New book – The Education of Radical Democracy

Amsler - Education of Radical DemocracyI am delighted to annouce the publication of my new book, The Education of Radical Democracy. It explores why I think radical democracy is so necessary, difficult, and possible today – and why it is vital that we understand it as an educative activity. The book draws on critical social theory and critical pedagogy to illustrate what enables and sustains work for radical democratization, and considers how we can begin such work in everyday life.

“‘The most fundamental lessons that are required for humanization today, as we are reminded by those with long experiences of counter-hegemonic and radically democratic struggle in other places and times, cannot be learned through study alone. Methods for cultivating a radically democratic and militantly optimistic relationship with ourselves, other people, time and space, possibility and the future do not pre-exist our development of these methods for our own situation. As Ernst Bloch argued, ‘man [and woman] . . . is repeatedly transformed in his [or her] work and by it. [S]/he repeatedly stands ahead on frontiers which are no longer such because s/he perceives them, s/he ventures beyond them’ (1995, p. 246). Frontier politics, which is the politics of possibility, is an inherently educative praxis. In a moment where the Front is itself so politicized, certain kinds of practices become particularly important – practices that clarify work on emerging and not-yet possibilities; that visualize and make audible latent tendencies; that intensify and magnify the ‘uncertain, flickering, and often weak lights’ which are dismissed as ephemeral but which may in fact foreshine real possibility; that open up spaces for people to practise critical thinking and being together; that attend to the social and emotional discomforts of radically democratic, counter-cultural and systemically oppositional practice, and to the transformation of individualized fear into common courage; that connect the dots of both foreclosure and possibility in order to construct maps of the apparatuses of hopelessness and models of the architectures of hope. And, in a moment where even these practices are out of reach, other kinds of education – in the ontology of the unfinished and the becoming; in the skills of democratic receptivity; in habits of co-operation, in processes of prefiguration; in the arts of anticipation; and in methods for incorporating these into the political work of constructing material and social conditions for such activities – become critical as well.’

Education without borders

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.

Labour - Immigration-mug-square1
Labour Party mug, March 2015

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 countermap

QM countermap - student visa borders university

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

QM Countermap - student visa borders

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.

Injustice Law Resistance Duty

Education Should Not Be Run for Profit

Reclaiming Schools (NUT)

Published in Reclaiming Schools: The Arguments and the Evidence (March 2015)

Full text

Late last year, UK Education secretary Nicky Morgan made waves through schools by declaring that while she was ‘clear about the importance of not-for-profit education’, she did not rule out the possibility that schools in Britain might become profit-making enterprises. This ignited new public debates about whether running schools for profit is either ethical or effective. While it is easy to have a position, however, evaluating arguments presented both for and against for-profit learning can be hard. Knowing what profit is, learning to recognise the profit motive in schools and understanding the impacts of profit on education can help guide thinking about this issue.

Schools are run for profit either because this is thought to be more effective than public funding for education, or because they can be harnessed as sources of corporate income. Sometimes these motivations go together, as when corporations are portrayed as public servants who rescue children and communities from ‘failing’ schools and local governments. This is common where governments reduce public education budgets, leave schools with insufficient resources to function and then create policies which allow (or force) schools to be placed under private or corporate control. School voucher programmes in Chile, the Free School project in Sweden, and Charter School movements in the United States all emerged from this logic.

While UK academies and free schools are not presently run for profit, these programmes are also part of this trend and there is reason for concern. This is not because it has been proven that children universally achieve more or less in corporate schools than they do in public ones. Large-scale studies comparing for-profit charter schools, non-profit charters and public schools in the US, for example, have tended to find either small differences or contradictory results. So why, given this lack of definitive evidence of a correlation between profit and failure, should we be critical of privatising learning? And what evidence can opponents of for-profit education draw on to help others understand that there is a problem?

First, for-profit education makes schooling unstable rather than secure. In 2013, for example, the Swedish government was forced to re-evaluate its free schools programme after a large, for-profit corporate chain went bankrupt, sold and closed a number of schools, and left hundreds of children without places. Similarly, teachers, parents, students and members of school boards and civil rights organisations in many cities across the US are fighting the closure of public community schools – sometimes by the dozen simultaneously – whose money is being redirected to fund corporately-run and often selective charter schools.

Second, for-profit education increases social segregation and inequalities. One of the principles underlying systems of both non-profit and for-profit schools is that they must compete in order to attract students, funding and prestige. Research on competitive school systems in Chile, Sweden and the US indicates that such competition can both exacerbate and produce class and racial inequalities, and that for-profit schools have little incentive to prioritise socially just policies in student selection.

Third, many for-profit schools still benefit from the accumulation of public money (through accepting government funding for individual students). Even where ‘free schools’ do not operate for profit, as in the UK, they can serve as hubs for a range of commercial enterprises which are organised through outsourcing work and services, buying in contracts and materials from private companies (including testing companies suchas Edexel), and renting space.

