Courage, in two movements

Last month, I wrote asking what the ‘fearless’ university might feel like. I wanted to highlight two very different, but not unrelated, examples that came to my attention in recent days. Each speaks to a different kind of courage that I am interested in exploring in relation to one another.

Last Friday, a group of students of Warwick University occupied the University Council Chamber to hold continual session in which a number of issues can be critically discussed, including the defence and future of public higher education, the reduction of tuition fees and honouring of decent labour rights,  and the responsibilities and hypocrisies of academic leaders at this crucial time (see all the objectives here). The occupation has been supported by members of the Campaign for the Public University, and it is being undertaken in the midst of a new round of informed criticisms of government proposals to sell off student loans to private companies in the UK – not to mention a new round of intense demonstrations against ‘austerity’, corruption and the dehumanizing privatization of life worldwide.

This is one example of intellectual and political courage. Not above question; demanding of respect and solidarity.

Today, a dear friend of mine published a beautiful reflection on how and why we should avoid fetishizing the intellect, and refuse to engage in the ritual abuse of human beings that often accompanies it. She is particularly concerned about the way academics reproduce structures of power, exclusion and hierarchy, often in the name of ‘standards’ but more accurately in the defence of our own fear of inadequacy. She writes:

‘I for one am ready to take up the challenge of doing anthropology from the heart. It would entail a much further-going exposure of our vulnerability as social, and mortal, creatures. It would mean abandoning the ivory tower, where we mistakenly thought our smartness would keep us safe. But it would give us back warmer, more loving relations with our colleagues, our students and the people from whom we wish to learn. I hope there are many anthropologists who will share this project with me.’

 To stand for an ethic of care, humility, love and open learning from within the academy, and to invite others to dare to stretch beyond it, is another kind of intellectual and political courage – particularly when it is asserted in a context that is inhospitable and hostile to these ideals.

Why do I keep writing about the politics of the university? I wonder this quite a lot these days. I long to spend more time teaching, creating, exploring the politics of knowledge, engaging in other kinds of education, exploring the world in public with others, playing with ideas, writing the book on radical democracy that is aching to be finished. So much institutional politics is so boring and, in the grand scheme of things, seems so irrelevant to human concern. But in terms of institutional power the university is an interesting place precisely because it is positioned at the heart of this scheme, and because the scheme is being played out in its most minute of forms, and because there is so much nearly-invisible and not-yet energy being directed towards the articulation of epochal social problems and new forms of thought, resistance and creative agency. There are major public pedagogies at work here. It therefore seems like an important space to watch sociologically and philosophically, as well as being a place that — for those of us who choose to keep faith in its possibility — we need to make more fit for humanity every day.


Some thought-provoking follow-ups:

…on being a little more ‘fucking incandescent’

…and on irreplaceable time

The fearless university

I recently gave a talk on ‘pedagogies of possibility’ to a small group of academics and graduate students. We had a great discussion afterwards, about the politics of education and of the university, about why we seldom speak of these things in our ordinary routines, about politicising the administration of the university as well as our teaching and research.

In most such discussions, I am usually struck either by stubborn levels of cynicism about the possibility that the university can ever be a progressive, democratic or humanising institution, or by blatant disinterest in or disdain for any of these ideals. But not on this occasion, where there was significant striving and plenty of heart. Instead, I was struck by fear – of being afraid to say no to administrative demands, afraid to say yes to unethical practices, afraid to say anything in meetings for fear of being ostracised, afraid to not monitor the class attendance and movements of non-citizen students for fear of reprisals from border agents and afraid to record their attendance in fear of acting as border agents, afraid to give marks that signify the actual quality of students’ work, afraid to mark work at all for fear that others auditing it would be punitive and judgemental, afraid to share information with colleagues, afraid to not share information with colleagues, afraid to assume positions of leadership in case of being infected by power, afraid to not assume positions of leadership in case of being dominated by those more infected, afraid to speak critically about political and social problems in classes.

