On the Poverty of the Student Experience

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This is an opinion piece written by NCAFC member Dan Davison for the 50th anniversary of 1968. An early version was distributed as a bulletin for the 2018 National Student Left Conference, ‘We are the University’. Join the debate by writing for us at anticuts.com!

Fifty years ago, we were warned of the spectacle. We were warned of how the commodity’s tendrils were seeping into every corner of social being, suffocating all potential for authentic human life. Now the commodity’s colonisation of society is complete. Under neoliberalism, ’we are everywhere homo oeconomicus and only homo oeconomicus’. [1] Few areas of social life display this bleak economisation of human existence as starkly as higher education. More and more, our academic institutions become degree factories whose vacuous output feeds the ‘knowledge economy’. Under the metricising gaze of the two ‘excellence frameworks’, the marketisation of education set in motion when the Blair Government introduced tuition fees in 1998 has reached its highest stage. ‘The Poverty of Student Life’ [2] that the Situationists described in 1966 is not only greater in 2018: it is happily advertised on every campus as ‘the student experience’.

Five decades on, we students are still here to be moulded into low-level functionaries within the commodity system. The prospect of this dismal ‘reward’ awaiting us beyond our current ‘provisional role’ still drives us to take refuge in an ‘unreally lived present’. [3] Yet the bureaucrats have learned how to turn this transient, comforting embrace of the unreal into a constant, passive acceptance of the commodity system itself. One sees this from how, on many campuses, students’ unions are little more than inane entertainment venues and docile feedback mechanisms instead of democratic bodies that fight for their members’ material interests. The more we conceive of ourselves as human capital, the more student life models itself on the investment firm. Studies and recreation alike are geared towards that hollow monstrosity of modern life that is the LinkedIn profile.

With the shift in the education sector from relying on government grants to relying on fees and rents as income, shiny new buildings line prospectus pages to help universities meet their ever-rising target student numbers, even where campuses already feel the strain of overcrowding. As we saw in Elephant and Castle, these same ostentatious building projects can mask the gentrifying expansion of campuses both here and overseas, depriving working class locals of their homes and livelihoods in the pursuit of profit. Even the suggestion of lower fees for specific subjects in the Tory Government’s latest Higher Education review retains the logic of student-as-consumer, valuating knowledge according to market needs rather than individual human flourishing or any wider social benefit.

Marketisation and commodification leave the lives of education workers no less impoverished than those of students. Under the watchful eyes of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) and the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), academics pursue constant validation by artificial metrics in service of the ‘knowledge economy’. These frameworks herald the final stages in the sector’s decades-long shift towards a managerial accounting model. There are few starker illustrations of what is truly valued in education under neoliberalism than the fact that the University of Bath, the very institution that heralded a national media storm over Vice Chancellors’ pay and university democracy, received a ‘Gold’ ranking under the TEF in 2017. Similarly, the cuts to the University Superannuation Scheme (USS) that led the University and College Union (UCU) into its largest ever strike were made to shift financial risk away from the universities and onto the individual employee. The rhetoric of ‘flexibility’ veils staff’s anxiety over having to structure their entire lives around casual contracts that provide little stable income and leave them at the mercy of managers. Faced with insecurity in future retirement and present employment alike, for postgraduates and Early Career Academics, the ‘student experience’ leads to a poverty every bit as financial as it is spiritual.

The traditional professoriate mourns the death of older collegial forms of university governance and liberal education. To be clear, we are under no illusions about the bourgeois-liberal universities of yesteryear. Such universities provided general education to a privileged minority so that they could take up positions in the ruling class. This is why, when we call to make institutions democratically accountable, we mean to all those who work and study there, and to their local communities. We do not mean democratically accountable to elite academics nostalgic for the days when they were the ‘guard-dogs serving the future masters’ rather than ‘sheep-dogs in charge of herding white-collar flocks to their respective factories and offices’. [4]

However, the Situationists also warned of the ‘modernists’ who wished to ‘reintegrate’ the university into social and economic life. They recognised what such ‘reintegration’ really meant. It meant adapting the entire university to the needs of modern capitalism. It meant ‘subordinating one of the last relatively autonomous sectors of social life to the demands of the commodity system’. [5] With the neoliberal turn, capitalism has subsumed academia into the logic of the market to the point of commodifying education itself. The descendants of the ‘modernists’ have won. The ‘future cybernetised university’ the Situationists warned us about is finally here. [6]

