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.

Democratic university governance

Universities for a Democratic Society (Part IV)
Report from Future U: Creating the Universities We Want
A conference of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations
27–28 February 2014
‘When we consider the future of academic governance, I think it benefits us all to see it as a means to a larger and higher end; the integrity of a class of institutions that, for more than a millennia, have brought practical knowledge, theoretical knowledge, innovation, wisdom and artistic creation for the benefit of all. Our model of governance for the future cannot be that of multinational corporations or executive branches of government. Our horizons are much further and our purposes much deeper than the transitory nature of commerce and politics.’

Rick Kool, ‘Academic governance: means or end?’


 ‘If governed as a university, it becomes a university…’

I loved that this session began with etymology, with Rick Kool tracing the meaning of ‘governance’ to ‘steering’.

[to govern (verb): from the 13th century Old French governer; this from Latin gubernare, to ‘direct, rule, guide, govern’; and originally borrowed from the Greek kybernan, ‘to steer or pilot a ship’ (also the root of kybernetics)]

Working with this metaphor, we can ask: who steers the university? Who is responsible for creating the parameters of movement, the regulatory forces of the material, the rules and norms, the relations and conduits of communication? Who speaks to, listens to, co-operates with and trusts whom?

Speaking in prefigurative prose, his point was clear: ‘Governed as a university, the institution becomes a university. Governed as a corporation, it becomes a corporation.’ Yet in universities across Canada as elsewhere, academics are increasingly retreating from governance or being shut out of it, as the steering power of new cadres of managers and ‘partners’ is strengthened. And as we are not governing the university as one thing, it has become another. We all know what is going on, according to graduate student and activist Kevin Godbout, but are afraid to say it out loud: many academics work to generate revenue for the interests of elite corporate power which have turned universities into private enterprises.

Democratising university governance everyday
Yet would it necessarily be an improvement if academics had responsibilities for governing the university? Claire Polster presented a provocative and compelling case for why it would be, so long as we understand the struggle for governance as part of a broader project of democratising academic culture.

Presently, academic culture is plagued by institutionalised competition between individuals, research groups, departments, institutions, confederations of universities, and national higher education systems. Within this context, even a substantial ‘democratisation’ of formal academic processes and systems of decision-making would not necessarily catalyse true democratic governance of education or research, much less collective governance in the public interest. We need to work towards deeper, more fundamental cultural and economic transformations of ways of being academic as well. What struck me most about her talk was her anticipatory imagination of the university of the future; the prefigurative consciousness that our principles and actions are not simply affecting what happens to higher education here and now, but are also shaping the reproduction of academics, the university and the parameters of its future possibilities.

Polster outlined a number of basic, everyday recommendations that can support the renovation of democratic forms of academic.

With students, she suggested, let’s prepare them for lives of social responsibility through greater exposure to and participation in kinds of learning which are collaborative and co-operative rather than individualised and competitive. Let’s help graduate students learn about and cultivate their own identities as public servants, intellectuals and activists rather than encouraging them to master the dark arts of ‘compulsive survivalism’.

She also recommended caring more for ourselves and others through challenging our relationship to punishing traditions of reward and recognition, and creating alternatives. Let’s abolish the culture of super-stardom in the academy, which normalises extreme hierarchies of value amongst researchers and teachers and diminishes so much of the good work that is being done.

We can also, she suggested, promote more dialogue and community within the university by creating times and spaces to come together, within and between academic departments, for open-ended, non-instrumentalised, reflexive and critical public discussion about matters of common concern. The rejoinder, of course, will be that there are no times or spaces in the work-intensified and precarious environment. But the point is precisely this: to redo time and space, which are in so many untapped ways political and accomplished through practice; to create new times and new spaces and new ways of being, by undoing those temporal and spatial imaginaries, habits and practices which make it difficult for us to come together.

But while these everyday activities are significant, and in many contexts may even demand various kinds of institutional activism, Polster’s main argument was more structural. For at the same time, she argued, we must develop a rigorous analysis of and work to transform the relations in and through which the governance of the university is possible. One of the reasons informal ‘hallway talk’ is politically wasteful is not because it is synonymous with ‘griping’; on the contrary, it is vital that those working within institutions speak openly and often with friends and comrades about their everyday world as problematic. The weakness of such conversations outside of a more structural analysis, however, is their tendency to individualise these problematics by focusing either on individual people in positions of power, or on the limits and possibilities of addressing power as an individual or subordinate group.

Studying and transforming the ruling relations of the university

What matters in the institutions, she argued, is not individual people but the policies, regulations and practices which shape what Dorothy Smith once called the ‘relations of ruling’, or the ‘extra-local abstracted relations organizing multiple sites of people’s activities in standardized ways’. What we need, therefore, is better and informed understanding of how these mechanisms shape and constrain possibilities for democratic governance in specific contexts, and the possibility of using this understanding to inform acts of strategic transformation. It is not insignificant that Smith’s early work on the relations of ruling emerged from a feminist critique of the North American university as an institution preserving  both patriarchy and what she described as a new form (in the 1990s) of ‘class totalitarianism’ (‘Consciousness, meaning and ruling relations’, p. 38). And while struggles against gendered and racialised inequalities in higher education did receive some attention during the conference, feminist consciousness and analysis remain in need of nurture everywhere.

