Privatization as Anti-Politics: Interview with Peter Osborne / Sobre la destrucción de la universidad

Posted on 2012/11/04


Privatization as Anti-Politics: Interview with Peter Osborne

Amanda Armstrong on behalf of R e c l a m a t i o n s

Amanda Armstrong: On May 20th, Philosophy staff and students were part of an occupation ‘reclaiming’ the library on the Trent Park campus at Middlesex University – an action that ultimately resulted in your being barred by University administrators from entering campus. Perhaps you could begin by discussing some of the events that precipitated this action. How did the May 20th sit-in come to seem necessary?

Peter Osborne: The occupation of the Trent Park library was one in a series of actions undertaken by the Philosophy students at Middlesex –supported by the Philosophy staff – to demonstrate their opposition to the closure of recruitment to the Philosophy programs, and to try to get the decision reversed. It followed a 10-day occupation of the main Mansion Building on the campus, which was widely reported in the UK media, and for which there was extraordinarily widespread international support – not just among campaigning groups, academics and students in other universities (the Facebook site set up by the students rapidly acquired 15,000 members), but at an institutional level as well, especially in Europe. The University management chose to ignore these expressions of outrage and disquiet over its decision – which had been taken without an appropriate review of the subject area – and refused even to review the decision. The students therefore devised a rolling action plan of demonstrations and occupations, in different venues, to increase the pressure on the University management by keeping the campaign in the media spotlight. The short overnight library occupation was the first of these after the longer sit-in, which had developed a carnivalesque quality, with visiting speakers, poetry events, music, etc., and given the occupiers tremendous confidence in their rapidly acquired organizational abilities.

Amanda Armstrong: Images of the occupation at the Mansion Building circulated widely, including across the Atlantic. Many such images included a large banner, hung from the windows of the building, which read: “The University is a Factory: Strike! Occupy!” How are we to understand the relation of universities to factories? Or, more generally, the relation of processes of social reproduction to those of value production? Are these relations undergoing a metamorphosis in the UK, as universities are subjected to neoliberal reforms?

Peter Osborne: Yes, most definitely. It is a profoundly contradictory process, but the basic tendencies are quite clear; and they are most visible in the so-called ‘new universities’ – universities that came into existence in 1992, mainly through the transformation of what were previously ‘polytechnics’. These are institutions that have been at the forefront of a government-sponsored marketization of higher education for a long time now, at least three decades.

The polytechnics became universities in 1992, but the idea of applying the principles of purely economic models of corporate efficiency to institutions of higher education goes back further, to the early years of the Thatcher government, in the first half of the 1980s. Its first legal manifestation was the Education Reform Act of 1988, which took the polytechnics out of the control of Local Educational Authorities (part of local government) and gave control to Boards of Governors with mainly so-called ‘lay’ membership – basically, businessmen, effectively acting in the same way and according to the same criteria as Boards of Directors of companies, albeit with less competence and almost no knowledge. (Lord Browne, author of the latest, devastating Report to government on university fees is the apogee of this outrageous practice.)

At this point, rather than simply receiving state funding, institutions started having to ‘bid’ for it. Having thereby inaugurated a competitive process between individual institutions, the abolition of the ‘binary divide’ in 1992 then put the older universities into competition with the ex-polytechnics, using them as a mechanism to introduce a market-based economic rationale into the university sector as a whole. When the polytechnics became universities all universities in the UK started to change. What has happened more recently, under a Labour government, has been a further development and intensification of this process.

It has been characterized by a number of different features, each with its own contradictions. In the first place, the abolition of the binary divide was the occasion for a competitive expansion in student numbers. This was the mechanism whereby the lower cost base of the ex-polytechnics could be used to discipline the older universities. It expressed the political contradiction of all market populisms: on the one hand, it had a democratic social content insofar as it expanded the demographic basis of higher education; on the other, it restricted this content to a market form under conditions of a declining unit of resource per student, lowering the quality of education for all students. This led to a right-wing ideological response, blaming the new working class students for ‘dumbing-down’ the system, when it was actually a predictable effect of a deliberate governmental policy, intensified by the inadequacies of the state provision of secondary education (high school), which were highlighted by the process.

