Deepwater Uni

10.11.10 London Demo, Photo by Author

The evangelical neoliberalism which erupted in the US House of Representatives in 2008 and spread like the mange to the UK House of Commons is coming soon to an English university near you. The free market rapture comes courtesy of a man so dreadfully incompetent he couldn’t even be trusted to run BP: Edmund John Philip Browne, or as he is properly titled in our droll little fiefdom, Baron Browne of Madingley, who has decided that higher education is really no different from petrol or plastic and should be manufactured according to the same industrial standards that govern oil companies. Yes, this was the man replaced by crackerjack Tony Hayward. Deepwater Uni is on our horizon.

Evangelical neoliberalism is a commitment to privatisation so devoutly ideological that it will court capitalistic suicide for the sake of free market purity. It burst like a boil in the lower congressional house during the early days of the financial crisis, forcing Minority Leader John Boehner to strong-arm several apostates within his own party into backing a Wall Street bailout which they deemed dangerously “socialist,” and has been suppurating outward from Washington ever since. Its scripture reads something like this: be fruitful and multiply the market until it covers the world; above all protect its sanctity from the corruption of the profane state – at any and all cost, including the utter collapse of capitalism itself. This isn’t about economics so much as faith. It’s a bastard child of laissez-faire dogma and puritanical Bible-bashing, with all the requisite self-flagellation painfully savoured by its own acolytes, and in that sense it is a singular denomination within the broader neoliberal church. If it’s ringing any fascist bells, you’re in the right pew.

Browne’s holy writ, the Independent Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance, was commissioned by the last Labour government, which first introduced tuition fees for undergraduates under Tony Blair in the late 1990s. Doomsday fell with its long-awaited publication on October 12, 2010, whereupon the government seized with ecclesiastical fervour a proselytising opportunity which the opposition could hardly contest with any credibility, having themselves initiated the conversion.

There are four horsemen in this apocalypse and they share a broad Parliamentary stable: David Cameron, Conservative Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, Liberal Democrat Deputy Prime Minister, George Osborne, Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Vince Cable, Liberal Democrat Secretary of State for Business, Innovations and Skills (a British cognate of what is usually called the Department of Higher Education in more civilised countries). This ministry of Oxbridgers, whose collective personal wealth could buy my college and everyone in it several times over, comprise the pastorate of what is euphemistically called the “coalition government,” otherwise known as the biggest democratic scam since Watergate.

For those of you who failed to tune in to the scintillating British election: nobody won. The Tories scraped into pole position with a menial margin over Labour, then slithered into government through a greasy collusion with the third-place Liberal Democrats, a party which presciently painted its political flag the colour of moral cowardice in anticipation of this day. The result was an unholy alliance in which the supine Lib Dems genuflect to every Tory diktat, all the while perversely claiming victories for “fairness.”

Scrapped Lib Dem Tuition Plan

The higher education sellout is a stunning example. In the run-up to the election, the Liberal Democrats made a six-stage strategy for scrapping tuition fees a central plank of their party manifesto; to boot, they signed a pledge drafted by the National Union of Students to oppose any rise in the fee ceiling, currently set at £3,000 per year. Six months down the road, they’re desperately boasting that they’ve managed to hold what they now call an “inevitable” fee hike to a mere 300 percent with the added sop of letting graduates avoid paying off their loans until they’ve reached the lower links of the middle class food chain at £21,000 annual. The Guardian reveals that they had secretly abandoned these pledges months before the election in anticipation of their deal with the Tories, but it’s six of one or half dozen of the other at this point. The craven depth of the act means whatever soul of which they could claim possession must have been sold decades ago, so who cares when the devil came to collect his due? Now, stitched like a decorative third leg to the arse of the Tory trunk, the Lib Dems try to walk backwards and forwards at once and succeed only at flailing. Cable changes his mystical economic prognostications on an hourly basis while Clegg, whose name one columnist predicts will go down in history as a shorthand for “agonised, doe-eyed apologist” smiles through the bullshit and calls it a fair deal.

The Tories, meanwhile, are giving them a run for their money in the faux fairness heat. In a masterful display of the Orwellian two-step that has become all the rage with the Bullingdon set, the Tories have gone from the party of No Society to the party of Big Society (or, as a friend put it upon learning that the fast food industry has just been commissioned to write national health policy: Big Mac Society). This cynical appropriation of hippy communitarian lingo, when subjected to even a casual hermeneutic deconstruction, boils down to the three basic Rs of neoliberalism: Retrenchment, Revanchism and cRiminalisation, especially when it comes to young people. With schools, unemployment benefit, social housing and now universities on the chopping block, the youth of this country have been thrown to the dogs. If they get hung out to dry by the bootstrap system, there’s always the prisons. If they protest against it, well, two birds with one stone.

