At a recent seminar of the Campaign for the Public University, someone raised what is an increasingly pressing question. Why aren’t more academics speaking and acting out in greater earnest against the destructive policies of privatization, marketization and corporatization now being imposed on and from within universities? For unlike the remarkable new student movements and apart from professional projects to mitigate the excesses of the government’s programme of extreme neoliberalization, academic responses have been very muted indeed. Even within the critical corners of the universities, and outside of politicizing crises such as departmental closures or parliamentary votes, there have been few serious direct challenges, or articulations of alternatives to the prevailing narratives of inevitability. Why?
Let us first presume a depressing, but what for the public may appear plausible, answer to this question: that academics desire this, or that we don’t believe in the promises of critical education enough to fight with or for them. At present, the crisis is weighted solely towards loss – of livelihood, autonomy, and social purpose – only for some. For a minority of others, it is a rare opportunity to realise a decades-long dream of reconsolidating elite power in education and legitimising neoliberal and conservative ideologies throughout society.
But is there also a quiet majority for whom these changes are experienced more prosaically as inconveniences, or opportunities for professional reinvention? Perhaps this majority hopes for the introduction of costly tuition fees, seizing upon them as a long-denied source of private investment. Perhaps it believes that students will be intellectually committed when, in the classroom as in the market, time becomes money. Perhaps academe has become populated by scholars who enjoy ranking their work competitively against that of others, or who believe that the only meaningful recognition of social value is that bestowed by institutional elites. Perhaps teachers want their pedagogical practices be determined by the executive decisions of corporate managers in accordance with logics of bureaucratic and economic necessity, so as to avoid inefficiencies or unsettling students with difference. And perhaps hordes of anthropologists, philosophers, sociologists and historians are now enthusiastically preparing grant applications to study the Big Society, saying to one another: ‘yes, this finally makes good sense’. In other words, perhaps there is no great refusal of the neoliberalization of British universities because it is in academics’ interests to advance it. Otherwise, it may be asked, why else would we consent to it?
There, I think, is the rub. Most people neither believe nor desire any of the above, and many find such conditions distressing, disorienting and painful. But many are also convinced that alternatives are impossible, and that challenging the policies is therefore hopeless or pointless or both. Criticisms made behind closed doors are censored and self-censored in classrooms and committees, and discontent cohabits with collectively reinforced fatalism rather than inspiring new forms of collective political praxis. We are imbibed with a need to produce second-order busywork that promises to deliver us on the backs of others: gaming league tables that we understand to be epistemologically suspect, sweating over research assessments that we know will divide and exclude, ‘adding value’ to curricula in the hope of satisfying students that we would much rather be able to teach. We ‘subvert’ these practices so as not to internalise them. But the fact is, this system doesn’t need approval – only a modicum of performative consent.
Academics have already relinquished many vital opportunities to remake universities into institutions for learning and human development. But as the first new budget cuts materialise and universities begin enforcing changes to accommodate and legitimise the government’s policies, there will be other openings for organising new, not-yet-imagined forms of collective resistance to the agenda. We are learning from our students that such work is neither easy nor impossible. We are also learning that such serious attacks on public education, critical disciplines and research, non-hegemonic epistemologies and democratic life, can only be met with equally as serious acts of resistance – which may of course take a plurality of different forms. For ultimately, as Audre Lorde once wrote, ‘the machine will try to grind you into dust anyway, whether or not we speak….[W]e can sit in our safe corners mute as bottles, and we will still be no less afraid’. She insists that such silence can be transformed into language and action – not by pretending that we know what to say or are not afraid to speak, but by understanding how much we may regret if we fail to try.
Sarah Amsler is Lecturer in Sociology at Aston University.