In economic terms, the state has been looking to lower the unit cost of the higher-educational aspect of social reproduction, while restructuring its provision to focus its spending on reproducing forms of labour-power capable of producing the most value. I.e. it is trying to perform a classical, national ‘general capital’ function. This conflicts with the broader ideological rationale of education with regard to citizenship, culture and social wellbeing. UK governments have been especially reductive in this respect, in their image of education, since they implicitly assume that a ‘proper’ education should be restricted to the self-perpetuating elite of private schools, Oxford and Cambridge universities, and associated institutions. The ‘democratic’ unification of the sector was thus the ideological cover and economic mechanism for a far more hierarchical restructuring of the system. The polytechnics offered vocational studies, but some of them – like Middlesex – also developed innovative arts and humanities programs. It was mainly in polytechnics that new theoretical paradigms in the humanities – like Cultural Studies, for example – developed in the UK during the 1980s. This creative side of the new universities is being comprehensively destroyed by this process.

In the 1980s, Middlesex Polytechnic had a Philosophy Department with over 20 academic staff, teaching a wide range of types of philosophy to all first-year students in humanities and social sciences, as part of a broad-based foundation year. Governmental emphasis on vocational focus has perversely been (mis)translated into a ‘re-disciplinarization’ of teaching (in part, as a result of research-funding mechanisms), such that this ‘liberal arts’ aspect to higher education is being obliterated, at a time at which communicational and basic analytical skills are actually in much higher demand. This is the result of the imposition of abstract market models, without any knowledge of, or feel for, the complexity of the mediations involved in educational systems. The mediating agency of this abolition of meaningful mediations is a corporate model of financial management, imported from an already redundant phase of industrial capitalism.

The last Labour government in the UK abolished the Ministry of Education, separating out schools from universities, and allocating universities to the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills. There could not have been a clearer signal of its abandonment of the very concept of education. Within universities themselves, though, the concept is less easily simply abolished. Here, financial management (and its epitome, the financialization of all accounting) appears as one side of a fundamental contradiction; the other side being these institutions’ own educational ‘missions’. The minimal political task here is to draw attention to this contradiction and to force institutions to confront it, and to find a way of maintaining something of their missions. The government can be held directly responsible for this academic version of the famous ‘mission creep’.

The macabre joke is, of course, that all this is – even in narrow economic terms – likely to be completely counter-productive. Withdrawing investment in human (‘variable’) capital is hardly a brilliant strategy for growth. It harks back, once again, to the Thatcher years, when the state-sponsored economic goal appeared to be simply to drive down the cost of labour-power, in a doomed attempt to compete with developing economies, rather than developing the kind of social capital required for new production processes. In this respect – to return to your question – the image of the university as a factory is double-edged. It doesn’t just refer to the process whereby educational institutions are being subjected to a politically determined mimesis of the law of value; it also refers to the fact that the mode of subjection is an out-dated one, which fails to take into account certain important changes in the capitalist mode of production itself: not least, the specifically educational mediation of the reproduction of labour-power and the increasing imbrication of the processes of production and reproduction.

Amanda Armstrong: I’m interested in what you refer to above as the destruction of the “creative side of the new universities.” How would you articulate the intellectual and political significance of innovative arts and humanities programs, such as Middlesex Philosophy? Are such programs being dismantled simply because they don’t appear to generate profit as efficiently, or are they also being targeted for more manifestly political reasons?