Perhaps the most pressing concern, however, is that the logic of profit itself disfigures learning and teaching and compromises educational relationships. In order to understand this, we must know what ‘for-profit education’ means and what profit really is. Profit is whatever money is left over after I sell something I have paid to produce. In order to profit from an activity, I have to find a way of obtaining more value for something than it is worth. There are only a few ways to accomplish this: I can invest less money, time and resources into creating something; I can work longer and harder to make more things; or I can improve my techniques to become more efficient. One of the easiest ways to understand profit is to think about two words that we have come to know well: ‘value added’. Teachers are often encouraged to work in ways that result in better outcomes than might ordinarily be expected, thus ‘adding value’ to teaching, test scores, relationships and school environments. They are expected to do this whilst relying on a constant or dwindling pool of resources; to dedicate more of their personal time and energy to this cause in order to compensate, to ‘innovate’. The added value that is produced, it is argued, is that students have a special advantage on standardised tests or educational opportunities, teachers gain competitive advantages in professional autonomy and pay, and schools gain competitive advantage in league tables and other comparative measures of educational success.

Where the profit motive operates in schools – even in schools that are still officially public – children and young people can become narrowly defined and measured according to this system of value. They can easily become objects which we work on instrumentally to achieve an observable ‘output’ which guarantees our own competitive edge (such as a chart indicating that they have made ‘three levels of progress’) rather than people with whom we can authentically engage. Unprofitable kids, unprofitable teaching methods, and unprofitable uses of time – including much of what we know works for deep, critical learning and for nurturing individuality, diversity and community in schools – become squeezed out of education as the profit motive sinks in. It is not only that schools should remain not-for-profit in public service and trust, therefore, but that the deeper logic of profit-making in all aspects of education today must be replaced by alternative principles of learning and care. There are so many ways to begin.
Further reading

Ball, S. J. (2007) Education PLC: Understanding Private Sector Participation in Public Sector Education, Abingdon: Routledge.

Muir, R. (2012) ‘Not for profit: the role of the private sector in England’s schools’, Institute for Public Policy Research,

Ravitch, D. (2012–present) ‘For profit’ blog posts,

CSE Midlands launch event: What is to be done in the age of austerity and autonomy?

I will be speaking about placing higher education in the service of social justice at this exciting event in April…

CSE* Midlands launch event:
What is to be done in the age of austerity and autonomy?

17 April 2015
University of Birmingham
Room: Muirhead 113

All welcome!

“The ability, and desire, to mobilise, organise and associate, autonomously of traditional left institutions, has been widely noted of late. Much theorising on the left highlights the move towards a ‘politics of autonomy’; and the wave of anti-austerity movements that have challenged established institutions (in the form of the indignados, Occupy, Gezi Park, and UK Uncut) seem to chime with this theoretical agenda. This move towards an autonomous and vibrant left appears to be a source of hope, especially as these new social movements add weight and renewed force to the continuing resistance from public service workers and their unions to years of austerity and public service reform.

Yet, this occurs at the same time as the so-called ‘age of austerity’, in which concessions that have in the past been made by the capitalist state are now being withdrawn; repression, rather than concessions, is increasingly becoming the response of the state to social mobilisation. This repressive neo-liberal reaction is evidence of the underlying contradictions of capitalism which traditional Keynesian-type state intervention leaves intact.

These underlying contradictory trends in contemporary capitalism raise crucial questions of strategy, tactics and analysis. The launch of this CSE Midlands group is an attempt to provide a forum for radical and anti-capitalist activists, critical scholars, and activist/critical scholars to come together to discuss ‘what is to be done’ in this apparently contradictory age of autonomy and austerity. This launch event will feature a panel focusing on some of the key contextual developments that contemporary radicals face; followed by a roundtable discussion on “what is to be done?” We intend the launch of CSE Midlands to be followed by similar events across the Midlands, including on contemporary industrial relations, the 2015 general election, contemporary social movements, and current trends in radical and Marxist theory.”


2.00 Intro/opening

2.15 Session One: conceptualising the contemporary context

Sarah Amsler (University of Lincoln), Higher education for social justice

Whyeda Gill-Mclure (University of Wolverhampton), The politics of public service reform

Keir Milburn (University of Leicester), Austerity and contemporary capitalism

3.30 break

3.45  Session Two: what is to be done?

Tony Rabaiotti, Head of Local Government, UNISON West Midlands (tbc)

Doug Nicholls, General Secretary, General Federation of Trade Unions

Malia Bouattia, National Union of Students Black Students’ Officer

Craig Gent, University of Warwick/Plan C

5.00 END – Followed by drinks


* The Conference of Socialist Economists’ is an international, democratic membership organisation committed to developing a materialist critique of capitalism, unconstrained by conventional academic divisions between subjects’. For more information, visit the main organisational website.

Alternative ways of thinking the university (UNIKE conference)

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.

Read the paper