Why schools are not like businesses (and how governors can protect them for learning)

In November 2014, school governors across England received news about a new campaign – ‘Make Schools Your Business’ – to place more people with business skills on governing bodies. It is one of a number of campaigns being run by the government and nongovernmental organisations to promote the idea that people with a variety of knowledge and skills should be helping schools work. Head teachers and governors around the country, under pressure from the government to demonstrate that their schools are successful, are paying attention to campaigns like this.1

On the surface, it looks like a sensible campaign. What teacher, parent or school leader doesn’t want to improve children’s education by ensuring that school life is informed by the very best knowledge and skills, particularly in a complicated economic and political climate? Who can be comfortable making decisions about children’s futures if they feel they lack the understanding or competence to do so? The common-sense appeal of ‘making schools our business’ is almost irresistible: it either seems like an obviously good thing, or – especially in a competitive environment – something that is too necessary to question.

But it is important to discuss it. There is more to this campaign than meets the eye. And the more-than-meets-the-eye things matter because they have big consequences for our children’s education and life chances, for teachers’ work, for what our schools are and become, and for the future of our society. They matter because, as the campaign reminds us, ‘every school in England [should] have a diverse and effective governing body driving school improvement’. Governing bodies need people who understand where different definitions of ‘school improvement’ come from and whose interests they serve, and how to make sure education remains in the interests of children and of a democratic society, just as much as they need people who understand the business of schooling.

It is therefore important to see the ‘Make Schools Your Business’ campaign from perspectives that help us understand how it came about, why it seems attractive, what positive and negative effects it might have on learning, and what it is being presented as an alternative or response to. Fortunately, such perspectives are readily available; social researchers, teachers, parents and students around the world have been developing them for decades. These show us how a new ‘business common sense’ has been created and how it is changing our institutions and communities. They help us see how the campaign fits into a larger project of corporate school reform in England and other countries. They explain how powerful groups make their particular ideas and interests appear to be good for everybody. And some of them point to alternative ways of thinking about what makes schools good. Following are some examples of how governors can use these tools to think critically about the ‘Make Schools Your Business’ campaign, and to build confidence in designing school governance in democratic ways.

Is it a fact that schools are like businesses?

This is a bold statement. Many people think of schools as places where children learn and businesses as organisations which are concerned with making, buying or selling products and services in exchange for profit. So how did it become possible to talk about education in the language of business? How did ideas about educational success become tied to values of ‘strategic management’, sound financial practice and progress monitoring?

The answers to these questions are rooted in debates about what schools are for and who should pay for them. Debates about whether schools should be publicly or privately funded; serve business interests or democratic citizenship; and be controlled by teachers, parents, young people or government – these go back well over a century. The ones directly influencing schools in England today, however, began forming over thirty years ago when the government began introducing new policies that would make public services look, act and be judged more like private businesses. This was part of a larger project (promoted in different ways by Conservative, New Labour and Liberal-Conservative coalition governments alike) to reduce state responsibility for social welfare and services, health care, and education (often called budget-cutting or ‘austerity’), and increase the power of the private sector in these areas. New kinds of management, based on models of industrial and financial management, were introduced into education.

Many of the practices which are taken for granted as part of education today, such as a focus on ‘efficiencies’ and ‘outputs’, decentralised budgets, target-based accountability, performance-related achievement and pay, league tables, market-like competition between individuals and groups of schools, and the use of economic principles and values to determine the worth of non-economic activities (including children’s learning) have been created in recent decades in order to make schools look and act like businesses. These have developed alongside other kinds of corporate education reform, including the privatisation of schooling, the growth of for-profit schooling, the building of close relations between corporations and educational institutions, the increasing role of private educational services and consultancies, and the ‘outsourcing’ of school management, teacher education, curriculum and teaching to private companies.

As more policies ask teachers, head teachers and governors to think and talk about education in this way, and as it becomes financially and politically riskier for them not to, opportunities to talk about whether schools are, or could be or should be like businesses, are closed down. But this in no way means it is a ‘fact’ that they are, nor that everyone agrees they should (or even can) be.

Why are businesses interested in governing schools?

The ‘Make Schools Your Business’ campaign has two explicit aims. One is to encourage people with business skills to ‘do something about education’ by volunteering as school governors. The other is to encourage businesses to contribute to school governance as part of their ‘corporate social responsibility’. But what do these people need to do about education, and in what way is making decisions about children’s education the responsibility of corporations?

One reason is that the schools registered with the charity have requested volunteers with such skills, and that registered volunteers are looking for ways to make use of their own capabilities. A second is that the Department for Education has ‘called for school governors to be “more business-like” in the future’. And a third is that many businesses believe schools should prepare children more directly for work. According to the campaign, therefore, ‘schools need access to skilled volunteers from the world of business’ who can ‘offer their expertise to the operations of a governing body’.