This seemed to me like a lot of fear for a thirty-minute conversation. It also seemed like a lot of fear for the university where, on first instinct, one might presume that legitimate reasons for fear would be few and far between. British universities are not labour-intensive production plants where workers are disciplined and punished to squeeze sweat for inhuman numbers of hours every day, in places where labour laws are fantasies and wages scrape one by (although there are some who suggest we might be wise to begin conceptualising them through a critical political economy of value which demonstrates the continuities). British universities are also not embedded within authoritarian states that monitor and control academics’ and students’ intellectual work; positions are politicised, but academics aren’t disappearing mysteriously, fleeing the country for political sanctuary, or threatened with psychological or bodily harm for stepping out of line (although there are some who point to continuities between neoliberal managerialism and fascism as well). It is true that many students assume increasing burdens of debt to study and that many academics now work in relentlessly precarious and disempowering conditions, and that both debt and precarity produce perpetual states of anxiety and insecurity which serve as effective forms of political auto-repression. Nonetheless, British universities remain relatively privileged institutions in which, to varying degrees, there remain at least some formal commitments to liberty, fair treatment and autonomy which can at times be activated from below, and in which there remain spaces for critical and creative living. In this sense, the personal stakes of political participation seem relatively low. What could there possibly be to lose from taking positions in committee meetings and classrooms? What are academics so scared of?

As pointed out by some people at the seminar who did decide to claim their dignity and govern themselves by refusing this or that undemocratically arrived at decision which had been ‘cascaded’ from management on high, there are often no adverse consequences at all. Given that even the smallest of refusals or alternatives by necessity carry some risk to comfort, this is remarkable. It follows that at least some of the hegemonic relations of power in universities are potentially very fragile. We fail to notice this because we so rarely poke them to see what happens. And it follows further from this that much of the fear within the academy – specifically amongst newer academics who have not played the game long enough to have the status to resist because there are so few above them to respond – originates in our heads. Amongst other things, the contemporary academic mind appears to be colonised and moralised by a Big Other of authoritative disciplinary power which may in fact not even exist, or at least does not exist in material form yet.

However, there are other things. Such high levels of internalised fear, abnegation of self-determination, effacing of dignity and suppression of care for and solidarity with others cannot possibly be totally invented, particularly when it appears that there is no empirical reason for them to exist.  One thing, which few academics – including those of us who study the politics of education and knowledge – really adequately understand, is the political-economic character of the power of our universities. We do not keep, at the centre of our sense-making, a view of where we are positioned in the four-decade-long-and-still-going global project to transform universities from educational into economic institutions. The creation of complex systems of valuing and ranking universities at the global level, give some indication of the stakes of transforming academics and students as well. Way back in the 1980s, buried in a long report on ‘efficiency’ in British universities, some business consultant warned vice-chancellors that universities would have to eventually choose between efficiency (and by implication, institutional and professional survival) or democracy. That choice has now been made. When we look a little wider, we begin to see that many ways of organising academic labour, non-academic university labour, teaching, learning, research, student life and campus culture are standardising and globalising. Institutional discourses on scholarship, teaching, learning, research and education itself have been so honed and intellectually impoverished over decades, increasingly by people who have no primary interest in any of these things, that it can be difficult to imagine them as anything other than technical activities. Workshops, trainings, conferences, journals and even university courses on ‘educational management’ are proliferating; in the UK, universities employ more people to manage academics than they do academics. And virtually all decisions that do not have to do with the actual moments a teacher spends with students in a classroom or conducting their own research have been efficiently locked in to managerial hierarchies of decision-making in which decisions are ‘cascaded’ from top to bottom and academics serve varying degrees of individualised function depending on which level of committee they are appointed to.

One of the reasons the stakes of educational politics or critical academic work seem so low is that they are invisible from the bottom and unspoken in public and professional discourse. One of the reasons that they are so fragile is that the power of the university, as a commons with potentially formidable intellectual and political strength, is invisible from the top. And one of the reasons people are afraid is probably that they can sense the weight of the enormous systems of economic and political power which mobilise, but are obscured by, the cultural practices of management, space and institutional order that constitute the conditions of everyday life, and which frame the context in which we all teach and learn. I don’t think we fear individual reprisal. I think we fear the machine, and more so fear the unknown consequences of throwing sand into its cogs where no one has tried to sabotage it before.

The upshot of this is that if we are to shape universities to be places in which we can actually teach and study and learn and be – and where we and our students and others who find their way in are excited to be doing so – we need to educate ourselves about the politics of higher education, advanced research, labour, intellectual culture, space and time. And we need to do this in a context in which thinking and speaking about the politics of any of these things is regarded as either a waste of time or a threat to economic productivity and institutional ‘reputation’, as it has become defined in neoliberal terms. And we need to do this in an environment where perhaps many academics, by dint of profession or proclivity, have either no experience of political participation or activism, or no interest in social and economic politics at all. And we need to do all of this in an environment where many academics and some students are exhausted and insecure and are therefore in need of considerable self and collective care. It is at least a fourfold project. This should not be daunting; life is complex. Knowing this is important as it enables us to take steps in particular directions, and we can only begin walking from where we are.