Consider, for example, the problem of ‘pseudo-consultation’ within structures of university governance. Academics, students and occasionally other members of the university community are increasingly invited to sit on formal committees, participate in consultations, and etc. Yet in many cases, such participation takes place within anti-democratic relations of ruling, in which power to make the most significant decisions (including decisions about the frameworks of thinking and debate) – and often ultimate decisions as well – remains locked in ‘inner circles’, in non-transparent and often invisible committees or individuals. In such situations, Polster argued, and for particular people in the context of particular universities, there are many possible responses: engaging in dialogues and negotiations of transformation of existing relations, boycotting such ‘opportunities’ for participation, engaging in such work in order to further distribute knowledge and information, producing research which outlines the limits and the benefits and possibilities of such practices, producing and circulating alternative policies and strategic plans, and inviting wider attention to and discussion of the issue through internal and external media. Her point was that any decision about governance within everyday university life potentially presents opportunities to deepen our understanding of how these activities are framed by the relations of ruling, and presents opportunities for challenging and democratising them.

For an illuminating project in democratising university governance both internally and publicly, see Root Gorelick’s blogs on Carleton University’s Board of Governors and Academic Senate (the latter of which summarises Senate discussions about issues such as ‘strategic mandates’, ‘teaching and learning frameworks’, programmes, building work, hiring policies and various other matters of concern). In a recent post on the former, regarding both the OCUFA conference and the politics of the board, he wrote:

I am not saying that there are easy answers regarding governance. But given how much passion there is at departmental meetings, we should be able to translate this into effective and engaged higher-level democratic governance. It is difficult, but not impossible.

Defending the boundaries of the university
From a UK perspective, one of Polster’s most refreshing points was her reminder that academics and university communities have a responsibility to govern – or at least intervene in and mediate – policies, practices and regulations which originate outside the university (e.g., from government) but that impact upon higher education, academic research, the production of knowledge and the conditions and environments of study, labour and life in the institutions.

Yes. This is it. The gradual corporatization, privatization and marketization of higher education in this country have not simply ‘happened’. As elsewhere, they have been accomplished through a wide and intricate web of policies and strategic economic and discursive manoeuvres, many of which are made by largely unelected bodies on the basis of inadequate scholarly knowledge with little or no public debate. Furthermore, in recent decades, the most significant educational policies have increasingly represented corporate rather than educational or social interests. Who, in this environment, will defend the university against subordination to these external interests and logics, particularly when senior administrators claim they are compelled to serve them or risk ‘sector exclusion’ and foreclosure?

Remedying a democratic deficit within the university without responding to the democratic deficit that shapes if from without is not good enough. Yet at the same time, a substantial and meaningful democratisation of the university from within, which would increase academics’ and students’ collective capacities to resist anti-democratic pressures from without, could have significant effects on wider movements of social change.

Again, context matters. Work to challenge non-democratic relations of ruling within many British universities, where managerial hierarchies are more common than systems of professional governance, may need to take different form than that done in many Canadian universities with their bicameral structures of academic senates and boards –though it was noted by some members of the audience that these don’t necessarily provide space for genuine communication, conversation, deliberation or power-sharing (e.g., Nick Falvo’s discussion of board governance from a graduate student perspective).

Educating the university
Finally, Glen Jones raised an important question: how do we create academics for the universities of the future? What subjectivities, relations of ruling, values, knowledges and practices are being prefigured now in the everyday interactions between experienced and newer teachers, between teachers and students? It struck me that I have never heard this question asked quite this way before. It is not a question about the future of the institution, as in familiar predictions of its impending demise or the climbing of this or that university into the top-whatever-percent of random league table. It is not about what-is-happening-in-five-minutes. It was a great question about how people who are studying and becoming academics – teachers and researchers – learn about what the university is, was and can be; about its relationship to society and their relationship to the history of their fields and the project of higher education; about their role in relation to students, their role in governing and steering the institution; their place as part of a collegium. We are always teaching, modelling, mentoring things to be reproduced or rejected. What shape are we giving the future?

The history and future of the ‘civic university’
In a later talk, R. Fallis outlined three models of ‘the civic university’:

  • the historical British civic university, or ‘redbrick’, modelled on the University of Sheffield’s establishment as a community-oriented, industrially focused institution for ‘the people’;


  • the historical US civic university, whose purpose was to prepare (some) people for democratic citizenship through mass general and liberal education as well as specialist training (citing John Dewey’s work and the Truman Commission’s post-war  ‘Higher Education in a Free Society’ [1947]); and


  • the idea that the university itself is a fundamental institution of democratic life (along with, e.g., citizens’ rights, democratic political structures, a free press, spaces of activity which are independent from the centres of power), and which therefore must be strong and independent ‘institutional sanctuaries…of non-repression’ (Amy Gutmann, Democratic Education).

Fallis argued that while he believed there were some elements of the first form of ‘civic’ university alive in Canada (e.g., varying forms of public higher education, high rates of participation, and some public faith in the intrinsic benefits of higher education), he also suggested the absolute collapse of discourse around the public good means that that at present it is more appropriate to speak of building rather than rebuilding any kind of civic university.

