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Intellectual Life and the University of Commerce

A revaluation of teaching could help British universities cope with the government’s destructive reforms.
By Les Back

It is November 11, 2010, and the smell of coffee pulls my weary, jetlagged frame into Cox’s Market Deli on Nassau Street in Princeton, New Jersey. They start selling coffee here at 6:00 a.m., and today I am one of the first customers. Having just arrived from England I look up at the tiny TV screen above the counter. To my surprise, I see familiar streets. The CNN headline reads, “Student Riots in London.” The previous day, fifty thousand students and lecturers had taken to the streets to protest the government’s proposal to cut public support for university teaching and increase tuition fees threefold. The police had been caught by surprise, and the student protesters broke into the Conservative Party’s headquarters at Millbank Tower. A placard flashing across the screen reads, “University for everyone.” Taking his eyes off the TV, the man serving me asks how much university fees will cost as he hands me my coffee. I tell him that they will be increased to about £9,000, or about $14,500. He looks back at me as if surprised and says, “Is that all?”

To an American audience, the demonstrations, strikes, and unrest resulting from the changes to higher education in Britain must seem perplexing. Compared with the $37,000 for annual tuition at a private university like Princeton, higher education in England still seems like a bargain. But the changes now under way in Britain threaten the very core of intellectual life there.

The Browne Review

As Iain Pears noted in his article on British universities in the September–October 2011 issue of Academe, until very recently, British universities were funded almost completely through public investment. (This funding model remains in place in Scotland.) Students studied largely for free, with even those from the richest families making only a relatively modest financial contribution to the universities. Like most of my academic colleagues, I paid almost nothing for my undergraduate and graduate education. The situation started to change under former prime minister Tony Blair’s Labour government; with the introduction of fees in 1998, students were required to pay up to £1,000 a year for tuition. By the time the Labour Party lost power in 2010, the maximum university tuition had increased to £3,290. Many worried that the party’s goal of 50 percent university enrollment for British young people would be compromised by the introduction of student fees, but the fees did little to halt the expansion of higher education.

The Labour government commissioned the former BP executive Lord John Browne of Madingley to conduct a review of higher education. By the time Lord Browne was ready to publish the findings of his review, the government had changed. The new coalition government of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties conducted a comprehensive review of government spending in summer 2010. Many Liberal Democrats had campaigned against student debt during the general election, proposing that tuition fees be scrapped altogether. This was all to change once they entered government as part of the coalition. Browne’s report—titled Securing a Sustainable Future for Higher Education: An Independent Review for Higher Education Funding and Student Finance—made clear that the differences between the higher education systems in the United Kingdom and the United States would be narrowed through the privatization of British universities.

It is telling that the Browne review contains no references to cuts. Rather, the report calls for an “increase of investment.” Similarly, it says nothing about making students foot the bill for the withdrawal of public investment; instead, it refers to putting “students at the heart of the system.” The Browne review argued that it was putting choice in “the hands of the student,” with “money following the students,” and that in this climate, competing universities would need to convince students of the “benefits of investing more.” As Nick Couldry, professor of media and communications at Goldsmiths, University of London, pointed out, “On the face of it, the idea that by exercising our freedom of choice as individuals we also as a group get the long-term result we all want as well—a higher-quality education system—is attractive, a win-win situation.” Couldry argued, however, that the rhetoric of student “choice” and “freedom” is a smokescreen for privatization and market liberalism.

The new government conducted the Comprehensive Spending Review, which followed Browne’s recommendations, and announced cuts to the higher education budget of £2.9 billion by 2014–15—a 40 percent reduction in government support for university teaching. The treasury will continue to fund teaching in “priority areas” like science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, but the humanities and the social sciences will have to try to fill the gap left by the withdrawal of public funds through increased student fees that will be payable through loans. Each university will need to replace its public grant, which can amount to £35 million, with student fee income in the space of just three years. Universities can do this only by attracting students who are willing to borrow more—up to £50,000—to pay for their education.

