Students and academics across the UK are preparing for a new round of strikes. They come at a time when university staff face extra difficulties with the cost of living crisis after a 20 per cent real-term pay cut since 2010. Postgraduate staff lack appropriate working conditions. Students face punishing loan conditions amid grim prospects for their graduation, and funding for early years education is cut to the bone.
In response, the UCU is demanding pay increases, an end to pay inequality, measures to tackle workloads, and the ending of insecure employment contracts.
Considering all this, we are forced to ask: what is the actual state of education? Are we able to form an environment where ‘education is freedom’, an idea that serves as the core feature of Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed? What does education that empowers the oppressed look like?
To understand what education should look like, we must turn to what it currently is, and its underlying ideology. This begins with examining the hollow claims of social mobility passed on by universities, in encouraging more working-class students, students of colour, students with disabilities, and more marginalised students to attend their universities and contribute unique experiences to our learning.
As funding for universities becomes increasingly tied to graduate job outcomes into the ‘professional class’, however, it becomes harder and harder to envision a world in which students are encouraged in a way that connects them to the communities they come from. This is reflected by how disabled students are being left behind at university, which in many ways were intensified by the covid-19 pandemic. Universities often go further by undermining the legitimacy of strikes for improved working conditions through the use of a disingenuous focus on their impact on students.
These conditions which govern universities and the conditions that they create themselves end up upholding oppressive structures rather than helping dismantle them. This includes being complicit in ‘a whole system of illegality, discrimination and exploitation’ through sending students to illegal settlements, a routine mishandling of complaints about racism, and consistent claims of classism both on campus and in the institutions themselves.
This paints a grim image of conduct towards the most vulnerable in society at university, where they are both discriminated against and educated in a way that helps maintain those very systems that make them and others like them oppressed in the first place.
The earlier years of education provide the basis for what higher education continues, where students from vulnerable communities are often punished instead of respected. A key example of this is the lack of adequate funding for students with disabilities in a way that often pushes families into private tutoring or, when families lack those resources, into declining grades. The potential of students, and the potential for a better society, is prevented from emerging through this systemic punishment of vulnerable students.
Many refuse to see the ideological component of education, but it is only through considering that component that we can truly understand the way education acts as a force of oppression. Instead of acting as a tool of social mobility, or to eliminate social barriers, these barriers are upheld and strengthened by how the education system works.
Education is freedom
In facing this reality, we are forced to ask: What can we do? How do we actualise the idea of education as freedom? As bell hooks showed us, ‘to educate as the practice of freedom is a way of teaching that anyone can learn’. This is a framework that can inspire us to look at our own experiences, our history, and use them to educate those around us.
Importantly, it means examining our own experiences with both privilege and oppression to see how we can contribute to resisting all oppression. The idea that bell hooks put forward has us reexamine everything we know about education, looking at it as a lifelong process rather than a process strictly relegated to the classroom. We all can be educators, to show people how they can access freedom, and to create environments that break down the oppressive structures that present education systems uphold.
Through reexamining this more rigid education we can find some practical responses, which include universities accepting the UCU strike demands, divesting from the arms trade, and fostering an educational environment that is cultivated by those involved in the education process itself instead of some out of touch management.
If this baseline is not achieved, then our education systems will remain a tool of oppression rather than embodying the practice of freedom. In teaching that anyone can learn, we must actively encourage that principle instead of the hollow social mobility claims pushed forward by schools and universities. This is not all there is to changing education, a total alternative is possible.
The chance for an alternative
Education can be a vehicle for freedom, and at a time when academics are standing against university management, it is important to take this as a chance to show the alternative. Picket lines, and the teach-outs that have sprung from them, have shown the grassroots potential of learning. Often, this has been learning which has stood against the structures which oppress us and sought to give us the tools to free ourselves from them.
The approach to grassroots education on the Police, Crimes and Sentencing Bill and Nationality and Borders Bill are prime examples of this, where they have focused on providing information about the nature of bills and, most importantly, how to resist them both as they transition through parliament and how to continue to resist if they become law.
This view of education is one that also expands our view of social mobility. Instead of taking us from our communities and maintaining the structures which oppress us in the first place, the goal should be to give us the resources to improve all of our communities. Essentially, education can only be dedicated to social mobility by giving us the tools to free ourselves and our communities.
This is a critical juncture for how we view education and one we cannot afford not to act on. In looking at education practice of freedom, and in seeking to empower the oppressed, we can start the process of building a better world. Supporting this year’s UCU strikes by being on the picket lines and attending teach-outs are crucial ways we can all play our role in making this change happen.
This is not only a battle fought within academia, but must be taken back into the communities we come from. Educating those around us about the structures that bind us, and our experiences with them is itself a form of resistance.