The practically provocative part of this talk was the lines of reflective thought it opened up. Can you find, he asked, any mention of any of these missions and commitments in the regulations of your university? Is a social project of higher education present in the documents which outline the expectations of academics, students and those working in academic and educational support in your institution? What is your university doing to learn about and strengthen its commitments to civic life, democracy, and the individual and collective development and use of knowledge towards these ends? On inspection of universities’ own self-representation, of course, we find the answers to these questions are largely negative as the institutions ‘rebrand’ themselves as capital-driven and oriented competitors in the ‘education business’. And yet within these heaving corporations which are all proudly stampeding one another to the top of public league tables, much of the academic work being done already works intuitively through liberal democratic practices of dialogue, debate, argumentation and inquiry. How much do we draw on this to inform the governance of the university itself? And above all, do we walk around with a vision of being in an institution that is fundamental to the functioning and defence of a truly democratic society?

This paper ended with a number of suggestions for strengthening the social muscles of the university, including a pointer to Academic Governance 3.0 and ideas like:

  • emphasising the civic and democratic role of the university wherever possible, particularly in the ways we represent our academic work to the world, and expecting and helping those responsible for official representations to contribute to this project;


  • defending institutional autonomy and academic freedom wherever they are threatened;


  • democratising curriculum, pedagogy and governance in our own fields of work and spheres of immediate influence; and


  • including consideration of civic commitments, public intellectual work and pedagogies, and social criticism and engagement in expectations for academic standards, promotions and tenure.

Reading-room-in-prison type stuff?

Towards the end of this session, I asked about the relationship between the political and economic democratization of the university. It is possible, for example, to imagine an institution or university system that was internally governed in radically democratic ways – autonomous decisions made through processes in which faculty and students had efficacious voice and all the rest – but that, like the most creative corporations, channels the productive results into improving its strategic position in a decidedly undemocratic and unfair economic ‘marketplace’. Democratization in the university is not equal to democratization of the university, or to its governance as a fundamental institution operating in the service of democratic social life. This tension also emerged in later discussions of the paradoxes of participation, namely, that mass participation in higher education which is not supported by policies to proactively advance social justice often exacerbates stratification and inequality rather than reducing them.

How does a radically democratic university respond to government policies that force people to pay huge amounts of tuition fees to gain access to higher education? To financial and institutional regulations which force it to compete with other institutions for economic sustainability or survival? To pressures to spend more and more time on ‘marketing’ higher education as if it were simply a commodity to be bought and sold? How does it deal with questions of labour and livelihood: salaries, employment contracts, material resources, land, buildings?

It is impossible to have a fully democratic university existing within a fundamentally undemocratic society, particularly where its work is tied up with that of other institutions and corporations. In this sense, the very idea of faculty governance may be easily disregarded, as it was by radical students in recent periods of movement, as akin to a ‘reading room in a prison’ which ‘serves only as a distraction from the misery of daily life’.

I think, however, it is possible that the people who wrote this may never have been in a prison reading room, or given much thought to all the sub-emancipatory but important things such reading rooms can do. (Hence the importance of the present debate over the UK government’s prohibition on sending prisoners books – I know at least one prisoner who was indeed waiting for the next book to arrive, the next sign that there was reason to believe other worlds still existed.) Universities are sites of struggle and potentially sites of resistance, and there is every possibility that radical democratization within these critical institutions could catalyze or inspire the radical democratization of other institutions and power relations beyond. There is also every possibility, as the dual character of possibility demands, that it cannot do these things.

But what have we not yet attempted? In my department, we have not yet tried to institutionalize really radically democratic processes of decision-making that would facilitate the collective governance of financial and material matters as well as political and academic ones.

Claire Polster was much more creative, suggesting that we could develop practices modelled on participatory budgeting and community development budgeting – particularly as these are mainstream practices that have been used by local government and community groups for many years. In 2012, Brooklyn College became the first US higher education institution to allow participatory budgeting (of 10% of its student budget). See here and here.

‘Working conditions are learning conditions’

Higher Education for a Democratic Society (Part III)
Report from Future U: Creating the Universities We Want
A conference of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations
27–28 February 2014

Casualties of corporatisation

‘Of late we can observe distinctly that the German universities in the broad fields of science develop in the direction of the American system. The large institutes of medicine or natural science are ‘state capitalist’ enterprises, which cannot be managed without very considerable funds. Here we encounter the same condition that is found wherever capitalist enterprise comes into operation: the ‘separation of the worker from his means of production.’ The worker, that is, the assistant, is dependent upon the implements that the state puts at his disposal; hence he is just as dependent upon the head of the institute as is the employee in a factory upon the management. For, subjectively and in good faith, the director believes that this institute is ‘his,’ and he manages its affairs. Thus the assistant’s position is often as precarious as is that of any ‘quasi-proletarian’ existence and just as precarious as the position of the assistant in the American university.’ (Max Weber, ‘Science as a vocation’, 1919)

It was not until the session ‘Faculty in Future U’ that I became aware of my own lack of knowledge about what is going on to support university workers on ‘fixed’ or ‘atypical’ contracts in the UK, to analyse trends in the casualization of academic labour, or to push against and challenge contractual opportunism and exploitation. There were indictments in the conference of divisions between those on full-time and ‘permanent’ contracts and those working more precariously – more prominent in the US since the vast majority of undergraduate teachers are adjuncts and because adjuncts are often treated appallingly – and it is clear that we need to do much more to make these alliances.

The session focused on the conditions of academic labour in Australian, Canadian and US universities, specifically on problems of casualization, career structures and the relationship between online education and labour relations. However, there was also a strong message that, as a number of students put it, ‘teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions’; or in other words, that the casualization of educational work has deleterious effects on higher education and knowledge on the whole as well as on individuals. A system that is leaving students and educators in poverty is failing.