It is also useful, however, to understand the even bigger picture in which it becomes clear that the spaces of the university are among multitudes of similar spaces which articulate differently but are subject to the same forces of power and over-determination. I would encourage people to look at a recent excerpt from David Graeber’s new book, The Democracy Project, outlining ‘a practical utopian’s guide to the coming collapse’ (and thanks to Gordon Asher for pointing it out). Graeber does a brilliant job of – or at least makes a provocative stab at – explaining why people are stuck and afraid in institutions everywhere. He suggests that the cause lies somewhere in the contradiction between the fact that the neoliberal economic project has essentially failed, and failed to prove that human life can be effectively reconstituted as if it was a free market, and the fact that the neoliberal political project has thus far succeeded in convincing people either that it is successful or that there is no alternative to it. In other words, people can sense increasing repression and contraction because it has become increasingly important for us to believe irrationally in the legitimacy and desirability of a dead project which can only be kept alive by our faith, our labour, our self-discipline and our self-censorship. It is both a dead project and one that continues to feed and consolidate the power of the elites not only by exploiting but – in the case of ‘austerity’ – scavenging on and savaging the lives of the most already exploited, insecure and wounded people in society. The fear that nothing else is possible is not just a hat trick; it is a material condition of the maintenance of the system itself and secured through what Graeber calls ‘the imposition of an apparatus of hopelessness’. The climate of fear in universities is just one example – and indeed a reserved one – of how this shakes out in practice.

One of the things we must educate ourselves about, therefore, is what Graeber characterises as the ‘relentless campaign against the human imagination. Or, to be more precise: imagination, desire, individual creativity, all those things that were to be liberated in the last great world revolution, were to be contained strictly in the domain of consumerism, or perhaps in the virtual realities of the Internet. In all other reams they were to be strictly banished. We are talking about the murder of dreams, the imposition of an apparatus of hopelessness, designed to squelch any sense of an alternative future.’

Graeber indicates a few demands that we might make to get the ball rolling in a different direction – a debt jubilee being one, and putting brakes on productivity for human and environmental reasons being another. However, he also recommends something that has far more immediate potential, particularly for academics, students, administrators and other university workers, as well as for teachers, parents and carers of students, and concerned allies. This is the cultivation of the collective imagination which is so repressed. For, ‘at the moment any significant number of people simultaneously shake of the shackles that have been placed on that collective imagination, even our most deeply inculcated assumptions about what is and is not politically possible have been known to crumble overnight.’

Of course, they may or may not; there are no guarantees, other than that radical imagination and parrhesiatic speaking are generally risky. Indeed, the concept of parrhesia as reconstructed by Foucault in The Courage of Truth might not be a bad way to re-imagine what the fearless university looks like. We might imagine that it exists wherever a speaker ‘has a specific relation to truth through frankness, a certain relationship to his[her] own life through danger, a certain type of relation to himself[herself] through criticism (self-criticism or criticism of other people) and a specific relation to moral law through freedom and duty’ (see ‘Discourse and truth’, 1983; also in edited form in Fearless Speech, 2001, pp. 11-20). Admittedly, this needs some feminist and poststructuralist work and a critique of the lone masculinist hero; it also needs to be de-individualised, with much more attention to questions of collective speaking, protections and care. Less Socrates, more prefigurative politics. But having a little less REF, a little less audit compliance, a little less satisfaction survey and a little more of a politicised relation to truth in affairs of education, knowledge and academic practice, might help to decolonise the mind.

What does the fearless university feel like? Let’s poke it and let each other know what happens.

Surveying satisfaction: the politics of dread and desire

Last week, a number of members of my PGCE course struck up discussion about the history and politics of UK the National Student Survey. I thought about preparing a handout with some references on the theme. And then I decided to stop pretending like I think that is sufficient for opening up possibilities for actually talking about things, or pretending that I want to perform sort of neutral arbitration of information. My references are still below. If you’d wisely like to make up your own mind through a more balanced review of the debate, the HEA’s ‘Annotated bibliography of key resources’ on the NSS is a good place to start.