The dirge that accompanies the death of the English university was composed in the decade which begat neoliberalism in the first place. The trumped-up national debt chorus, through which the ugly spectre of the 1980s has arisen with a vengeance far more sadistic than synth pop or shoulder pads, is once again ringing out from every steeple with tedious regularity. And it’s just as contradictory as it ever was, chapter and verse. The privatisation plan banks on the same logic of risk which recently brought global capitalism to its knees: extend dubious amounts of credit to borrowers (students) on the assumption that they’ll make a killing off their investment (degrees); it’s subprime for sociology majors. Debt is bad for the state but good for the individual, or so goes the refrain, delivered with a large dose of moralising dross about “personal responsibility” and “education as privilege” in a psyops offensive calculated to induce self-regulating Panopticistic guilt. The social benefits of higher education through the creation of an informed and critical democratic citizenry are expertly disregarded; in this credo the student wins so the student pays. The coalition is sweetening the deal for buyers by peddling the old shibboleth of consumer choice. There’s only one lesson in this gospel and that’s free marketeerism; as long as students embrace that, they can pick any degree they like from the Higher Education Stop’n’Shop. When consumer demand fails, then esoteric and expendable disciplines are rightfully weeded out in the brave neoDarwinian educational order.

The privatisation of universities isn’t likely to net the state any money, according to more orthodox financial creeds. The Browne doctrine is predicated upon shifting the cost of higher education onto the backs of students and their families; this, according to the Mad Baron of Madingley, will allow the government to slash the central teaching budget by 40 to 80 percent (for starters) depending on which end of the disciplinary scale an institution falls. But the numbers don’t add up. According to the Higher Education Policy Institute, the state cost of servicing student debt could well offset any savings, and most of the actual producers on this assembly line, from physicists to philosophers, agree that the quality of the commodity in what amounts to a £24 billion per year industry – bigger than advertising, aerospace or pharmaceuticals – will decline, further alienating its ostensible investors. The variables are so legion that prophecy is a losing game no matter how you throw the bones, but the fundamentalists are in all likelihood offering snake oil at best and toxic Kool Aid at worst. That’s precisely what puts the zeal in neoliberal zealotry: it’s not really about the money. The maths don’t add up because the maths never mattered in the first place. The assault is first and foremost political. It is no accident that the coalition is threatening to beggar the arts, humanities and social sciences while ringfencing the STEMs. The key architects of privatisation all have degrees in these disciplines (Cameron in PPE, Clegg in anthropology, Osborne in history, Cable in economics); they know their capacity for imparting creative analysis and they’d be pleased as punch to see them reduced to a whimsical item of conspicuous consumption for north London luvvies like themselves. An informed and critical democratic citizenry is the last thing they want for their waning post-imperial bishopric.

10.11.10 London Demo, Photo by Author

Unfortunately for the market missionaries, forty years of disinvestment under Thatcherism and Thatcherism 2.0 haven’t produced an entirely docile congregation. The government learned that lesson the hard way last week, when thousands of students occupied Tory headquarters, lit a fire in the courtyard and engaged in some minor scuffling with a suspiciously accommodating line of cops (also facing swingeing budget cuts as the public purse strings tighten). The direct action followed a 50,000-strong march through Westminster, a typically shouty but generally orderly affair which filed joyfully down Horse Guards and only really turned serious at the bridge. Predictably, the mainstream papers have dutifully guffed out a stream of platitudes fed to them by the Tory press machine (once they came out from beneath their desks) condemning the “violence” of the impromptu post-Fawkes bonfire night. But calls for further direct action are growing, and not just from students. As one poster put it on the Guardian boards in the wake of the latest Lib Dem side show, “I’m a grandmother and been totally law abiding all my life, but watching the students breaking windows the other day I was tempted to think what alternative is there?” Indeed. It is the dawning realisation of the utter dearth of alternatives which poses the greatest threat to the neoliberal state today, and it’s a rod it has made for its own back, a consequence of the blinding absolutism of another form of zealotry, the military kind. Beneath the chants and slogans, beneath the echo of shattering glass at Millbank, there’s a far more dangerous potential. It comes not in a resounding shout but a gathering storm: you ignored us on Iraq; you won’t ignore us this time. The futility of that largely law-abiding effort has conceived, I suspect, a fury that will not be contained by invoking the sanctity of private property or the threat of incarceration this time around. It could be that the restless students, and maybe even a few aged and biddable ents on the faculty, are about to wake up and find that they are strong. If the neoliberal opiate fails to anesthetise the intellectual masses, the Tories will have to fight to regain control of the universities before they can sell them out from under us.

