Wednesday, 19 January 2011

A Question of Degrees? by Rachel Whittaker

Image: copyright Alice Light
This is the text of the talk given by Rachel Whittaker at the Bolton NAN last December. Reflecting on her own experiences of the education system, Rachel argues that the problem with education goes far beyond the currently contested issues of fees.

Maybe I’m not the right person to be standing here giving this talk today. I’m no longer a student and the very fact that I’m discussing this in a cosy meeting room instead of getting my ass into gear to make it to at least one of today’s protests might damage my arguments somewhat. On the other hand, my general experiences as an activist and, for the last three years, as student have given me some insight into the general state of higher education and I believe that this issue goes much deeper than tuition fees.

I’m happy when I hear student activists making it clear that they are seeking to forge links with other groups opposing the slash and burn policies of the Con-Dem coalition but I think some important aspects are being overlooked in their own campaign, which, as education is surely at the heart of any fledgling revolutionary movement, have a major impact elsewhere.

I attended the University of Wolverhampton, which, according to the Times Education Supplement is (as of 2009) the only university in Britain where the majority of undergraduates come from working class homes and where 1 in 5 students are from areas with low participation in higher education. Its research record, however, shows that research is mainly applied and largely serves the needs of business and industry.

In fact, the university likes nothing more than to brag about its connections with business and throws various large numbers into the mix in terms of the funding this has achieved. And yet, in 2009/2010 it sought and achieved 150 voluntary redundancies from amongst support staff, cut a large number of study modules and moved to a more prescribed system of study where, in some cases, the student was offered no choice of subjects whatsoever. In some of my subject modules, the library contained one copy of the set text for an entire class.

In terms of its actual performance, the university is more difficult to pin down. I found most of the lecturers to be approachable, generally in the students’ corner and in some cases, genuinely inspirational, but the wider system of hierarchies and bureaucracy seemed to operate as it wished with no recourse to anyone, students or lecturing and support staff. In more official terms, the university reports high approval levels in student satisfaction surveys and it was highly commended for its academic quality and standards by the QAA after an official inspection in April 2009. By contrast, it was ranked 102nd out of 114 institutions in The Times Good University Guide 2010 and, perhaps to its credit, no longer participates in private league tables, believing them to disadvantage universities of its type.

I did meet a number of open-minded lecturers who encouraged me to plough my own furrow in terms of my studies but others made me feel like a kind of lovable maverick to be patronisingly indulged. “Oooh, we had another anarchist once” was the eager response from one lecturer but he was decidedly less enthused when my participation in class discussions was not the kind of participation that his traditionally Marxist view of education allowed for. I didn’t fare much better amongst my fellow students and whilst I was hardly expecting a hotbed of anarchism, the university’s infamous ‘hard left’ presence in the 1980s being almost entirely rooted in the Militant Tendency and other Trot manifestations, I wasn’t expecting this either: “You’re always talking about capitalism, I don’t even know what it is”. Hardly any of the students I encountered envisaged their university experience as one of freedom and learning for its own sake, most having their eyes set on achieving entry into the job market at a slightly higher level than their non-degree wielding contemporaries or simply avoiding the job market in the short term.

When you couple this with an academic structure that prompts a second-year history degree student to complain: “On no, not the French Revolution AGAIN, I just don’t understand why it’s so important” and I tell you that a majority of MY fellow students treated lectures as a chance to sit and whisper excitedly about their latest mobile phone, you might ask what kind of students have actually been taking to the streets over tuition fees? If the idea of paying to be educated actually meets least resistance in universities where a majority of students are least equipped to pay, perhaps Nick Clegg is right and the protests really will put working class people from going to university.

I worked part-time while I was at university and even with my partner working, I still had to take on student debt to the tune of £15,000 and compared to what might come, I can probably feel that I ‘got off lightly’. I don’t intend to ever pay it back because I don’t intend to ever earn enough money to do so, in fact, I didn’t go to university to improve my career prospects or even because I felt that I needed a degree to prove myself - but because it was supposed to be an opportunity for expanding my mind, learning and engaging with others in an open and nurturing environment. Perhaps I would have been better served trying to achieve this in my everyday life via collective projects with fellow anarchists but the supposed access to resources promised and in some cases actually provided by the university environment proved seductive nonetheless.

Of course, there are more institutions to consider here than the University of Wolverhampton and some will certainly nurture a more radical environment than I have experienced. On the other hand, it is also to be noted that many such institutions will have attracted students precisely because they have this reputation. Preaching to the converted, either at an institutional level or via high-brow libertarian ghettos like the Anarchist Studies Network doesn’t address the wider system taking hold at Wolverhampton and elsewhere, whereby the student is merely another capitalist commodity and is expected to be grateful for being shaped into such.

A fellow student of mine had been promised a management position at Asda if she got a degree, they didn’t care in what, just as long as she got a degree. Nor was her faith in this as something to be grateful for shaken by some of the reasonably vigorous critiques of capitalism, corporations and big business that cropped up during our three-year course. In fact, she was one of many who dutifully avoided ‘thinking outside the box’ to produce a degree according to Simon Schama and Andrew Marr and here it is evident that even when individual lecturers provide students with alternative viewpoints, they either fear to take them up because it will jeopardise their future plans, or they see them as abstract and difficult concepts best left to others.

