Higher Education for a Democratic Society (Part I)

Report from Future U: Creating the Universities We Want
A conference of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations
27–28 February 2014

In England, there is considerable imagination of – or more often fantasising about – the sorts of universities academics and students want for this and future generations; what role higher education might play in the creation of just, democratic and sane societies; what chances we have of turning the tide of neoliberalization into intellectual and political energy for the creation of the non-capitalist, anti-capitalist, post-capitalist societies that living beings have always needed. Those working in universities understand that getting from here to there means making herculean changes: transforming repressive managerial power structures and cultures into relations of democratic governance; enabling commitments to the progressive mission of universities as fundamental institutions of democratic life; disrupting and reversing hegemonic trends in the privatization and corporatization of education and creating new models of social and co-operative funding for universities;  abolishing student tuition fees and concomitant individual and family debts for education; and re-establishing the university as a protected space for free and critical thought.

The current system has been evolving cumulatively for fifty years, and has been made durable through now-sedimented layers of regulation, meaning, social practice and economic, intellectual and professional discipline. The structures and frameworks for faculty–worker, student and community governance of universities which once existed were dismantled through decades of regulatory disestablishment and ideological diminishment. Academics, students, academic support workers and others involved from local publics and communities now have very restricted roles in making major decisions within or about university work; in some cases, we are completely disenfranchised.

In this context, the idea of an effective, academically-powered and activist movement for radical economic and political democratisation may thus sound like what Ernst Bloch once called ‘fraudulent hope’ – ‘one of the greatest malefactors, even enervators, of the human race’. It is not surprising that, in response to the most recent ‘crises’ of underfunding, privatisation and corporatization in higher education in England, the academic community has not yet successfully articulated, mobilised or organised effective movements for the defence, reform or radical transformation of our institutions of higher learning and research.

Spending two days discussing the future of universities at a conference of faculty associations, administrators, union activists and organisers, journalists, policymakers and educational researchers in Canada, however, offered a glimpse of what could be possible if we do. Imagine a future where any significant proportion of 2,722,790 members of the British university community, along with their families, friends, concerned allies from other sectors and organisations, and ‘the public’ organised themselves to determine the purpose and nature of universities and to hold university administrations, governments and corporations to account for ensuring their status as democratic institutions for the common good.[1] The work presented at this conference, and its sometimes militant energy, reaffirmed my sense that this work is not only necessary, but possible and in process.

In my keynote interview here with Leo Charbonneau, I pointed out that the work ‘crisis’ has roots in the Latin word krisis, and further krinein: ‘to separate, decide or judge’; its ancient context of use was a critical moment in the development of a disease at which point the discerning judgement of a healer could shift the process towards recovery, or not. The importance of this, it seems to me, is that it offers the image of an empowered and responsible person whose knowledge and world-making are recognisable as efficacious. At the end of the conference, OCUFA president Kate Lawson also suggested that as we often cannot discern critical ‘turning points’ in our everyday practices, we should treat every moment as an opportunity for judgment and action: ‘now is always the moment’, she said – the moment to make critical choices about whether and how we promote certain practices, accept particular decisions, engage in certain forms of government, embrace a use of technology, use a term, lobby, act directly. This reminded me of arguments I have been making for some time about the power of democratising the university from within through prefigurative practices. But it also reminded me of the potency of crisis thinking itself: not thinking about how to avoid or survive crises imposed on us from without, but a critical theoretical analysis of power that enables us to see even political significance in even the most mundane of activities.

This series of blogs offers brief reports on some of the discussions that took place at the conference, which I think sketch out parts what might be considered the anatomy of a movement democratic higher education, and which comprise elements of an architecture of hope which can support movements to challenge and abolish neoliberal power and construct post-capitalist futures more generally.

  1. HEDS (I): Higher education for a democratic society
  2. HEDS (II): What can faculty association do?
  3. HEDS (III): ‘Working conditions are learning conditions’: refusing casualization
  4. HEDS (IV): Democratic university governance
  5. HEDS (V): Building the university to come: strategies, tactics, visions

[29 March – Joss Winn recently published a rich pair of thought pieces on whether the worker co-operative is an appropriate form for a university (Part I and Part II). In the most general terms, the directions discussed at this conference refer to the possibilities of either converting capitalist universities into co-operatives or dissolving the neoliberal university from within by ‘creating co-operatives inside the existing university form’. I have yet to read these reflections against those, but expect it will be exciting.]


[1] According to the UK Higher Education Statistics Agency, in 2012/13 there were 2,340, 275 students and 382,515 academic; managerial, professional and technical; clerical and manual workers in UK universities – a total of 2,722,790 people.

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