These reasons appeal to certain kinds of common-sense, like the idea that being successful and professional means being ‘business-like’ and that an organisation must be business-like to be considered good. In the current climate, where policies are made as if this was a solid truth, even people who know it isn’t necessarily so often feel that they should think it is, or that they have no choice but to act accordingly. Then there is the widely held belief that the main purpose of school is to make people ‘employable’. It can be hard to question this without sounding unreasonable – who doesn’t want every child to live well in a world that they play a part in making through fulfilling work? Yet at school gates, the adults who look after these children discuss the problems of schools that focus too much on testing, skills, competition, and making ‘employable’ people, and too little on the development of children’s personalities, confidence, creative talents and deep understandings of other people and the world. This is especially true for parents and carers whose children do not fit easily, or at all, into the prevailing norms of ‘sensibility’ or ‘expected levels of progress’. Apart from this, we seem to have trouble talking about the bigger problem that stable and fulfilling employment has become less available rather than more. Today, schools need to draw on a range of specialised capacities not only to survive in a harsh economic and political climate, but also to help children and society create different and better climates in the future – worlds that they can not only survive, but in which they can collectively thrive.

Children learn much more than knowledge and skills in school. They also learn things which are not taught directly – how to think, values, beliefs and norms that come through what researchers call the ‘hidden curriculum’. The teaching of business skills is underpinned not only by a technical need for them in the present economy, but also by an interest in promoting business values. These can have an important place in business and business-like activities, and come in many different forms from profiteering to social enterprise and co-operativism. Yet it is a problem if business values shape aspects of school life which are not business-related, such as caring, learning, teaching, educational planning, community building, political governance or social change. These things rely on other kinds of knowledge, skill and value, and often times these knowledges, skills and values are not regarded as important for business. It is also a problem because, when not approached critically, ‘business skills’ may endorse individualism or economically-motivated partnership over other kinds of relationship, a belief that competition is healthy and necessary, a faith that whatever matters can be measured and given value, an acceptance of educational and social inequality, and a concern for ‘financial independence’ (working with less public funding) and, in some cases, profitability.

The last point gives special pause for thought about the ‘Make Schools Your Business’ campaign. While it is clear why individuals may want to volunteer as school governors, what’s in it for businesses?  While SGOSS is funded by the UK Department for Education, consider its roster of trustees – Lloyds Bank, Allen and Overy (an international law firm ‘providing services for global business and industry’), KPMG (an audit, tax and financial advising service), the City of London, United Biscuits, and WPP marketing and communications, and its partners, which in addition to a number of school governance and educational organisations include BP (the multinational oil and gas corporation): Harlequins Rugby Union, and TKAT (a multi-academy trust). Why are these organisations, most of which are not in the business of educating children and young people, interested in getting more people with business skills and values onto the governing boards of schools?

One argument is that it is easier to change schooling in the model and interests of business if teachers’ and head teachers’ activities are shaped and overseen by people who either assume that schools are like (or should be) businesses, and who expect that the people who work in them should become business-people. This is a method of corporate education reform. One example of its influence is the rise of the for-profit school, a trend which has been ongoing in the United States for some time. It is more of a debate in England, with former Education minister Michael Gove having encouraged the development of for-profit academies (particularly those which were ‘failing’ schools ‘taken over’ from local government by corporate providers) and the current minister Nicky Morgan more recently arguing that there is no ‘place for the profit element in education’. Yet even in the majority of schools which remain not-for-profit, and especially in the growing number of quasi-independent academy schools, many educational activities, labour and services are outsourced to private profit-making companies. In a competitive market and working with often reduced budgets, head teachers and governing bodies may feel forced to make ‘efficiency savings’ with these contracts to meet ‘performance targets’ even in cases where they know that doing so means settling for poorer education or unethical practice. Internationally, there have long been concerns that corporate power in education threatens teachers’ practice and professional autonomy – including with regard to the UK’s largest and only private examination board, Edexcel, as it is owned by the for-profit multinational corporation Pearson which also dominates the multi-billion-dollar market of controversial but mandatory standardised testing in many US states.

Under current regulations, all schools in the UK are required to reconstitute their governing bodies by September 2015. One reason is to ensure these boards work as well as they should for children and schools, and because the government wants to ‘create consistency across the country under a single more flexible regulatory framework’. This process definitely offers schools some excellent opportunities to improve their governing bodies, and time to figure out what this means in practice. Yet there is also a need for caution in how discussions about this process are being shaped. The official guidance, for example, explains that governing bodies should be smaller, more technically skills-based, focused on strategic leadership and financing, and not necessarily – not even desirably – representative of parents, teachers or the wider communities in which a school is located. They say little about education itself. There are of course certain benefits in organising committees that make decisions quickly and skilfully. But this common sense can also be used to justify an even further move away from democratic governance, away from appreciation for the value of public dialogue about education, away from planning that emerges from local knowledge, and away from student, teacher, parent and community participation in the organisation of learning and school life. The point that school governors should serve children’s interests rather than their own is indisputable, but it must also be understood that everyone’s interpretation of what these interests are how they can best be served is shaped by their personal experience and position in society, particularly with regard to education, and by their beliefs about how schooling and learning works. This is why it is important that critical and public debate remains (or, where it is not common, becomes) a core value of school governance – especially when surrounded by arguments that it is an ‘unprofessional’ or ‘inefficient’ use of time and resources.