Peter Osborne: The Middlesex philosophy programs – Kingston ones now at postgraduate level (a similar kind of institution, but with a very different perspective and strategy) – were, and in their new home remain, of considerable intellectual and political significance, I think. There are a number of different aspects to this, and they can be found in programs in related subjects in similar institutions elsewhere in the UK as well. In the first place, and most obviously, these programs offer access to the humanities and its historical and literary culture to segments of the population that were previously excluded from them. This is of tremendous democratic-political and cultural value, and it served a certain legitimating function as well, of course – one that the British state now appears, quite suddenly, to be prepared to jettison. Second, in providing a humanities education for this social constituency, humanities subjects in these institutions had to change in certain ways, to engage that constituency and to make themselves relevant to it. It is important to remember that what became Cultural Studies had its origins in Britain in the late 1950s in pedagogic practices within what were then ‘extra-mural’ Adult Education Programs – the Workers Educational Association (WEA) in particular. The intellectual innovations and political mode of address of British Cultural Studies were a direct result of the social constituency (often trade unionists) that such teaching served. Humanities within the polytechnics took over some of this educational culture, with a broader remit, and gave it an academic form. In this extended form, it became one of the impulses behind the transformation of humanities disciplines in the UK during the 1980s. It helped politicize the humanities by making them responsible to the needs of a particular social constituency, and it helped foster a critical and self-critical intellectual culture.

In this respect, humanities education in the polytechnics ran alongside, shadowing, what was the first set of ‘new universities’ in the UK in the postwar period: the awkwardly named ‘plate glass’ universities founded in the 1960s, such as Essex, Kent, Sussex, Warwick and York (so called to contrast them with the ‘red brick’ ones from Victorian times). It was in these institutions that much of the innovative work originated, often inspired by a combination of student radicalism and the translation of French and German theory, from the mid-60s onwards. This was the context for the founding of the journal Radical Philosophy, for example, in 1972. This points to a third feature of innovative arts and humanities programs in new universities (both in the early 1970s and post-92): they have tended to develop in proximity to left intellectual-political cultures articulated by networks of interdisciplinary journals. These intellectual-political cultures have declined along with the extra-parliamentary Left more generally, after the series of defeats of the last three decades. But they survive in vibrant pockets of activity, here and there, within the system.

As to why these kinds of program, in particular, are being dismantled at the moment, it is less easy to say. On the one hand, in any particular case, circumstance and contingency always play a major role. On the other hand, such closures are clearly part of a much larger attempt to restructure the system of higher education in the UK as a whole. In this latter respect, the dismantling of innovative humanities programs is certainly ‘manifestly political’, but not necessarily in the sense one might think. I don’t think that it is the result of an attack on left-ideological content, in particular. It is the result of an attack on something much broader: the liberal-humanistic concept of education. At Middlesex, for example, the thing that appears to have most incensed the management was not any sense of left-political content (this was never raised as an issue – it was not clear, in fact, that they had any idea what we did, academically, so distanced has academic management become from academic work), but the symbolic ‘uselessness’ of philosophy and the financial burden it thereby appeared to threaten; since there was no irresolvable financial problem. Indeed, the financial rationale for the abolition was, as the Vice-Chancellor put it, to ‘take a profit on philosophy’, since, incredibly, under the current funding rules, the university continues to receive large amounts of research income for us even though we are no longer there.

It is via a certain social imaginary about philosophy, and the humanities more generally, that these cases are being made. Immediately after the announcement of the closure of recruitment to our programs, for example, it was suggested to me by the university’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research (recently relabeled, ‘Research and Enterprise’ – chalk and cheese) – whose job, one might have thought, would have involved defending research – that our programs could be saved if we developed courses on Business Ethics, to show the Vice-Chancellor that we could be useful. This is an extraordinary way to run a university: to transform your highest rated research unit into supply teaching for the Business School. Not least because this had actually been tried over a decade before, at the fagend of the first, Thachterite attempt to introduce market ideas into higher educational provision. A previous Head of Department had focused on ‘applied philosophy’ with a mind to developing both business and military ethics. But the only program that went ahead recruited disastrously – in stark contrast to the growth of continental philosophy within the department – and said HoD left the university. There is a basic point here, which the new kind of university manager seems unable to grasp: namely, that there are markets in more ideas than ideas about markets; let alone that there are non-market forms of social exchange that are of social and economic value.

