish universities and Palestinian ones, it should be pointed out that the greatest danger to Irish academics is not direct political influence, or the potential curbing of their careers (should they take up minority public political views), but rather the relentless and expanding managerial hegemony in the way that their institutions are run - the proliferation and spread of 'market values' replacing other forms of organisational rationality or reason in the running, administration, and planning of academic institutions and departments, right down to the details of the curriculum.

Two recent articles on this topic: firstly, from Jacobin -

Resisting the Corporate University


and from Counterpunch -


The Curse of Totalitarianism and the Challenge of an Insurrectional Pedagogy