Are there other ways of thinking about good school governance?

Other models of school governance are worth considering, and other ways of thinking about the business of schooling are possible. These do not deny that schools need inspirational and effective leaders. They do not deny that schools also need to be governed by people who understand the ins-and-outs of finance, organisation, planning and accounting just as much as they need the contributions of those with experience and expertise in children’s special needs, pedagogy, play and curriculum design, and the contributions of those who have even more specialised knowledges of and interests in the children themselves. The alternatives simply do not assume that the ‘business-end’ of school governance is more important than any other part, or that this part should look like corporate business, or that teachers should have to prove that they are succeeding on business-like terms or in the interests of business. The models assume that schools are not like businesses and that children and learning are not products, no matter how much people try to make them so.

For example, the co-operative model of school governance is becoming popular in England. Since 2008, nearly 800 schools have become part of the UK Co-operative Network (it is now the third largest network of schools in the country).3 While co-operative education has a long tradition here, it is attracting new interest as an alternative to academisation (especially in situations where schools risk being forcibly removed from local authority and placed under the control of an academy chain which may be privately owned). While this model does not ensure the defence or overall improvement of the state education system – and this is one of the criticisms of it – it does ensure that schools are not treated like businesses, and helps ‘reconnect educational futures with shared community futures’.5 Co-operative governing bodies adhere to a set of internationally agreed values (self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, and solidarity) and principles (such as voluntary and open membership; democratic member control; member economic participation; autonomy and independence; a commitment to education, training and information; co-operation amongst co-operatives and concern for community).

There are other examples of good governance for public education in England, as well as in other parts of the world where teachers and those interested in inclusive and democratic schooling have resisted corporate educational reforms or created completely different alternatives.6 In his writing about St. Georges in the East school in London, which was democratically governed from 1945–1955, Michael Fielding draws inspiration from its head teacher, Alex Bloom, who wanted to

‘assure those many hesitant folk working under similar conditions that, within the framework of State education and despite the limitations of space, staff and substance, progressive education is possible. It may well be that, because of these limitations, the need for pioneers is the more intense’.7

 This sentiment is just as relevant today as it was then. It can be helpful to be a bit more sceptical of what seems like common sense and a lot more confident  about what we suspect might be good sense – like that it is not a simple fact that schools are or must be like businesses, no matter how many times powerful people say this is true. We need public debate about school governance that does not just start from making schools our business, but that starts by making it our business to determine what kind of schools we really want and what kinds of values, decision-making principles and skills are most suitable for these ends. Alongside teachers, those involved in school governance can ‘act collectively and organise accordingly’ to ensure that opportunities to prevent the transformation of schools into businesses and business-like places are not lost.8 Discussing the wider context and politics of the ‘Make Schools Your Business Campaign’ in school governors’ meetings, and amongst wider school communities, might be an excellent way to start.


  1. To read about the ‘Make Schools Your Business’ that this pamphlet responds to, see https://www.sgoss.org.uk/makeschoolsyourbusiness.
  1. Tom Woodin, Co-operation, Learning and Co-operative Values: Contemporary Issues in Education (London: Routledge, 2014).
  1. Linda Shaw, ‘A quiet revolution: co-operative schools in the UK’, Co-op Stories, online at http://stories.coop/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/Cooperative-schools-in-UK-case-study.pdf.
  1. Woodin, Co-operation, Learning and Co-operative Values, 2014.
  1. Keri Facer, ‘Why co-operative schools must work’, presentation given in 2010, online at https://d3hzmlhrf50pgz.cloudfront.net/uploads/2010/11/Keri-Facer-Co-op-Nov-2010.pdf.
  1. Here ‘public’ does not refer to ‘public’ schools which are confusingly actually private ones, but to a system of state-funded education for all children and young people. It can also refer to a system of education which values learning for public participation in democratic social life.
  1. This quotation is from Michael Fielding’s ‘Alex Bloom: Pioneer of radical state education’ in the journal Forum, Volume 74, No. 2/3, pp. 119–134. It can be found on p. 132.
  1. Howard Stevenson and Alison Gilliand, ‘The teachers’ voice: teacher unions at the heart of a new democratic professionalism’, forthcoming.

PDF version

‘For feminist consciousness in the academy’

‘For feminist consciousness in the academy’

My new piece in a special issue of Politics and Culture, Materialist Feminisms against Neoliberalism.

‘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.

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.