The politics here is one of pure marketization, pure capitalistic instrumentalization – a kind of anti-politics, in one sense, in fact. Again, it is reminiscent of the early Thatcher years, when, in 1983, having failed in his attempt to abolish it, the then Secretary of State for Education and Science, Keith Joseph, renamed the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), on the grounds that economics – by which he meant neo-classical economics – was the only scientific form of social research; although he did not believe that even that should be funded by the state.

Philosophy has become iconic of the alleged ‘uselessness’ of the humanities as a whole. That this specific ‘uselessness’ is a condition of the production of certain kinds of social subject, important to democratic citizenship and cultural life, as well as certain types of production, is something recent governments in the UK have willfully decided to ignore.

One of the most chillingly ironic features of this process is the reversal in the meaning of ‘vocation’. That ‘the vocational’ – a religious concept denoting a divine calling to some special, morally significant work in life – should have come to convey the precise opposite of its established meaning (namely, something purely instrumental and of economic value alone) epitomizes the current situation: ‘capitalism as religion’ in Walter Benjamin’s phrase. What is equally startling, however, given the rhetoric of economic realism that accompanies the attack on university funding is that the case for purely ‘vocational’ and STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) alone, on economic grounds, has no empirical basis, at either micro or macro levels, even within its own terms.

At the macro level, a recent study has shown there to be ‘no significant relationship’ between a nation’s economic growth and the number of students studying STEM subjects (THE, 20/8/10). Rather, economic growth correlates with levels of investment in higher education in general, across all subjects. This is something else UK governments have chosen to ignore. In this respect, they do not appear to be behaving in a manner functional even to British capital, let alone the society as a whole. They are an incompetent representative of ‘capital in general’. This is because, historically, they have primarily represented the interests of its financial fraction: precisely that fraction that caused the current global financial crisis, now displaced into a crisis of sovereign debt. They are now addressing the latter in a manner designed to restore the fortunes of finance capital, whatever the costs to everything else.

At the micro level, the attack on the funding of humanities disciplines is breathtakingly hypocritical. After all, if you want to work for The Times or the BBC, you don’t do a Journalism or Media Studies degree; you do English at Oxford, Cambridge, or one of the other elite institutions. It is assumed that those institutions will be financially strong enough to continue this provision, for the elite they serve, by cross-subsidization. There is thus a strong implicit sense that there is a very real value to a humanities education, but it is now to be, once again, for one particular social class only. So it’s not just about profit – establishing conditions for greater profitability by reducing the state costs of social reproduction – it’s about shifting the financial burden of the crisis onto what Marx called ‘the collective worker’ – ordinary people – in the most general sense. This is a tremendous social as well as economic cost. And it is fundamentally undemocratic in its basic political tendency.

Amanda Armstrong: It appears that such processes of burden-shifting are now reaching a fever pitch in the UK, as evidenced by the Cameron Administration’s recent proposal to reduce state spending on public institutions by approximately twenty percent. If implemented, what might the effects of such austerity measures be at the university level? Can we hope that effective opposition to such measures might materialize, both within the universities and more broadly? And do the Middlesex occupations of spring 2010 offer lessons for potentially emergent movements against privatization?

Peter Osborne: The way state deficit-reduction is being managed in the UK is catastrophic for UK universities, as it is for many other areas of existing state provision. The state teaching budget to universities is to be cut by 40% (just announced, 20 October 2010). But it will be much worse than that for arts, humanities and social sciences, since the STEM subjects are to be protected from the cuts. This will translate into something like a 60% cut, or worse, for humanities subjects. To make up, tuition fees (currently a ‘top-up’ of state funding and capped at £3,290/$ 5,250) will have to rise to at least £7,000/over $11,000 per year across the board in England – an extra £11,000/$17,500 for a standard 3-year degree.

This is often spoken of as an ‘Americanization’ of the UK system, in contrast to the maintenance of effectively merely symbolic fees in Europe (about €400/$600 per year in France, for example), with continuing state support. However, this is misleading. Your system is financially extremely diverse and hierarchical – with its spread from the relatively low fees at state universities to the huge ones (which only some people have to pay, of course) in the Ivy League. It also has significant streams of ‘philanthropic’ capital. In the UK, these fees will be minimum ones, or universities will fail to cover their costs. Outside of Oxford and Cambridge there is no significant endowment money to support teaching.