In recent years, the personal consequences of working as an adjunct professor – many of whom are now burdened with student loans, without health care and included in the US’s bulging numbers of ‘working poor’, and which also make up over three quarters of the US academic teaching force – have been brought to public attention: ‘Hello, class, your professor’s on food stamps’, ‘From graduate school to welfare’, ‘Why adjunct professors are struggling to make ends meet’, and most distressingly, ‘Zero opportunity employers’. Two major organisations – the Coalition of Contingent Academic Labour (founded between 1996 and 1998) and the New Faculty Majority (founded in 2009), as well as the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education – are working across a range of issues to, in the words of the NFM mission:

improving the quality of higher education by advancing professional equity and securing academic freedom for all adjunct and contingent faculty. For this purpose, NFM engages in education and advocacy to provide economic justice and academic equity for all college faculty. NFM is committed to creating stable, equitable, sustainable, non-exploitative academic environments that promote more effective teaching, learning, and research.’

But, the panellists asked, is casual labour a bad thing? Doesn’t it give more people more opportunities for working ‘flexibly’? While there are plenty of links above offering various answers to this question. According to Robin Sowards, three stand out:

  • contingent labour is unsustainable;
  • contingent labour contributes to poor quality education; and
  • contingent labour contradicts the university’s historical mission.

Indeed, he argued, the conditions of adjunct teaching are such that they may impact negatively on students’ learning and educational experience – and most particularly addressed in the criteria used to evaluate this experience via the US National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE). For example:

  • opportunities for ‘participation in dozens of educationally purposeful activities’ are diminished by contingent labour as adjunct professors, particularly those who work at multiple universities, often do not have either the resources to support extracurricular activities or collaborative and interactive learning, or the ability to make the long-term plans that are needed to organise these activities


  • contingent arrangement may make it difficult for professors to engage critically with ‘institutional requirements and the challenging nature of coursework’, particularly as they may fear encouraging students to challenge their comfort zones in environments where their teaching is evaluated solely on the basis of students’ satisfaction


  • ‘perceptions of the college environment’ may be disappointed when students are forced to meet with professors who do not have offices for supervision, adequate spaces for teaching, and in some cases even official university emails for communicating; the ‘unbundling’ of support for students and pastoral care and its redistribution through a range of ‘services’ may have deleterious effects on relationships between students and their teachers

When adjunct professors make up the bulk of the teaching community but receive little or no support for doing research or engaging in continuing education through attending and presenting at conferences in their field, students lose opportunities to learn about, from and through original and challenging research, and the university fails in its historic mission to support the advancement of knowledge and academic freedom. As more contingent faculty scramble for fewer funding grants for research, the narrower the fields of original research will become. Adjunct faculty often have little voice in their own departmental affairs, little relationship to the processes of decision-making within universities; in short, little voice or agency in the conditions of their work.

In other words, contingent academic labour – in the US, the UK and elsewhere – is not just a flexible adaptation to changing conditions, or a new way for graduate students to gain experience in ‘being academic’. As more and more ‘permanently’ contracted academics realise the precarity of even this position, which does not protect them from being ‘redeployed’ in structural reorganisation, being subjected to an imposed ‘re-evaluation of roles’ in response to even short-term changes in markets, or in some cases having their contract withdrawn. Contingency and precarity is becoming a new status quo.

Contingency and precarity of being academic – the UK picture
So what is the state of play in the UK? Academic work, and teaching in particular, is not as casualised as it is in the US, where just over three quarters of professors (or ‘lecturers’, in UK terms) are adjuncts. How does this system fare in comparison to others, such as Australia, where according to Leesa Wheelahan about 60% of teaching is done by people on casual contracts with few structured frameworks of career development? To Canadian universities, where the number of tenure-track posts increased by 30% between 1998 and 2010, but, according to Glen Jones, academic labour is becoming more fragmented in both vertical and horizontal ways? Or to universities in Finland?

It takes a little work to get a handle on the scope of the problem because the data on labour contracts is slippery: adjunct faculty are variously classified as ‘fixed-term’, ‘hourly paid’ or simply ‘atypical’. HESA statistics suggest that in 2011/12, just under half of all academics in the UK were on permanent full-time contracts, and about one-fifth on fixed-term part-time contracts, or more than a third on fixed-term contracts overall. However, as pointed out by Anna Fazackerley, there are 82,000 ‘atypically’ employed people missing from these figures; she also highlights a 30% rise in teaching-only, temporarily employed lecturers from 2009 to 2012.

The UK University and College Union now asserts that ‘fixed-term and hourly paid staff are faced with job insecurity which blights our further and higher education systems, bringing with it inefficiency, inequality and personal stress.’ It is also running a campaign called ‘Stamp Out Casual Contracts’, which aims to raise awareness both about casualization and the union’s work to challenge it. In the meantime, to support those on casual contracts, they also publish an ‘Hourly Paid Survival Guide’. But if academic teachers are only surviving, something is broken.

There was an interesting debate within the conference over strategies for ending casualization and establish reasonable contracts for academics. Some argued that it was necessary to demonstrate how casualization negatively impacts upon the quality and creativity of teaching and ‘educational outcomes’. Others, however, felt that this could be interpreted as a devaluation of the deeply committed work that many adjunct professors do with and for their students, contribute to a negative discourse about the academy, and in the final analysis potentially be regarded as irrelevant in situations where what matters is not learning but profit.

