In February, I presented one of several papers on 'Alternative ways of thinking the university' at a conference on Universities in the Knowledge Economy (UNIKE). I was joined by Joss Winn,...
Two years ago, I wrote a blog post on the borders of education – the increasing use of state power to control international movement in and through universities in England. I was concerned with the effects of ‘attendance monitoring’, surveillance and bureaucratic record-keeping on pedagogical relationships, asking:
What does this do to people? What sorts of relations to oneself, one’s teachers, one’s students, one’s university, one’s discipline, one’s education, one’s ethical and political principles; to our relations with one another, do these sorts of monitoring and surveillance practices cultivate? How can they cultivate anything other than collective distrust, bureaucratisation, anxiety, self-surveillance and fear? How can they not have the effect of legitimising repressive state influence in and control over academic affairs, the geopolitical and racist othering of certain groups and privileging of others, and economic and social discrimination? How does it not compromise professional autonomy and spaces for critical pedagogy and collaborative educational relationships? What consequences could it have in universities in which some academics work to democratise education by ‘co-producing’ knowledge and experience with students?
Increasingly, I am concerned about how academic subjects are being re-functioned into docile instruments of state control. As the system of ‘Tier IV compliance monitoring’ rumbles on in universities, I wonder less about what ‘it’ is doing to people and more about how people are producing it and through this reproducing themselves. Financial discipline is a powerful tool of social control, and state policy makes clear that the ‘only’ alternative to unquestioning (and perhaps even enthusiastic) compliance is the loss of student recruitment licenses worth many millions of pounds a year. Like so many punitive policies, this serves as an effective device not only for closing down dialogue and critique but for eliminating any normative space of reason, judgement and ethical practice. Eliminating the time and authority to reflect on the wider contexts in which this system operates and is legitimised and resisted. No one, nothing can matter because it is believed that not conforming is not an option.
To gain distance from this ‘folly’ (particularly amidst the current cross-party, pre-general-election drive to bluntly curtail immigration – excepting the Green Party, which has issued its own bluntly supportive counter-mug), I returned to some fabulous work produced a few years ago by the Queen Mary Countermappers, who undertook a project to raise awareness about the political and economic forces that affect the life choices and chances of student immigrants to England. They created a map and a board game to illustrate and facilitate deeper understanding, in different ways, of the grim parts of this system that are often invisible to those who are permitted to play the game and win.
The map situates universities within an assemblage of institutions and political-economic relationships, from taxation to education budgets and social benefits. It maps the wages of different groups of students and university workers. It also maps the border of the nation-state as it is enacted in the sea, on the coasts, at the airports, on roads, in government departments, in policy documents, in the country’s ‘immigration removal centres’, and ultimately in the institutional structures and everyday practices of teachers and researchers themselves. It doesn’t include the other institutions that are involved in similar tasks of migrant surveillance and control, but does invite us to consider
‘how the university functions not only as a knowledge factory but also as a border. This countermap draws some of the connections between the borders, institutions and regulatory systems that operate in, on and around the university. That the university is a border is made possible by the operation of filter mechanisms. What is a border for some may be a filter for others – the counting of the bodies of student and staff, money in and money out, who can get here and who can’t, what we’re worth when we leave and the limits of what is and is not knowledge.’
The game focuses more on exposing the social and inequalities that shape how these filters work. It begins in a happy place: a person decides to study at the university, and then proceeds through a series of challenges and opportunities related to labour, language, intimate relationships, health and illness, family responsibilities and law. You flip a coin to progress (or regress) through the game, and can hope that each border does not become a filter. If you do well in your studies – and do not end up in ‘deportation limbo’ – you can choose to ‘stay in character’ and pursue one of several life plans.
According to the collective,
‘the game has worked very well as a tool that forces people to discuss their own and others’ experiences of education and border crossings. We specifically designed it as a relational device to get the players to share their experiences and frustrations, and to imagine alternatives. The colourfulness and playfulness of the map has brightened up many a grey bureaucratic political meeting, and inspired others to invent similar tools of mapping, acting and organising in relation to other institutions’ (full article).
Resistance and refusal
There are some movements to refuse this use of the university as a border and continuous materialisation of the border through higher education itself. The University and College Union briefly advocated boycotting the policies when they were first introduced in 2009, and continue to challenge the legitimacy and academic ethics of the system. In 2014, 160 academics from across the country signed an open letter demanding that Universities UK ‘oppose the discriminatory treatment of non-EU students in all forms and publicly affirm: (a) that the quality of academic work should be the primary criterion for determining academic standing; (b) that all students be treated equally regarding their attendance at classes, and that their right to privacy be respected, irrespective of their nationality; and (c) the right of universities to autonomy in making decisions on progression and retention of non-EU students’ (see also Les Back’s essay, ‘University lecturers must remain educators, not border guards’).
Many academics in England are now expected to comply with policies that, though the power of the labour contract and not a little authoritarian habitus, aim to constitute them as border agents and deny them the professional authority or civic possibility to make critical judgements about the educational and political practices affecting their students’ learning and lives. While Universities UK recently published some results of research which indicate there could be broad public support for changes to current government policy on the excessive monitoring of non-European students, as far as I can tell, the organisation has not yet agitated for this itself.
The Countermappers’ game board contains many provocative questions and one serious challenge:
‘Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to find cracks, fellow travellers and the opportunities that exist to create something different. Make sure you make your own maps of these travels…ours is but one version. Your time starts now.’
The postcard below, from the Institute for the Art and Practice of Dissent at Home, was waiting for me when I arrived home this evening. I am often reminded by my colleagues that academic freedom and academic responsibility go hand in hand. It continues to be the right time to defend and promote freedom in all its forms; for teachers to do what it takes not only to ensure that the border does not pass through the classroom but to see that our classrooms offer opportunities for disrupting and transgressing and crossing and bridging borders, and for opening up untested feasibles for all.