If only I had the time to write another piece on the violence of ranking in education, I would love to think through the NSS in a serious way. We all should have been doing this for some time, of course. For while the NSS feels like a permanent part of the inevitable dailyness of university of life, it has, in a very short time, become an extraordinarily powerful technology which enables the marketisation, metricisation and governing of knowledge, and disciplining of academic labour and pedagogical possibility (see Kelly and Burrows 2011). It is, of course, one of many. Roger Burrows has depressingly suggested that ‘it would be quite easy to generate a list of over 100 different nested measures to which each individual academic in the UK is now (potentially) subject’ (2011). So why bother thinking about the NSS, when we are pressed to worry about the ‘Research Excellence Framework’ (REF), citation indexes, TRAC-ing and FEC-ing, quantified workload models, cereal-box-style ‘Key Information Sets’ and all the rest?

I see no reason not to think about anything, particularly something as unstable and contested as the NSS. There are many arguments, and many of these worth considering, that the exercise is a ‘force for good’, in so far as one of its possible purposes is to give students an opportunity to intervene in some minute and not personally beneficial way in decision-making processes in which they otherwise have no say at all. The National Union of Students supports the survey wholeheartedly, particularly as a strategic resource of material for course representatives serving on university committees — which, given its social and economic power, it certainly is. Methodological flaws of the NSS notwithstanding, the desire for student empowerment in universities is obvious.

I have three concerns about the NSS, presented here in order of degree.

One is that it is believed by sociologists to be methodologically flawed in construct validity and for the purposes of comparing institutions — which is now the main purpose for which it is used to inform student ‘choice’. John Holmwood, current president of the British Sociological Association, has argued very bluntly that universities, as institutions of higher learning and scholarship, should ‘know better’ than to allow or propogate its use in this way. Indeed, according to the Higher Education Funding Council for England,

‘The design of the NSS means that there are limitations on its use for comparative purposes … In particular, its validity in comparing results from different subject areas is very restricted, as is its use in drawing conclusions about different aspects of the student experience. One issue to be borne in mind is that, in most cases, the differences between whole institutions are so small as to be statistically and practically insignificant.’

No self-respecting social researcher would allow her data to be applied so far beyond its limitations. I’ll bet no university that is paying attention would even allow it, for fear of legal reprisal and reputational damage. The question is, why do we allow it, and why do the institutions that appear to pride themselves so much on ethical practices and excellence, embrace it?

The second concern is that the NSS is a complex mechanism, whose ambiguous politics are obscured in its representation as a form of student empowerment and an economic necessity. As with many metricised instruments of measurement used in the management of institutions today, the NSS is simultaneously a mechanism for individual student ‘choice’ (although I argue an illusory one) and a mechanism for marketisation, institutional control and individual discipline. I would venture to say that most academics who teach in the present circumstances understand that a poor NSS score can easily provoke knee-jerk demands to ‘do something’ to fix student ‘experiences’, with the expectation that a ‘reform’ will follow whether it is pedagogically sound and humanly sustainable or not. In the most competitive institutions, lecturers are threatened, coerced and disciplined on the basis of such scores. The NSS, in the context of its usage, is at least in one sense a quintessential technology of neoliberal power.

My third and deepest concern is that the NSS is a tragic rip-off for university students, and for meaningful and transformative higher learning. So much time, money, brain-power and energy pumped into a basic, quantitative, generalised survey of one’s entire university ‘experience’ — and one that students complete only when they are about to finish their studies. So much enthusiasm put into encouraging students to be ‘satisfied’ and to participate in the reproduction of a system whose benefits are decidedly unclear and whose damages in ranking institutions are becoming clearer. Students deserve to be more genuinely involved in shaping their educational experiences, in their learning, in determining the nature and politics of the universities they are members of. We, society, need them to be involved in this way. Some of us, as teachers, long for such a scholarly community. If people don’t join the university believing that they should consume it, we certainly try hard to teach them this lesson by the time they leave. Students deserve to make real choices in and for their lives — the kind that C. Wright Mills and Herbert Marcuse once wrote of — the kind that is not choosing between whatever options you are presented with, but creating your own range of possibilities with others and then choosing together between them. We are encouraged to demand that students complete the National Student Survey, and discouraged from suggesting that they might have some serious control within our classrooms and the university itself. We are assured that it is for our own ‘survival’ in the new ‘HE landscape’. What a depressing philosophy of education, not to mention of competitive survivalist politics.