The faculty of the future
Several proposals were made during this session, again by Robin Sowards: the establishment of universal job security for all workers, including academics; and greater workplace democracy, or worker control of our educational institutions. Both of these require work to enable more collective action, and ‘multiplying points of leverage in co-ordinated struggle’.

He also reminded us that the word ‘university’ is a shortened and Anglicised version of the Latin universitas magistrorum et scholarium, or ‘community of masters and scholars’ – a ‘community’ which has taken many different forms across time and space. One of the peculiar features of this community, however, is that we can easily forget that we are also workers. Another is that we seem to also forget, as Chomsky recently said in an interview on why the corporatization and casualization of academic work is a bad idea, that:

‘We are human beings with human rights. It’s good for the individual, it’s good for the society, it’s even good for the economy, in the narrow sense, if people are creative and independent and free. Everyone benefits if people are able to participate, to control their fate, to work with each other – that may not maximize profit and domination, but why should we take those to be values to be concerned about?’

Of course do not have to accept these as values, or adopt them as principles of practice. We can work within and across our departments and universities to ensure that everyone has facilitative and just conditions of work. To ensure that those with ‘privilege’ do as much as possible to protect those who are still struggling in and against precarity, that they are visible and audible and have the space and resources and recognition they deserve. We can ensure that we do not self-exploit or exploit the vulnerability, goodwill and carefulness of our colleagues and students. We can learn more about and lend a shoulder to the campaign to fight imposed casualization and precarity in academic and all labour.

Yet amidst all this, I am mindful that the right to work is not necessarily liberatory, or rather that it is not a sufficient measure of liberation within a system that disciplines and punishes possibility through labour itself. I have yet to explore how the struggle for justice in academic labour may be connected with or radicalised through struggles for the disarticulation of higher learning from the wage. For as Kathi Weeks asks in The Problem with Work,

‘Why do we work so long and so hard? The mystery here is not that we are required to work or that we are expected to devote so much time and energy to its pursuit, but rather that there is not more active resistance to this state of affairs.’
And later:

‘The refusal of work is at once a model of resistance, both to the modes of work that are currently imposed on us and to their ethical defense, and a struggle for a different relationship to work born from the collective autonomy that a postwork ethics and more nonwork time could help us to secure.’

Yet even if we have a post-work horizon in sight, the hardships and consequences of its ‘casualization’ are problems today, and they are having deleterious effects on people’s bodies and lives, and on the opportunities available for critical education. Human beings are not human resources. As both the creation of universal job security and the establishment of greater workplace democracy are both, in effect, already projects to undermine the logic of and power capital in our educational institutions, it makes sense to align these to other struggles against the alienation of labour and reification of human possibility into human resources as well.

What can faculty association do?

Higher Education for a Democratic Society (Part II)
Report from Future U: Creating the Universities We Want
A conference of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations
27–28 February 2014

In attendance at the Future U conference were many people who not only believe in the transformative power of higher education and its importance for democratic life and social justice, but who also assert their right and responsibility to ensure that the university fulfils this function, and who have confidence that it is within their power, largely through collective political and cultural action, to do so. This does not mean that they are always successful; it was clear that there are tensions, and that the ongoing structural transformation of the university into a capitalist enterprise is increasingly difficult to shift here as well. But the fact that many Canadian universities remain public and have functional or partially functional systems of meaningful faculty governance suggests that there is something significant about the faculty association.

Faculty associations, as constituted in Canadian and American universities, are precisely that: associations of faculty members (i.e., academics) which give them collective voice to speak for the well-being of both academic workers and the educational and academic environments of the university. With no single national union, in most universities faculty have their own associations and many of these are united into larger confederated associations. Faculty associations tend to be distinct from affiliate associations and unions of university and educational support workers and students, and in some instances are divided into associations for tenured and untenured (i.e., part-time and contingent) faculty and graduate students; however, at the conference there were stories of some successful strategic alliances between these associations at both institutional and regional levels.

Faculty associations are not necessarily unions, although they serve primarily a similar purpose within individual universities and, in certain regions of Canada, as confederations. Many faculty associations are unionised, a fewer number are not unionised either by choice or due to legal prohibitions on unionisation in particular areas, and some are in the process of debating whether they should unionise or not. I do not yet understand the nuances of the relationship between the faculty association, the unionised faculty association and the union; however:

  • without a ‘national pay scale’ or ‘national bargaining scheme’, faculty associations are instrumental in negotiating policies on pay, working hours and conditions, economic benefits including child care, pensions, and health care at individual institutions and are often the only recognised collective bargaining agents at such; and


  • faculty associations that are not unionised neither fall under the authority of nor have the legal protection of the relevant labour relations code, which means that university administrations may restrict the scope of matters which may be negotiated, and unresolved disputes between a faculty association and a university administration would be resolved through the courts rather than through a labour board.