Transformation of the University

The current crisis is not a product solely of the public spending review and the political opportunity that the coalition government has seized to force us to oversee our own privatization. As Bill Readings of the Université de Montréal has argued, what German thinkers like Friedrich Schiller or Wilhelm von Humboldt thought of as a cultural function of the university to foster national tradition and history through the canonization of knowledge no longer applies to the relationship between higher education and the nation state. The “University of Culture”—a university that, admittedly, served only an elite few—was replaced by what Readings refers to as a posthistorical university, one no longer preoccupied with the past. This university is concerned instead only with the pursuit of “excellence” through auditing mechanisms like the Research Assessment Exercise or the Research Excellence Framework. Today, by way of the Browne review, the posthistorical university is morphing into what I call the University of Commerce, where knowledge is valuable only if it has a marketable exchange value or the potential for policy relevance.

“I need to get the most out of this because I am paying for it,” I overheard a first-year student say to her friend at the start of the academic year in September. The marketization of the university has turned campuses into places of commerce and competition. The increase of student fees is accelerating that process and dividing the higher education sector as rankings grow in importance. Faculty members fear that students will become increasingly demanding and insistent in exercising their rights as consumers. The government and Higher Education Funding Council for England plan to adduce student satisfaction through the National Student Survey, a mechanism widely viewed as inadequate for assessing educational value.

One of the damaging effects of the audit culture within universities over the past decade has been the emphasis given to the performance of academics in the Research Assessment Exercise. The result is that academics have focused on research and writing at the expense of the wider mission of the university as a place of learning. A consequence of the auditing of research “excellence” in universities has been the devaluing of teaching. As students become customers, universities are going to have to work harder to attract and satisfy them. We have to open up a critical conversation with students about what the changes in higher education are doing to them as well as to the profession. “The more it costs, the less it’s worth,” students shouted in protest to the introduction of fees. Reducing education to a thing that can be bought and sold corrodes what we do in the classroom. But how, and on what terms, do we make the case for the value of what we do? Do we try to show our usefulness to the economy or our impact on policy and thus accept the parameters and values of the University of Commerce, or do we insist on expanding the parameters of worth and develop the confidence to articulate a set of countervalues? I think it would be a mistake to confine our argument for the humanities and social sciences to the terms set by Lord Browne.

Inside the student movement there is an awareness that the changes in the new university environment threaten to cost students more than merely a large debt. An atmosphere of instrumentalism undermines the university’s ability to provide a place where we can think together about difficult problems and practice what the German philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte called the “exercise of critical judgment.” Students will be forced to weigh the value of their learning against its financial cost and its speculated benefit.

The value of my own discipline of sociology is in its capacity to challenge individualism in the era of the “fresh page of the present.” The individualization of collective relations, the evaporation of history, and the isolation of personal responsibility all seem to suggest the importance of the relation between the individual and history. “Personality is a strange composite,” wrote the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci from the loneliness of his prison cell. It is “a product of the historical process to date which has deposited in you an infinity of traces, without leaving an inventory.” The classroom offers a place where such an inventory might be developed. What is lost in the discussion about “transferable skills” and “graduate employability” is the precious but elusive craft of thinking itself as a way of attending to the world, of appreciating how we are produced as subjects, as biographies, so that we can be more than what we are already, more than those scripts. Perhaps what is needed is also a way of socializing the failings that neoliberalism forces us to experience privately.

I have been thinking about these changes in relation to students in the final year and at the end of their course of study. What is the promise of sociology for them as they start to contemplate graduation in the midst of a financial crisis and with a large and unjustifiable debt? Currently, youth unemployment in Britain stands at 24 percent, and a poll of this year’s crop of graduates showed that 27 percent will be returning to live with their parents after graduation. Journalists are starting to write about a “generation abandoned.” I hope that what students have learned will provide them a way to understand what is before them and help them imagine how to act in a society full of moral complexity, a world of “skills extinction,” contingency, uncertainty, and what the Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman calls “liquid life and liquid love.” The revaluing of teaching is the only positive development to emerge from the financial vandalism visited on English universities. This is not to say that research and writing should be relegated to lesser importance, but rather to emphasize that the classroom is the workshop of our intellectual craft.

“At no turning point in human history did educators face a challenge strictly comparable to the one presented by the current watershed,” writes Bauman in his latest book, 44 Letters from the Liquid Modern World. We need to transcend market-oriented forms of higher education and make the university a place to prepare students for a life in such a society, to learn how information mediates the way they understand themselves and their place in the world. It is where we must all learn how to judge among fabricated realities and distinguish them from our most intimate and profound personal commitments.

Les Back is professor of sociology and director of graduate studies at Goldsmiths, University of London. His main fields of interest are the sociology of racism, popular culture, and city life. His e-mail address is

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