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#Occupy the university

By Marko Beljac - posted Thursday, 5 November 2015

The market can be a far more insidious form of social control than the blunt hand of the state for the market can control minds rather than mere bodies.

Take, say, universities.

The university plays an important role in the public sphere for the ideas and discussions that occur within its walls can be used to either challenge or reinforce the very conceptual framework, often the product of academia, that we use to interpret and discuss social and political affairs.


In a free society university life must necessarily be autonomous and self managed.

When the university is subordinate to the needs and interests of the dominant sectors within a society, and when it is governed by a hierarchical elite within, it no longer functions as a place for boldly independent, path breaking, foundational, but more to the point, critical inquiry.

A university subject to such control does not become the centre of humanity's efforts to overcome its self imposed ignorance, to paraphrase Immanuel Kant.

Across our campuses a control revolution has developed that threatens to undermine what remains of the autonomous and self managed university, and this control revolution crucially relies upon the pernicious effects of the market to achieve its aims.

As we all know progressive defunding from the state, part of a broader neoliberal attack on the public, has intentionally compelled the university to conform to the market rigours of supply and demand.

The university itself is required to make a profit, and must aspire to do so on a regular basis. The idea here is that universities provide a product to consumers, otherwise known as students, so that they may choose a well paying career in some industry upon graduation.


This means the university essentially becomes a private enterprise supplying graduates to other corporations. The courses universities provide, the manner they are delivered, and the research that they do, necessarily will cater to the interests and concerns of the corporate sector.

If the graduates of a university cannot obtain employment with the firms of their choice, and research does not conform to commercial incentives, then a university will struggle to make a profit.

This means that the university becomes subordinate to the overall framework of power that exists in a corporate dominated society. It no longer functions as an autonomous institution free of external constraint.

This clearly has an affect on the humanities and arts, indeed the very idea of a liberal education, for of what use is philosophy to BHP Billiton? Of what use is literature to the National Australia Bank? Of what use is sociology to Qantas?

None. Of what use is a liberal education to a privatised public sphere? None.

This also can apply, although not to the same degree, to the basic sciences, as industry is more interested in graduates that are less interested in pursuing basic research regarding the fundamental properties of quantity and reality. The positive externality effects of markets encourages the privatised university to produce a less than socially optimal amount of theoretical science.

So students do not enrol in many a course in sufficient quantities to maintain profitability. So departments and courses shut up shop. Not because the subject matter is not as intellectually appealing, if not more so, than, say, financial mathematics, but because the corporate sector has no use for such graduates.

In neoliberal society only that which commands the assent of the market, which means corporations and the rich who have the capacity to provide ready demand, are permitted to exist. Cultural studies graduates are not demanded by the rich so literary and cultural studies courses are closed.

This might enrich universities and businesses but it impoverishes all of us.

Markets, contrary to the ideology purveyed by servants of the well heeled, radically limit choices. A young inquiring mind does not have a substantively free choice to study either the violin or human resources management.

Public funding provides an important role in securing the relatively autonomous status of the university. This ensures that the university is not subject to the demand to make profits and so frees the institution from pressure to conform to the concerns of the corporate sector exclusively.

It must be stressed that public funding is not a sufficient condition for this.

The autonomous university must also be self managed within by students and faculty that are not tied through networks of affinity to an elite without.

As the university becomes corporatised, in response to market driven dynamics, so its increasingly proletarianised workforce comes under the sway of a managerial class for whom control, not just profit making, constitutes a key objective.

There are a number of ways that this managerial class cements power, one not readily recognised hitherto is the use of pedagogical theory. At the university professors and lecturers are now told that they make, indeed always made, for shoddy teachers and need to acquaint themselves with the latest buzz phrases of tertiary level pedagogical theory to demonstrate otherwise, what is sometimes called "professional development."

This despite the fact that, as a report in The Times Higher Education Supplement pointed out, 60 per cent of surveyed students consider in depth knowledge to be the most important quality in a teacher. By contrast, 9 per cent reported that a teaching qualification was the most important factor.

It is poor form to justify oversight and control purely on grounds of expertise at cost cutting and profit making. More substantial epistemic claims at the university level need to be made and that is where pedagogical theory steps in.

The university workforce also increasingly forms part of the precariat. Many with doctorates and masters degrees eek out a casualised existence on low pay and low security. Pedagogical theory is used to justify a whole raft of "compliance," they are so named, documents and templates requiring development and completion to the satisfaction of management.

This means that the managerial class has ultimate oversight on campus, and that lecturers and tutors become more readily hireable and fireable.When a whole raft of compliance requirements are used to enable the rotation of academic workers into and out of courses those who sit at the managerial top retain ultimate control over proceedings.

The academic becomes an expendable cog in the machine, something akin to an automaton, not a free and independent mind.

The control revolution forms part of a broader counter revolution against the upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s. The university, a key seat of ideological hegemony in any society, threatened to get out of control as students and, albeit some, faculty revolted.

Loading up students on debt, compelling them to work to finance tuition, and skewing the system toward the privileged sons and daughters of the cashed up elite, are a magnificent means to bring students under control. Students are far too worried about their future financial prospects to concern themselves with addressing basic questions of essence and existence, social justice, cultural expression, our relationship to nature, and to parlay these concerns, and much else besides, into social and political action.

What is needed to combat all this is a campaign to restore the autonomous university to its rightful place. This campaign would have as its objective struggle both within and without the university to transform it into a publicly funded association of federated student and worker self managed departments and faculties. The departments and the faculties, not a seat of power in the centralised administration building, would become the true locus of university governance.

This would require interested students, academic and general staff, alongside concerned members of the public acting in fraternity, to set up an organisation, Campaign for the Autonomous University, which would engage in direct action, such as occupations and pickets, on campuses nation wide and which would campaign within respective student and staff unions for industrial action directed at bringing such a publicly funded federal association of departments and faculty into being.

Such a campaign would hopefully set both a spark and an example for workers elsewhere to bring matters of control and domination, not just wages and working conditions, to the forefront of class struggle. It might translate, like Occupy Wall Street, ideas about a self managed, federated, society based on popular participation and mutual aid to the public at large.

As shown in Paris in 1968 when students, university workers and the broader working class engage in joint struggle it becomes possible to demand the impossible.

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About the Author

Mark Beljac teaches at Swinburne University of Technology, is a board member of the New International Bookshop, and is involved with the Industrial Workers of the World, National Tertiary Education Union, National Union of Workers (community) and Friends of the Earth.

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