I like to think about other ways of organising student ‘engagement’. When the concept of student research and knowledge production is taken seriously, exciting things do happen (journals, public scholarship, exhibitions, films). If the NSS can’t communicate or expand this sort of activity, what forms of communication might? What are effective and appropriate forms for assessing the state of, and encouraging the growth of, good higher education for all? I’d like to take the items from the NSS (for example) and reread them through the lens of Michael Fielding’s work. I’d like to work with students to imagine some alternative way of having a presence in the university. What great projects these could be. But I’d also like to discuss it with students…

Further reading

Buckley, A. (2012) ‘Unlocking KIS’, WonkHE, 27 September. Online here.

Cheng, J. H. S. (2010) Methodological Issues of Using the NSS to Rank UK Universities. Thesis submitted to the University of Oxford for the degree of D.Phil., online here.

Cheng, J. H. and Marsh (2010)  ‘National Student Survey: are differences between universities and courses reliable and meaningful?’ Oxford Review of Education, 36(6): 693-712. Abstract here.

Fielding, A., Dunleavy, P. and Langan, M. (2010), ‘Interpreting context to the UK’s National Student (Satisfaction) Survey data for science subjects’, Journal of Further and Higher Education 34 (3): 347-368. Abstract here.

Higher Education Academy (2012) ‘The NSS: Annotated bibliography of key resources’. Online here.

Holmwood, J. (2011) ‘Code of practice needed to prevent degree course mis-selling’, Research Blogs, 7 Februrary. Online here.



The borders of education

On Tuesday I attended a talk by Dr. Julian Beckton on issues surrounding student attendance – kicking off a new series of ‘Thinking Aloud’ seminars. Julian raised a number of questions that any educator – and any university – should be asking: what is the significance of the concept of student ‘attendance’ in the university? Does it have any pedagogical value? What are the arguments linking such practices with governmentality or pastoral care or both? What are its politics; what political and economic agendas is it ever embedded within? What is the relationship (or not) between knowing one’s students, ‘keeping attendance’ and monitoring and controlling individuals and groups of people on the basis of their origin of birth or migration status?  Do the virtualisation and deterritorialisation of knowledge and communication require us to reconceptualise the idea and politics of ‘attendance’ itself? And is there any research grounding any of the principles, practices and policies of student attendance now in operation within UK universities?

The immediate context for the talk was the revocation of London Metropolitan University’s ‘highly trusted sponsor status’ in August of this year (a move which the university is presently contesting).

Regulations for monitoring international students in higher education institutions within the UK were introduced in 2009 and strengthened in 2011. Pressure groups, issuing reports about the potential damages to students and the educational system on the whole, called for the points-based immigration system to be reformed or scrapped in 2010.

It also bears remembering that such measures are not unique to the UK; in 2003, the United States government allocated $36.8m to strengthen its systems for monitoring foreign students (through the Patriot Act of 2001). Although we yet face nothing like the militarisation of schools and universities such as has been seen in the US in recent decades, there are resonances that should not be neglected.

The present scenario in the UK is bizarre in the way that neoliberal contradictions are: a government that is bent on commodifying and marketising knowledge and education simultaneously forces universities to report students’ activities to the state in order to, according to its own accounts, regulate population. In effect, the state demands that academics and administrators act as proxy border agents in exchange for state permission to educate students ordinarily residing outside of the EU. In the wake of the audit of London Metropolitan’s compliance with these regulations, universities are now falling over themselves to comply more and harder so as not to also be branded ‘untrustworthy’ and stripped of their financial and educational power. The work of administrators shifts towards that of the police, while it dawns on even the most apolitical of teachers that the monitoring practices are uncomfortable and discriminatory.

Julian pointed to some of the deeper political agendas that play into such decisions, such as cross-party discourses which associate certain forms of immigration with national crisis (to ‘British jobs’, ‘national cohesion’, etc.). He also drew attention to the way that many UK universities have adopted the discriminatory language of the state’s ‘tiered’ visa system, with people who can demonstrate that they are ‘high-value’ and ‘exceptionally talented’ being granted ‘Tier 1’ visas, and with the phantom scheme for unskilled workers (‘Tier 3) suspended now indefinitely. Students coming from outside the EU can apply to become ‘Tier 4’ migrants. Highly valued for their tuition fees, perhaps, but instructed not to stay beyond graduation.