A fuller discussion of the ‘unionisation debate’ from the perspective of British Columbia can be found here. What is more interesting in a UK context, however, is the somewhat broader notion (even where only notional) of faculty association as a form of professional and political organisation that can, under certain circumstances, enable collective action in matters of university governance itself. It asserts that the faculty members, along with other members of the university community, not only have the right to fair working conditions and wages also the right and the responsibility more generally to meaningfully participate in the economic, political and cultural governance of the institution itself. This means not only contributing to negotiations, deliberation on decision-making committees and representing wider interests on Academic Senates, but participating in steering and shaping the overall regulation, direction and day-to-day running of the university. It also means that members of the university have a duty to respond critically to any educational policy which is harmful to education, students, academics or support workers, particularly when it is created by and imposed from non-academic centres of power. While this rarely looks like direct democracy, it often involves not a little direct action.

An even broader function is described in the mandate of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations, which is to ‘maintain and enhance the quality of higher education in Ontario, and to advance the professional and economic interests of teachers, researchers and librarians in Ontario universities’, and to ‘ensure that the views of its member associations are communicated to government policy makers, the public, and those concerned with the quality and accessibility of post-secondary education’.

This confederation of faculty associations seems a union-plus: a professional association for economic, political and cultural empowerment and collective action that works in an integrated way. Collective bargaining over pay and conditions is a central part of this work, but part of a broader range of activities which aim to transform the internal and external conditions in which such bargains are deliberated and struggled for. These include:

  • maintaining a system of internal communications through which all members of the university community can discuss issues of concern, circulate and have access to critical information about decision-making plans and processes within the university administration, present and consider alternative proposals put forward by other members of the community, and learn about significant reports, analysis and events, thus facilitating internal organisation;


  • maintaining a system of external communications through which faculty members can connect with people outside the university community, sharing news and analysis (which may be particularly important if the university’s public relations work does not accurately or adequately represent the voices of students, support workers and faculty members, thus facilitating external organisation and alliances and gaining possibilities to learn about the educational and research needs of local communities; and


  • meeting, disseminating information to and negotiating with a range of bodies beyond the university administration which have an interest or stake in university governance and financing, including government ministers and civil servants, members of political parties, state and non-governmental organisations;


  • providing statistical information and research on trends in higher education ‘for faculty negotiating purposes’ and running or sponsoring workshops towards this end; and


  • and doing a wide range of other stuff, from recognising good work in scholarship and activism, to granting scholarships and organising conferences on critical issues.

No single faculty association does all of this, and Canadian universities has their own politics and particularities because they are relatively autonomous. Nevertheless, the notion of a faculty association that has a broad interest in promoting and educating its members and society as well as struggling for workplace democracy as well as defending workers’ and students employment rights is an interesting one.

This is because the struggle for the university today is not located in only in its consequences; the immediate things that cause us trouble. These must be addressed. But the privatisation and corporatisation of higher education has been taking place for such a long time through a wide range of activities and practices, regulatory and financial operations, policies and recommendations, and campaigns of cultural and intellectual change – some governmental and nebulous, and others contrived. The structural transformation and re-functioning of higher education has advanced as an incremental, cumulative and contested historical project: a general direction of social forces that results from making a ‘determinate choice, seizure of one among other ways of comprehending, organizing and transforming reality’ in a way that ‘defines the range of possibilities open on this way, and precludes alternatives’ (Marcuse 1964, p. 219). Challenges to this, and alternatives, must therefore be just as wide-ranging and comprehensive, and include a range of different kinds of actions and activities. It would be interesting to consider how an organisation such as the American Association of University Professors has responded in this environment, given its historical purpose to ‘advance academic freedom and shared governance, to define fundamental professional values and standards for higher education, and to ensure higher education’s contribution to the common good’.

Within the current conditions and for the foreseeable future, collective bargaining for fair pay and conditions, adequate pensions, the protection and dignity of part-time and casual workers is an essential part of keeping academic labour fair. It could be even stronger if we dedicate equal work on the ground and in practice to the grassroots democratisation of faculty, university-wide and cross-university political and economic governance. There has been some discussion of university governance in the UCU in recent years (see 2009 and 2011), but could be more articulation of academic governance as a professional or political movement that we can actively work to cultivate and expand in everyday practices and through collective education, organisation and action.

For more on collective economic, political and cultural governance of the university, and hings happening in the world of US and Canadian faculty organising, see here.

Building the university to come: strategies, tactics, visions

Universities for a Democratic Society (Part V)
Report from Future U: Creating the Universities We Want
A conference of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations
27–28 February 2014

Building the universities to come

The final session of the Future U conference was led by a panel of students and academic support workers, and framed by OCUFA president Kate Lawson’s argument that because we cannot see into the future or always identify what constitutes a moment of opportunity in crisis, ‘now is always the moment to act’. Decisions to direct university budgets in one way rather than others, to embrace or query the use of a new technology, to lobby, participate or withdraw are examples of important moments. We enter into the university without knowing how we will be transformed through our work here, she pointed out; we conduct research without knowing where it will lead us, yet in both instances we have some orientation. This is true also of our conduct in the everyday.

Some desires were predictable. The universities of the future should make sense to people (as presently, academics are skilled at publicising negative discourses about the institutions but we do a pretty poor job of publicising and celebrating the benefits of post-secondary education). Future U has no contingent faculty and more students and teachers working in socially stable positions, and it recognises and draws strength from diversity and democratic dissensus.

More interesting, however, was the sense of a collective responsibility to bequeath a better legacy of higher education and university life for generations to come. ‘Future U is a dismal place’, said one person, ‘if we are not prepared to fight for what we believe in’ – starting with the ways we think about the university and our duties to constitute it thusly. Or as another put it, how do we respond when people ‘pull goofy shit out of the air and try to impose it on us’?