Back in October, some business leader or another was asked on Radio 4’s Today Programme if he thought that those businesses who insist that job applicants be educated to degree level should be the ones providing the funding demanded of students. His reply was that business gives enough by providing the jobs in the first place, an argument of debatable validity in any case. Ultimately, though, the corporate world is not just providing jobs they are controlling the university system with sponsorship, apprenticeships and other investment in their own interests thinly disguised as philanthropy. Students are the asked to pay for the privilege of being brainwashed.

Even where my lecturers did provide alternative points of view, the university itself was complicit in tacitly discrediting them and although much is made of the university achieving benchmarks of ‘compassionate capitalism’ like fair trade status, this actually equated to a few varieties of tea, coffee and snacks in the various canteens, all completely lost in the mass presence of Coca Cola and other corporate giants. Students aren’t even provided with free drinking water and despite my persistent badgering in this regard, the overall response was that in terms of cost, popularity and fringe benefits for the university, Coca Cola wins hand down.

When you add this to corporations like Asda demanding any kind of degree for their management training, it’s clear that this is a symbiotic system between business, government and finance which encourages the early establishment of debt on the basis of a brighter future that doesn’t actually exist. Your so-called ‘better job’ is ostensibly to fund a mortgage and other consumption-driven debts, and with old-age no longer a time of rest and reflection after a lifetime of wage slaving, this system, whether under Labour, the Tories or the Coalition, will never be one of cradle-to-grave care, it will always be about cradle-to-crave servitude.

Some might argue that I am ignoring the potential for wider student radicalisation thrown up by the recent tuition fees debate but why should it always be the lot of radicals that they must wait for times of widespread social disaster to gain a hearing, let alone widespread support. If we don’t do something to break this cycle, we are becoming just as much part of the ‘boom and bust’ mentality as the capitalists and surely this starts with demanding education that is not only free in monetary terms but free from the kind of sinister social grooming employed by capitalist and Marxist alike.

It is easy to confuse long-term radical solutions with militant knee-jerk reactions and the danger here is that ‘right to work’ and ‘right to study’ protests in the coming months and years will remain couched in what is ultimately the right to achieve access to the limited perqs of capitalism. Even in setting themselves up as the vanguard of resistance to tuition fees, the NUS has taken a moderate line, promising to fight the issue at the ballot box and, as we have seen, labelling any deviation from the kind of protest that files through the streets chanting slogans as ‘despicable’.

I think we need to focus not on the left/right divide in education, or even elitism vs. equality, but on the difference between authoritarian and libertarian education. Let’s face it, as anarchists, we’re never going to be flavour of the month in any curriculum, left or right, and whilst bonfires in Parliament Square might express intent, they don’t say much about the alternatives we have to offer. In this room alone, there’s probably hundreds of years of collective experience and knowledge in areas more diverse than a three-year degree course could ever hope to cover and perhaps the really subversive thing to do here is to actually share our knowledge rather than just claiming to be the enlightened few. Of course, we’ll still have to fight eventually, governments and vanguards are even less likely to let anarchists go un-demonised and unmolested if they are street speakers, independent publishers and ‘plebs colleges’ promoting anarchy in the truest sense of the word.

I’ve heard the recent student protests described as a revival of the left and Ian Bone tells me that they’ll be a revolution by Christmas or, at least, by the time of the royal nuptials next April. Meanwhile, I expect the Socialist Worker Party are thinking all their Christmases have come at once, fond as they are finding impressionable and outraged youth in their collective stocking. But let’s not get caught up in assuming that a majority recognise us as different from the SWP, who thought it pertinent to censor the main thrust of their protest banners, obscuring the rallying cry of ‘Fuck Fees’ with strategically placed asterisks. I’m not sure if setting fires and smashing windows achieves anything more but it certainly sets out our stall as those who don’t want to be told what to do, how to learn and what to pay for it by anyone, let alone how we should protest if we don’t like it.

As Lenny Bruce would surely remind us, if you take away the right to say fuck, you take away the right to say fuck the government.


Anonymous said...

The danger for Students in this is that inflation is going to drive up wages and costs to the point where they will be repaying the student loan out of what will then be very small wages.

Lenin said that if you want to destsroy a Government or Country, first debauch its curreny. Almost every Chancellor since Stafford Cripps has allowed and now induces inflation so they are all Leninists. Bush, Thatcher, B.Liar, Brown, Cameron and Clegg too are destroying the Capitalist Economy to make Lenin triuphant.

Will then follow up with "....there must only be the people, universally armed".

(from Steve Monaghan on our facebook page) said...

Excellent synopsis ! But still I am left with what to do to build a resistance that kills capitalism`s tentacles rather than adopting an alternative in my lifetime. If this is sheer numbers of enlightened individuals coming together en masse and hanging out at the extremes of the tentacles to avoid the real poision. The age old prob - why Bakunin left the International. The dominant ideology pervades the very mental states of those human beings choosing to education, provided or self-taught, themselves. It is like being a music track on constant loop.