14 thoughts on “Deepwater Uni

  1. CM

    I studied under the pre-Blair system in England as a day release student while I held down a full-time job. I complete my last year full-time, living off accumulated savings and a grant. How could any British student manage that now? To get an education, they must put themselves into debt for years or decades. If they can find a job at the end of it, a huge chunk goes back to paying off this loan. It’s like auto-cannibalism – chewing off your own leg when you’re hungry.

    The idea of whittling away at courses, getting rid of the least popular or least subscribed-to ones, is insanity, as if a food store got rid of choices one by one until there is none left. Eat this or starve.

    There shouldn’t be a marketplace for the human rights of education and health services. Without them, a society cannot thrive. They should therefore be built into the system. But for the neoLibs, everything is for sale, even if it destroys the institutions they put on the block.

    I agree – it’s time for the torches and pitchforks.

    1. Eliza Jane Darling

      The comparison with health care is instructive, and one I think the Tories may be considering very carefully right now. It’s my sense that the NHS is the one thing the privatisers cannot go after openly – “openly” being the operative word. Health care is being privatised in this country, but it’s been an insidious penetration, as Allyson Pollock has put it in NHS PLC, rather than a full frontal assault. Given the momentum building in the universities now, Cameron and the Cleggers may well wish they’d taken the more subtle route that the Blairites favoured.

      1. CM

        The erosion in health care is going on in Canada, too. Although the Canada Health Act ensures access to health care all across Canada, the delivery of that care is a provincial responsibility – and jealously guarded. The erosion happens by stealth.

        Gradually over the past few years, private clinics, particularly in Alberta, Ontario and Quebec, have opened up. Some are paid for with public funds. Others have a organization that is hard to figure out. One incident that made headlines last winter was a private clinic paid for by private insurance but which managed to secure a supply of the H1N1 vaccine before supplies were available widely for the public. (The members of an Alberta professional hockey team were vaccinated before most of the hoi polloi, too, but after all, they are an essential service.)

        Tuition fees in Canada have been rising and some programs are disappearing. Put that together with a poor student job market – a quarter couldn’t find jobs last summer – and the outlook is pretty grim.

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  3. Eliza Jane Darling

    This just came out recently in the Times Higher Education Supplement, on the privatisation of HE in Canada HE: I like the “boiling frog” metaphor – that’s a lot like the health care thing here.

    Amazingly, we’ve been receiving messages of solidarity from as far away as Argentina. French students are apparently set to protest at the British embassy in Paris tomorrow.

    1. Maximilian Forte

      That article is generally accurate, if a bit superficial and brief. In terms of part-time faculty, it would make quite a splash if our Department, which chooses the name of the person to advance, had that candidate rejected by the administration. We are the filters and promoters of part-time faculty, so it would be a case of University administration vs. Department, rather than University administration vs. part-time candidate. Canadian university administrations are also extremely fearful of being sued, since lawsuits can be terribly expensive and they risk losing–and in some instances they are also very fearful of the potential for violence (especially on campuses where shootings have occurred in the past). Add to that the fact that there is strong unionization, and it makes academics a fairly strong body of opposition.

      On the other hand, yes, attempts at corporatization occur everywhere. This can range from the swelling of the executive sector of the university administration, recasting itself as a “management team,” with personnel drawn from the private sector, to the attempt at reworking university governance so that faculty representation is reduced while external, private members are increased in numbers on a board of governors, to the attempt at introducing an audit culture of core indicators on which resources are allocated, to the increase in student tuition fees.

      There is another problematic series of observations that have been made in the Canadian case. Apparently, even when tuition fees were at their lowest, and some provinces (such as Newfoundland) have steadfastly decreased their tuition fees, this has not resulted in an increase in the numbers of students of working class backgrounds. In fact, the student body remains predominantly middle class, comprising those who could very well afford to pay more–but whose tuitions are partly subsidized by the working public whose children do not attend university.