It was Janice Folk Dawson, President of the Canadian Union of Public Employees 1334, who presented some of the most articulate ideas for how we might do this. Her motto, she said, is that ‘what you permit, you promote’ – reminding me of the great US abolitionist Frederick Douglas’s argument that ‘the limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress’. Her arguments were various, but stressed concerns about building better relations of friendship, solidarity and commitment between students, faculty and academic support workers within the broader university community, in order to protect and promote higher educational possibilities for all.  Her suggestions included:

  • the creation of forums for sustaining conversations about what is happening in the university, for analysing tendencies and decisions, for developing strategies (including alternative policies, budgets, etc. that may be circulated to raise awareness about the contingency of the ones on offer)


  • working on comprehensive campaigns to change regulatory acts, laws and policies that shape the big business of the university, including the organisation of democratic or managerial governance, regulations on student fees and admissions, the corporate or other form of ownership of assets, etc.)


  • reduce or eliminate higher bureaucratic levels within the institutions and replace these with educators and support staff, compensating all fairly for their service to the university project


  • taking a critical position on the ‘false crises’ created and used by governments to justify the withdrawal of financial support for higher education, reduction in pensions, and privatisation


  • fighting for subsidised and socialised childcare for students, academics and non-academic workers (both day care and night care, for those working night shifts)


  • frequent political organisations and party representatives to advocate opposition to cuts in education budgets and to demand the abolition of privatised fees

There is a need for research that can help us to concretise our alternative university projects which are governed by different sets of values (particularly given that many consequential actions are being imposed without any serious analysis at all), and for recognising that taking the university in these new directions may advance in incremental fashion, just as it has been taken away. For Kate Lawson, this project need not be bound by responses to policies. We can reimagine our relationships with all our communities, including through community-based research and expanding public participation in educational policy making. We can deepen the democratic character of relationships with students and reject discourses that frame educational problems as a result of their ‘deficiencies’. We can embrace radical collegiality, recalling that the term ‘colleague’ refers to ‘one chosen along with others as a partner in office’. And all of this, she said, must be done in the spirit of co-operation, solidarity and sustainability; in other words, with a long-term vision.

At the end of our OCUFA sessions, I was asked to share about some of the experimentation already going on around the world – something apparently neglected in North American contexts where I was told the concept of higher education tends to be limited to contexts where young undergraduate students move straight from high school to four-year university degrees. I said:

Despite the overbearing narratives of enclosure, it is in fact difficult to keep up with all the various work that is going on around the world to resist the economisation of universities, to engage in critical forms of higher learning within formal systems, and to create different kinds of higher educational spaces outside the cultural and institutional systems that exist today.

To be able to see much of this work as experimental in a good and serious way, and as real alternatives, it is helpful to be able to take a wide view about what higher education is and can be, and can be for. Some of it looks like the traditional undergraduate model, but much of it challenges this approach, as well as the economic, social and cultural premises upon which it is built.
There have always been ‘alternative’ universities. Since its founding in 1997, Mondragon University (Basque region, Spain), which is the world’s largest ‘co-operative’ university, has been a source of interest for those interested in whether it is possible to have a locally co-operative university within a global capitalist system. I have never been there, and have only read about it. Apparently it looks like many a European or North American university, but is owned by all its workers, who are also members of the co-operative; the highest paid person other than the rector earns no more than three times as much as the lowest. It is formally democratically governed according to co-operative principles. It is not for profit, but neither non-capitalist; the curriculum of the university is woven tightly with the needs of the many surrounding cooperatives in the Basque region, and, according to Sharyyn Kasmir in The Myth of Mondragon (1996), ‘workers do not consider the firms theirs in any meaningful way’. This, according to Joss Winn, is a problem, and he cites agrees with her that ‘we must be sceptical of models that make business forms rather than people the agents of change’ (Kasmir 1996, p. 196). Nevertheless, the spectre of a ‘co-operative university’ has begun to generate new lines of research exploring the viability of co-operation as a counter-capitalist and post-capitalist form.

Creating experimental universities has been more common in Brazil, within a highly unequal and rapidly expanding higher education system, where Tristan McCowan has identified a range of different models attempting to address problems of access and justice, which are not the Humboldtian or the entrepreneurial or the civic, including the federal universities of Amazonian Integration, Latin American Integration, and Luso-African-Brazilian Integration, and the Federal University of the Southern Frontier. These models, while emphasising co-operation and community involvement, differ from, for example, the Uniterra in Mexico, which was created from a need to escape higher education in order to learn; inspired by anarchist and liberatarian educators, by the Zapatista struggle and schools; by a ‘radical reaction against schools’ in the barrios and villages in Chiapas and Oaxaca.

Once this sort of window is opened onto alternatives, we can fly far away from the world of national university systems and league tables and managerialism, and the horizon of alternatives becomes more vivid. There is a new project, Enlivened Learning, which explores many alternatives across the world – not alternatives to existing systems or institutions of higher education that still look like hegemonic higher education, but activities that challenge us to redefine the very idea of higher education itself. There are also several pieces of research being done to document and map the detailed processes of the many more experimental spaces of alternative higher education around the world, some emerging from the recent occupationist movements, some with longer term roots in community and adult education, some radically democratic projects.

