About a month ago I was chatting to a friend, and happened to mention the vague rumours I'd heard that Middlesex University, North London, was on the point of closing its Philosophy programmes. Even as the words came out of my mouth, I found myself unable to believe them. I said, 'I must have got that wrong', the thought was not only shocking but simply absurd. Why would any university close a research centre and teaching programme, which was widely known to be popular and profitable, with a world-class reputation well beyond the normal confines of its own discipline?
Several weeks later, this is what the academic community - and above all the students and staff of Middlesex Philosophy - are still asking themselves. The shock has been widespread and deeply felt. A wave of threatened and actual redundancies, and a responding wave of frequently-successful protests against them, has shaken British universities over the past year, as managements prepared for the series of deep funding cuts that began in April and are expected to continue for several years to come. As commentators have pointed out (see the Guardian article here), philosophy is often a vulnerable discipline, under these circumstances, for a range of political reasons: most notably its apparent lack of fit with the government's drive to push more students into 'degree' programmes tailored to the demands of commerce.
Middlesex is an exceptional case, however. Not only is it one of very few places in the UK where students can follow programmes in 'continental' philosophy (which is what Anglo-American philosophers call what everyone else in the world calls 'philosophy') and in particular its radical leftist and feminist variants, but it has been for many years a beacon of internationally-renowned research, one of relatively few such research centres to have survived and prospered in the 'new universities'. While some parts of government in recent years have been trying to reinstall the rigid hierarchy between research-focussed elite universities and their lesser counterparts that was disrupted in the 1990s see [Boonery and Open Democracy),
centres like Middlesex's Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy have shown that non-elite institutions can become homes of dynamic world-leading innovation in subjects that don't require massive levels of infrastructural investment.
Neoliberal corporate governance
This, it appears, is precisely the problem for Middlesex Philosophy. British universities receive funding for research on the basis of the performance of their respective departments in the periodic research assessment exercises, which preoccupy British academics (to the exclusion of all else) every few years. Having performed particularly well in the 2008 review, Middlesex Philosophy is due to earn its university a considerable income over the next few years. As shocking as this may seem, there are no restrictions on how universities can deploy internally the research income that their departments earn through this mechanism, and no rules compel them even to carry on employing the people who earned it for them in the first place. It appears that Middlesex management have taken a corporate decision to take the university further downmarket, and that to this end they intend to divert all of the university's Philosophy-earned research income into other projects (none involve the development of research in the university) while closing the centre and all of its well-regarded programmes.
This is neoliberal corporate governance at its most crude. Students and academics have become used to the imposition of a paradigm, which tries to force the complex collaborative process of education into the box of a commodity transaction, treating students as consumers in a competitive market place and academics as sellers of pre-packaged 'transferable skills'. But this is taking things to a new level - imposing the logic of asset stripping where even a moderately business-oriented management would see an opportunity for sustained growth and investment.
On Tuesday 4 May 2010, when management failed to keep an appointment with them to discuss the crisis, students occupied the executive suite at the university's Trent Park campus. After a couple of days, and literally thousands of expressions of support from around the world (including many luminaries of radical philosophy), they occupied the whole of the Mansion House building there, using it to host two days of philosophical and political discussion with over 150 people in attendance, the following weekend.
At the time I write, over 30 students remain in occupation, with no immediate plans to leave, and plans for further events to come - spirits remain high and a culture of thorough discussion and consensual, non-hierarchical decision-making has emerged. The occupiers make clear that their key reason for occupation is not simply the planned closure as such, but the refusal of management to consult or even adequately to inform staff and students. This is symptomatic of an endemic problem in the new universities in Britain, where structures of real accountability and democratic participation in decision-making are virtually non-existent - reinforcing the tendency to replicate corporate models of practice and the relationships. I asked them how far their study of radical philosophy had informed the practice of occupation, and they were frank about the divergence of views on this topic: 'there's some people who think that philosophy is important to what we're doing - there's others who think it's fairly contingent ... the underpinning is the fact that they're trying to close the department.'
Where the attitude of the students differs from that of many academics is that, in their words, 'we're trying not to push the fact that it's an excellent department'. The research rating of the department is not an issue for these students and they challenge the obsession with research status that informs the attitudes of many academics, and much of the current system for the distribution of funds by government, saying, 'We love our department not because of the rating but because of what we're learning.'
Creative resistance is a necessity
At the time of writing these students are not entertaining the possibility of defeat, and they deserve all the support that the rest of us can give them. Middlesex Philosophy, along with the journal Radical Philosophy, which is closely associated with it (and is still self-published at a time when most such journals have become cash cows for major corporate publishers), remain outposts of resistance to the process of enclosure and commodification of all sites of collective learning, creating and expression which typifies contemporary capitalism and the 'knowledge economy'. This process touches all of us - degrading our conditions of existence and circumscribing our opportunities to explore what it means to be in the world, working to contain all of the creative energies, which we generate within the confined of roles of consumer and entrepreneur. Creative resistance to it is not a luxury but a necessity for all who want a future not entirely dictated by the logic of the market.
Kentucky Fried Education: The Market Assault on Reason
Tariq Ali at Middlesex University
Saturday 15 May, 3.30pm, Trent Park campus
For more information and to follow events at Middlesex - and to lend your support - visit http://savemdxphil.com/
Jeremy Gilbert is a writer, researcher and activist, for more information see here