      So there is a double process of accumulation of capital away from the periphery and toward the centre that is at work in universities. On the one hand, public funding that subsidizes middle class student tuition. On the other hand, a publicly funded university that is increasingly oriented toward enriching the already rich through supportive applied research. I have not even mentioned that every university “president” in Canada (a corporate managerial term…they used to be called chancellors) earns more than the prime minister of Canada! In our case, at Concordia, our “president” earns 50% more than Prime Minister Stephen Harper, pulling in an annual income in excess of $400,000 CDN…and a whole battery of managerial vice presidents, executive assistants, etc., etc., sometimes being persons with a mere BA and four years of private sector experience, can earn in excess of $90,000 as a starting salary, or nearly as much as a full professor who has worked at the institution for more than two decades. That is another drain of capital from the working class, and the university already plays a part in that.

      Had the author of that article taken into account some of these factors, it would have been a little more complicated than it is now.


      The Canadian public, by and large, now views the university as a career placement centre. I am still shocked by the number of students who do a full degree in anthropology and then come into my office to ask what careers exist for them. I mean…if you wanted training that led to a job…haven’t you heard of accountancy, business management, 3D animation, welding, or carpentry? But that is the tendency: university is not about higher learning, it is about professional certification that lands you in a middle class urban job, so you can then begin your personal career of grabbing for shit to fill your home. (Also the reason I do not buy the claim students make: “I entered anthropology because I wanted to learn about other cultures.” Really? And you needed professional certification to pursue such a mundane interest that can be satisified just by living everyday life in multicultural Canada coupled with occasional tourist jaunts abroad?)

      So one option might be this: full privatization, with absolute ZERO fees for any students of working class backgrounds who present themselves at the Registrar, and a tax break for working class citizens.

      Another option: increase accountability of university administrations, force them to justify their salaries in public (since they are publicly funded salaries), and return universities to where academics had a greater say in how they were run.

      A third option: totally free tuition, with programmed, systematic attempts at transforming the culture where students of working class backgrounds (and males in particular) feel alienated from the university and do not even consider it as an option.

      I could go on…and on, and on. Let me stop here for now.

      1. CM

        Another interesting comparison between education and health care policies – the “too many managers” problem. While management levels in hospitals have swollen in the last few years and funds increasingly go towards larger, glitzier and more expensive machines which become obsolete almost immediately, when funding crises loom (what are all those managers doing, anyway?) the first people to the get the axe are nurses and other staff directly involved in providing health care to patients. The managerial levels never get thinned out.

        Florence Nightingale demonstrated that the best strategy for good patient outcomes is good nursing care, but what did she know?

        Queen’s University in Kingston has just built an new athletic complex the size of a city block to “attract students”. I don’t even want to think of the cost. Gives a whole new meaning to life on a treadmill. But to go to university because of their weight-room facilities?

        This is what happens when the business model is universally applied and the bottom line is the objective rather than education or health.

        (An aside. The Queen’s MBA slipped from 1st to 2nd in the Bloomberg business school ratings, beaten out by the University of Chicago. There must be much weeping and gnashing of teeth over in the executive offices. With their ability to spin, they characterize it as being the #1 business school in Canada and add the qualifier “once again…”. See? Nothing has changed…except that it has.)

        That’s an interesting take on the male/female ratio in university enrollment. Enrollment that reflected the same ratio as the one in the general population would seem to be better. That could work for a lot of things. Strange times.

  4. Eliza Jane Darling

    Your second para on managerialism and audit culture rings true here as well – the dread “quality assurance” process which seems set up to assure that you have no time to teach or write anything of quality. Reams have been written about it, including by anthropologists, but little action taken. The alternatives question is crucial. As my colleague David Graeber has put it ( quite smartly, what we seem to be facing in Britain is the grim choice between accepting the neoliberal paradigm or defending the creaking welfare state – bad options both.

  5. Maximilian Forte

    I could add that “accountability” measures are applied only to faculty. There are no accountability measures for the administration, which is a major drain on the revenue of the university.

    There are also no accountability measures for students, a large portion of whose tuition is funded by the same tax payers that pay my salary. This is ironic, when there are calls to post student evaluations of teaching for the wider public–one could ask that teacher evaluations of students also be publicly posted, since they too benefit from public support and should answer for how they spend tax payer dollars (not attending class, submitting poor assignments, etc.).

