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Across the terrain of education and the university, a struggle is emerging. Sussex, Middlesex and Westminster universities have been occupied and at the University of Leeds the lecturers union UCU balloted to strike in response to £35 million in cuts.
It is important, though, not to see this as merely a struggle over cuts in funding or job losses, however devastating they will be. There is also a deeper critique beginning to materialise over the role and form that universities and higher education take. Criticisms are being voiced over the commodification of knowledge – the enclosure of research within exclusive and expensive institutions and publications, or behind electronic gateways such as Ingenta or ProQuest.
The squeeze on educational institutions is, like the crisis of capital, global. But so too is the emergent resistance. People from Chile to Austria, from Greece to the US, and from Japan to Puerto Rico are challenging the neoliberal model of the university, which produces ‘skilled’ workers who can be put to use for the reproduction of capital.
In the US, there have been some of the largest and most vibrant student mobilisations for years. California has seen students facing prohibitive hikes in fees and increasingly dire job prospects join forces with precariously employed academic and support staff to stage a wave of marches, strikes, teach-ins and occupations. On 4 March, there was a US-wide strike and day of action to defend education.
Here in Europe, the focus is on challenging the ‘Bologna Process’ aimed at the privatisation and standardisation of universities across the EU. Students and educators are proposing alternative processes of collective self-organised struggle, knowledge sharing and the liberation of education. To these ends there have been protests, counter-summits and occupations in hundreds of European cities, including Vienna, Paris, Prague, Barcelona, Rome, Turin and Bologna itself.
In the UK, 200 University of Westminster staff and students occupied the vice-chancellor’s office for three days in March. Protests and occupations have occurred at Sussex in the face of forceful attempts to suppress them by university management, including arrests and the use of riot police with dogs. Many other campuses are gearing up to take action against cuts.
Here at Leeds, vice-chancellor Michael Arthur announced £35 million cuts, branded the ‘Economies Exercise’. Leeds University Against Cuts (LUAC) and the Really Open University (ROU) formed to resist the plan and in early February, in a record ballot, UCU voted in favour of action.
While UCU was balloting its members, Leeds University Student Union started an anti-strike campaign, erroneously called ‘Education First’. In response ROU created a spoof union website, reallyopenunion.org, as well as a series of stickers encouraging strike action. LUAC ran stalls on campus, mobilised staff and students for demonstrations, and attempted to counter some of the scaremongering and disinformation that the ‘Education First’ campaign had spread.
Experiments in education
ROU was established to simultaneously resist cuts, critique the neoliberal model of education and engage in experiments in critical and participatory education. The aim is to break out of the insularity of the university and student politics. ROU asks ‘What can a university do?’ placing itself within an expansive politics of creativity and affirmation. It produces a newsletter, The Sausage Factory, and has organised several public meetings with participatory workshops, where participants are encouraged to create collective visions of what a ‘really open university’ would look like.
These attempts at resistance and the creation of alternative spaces share a common recognition of the systemic nature of the crises facing not just students, universities or the public sector in general, but the very commons on which life depends. There is a growing recognition that the same ‘logics’ that demand education serves the needs of markets are also those fuelling socio-ecological degradation, precipitating global financial crises and excluding the majority of the world’s population from participation in how the world is run.
While there have been important successes in these university battles, there have been setbacks too. Although UCU won an important victory in Leeds, it has not undermined the threat of cuts in general, with various departments, especially classics and biological sciences, still facing uncertain futures. Another challenge is that those taking action are facing punishment, with six students facing disciplinary action at Sussex.
If the resistance to the commodification of education and research is to be successful then it must be generalised beyond the walls of the university. If this happens then perhaps the spectre of university radicalism may once again come to haunt the academy.