Julian gave an excellent mapping of the potential pros and cons of taking attendance in classes, on the one hand, and of monitoring student presence, on the other. As these can be found on his slides, there is no need to reiterate them; I have discovered that debates around the use of technology for keeping attendance, and about the differences between ‘unobtrusive monitoring’, student self-reporting and the keeping of rosters, have long been in process. I will thus draw attention to some additional questions that emerged from the talk, and which must be considered before discussion of any technical or administrative judgements can effectively take be made.

Above all, what is happening within and through universities which makes it possible and necessary for us to be having this conversation at all? Why is the state, particularly the arm which deals with territory and population, now invited onto campuses with no acknowledgement of the political and economic history of such university–state relations? How is it that suggestions for monitoring students’ movements on campus – in and out of classes and buildings, or even more intimately – can be presented as legitimate alternatives to either taking attendance or forming relationships with our students? In 2006, the then-president of the NUS remarked that ‘it is fair to suggest that a large proportion of students may be dropping out due to building levels of debt. Rather than treating these students like criminals, we believe there are better ways to address the problem.’ And yet, we seem to be moving ever further towards the expanded use of an electronic monitoring device called ‘Uni-Nanny’. Yes, really.

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 university 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 where some academics pride themselves on working to democratise education by ‘co-producing’ knowledge and experience with students?

As was aptly commented in the talk, the message is that UK universities are a ‘dangerous playground’ for international students – who, it was noted by seminar attendees, may well seek more liberal and hospitable institutions elsewhere. But these developments are also indicators of wider dangers now proliferating in our social institutions and everyday lives.  As was pointed out in the post-seminar discussion, it is therefore essential to decouple questions about the pedagogical value of keeping or counting attendance from questions about the political injunction to monitor people’s whereabouts for the purposes of producing the borders of the state, on the other. At the moment, within the discursive regime which has combined them, these different practices elide into one another with ease, and it seems natural to suggest that policing people’s movements and identities is simply a new form of taking attendance, or another layer of institutional bureaucracy. And while we can discuss whether students would benefit from the first, it is vital that academics and students alike refuse to agree that the second is in any way legitimate or acceptable.

As argued by Goldsmiths Migration Solidarity, ‘if the border is a social relation and not a thing, then we must pay attention to the ways in which we are reproducing, enabling and enforcing that border in our day-to-day lives’. Institution-wide non-compliance is possible, but difficult to maintain if it is isolated to either individuals within institutions – particularly the most vulnerable, such as administrators and international students themselves – or to individual institutions in competition with others.

In 2009, the University of Lincoln Academic Board approved a policy on Academic Freedom, drafted by the University Ethics Committee. It states that:

‘The University asserts its freedom to shape its own educational purpose and to determine for itself who may teach, what is taught, how it should be taught, and who may be admitted to study what is taught. This freedom is to be exercised without external interference from social or cultural expectations, public opinion, or public and state bodies. The University presumes every individual member of staff has the right to develop and express ideas openly and to pursue all lines of enquiry as suggested by their studies. This freedom is to be exercised without internal interference from others’ expectations, opinion or institutional regulations, policies and procedures.’

In 2009, just as the UKBA was designing its new interventions into university affairs, the University asserted its freedom to shape not only its own purpose, curriculum and pedagogy, but also ‘who may be admitted to study what is taught’. Why? Because the university is an institution where learning, the creation of knowledge, social and political critique, and professional and ethical judgement can be cultivated within and defended by society.
The erosion of of these principles and freedoms by forces of state and economic power, or in more extreme cases their revocation or replacement, has never led to anything progressive.  Of course, we should have no illusions about the intimate relationships that already flourish, and which are in fact being furiously cultivated, between universities, the military, industry and corporate business. Critiques of the monitoring of students are not about maintaining some sort of mythical intellectual or political purity, although they might be about refusing to weave another thread through them.

But it must be understood that they are also not simply about taking attendance.

Cambridge student suspended for reading poem in protest against fees

On March 14th, the University of Cambridge Court of Discipline ruled to suspend Owen Holland, a PhD candidate, for two-and-a-half years.

His punishment, which was apparently much greater than the prosecutor initially recommended, was for reading out a poem to protest the imposition of higher tuition fees during a speech being given by David Willetts on the same issue in November 2011.

Sixty of the other students and faculty members who also recited the poem at the time have written a letter demanding they be similarly disciplined.

Suspended from doctoral research for seven terms, for peacefully disrupting the education minister’s speech, in collective verse. Regardless of what you think of the poem or the tactic, the university’s heavy-handed institutional discipline is yet another indication of the closing of possibilities for creative civil disobedience in this society.