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CAUT Bulletin Archives

May 2012

The Assault on Universities

A Manifesto for Resistance

Michael Bailey & Des Freedman, eds. New York, NY: Macmillan, 2011; 194 pp; ISBN: 978-0-74533-191-1, cloth $80 US.

Reviewed by Herbert Pimlott

Is there a worse possible fate for Canadian universities than the imminent future bearing down on universities in the UK? A 100 per cent cut to teaching grants for the humanities and social sciences; tripling of tuition fees to £9,000; up to 40,000 jobs lost and 49 universities (out of 130) at risk of closure.1

These developments, set to go into effect in fall 2012, will add to the problems facing universities in light of recent cuts of £1 billion and the ongoing sector marketization and privatization via reforms first introduced by New Labour. These processes include the real or perceived corruption of the academy via the pandering to donors, such as the scandal surrounding the £1.5 million donation from a charitable foundation run by Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, son of the late Libyan leader, to the London School of Economics.

Such changes will compound the decade-plus impact of research and teaching ‘assessments’ on universities that have led to the wholesale closures of departments, including traditional academic subjects such as biology and English, because of ‘mediocre’ or ‘poor’ performances in research or teaching or in attracting students.

The blind faith in market fundamentalism has evolved via the last 15 years of higher education policy into a ‘logic’ that means even a top performance rating will not guarantee your survival.

No story encapsulates this disastrous logic better than the closure of Middlesex University’s philosophy department and its flagship, world renowned Centre for Research into Modern European Philosophy in 2010, despite earning the highest performance research grade (5P). Middlesex will continue to collect £175,000 per year in additional funding for quality over the next four years.2

The arts and humanities dean’s justification for the closure was “… that, it made ‘no measurable contribution’ to the university” (p. 21) or, in other words, it “brought in a lower per capita income … and therefore seemed uneconomical.” (p. 23)

This logic, which can undermine even the most successful and prestigious of programs, is reflected in the “rise of McKinseyism, the doctrine that things that cannot be measured have no value.” (p. 21) (Charles Dickens’ Mr. Gradgrind reappears with a vengeance!) This doctrine has led to the creation of “target cultures and false indicators together with the construction of league tables based on arbi­trary, loaded criteria which encourage collusion and game playing.” (p. 21) This is the consequence of research and teaching assessment “exercises” or “frameworks” that have cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of pounds since the late 1990s and wasted the time and resources of scholars and staff.

The “McKinsey mindset” leads to the “increasingly sacred status” of the “business plan,” which can “be manipulated to set aside and destroy those aspects of a university with which management are uncomfortable” as well as the “knowledge base of unfashionable subjects.” (p. 23)

Michael Bailey and Des Freedman’s The Assault on Universities offers a concise, cogent and compelling critique of the present conjuncture of UK universities, which concludes with A Manifesto for Resistance.

While there is a whole new genre of books dealing with the “crisis of the university,” there is nothing nostalgic about the idea or purpose of the university in this collection, even when drawing on ancient Greece or 19th century developments. The first three chapters in Part I take the reader through a surprisingly refreshing and engaging discussion of the university and make the case for “fighting for the university’s life.”

The current challenges and future visions of Part II identify economic alternatives in the current crisis (Aeron Davis) while reimagining the public good (Jon Nixon) and understanding the Conservative-Liberal Democrat (Con-Dem) coalition government’s “liberal” approach to higher education as the continuation (and intensification of) a “war against democracy and education” (Nick Stevenson).

Reminding the reader that the deficit was the result of the UK government using public funds to bail out financial institutions that had engaged in “complex pyramid or Ponzi-style schemes,” (p. 53) Davis points to the range of alternatives to privatization of higher education and the welfare state, which the Con-Dem government claims as necessary (p. 57), as do governments in Canada and elsewhere. One example is to close down tax avoidance loopholes that would prevent billions in taxes from being lost and which could eliminate the annual deficit.

This challenge to the choices made by governments and university administrations is addressed in the manifesto, and is something we also should be challenging at each of our universities as well as at provincial and national levels.

However, as Stevenson points out, the changes in higher education are part of a broader attack on democracy and “a top-down project to reinvent British society,” for which neither coalition party advocated in their 2010 election platforms. (p. 73)

The Con-Dem government’s claims are a “paradoxical doxa” (Pierre Bourdieu) in which the language of “choice” and “markets” are used to legitimize a “system of higher education where the privileged will still … command places at the top universities and where the freedoms of other citizens are massively constrained.” (p. 77) As Davis points out, the government assertion that “forcing students to pay for their courses can only make (higher education) more ‘productive’ for the economy,” is presented as a student choice and goes further in claiming student loans are not “debt.” (p. 55)

Stevenson’s argument is supported in Nixon’s chapter, where he draws on the results of a study of more than one million university applicants, which shows that those who got into the top universities were overwhelmingly students from private schools, who were favoured, even when they had lower grades, over public (state) school applicants. The study by the Sutton Trust, an organization promoting social mobility, shows “deep codes of chronic structural inequality” remain in place, reinforced by “institutional stratification across the higher education sector,” which enable the “reproduction of privilege … and the consolidation of private and professional elites.” (p. 64)

So, it’s no surprise then that 23 out of 29 cabinet ministers are millionaires and 32 per cent of MPs have been educated in private schools that educate just seven per cent of the population. Hence, Stevenson’s argument about the Con-Dem government’s attack on democracy and education makes sense for reinforcing structural inequality.

Part III includes discussions of the university as a political space and the role of critical pedagogy. Alberto Toscano focuses on whether it is “possible to democratise the university” and his chapter identifies the restriction of faculty unions into “narrow if necessary corporativist activity, or symbolic campaigning” as a limitation to be overcome (p. 87), if the imminent future is to be averted.

Michael Bailey focuses on the academic as “truth-teller,” which offers a different take on the “engaged public intellectual.” (I must admit I do get tired of reading about how important it is for us scholars to up-hold the ideals of the public university. Isn’t it about time we called on administrators to do the same?)

Part IV offers three chapters dealing with student movements, including the Paris events of 1968, but more importantly identifying student mobilizations across the world, including South Africa, California and Quebec. These chapters identify the “achievements and limitations” of the UK student movement, including a tide of university and secondary school occupations since November 2010.

Part V offers an international dimension, including the “Bologna Process” — created with the claimed goal of setting standards for degrees in the European Higher Education Area — and the role of international students as cash cows for revenue-strapped universities.

Canadians would do well to heed the discussions raised by this collection. As Des Freedman says in the introduction, there is a need for a broad movement that “goes far beyond immediate questions of finance to engage with questions concerning the overall purpose of universities and their continued existence as sites of discussion and discovery.” (p. 6) In Canada, the same elites that brought us 30-plus years of de-industrialization, privatization and commercialization are continuing their campaign to change the public university. If we do nothing to mobilize and formulate our visions of the role and place of the university in society, the UK’s “imminent future” will become our own soon enough.

Dr. Herbert Pimlott is an associate professor of communication studies at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario. He taught in four English universities before moving to Ontario and has had first-hand experience of both research and teaching quality assessment exercises.

1. Universities at Risk: The Impact of Cuts in Higher Education Spending on Local Economies, University and College Union report, 8 Dec. 2010,

2. Kingston University took over the centre after its closure.