    I am actually all for accountability–just not accountability for one of three main parties that constitute the university. That “accountability” then becomes an exercise of targeted discrimination, and it is thus clearly prejudicial and malevolent.

  6. Jessica

    I fail to see how these protesters are going to garner sympathy if they’re promoting soft humanities. Most sociology majors are middle class __elitists__ who leech off the working classes, producing mediocre “science” as some sort of perverse aristocratic hobby. Alas, Marxism is the opiate of the petty bourgeoisie, and too often it turns into inane intellectual games (like literary criticism) not relevant for those caught up in the real class war. I took the consequences of this, dropped out my sociology class, got an industry job (while they’re still domestic) and joined the union. Now I’m (almost) debt-free, as I no longer spend the majority of my time at hipster cafés, drinking, or cruising expensive nightclubs for male bait.

    Rather, this is a good time for the Left to create a new shell within the old. Union-driven education, for example. I’d be happy to teach electrical engineering to anyone, provided they join the union and promise to fight social dumping.

    If the neoliberal morons are first going at privatisation, they should flush social economics, management courses, and all the other soft sciences down the drain with it. We need hard sciences, above all.

    1. Eliza Jane Darling

      I’m somewhat sympathetic to this assessment (see my comment on academic elitism in my bio), but the sciences-versus-humanities debate is a red herring turning on a strategic depoliticisation, though one I probably invited through my own selective framing of the consequences of the attack on the “soft” scale of the disciplinary spectrum.

      The question isn’t about “needing” the sciences instead of the humanities, but needing either of them for what? Both can be useful in their own ways for the expansion and consolidation of capitalist power. Engineers (currently the most highly funded discipline in the UK) are strategic partners in the construction of the machine which is bringing the “real class war” to the people of Iraq and Afghanistan courtesy of drone planes and daisy cutters; arts/media majors are the congenital handmaidens of the advertising industry and therefore instrumental in the production and naturalisation of demand; mainstream economics despite its consistent and predictable failures (to the point where Her Maj actually wrote the LSE not long ago to inquire why the hell they didn’t see the crash coming) has of course long been capitalism’s bedfellow; and my own discipline has made a devil’s bargain with the development process through which the people of the periphery get “civilised” via the package of structural adjustment, labour control and privatisation marketed as community-based participation. Yet none of these pursuits necessarily has to serve these agendas; indeed they might be harnessed for quite the opposite if, as you say, we could create something new. They are pushed in that direction (and indeed alienated from each other into falsely distinct disciplines) by the political economy of science under capitalism, which doesn’t boil down to some simple voluntary elitism.

      The previous Labour government made plans to formalise such relationships through the bureaucratisation of “impact” in the RAE/REF assessment. Here are some of the partners they planned to include as adjudicators of research value: Barclays, BAE Systems, British Petroleum, British Airways, Exxon, Ford Motor Company, Her Majesty’s Prison Service, IBM, Kodak, Marx and Spencer, MI5, Pfizer, Rolls Royce, Toshiba, Volvo, Waitrose, and The World Bank. Scientific valorisation courtesy of the people who brought you the financial crisis and the war on terror. Certainly capital thinks we need scholarship; a big question is how to revalorise it in less narrow, imperialistic and exclusionary terms.

  7. Maximilian Forte

    Hi Eliza, I just saw it this morning–this might interest you:

    Culture Machine invites its readers to join the debate called for by
    Nick Couldry and Angela McRobbie in their short article ‘The Death of
    the University, English Style’ – now available in the Culture Machine
    InterZone: (html
    version) (pdf

    We are seeking contributions in the form of short think pieces, or
    micro-essays, of 500-1000 words on any aspect of:

    – the future of higher education in England and the UK;
    – the position of the arts, humanities and social sciences within the
    – the role and nature of the university in a democratic society.

    Please email all contributions to Gary Hall at ,
    remembering to include your full name and academic affiliation (if any).
    If, for institutional or other reasons, you would prefer to have your
    piece published anonymously, we would be happy to accommodate this.

    All contributions will be reviewed by the Editorial Board on a rolling
    basis, with those accepted for publication being made immediately
    available on the Culture Machine site.

    Culture Machine is part of Open Humanities Press

    For more information, visit the Culture Machine site at:

    Gary Hall
    Research Professor of Media and Performing Arts
    School of Art and Design, Coventry University
    Co-editor of Culture Machine
    Co-founder of the Open Humanities Press

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