With respect to research in the humanities, it is potentially even worse. The research budget for medicine will rise at the same time as the overall cut, so the cuts for everything else will be much deeper than the ‘average’, headline figure. And there is no equivalent to tuition fee income for them to impose on the student population to make up the shortfall. People are talking about the possible abolition of the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) via a merger with the ESRC. And the future of the main mechanism for distributing research income to university departments, nationally, the so-called Research Excellence Framework (REF) is in doubt.

If this all goes ahead as announced, and is not put into reverse by the force of the opposition to it, it is widely expected that several universities will go into liquidation. Some newer institutions with high proportions of arts, humanities and social science students will be under threat – including somewhere like Goldsmiths, despite the strength of the international ‘brand’ of its fine art, media communications and culture studies provision.

Opposition will certainly materialize, although it is unlikely to achieve the admirable spread and intensity of that in France. How effective it will be remains not merely to be seen, but an urgent task. There will be widespread opposition from students and academic faculty. However, there is now within UK universities a market-oriented managerial caste, which owes its existence and a more-than-comfortable living to these market-based developments. It is antagonistic to all but the most instrumental (‘vocational’) work in the humanities. Many Vice-chancellors, for example (though not, I am relieved to say, ours at Kingston) have been reticent about criticizing the government. It is not in their make-up; they feel part of the same managerial-administrative project. So this will split universities from within; especially once the cuts start turning into jobs losses and program closures.

The best hope lies in a broader opposition to the cuts across students, trade unionists, pensioners and political activists and a rapid radicalization of forms of action. But the latter may not be widespread. And the Labour Party is unlikely to provide any effective national opposition to the Conservatives. (Its new leader, Ed Miliband, has already declared he will not attend the first big march and rally planned for 10 November. Presumably in order to prove his independence from the trade unions, although they are only one element in a wide coalition of forces.)

The Middlesex occupations in May offer a number of lessons, I think, on a small scale: primarily, taking the powers that be by surprise by radical and varied, relatively punctual actions, articulated with a strong, web-based solidarity movement and a focused media campaign. Parts of the media were extremely sympathetic to the Middlesex campaign and happy to keep the story alive, so long as there were distinctive ‘newsworthy’ developments each week.

One problem for the Middlesex campaign, familiar to student movements, was the looming onset of the summer vacation. University managements announce cuts and closure late in the year for precisely that reason. It means there was a definite cut-off point for effective disruptive action. But the canvas of opposition to the spending cuts is far broader now, in a whole range of aspects. Solidarity and support between the different constituencies of a national campaign of collective action will be the key to the outcome.

If it does not have at least some effect on reversing the government plans, the future will be extremely bleak indeed, since current government economic policy is going to make things much, much worse for the majority of the population, not just in the policy’s own immediate horizon of 3 to 4 years, but for far longer. They are using the crisis as an alibi to do what Thatcher never got close to doing: fundamentally quantitatively shrinking state expenditure and simply removing multiple forms of social provision, eliminating non-market forms of social exchange and thereby reducing the quality of life for the already worst-off members of society. They do not have an electoral mandate for this. Let us hope a massive opposition movement can be built for an alternative response.


Peter Osborne is Professor of Modern European Philosophy and Director of the Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy, Kingston University London. He is an editor of the British journal Radical Philosophy. His books include The Politics of Time: Modernity and Avant-Garde (1995; 2nd ed., Verso Radical Thinkers series, Jan. 2011), Philosophy in Cultural Theory (2000), Conceptual Art (2002), Marx(2005), Walter Benjamin: Critical Evaluations in Cultural Theory (ed., 3 Volumes, 2005) and most recently El arte más allá de la estética: Ensayos filosóficos sobre el arte contemporáneo (CENDEAC, Murcia, 2010).

Amanda Armstrong is a graduate student in the Department of Rhetoric at UC Berkeley. She is a co-editor of R e c l a m a t i o n s.