The benefits of higher education aren’t measurable. No metric can quantify the expanded awareness you aquire when you grasp a theory, or understand the link between a fact and conclusion, after struggling with it. The value of a lecture that resonates can’t be easily described. An exchange between peers and lecturers has no real reward beyond itself. And you couldn’t give money to express how much you appreciate what you receive in class. We’ve evolved on the maxim that education is a valuable object, one without a price.
Nonetheless, with the return of the Tories, neoliberal restructuring policies are encroaching fast, creating a mindset where the primacy of profit prevails above all other considerations. The new higher education green paper is only the scaffolding of the coming ruins, but it is already making universities radically vulnerable to ill-advised reform. Its language shifts the orientation of higher education towards fulfilling market imperatives. By describing students as customers rather than, well, students, and emphasising the primacy of the needs of markets and employers, rather than the integrity of research and learning; the role of higher education is being gradually re-framed to serve the private powers, not the public interest.
Plans to hoist universities to engine freemarket capitalism and reconstitute the learning environment, in order to serve imperatives of big business, have been underway for years, with neoliberal restructuring of higher education markets coming in to effect under the coalition government. As well as saddling graduates with enormous debts, and planning to sell off portions of the loans book to Rothschild Bank, the reforms removed funding for undergraduate teaching and privatised its provision.
Education activists have emphatically argued that the maketisation of the university is one of the most fundamental threats to the integrity of public life in the UK. Universities are a basic, vital means of personal and social development for a country. They act as microcosms of the society at large, producing valuable research and economic goods.
But more vitally, they foster values and curiosities in the hearts and minds of students that can’t be justified in terms of instrumental economic rationality. Non-instrumental values are the ones most likely to resonate. Education is a social good which can’t simply be reduced to financial costs and benefits. It is a crucial means for the development of critical thinking which enables individuals to flourish as thinkers and practitioners; and a public asset that must be protected from the government’s damaging and ideological higher education policy.
In essence, we are being taught that financial transactions matter more than the majesty of learning, that education values consumption over intellectual curiosity, that creation of profit rather than knowledge is the foremost purpose of the academy. This ideological re-orientation of the higher education sector is being made because a narrow caste of self-serving politicians and their friends personally benefit from these types of reforms – people who also personally benefited from the universal provision of free education a few decades ago.
Students will turn up with earnest hopes to add something useful to the society they live in, and end up becoming numbers; cogs in a hyper-capitalist behemoth. Their minds will become mere commodities, their studies an appendage to the broader corporate scheme they are being trained to serve. They will internalise the logic and discipline of a corporate society. How will the value of critical rationality survive, when students are brainwashed to believe that their only value as a human being consists in how much of themselves they can sacrifice to economic growth?
Activists in the education sector are engaged in a fight against the neo-liberal infrastructure – an infrastructure that when built, will squeeze out individuality and dissent in universities. Without dialogue, individuality and dissent universities will become castles of conformity, reproducing the dominant logic of the status quo. It gives lie to the idea of freedom and democracy in higher education. A coalition of groups have taken up the cause of raising awareness of ill-advised reforms. They’re building friendships, relationships, common causes, and rejecting the Tory mantra made in bad faith that “there is no alternative.” Pause to consider how it discourages reflection on the disastrous implications of neoliberal restructuring policies on the life of the university.
Politicians are quick to blame students protesters for violence, but the real violence is being perpetrated on the education sector, by a mindless agenda without a mandate.