Loony Lefties, Trolls and Public Debates About Higher Education in the UK

Left_hand_curve_sign_(India)_optIn the academic year 2007/2008, I was a doctoral student at the University of Essex. One weekend, the university campus was suddenly closed down, without explanation or apparent reason. After it reopened, there were rumours that a military event of some sort had taken place on campus. At the time, the United Kingdom was involved in several highly contentious wars abroad, and to many members of the university’s international student community, an unannounced event involving military presence on campus seemed highly problematic.

In the end, a colleague and I used the Freedom of Information Act to gain detailed information about the dealings the University of Essex had with the military. Among other interesting results, it turned out that the mysterious closure of the university had coincided with an event in which a military unit had been dispatched into war by a high-ranking member of the royal family.

We then started to gather the signatures necessary to request an all-university meeting and debate on cooperation with the military. This was no easy task; while many members of academic staff told us that they agreed with our objectives, they still did not wish to be involved in an initiative that might result in serious controversy. In the end, we did obtain enough signatures, and the meeting did take place. It did not involve a meaningful debate, though. Most of it was taken up by a cluster of angry academics, including a senior professor in the human rights centre, excoriating the meeting’s objectives and lambasting us for criticizing the military in times of war. Nobody offered any alternatives to this patriotic narrative, and the meeting did not last long.

My colleague and I had meant to open a space for an open debate on the collaboration between a renowned academic institution and a military force involved in hotly disputed and likely illegal wars abroad. In the end, we felt that such a debate never really took place and that it had been shut down by the force of pro-war, pro-military sentiment among certain members of the university. For me, these events came to be an important source of insights into the extent to which the freedom to articulate and discuss controversial debates in academic settings may be compromised by the dominant ideology of the day.

These limitations of academic freedom are particularly important today, in a time in which British universities are being remade from the top down in the image of the business corporation. A striking feature of the changes that are sweeping universities today is the absence of genuine debate, both within universities and in public life at large. There is now a broad political consensus, shared by all major parties and the mainstream media, that universities are meant to train a skilled labor force — and little else. The idea that scholarship and tertiary education form a crucial part of the democratic process has been forgotten, abandoned or else rendered so deeply unpopular that it is scarcely heard anymore. Where dissent arises, it is discredited and shut down promptly. The ways in which universities have responded to recent protests and occupations are a case in point (1, 2, 3, 4).

On the whole, it seems that debates on the privatization and commercialization of British academic are promptly obstructed and shut down wherever they arise. Some of the reasons behind this unwillingness to entertain a controversial argument are visible, I think, in a response to a recent post of mine. In that post, I had raised questions about the prospects for progressive politics in higher education. A troll, aptly named Prickle, disagreed with me and voiced his objections as follows:

‘Is Higher Education Losing Its Progressive Potential?’ Hopefully. Hopefully the terrible legacy of the New Left is finally fading. And if you are believe that higher education is a platform for your parochial political biases, then I hope you will be leaving the academy as well. Then we can get back to work.

Prickle’s statements are noteworthy in several ways. First, by referring to the “terrible legacy of the New Left,” Prickle associates my arguments with a specific political movement that she/he thinks is discredited. There is a clear affinity here to the ‘loony left’ narrative that has shaped British politics since the 1980s, cementing the neoliberal consensus across the political spectrum. In other words, Prickle seems to imply that my arguments are inadmissible and not worthy of consideration, as they are associated with a political orientation that has already been discredited. For this reason, I merely express “parochial political biases,” and I ought to be expelled from academia. My arguments make me an illegitimate presence that prevents ‘us,’ i.e. the academic community of which I should not form part, from ‘getting back to work.’

These comments, I think, more than the hard feelings of a single troll. They express a pattern of political debate, both inside academia and beyond, in which progressive voices are not worth listening to. They manifest a political consensus so rock-solid and powerful that its critical voices have lost all legitimacy. They exhibit a willingness to shut down debate and curtail academic freedom wherever it begins to threaten this consensus. In short, they point to important aspects of the new authoritarianism in British academia.

There are now countless books, journal articles, and blogs that analyze the consequences of the radical privatization and commercialization of academic spaces. There are many activist groups that challenge these trends, involving both students and academics. The fundamental barrier to their success is that they have not found effective ways to challenge the new academic authoritarianism, make themselves heard, and gain public support. Critical academics are routinely disregarded, and student protests mainly receive attention for their alleged threat to public order (1, 2). All the arguments for a critique of the new authoritarian, hierarchical, business-minded corporate universities are in place. The ways to insert these arguments into public life still need to be found.

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Daniel Nehring

My career so far has taken me to a fairly wide range of places, and this has allowed me to experience a wide range of approaches to sociology and social science. In my blog, I reflect on this diversity and its implications for the future of the discipline.

Over the last few years, I have also become interested in exploring the contours of academic life under neoliberal hegemony. Far-reaching transformations are taking place at universities around the world, in terms of organisational structures, patterns of authority, and forms of intellectual activity. With my posts, I hope to draw attention to some of these transformations.

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