This post began as a reflection on why the term ‘imperialist-white-supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy’ isn’t funny. I attended a conference session on gender violence and inequality in universities in which the term got a good laugh. It was nearly inaudible amidst the noise of sexual assaults and harassment on high school and university campuses, the complicity of institutional management in silencing gender critique, persistent racism–sexism in the academy, gendered precarity and inequalities in pay, and institutionalised and legitimised patriarchy throughout the educational system. There have been advances. Earlier this year, campaigners in the UK (including high school students Jessy McCabe and June Eric-Udorie) overturned a government proposal to remove feminism from the A-level curriculum – although with many reports on the campaign emphasising the inclusion of Simone de Beauvoir, Hannah Arendt, Rosa Luxeburg and Ayn Rand, it remains to ask #whyismycurriculumwhite.
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.
“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.”
2.15 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
3.45 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.
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.
‘Ironically, it may be precisely because critical feminist epistemologies are presently so illegible within neoliberal rationality that they offer some of the most fruitful resources of resistance, particularly in clarifying the forms of gender power that are deployed to disarticulate the conditions for the development of collective oppositional consciousness. But is it wise to continue to cultivate hope that universities can be spaces for critical intellectual work, or forces in struggles for social justice, under these conditions? Should we not rather map out lines of flight from these institutions and invest all of our critical energies into counterhegemonic or prefigurative forms of pedagogy, politics and cultural work?* To be sure, it is necessary to examine the attachments and interpellations that draw us to the academy as a social form, to understand its many limitations, and to practice alternative forms of feminist public pedagogy (Chidgey 2010). But universities remain complex and contradictory institutions as well as important sites of struggle and the production of critical feminist knowledge and practice. ‘
* Which I would now argue, some time after initially writing this paper, are important both within and outside of the existing institutions.