This more generous framing allows us to ask what higher education really is for. Once we remove the meaning of the concept from the structures that give it shape – even if we only methodologically bracket them in our minds to allow space for that imagination of something genuinely other, emergent – then we have to dream, and we have to choose: to judge, to discern…as implied by the original meaning of the word krisis. If we could work and study in any university we want, what would it be like? What would it do? Who would it be for? Who would it be by? What is the difference between popular and higher education, and does it matter? How can we maintain the best knowledge and experiences of traditional universities? How would it relate to other institutions? How would it respond to, fight against, inequality and oppression? How would learning happen? How would we understand knowledge? Who would validate it? Could this sort of model work for all subjects; what about the sciences? What about technology? How would students and teachers be defined, if at all? What relationship to the traditions from which it emerged? To others’ traditions? How would we deal with all the reproductions that would inevitably emerge? How would people live? These kinds of questions are real. They are the kinds of questions you get to ask and answer in varying degrees of liberty when you try to make something different.

These are the kinds of questions we are asking now in an experimental project in Lincoln, the small city where I live in England. It is called the Social Science Centre, and it is a three-year-old higher education co-operative that was born out of anger about the increased student tuition fees and which has since then transformed into something very different. A number of its members have been, and remain, academic social scientists; we still work for the university, not only to preserve these positions but because we believe (albeit to different and shifting degrees) that there is still work to be done and work possible to do. Many other members are not academics, but everyone in the Centre assumes the title and role of scholar. It is not perfect, and it is not large, and it is not not compromised within the system, but it is good, and it is collective, and it offers opportunities not to compromise. Above all, it is a space for learning how much work it takes to create something real, and how to work co-operatively (indeed, this term’s public course is precisely about radical co-operative movements, organisation, principles and education, as part of a reflexive kind of action research). It is building a different kind of intellectual and social community within a place, and creates space to learn as we might do in the university (without the institutionalised insistence on discipline and form) as well as to practice how higher education could be different.

All of this reminded me of a beautiful dialogue between Ira Shor and Paulo Freire, published as ‘The fears and risks of transformation’ (1987). Although primarily about the politics of teaching in compulsory education, it is relevant for those striving towards emancipatory education in the contemporary university as well, for they have to do with the experience of ‘dreaming inside history’.

Ira: Fear comes from the dream you have about the society you want to make and unmake through teaching and other politics.

Paulo: Yes! Fear exists in you precisely because you have the dream. If your dream was to preserve the status quo, what should you fear then? […] Fear comes from your political dream, and if you deny the fear you deny your dream.
What I like more and more about this piece is that it does not end here, in some sort of uncritically stupid and macho heroics, but explores the importance of analysis, critique, strategy and courage in educational politics.

Freire: […] In some moments…you discover that today historically it is not possible to do a certain kind of action because the repression should come easily on you. Then, it is as if your fear is more or less domesticated by your clarity. You know that in that moment it is impossible to walk one kilometre. So, you walk 800 meters! And you wait for tomorrow to walk more, when another 200 meters can be walked. Of course, one of the serious questions is how to learn the position where the limit is. You don’t find that in books! […]

Ira: The same applies to educational politics. Teachers learn the limits for doing liberatory education by doing it. It’s the same for any act of political transformation. By attempting transformation, we learn how to do it and also the limits within which we act. When we learn limits, real limits in our classrooms or in other arenas of society, we also gain some concrete knowledge on how much or even how little can be accomplished right now. Then this concrete feedback on our attempts protects us from wild fantasies of fear that could immobilize us, or which could drive us into ultra-militance if we fail to recognize our limits or it we feel we have to deny our fear and act heroic. If we read our reality well, we don’t imagine repression, don’t project our future punishment for daring opposition, but rather test the actual circumstances of our politics and design our interventions within these limits. […]

Maybe this sounds like a tactic of accommodation. But I think it is much closer to a strategy for what Ernst Bloch called ‘educated hope’ and ‘real possibility’; much closer to a strategy of dialectical materialist and pragmatically utopian transformation. As long, as Shor remarked in the dialogue, ‘the goal of opposition is not to get fired, but to make long opposition…’, then we need not just ‘resistance’ to the capitalist colonization of learning but long opposition and recreation; a project including but far exceeding the people of the university in movements of embodied and insisted critique, opposition, dreaming-within-history and reconstruction. Unless, of course, the aim is to refuse work or to exit the university, which then requires a slightly different conversation. For either route, we need critical care to address the human damage that we are never permitted to speak aloud; as Richard Hall describes it, the bleeding of our souls.

Life is far too short and too precious to waste it on this shit, and there are more possibilities to venture towards than we can possibly imagine from where we presently stand. There is no justification for abstracting one irretrievable second of vital energy into the checking of a box on a meaningless form, and there is violence when we consent to this illogic in order to contribute to our own and others’ subjugation and diminishment. This is why we encounter the paradoxical problem of needing not only to find escape routes from these machineries of hopelessness, but work to sap their power and dismantle them as well; to use the knowledge, liberties, resources and relations of creativity and solidarity and courage at our co-operative disposal to organise our universities, schools, economies and forms of political life in radically democratic ways. This cannot happen within the universities themselves, but as the richness of work at this conference demonstrated, there are here plenty of ways such work can contribute to a broader historical project. And I suspect that in the future we and the generations to come will need these knowledges and experiences even more.