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, also from the University of Lincoln School of Education, who spoke on ‘Labour, property and pedagogy: theory and practice for co-operative higher education’, and Catherine Butcher of the University of Roehampton (with ‘Heterodox forms of university governance: placing students at the core’). A college and friend Aniko Horvath, from Kings College, presented ‘Who owns the future of UK higher education?’ in our stream the following day, and Fern Thompsett of the University of Queensland presented on ‘The prefigurative politics of free universities: an “ateleological” approach to contesting capitalism and the knowledge economy’. Invigorated to have been amidst such powerful ideas.
‘Either we do this or we die. There is no alternative.’ Learning from struggles for autonomous higher education
This paper begins with an assertion, made in 1933 by the African-American sociologist and educator W. E. B. Du Bois that it was necessary to construct radically alternative universities that would enable the ‘physical survival…spiritual freedom, and…social growth’ of black people in the face of entrenched racial dictatorship in the United States. I offer some reflections on his militantly optimistic reading of ‘no alternative’ before introducing a number of other historical cases in which hegemonic definitions, forms, hierarchies, and practices of higher education have been challenged as part of wider struggles for human dignity, economic and cognitive justice, and social change – and in which autonomous institutions and ‘infrastructures of resistance and creativity’ have been created. I then consider the extent to which contemporary movements to defend the public university, on the one hand, and to create autonomous or parallel alternatives to it, on the other, may be considered part of this broader tradition. As the structural transformation of the university under regimes of neoliberal capitalism is well documented, I concentrate on the effects of this transformation on conditions of possibility for critiquing, imagining alternatives to, and ultimately building and defending humane and progressive opportunities for democratic higher learning. I concretise this by discussing some areas of work which are being developed in projects for free, co-operative higher education in the United Kingdom, and conclude with a provocation that divesting in the ideological promises of the neoliberal university, while painful and uncertain, can liberate our desire and will to learn and build better spaces for physical survival, spiritual freedom and social justice. My argument is that those working in universities have plenty of alternatives, but need to learn anew how to understand, cultivate and fight for them.