To see this unsettling truth, one need only look at the extent to which the illusions that the forces of capital once had to impose upon students and workers are now ‘willingly internalised and transmitted’ thanks to metricisation. [7] It is hardly a secret that National Student Survey (NSS) results on ‘student satisfaction’ are essentially junk data and, as part of the TEF, are intended to allow high-scoring universities to become more expensive than low-scoring ones. Despite this, final year undergraduates across the country fill in the survey without a second thought. If the university’s promise of ‘critical thinking’ is to mean anything, then we as students should be dissatisfied with our institutions: dissatisfied with their complicity in job cuts, poverty wages, racist monitoring practices, gentrification, political suppression, and the reduction of all human value to that of capital! What’s more, we should be unafraid to make our dissatisfaction political!

As for how academic staff have responded to this increasingly metricised life, through the felt need to meet submission deadlines in the REF cycle, even at the cost of publication quality, they have come to accept permanent performance monitoring as the basis for differentiated rewards. [8] For all the promises of neoliberalism’s architects that we would be freed from ‘red tape’, bureaucracy is now immanent to work itself. Not only has the ruling class set up new ‘agencies of psycho-police control’: it has made us feel compelled to monitor ourselves and feed the data to those agencies as a matter of routine! [9] The graffitied Parisian walls of May ‘68 warned that ‘a cop sleeps inside each one of us’. The more we watch our every step to meet competitive performance levels, the more that sleeping cop begins to stir.

If the spectacle truly has reached such an all-consuming stage, then how do we push beyond it? Already we see parallel struggles between the youth and student movements of the 1960s, and those of today. The mass sit-ins at Berkeley for free speech in the face of political repression echo in the current rallying cry for ‘Cops Off Campus!’, and in the fight against the racist surveillance of students under the Prevent Strategy. The spirit of the shop steward movement imbues the latest strikes by cleaners, cinema staff, fast food workers, and couriers, proving that young and migrant workers can lead the charge against the ‘gig economy’. The youth who helped build the Corbyn project in the Labour Party and showed their seismic force in the 2017 general election would easily find their counterparts in the anti-bomb and anti-war movements of fifty years ago.

We should not limit our examples to Britain. Even now, comrades in France are showing the way, staging simultaneous student occupations and rail worker strikes to resist Macron’s attacks upon the public sector. The ‘selection’ process Macron seeks to implement would edge French universities towards a marketised system like the UK’s. In Germany, university and school students have gone on strike under the slogan ‘Education not Deportations’ to oppose the expansion of German and EU border controls. They demand a dignified life and proper access to education for all migrants. In Poland, students and workers have occupied the University of Warsaw in protest against a state attempt to change the university’s governance structures, which would centralise power in the hands of the rector and unelected external governors. The protesters also demand increased funding for education and science, and more rights for workers on campus. All these common struggles lay the foundations for international solidarity.

As in the 1960s, we as students need to unite against the shared root of our hardships. We need to bring together the different blades we have drawn against the neoliberal beast. By this I mean the thriving campaigns on campuses across the country to cap rents; to abolish fees; to pay a Living Wage; to end zero hours contracts and outsourcing; to move to renewable energy. At the national level, we need to democratise the National Union of Students (NUS) into a dynamic, militant force worthy of its name. We fight for a democratic, accessible, and truly public education system with a liberatory curriculum. This common goal finds its fullest potency as a rupture within the very capitalist system that keeps us beholden to commodities and bound in wage-slavery. This is the core lesson that 1968 imparted: the need to wage all these different battles as a living, radical critique of world that is and unify them into a single struggle for the world that could be. This way, we can make ‘the student experience’ mean the affirmation, not the alienation, of human life and creativity: a détournement worthy of Debord himself.

[1] Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution (MIT Press 2015), page 33.
[2] Members of the Situationist International and Students of Strasbourg University, On the Poverty of Student Life (1966). http://www.bopsecrets.org/SI/poverty.htm
[3] Poverty, chapter 1.
[4] Id.
[5] Id.
[6] Id.
[7] Id.
[8] Hugo Radice, ‘How We Got Here: UK Higher Education under Neoliberalism’, 12 (2) ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies 407-18, page 416. https://www.acme-journal.org/index.php/acme/article/view/969
[9] Poverty, chapter 1.