The mood amongst students that have occupied a University of Sussex conference room is exuberant but serious. Effectively barricaded in since last Thursday, without heating or reliable access to food, there is an acute awareness of the gravity of their undertaking. ‘We’re here as a last resort,’ laments Adriano, one of the occupiers. ‘Everyone here shares a sense of frustration – we’ve held discussions, petitions, demonstrations, meetings and boycotts, but they haven’t listened to our concerns.’
‘They’ refers to the university management and their decision to privatise 235 jobs including services such as catering, cleaning, security and porters. For students, the most immediate worry is that their wellbeing will be compromised by unaccountable private companies whose primary motive is profit. For the 235 workers, private tendering breeds suspicion that job security, pay, pensions, conditions and terms will be put under threat once outsourced. If precedents of outsourcing at universities are any indication, such fears may well be justified.
Sentiments of solidarity between workers and students are strong. In many ways, the movement is a testament to the very sense of community that these outsourcing proposals threaten. This unity is rooted in a shared sense of frustration – among both students and staff – with the University’s intransigence, evasion and lack of consultation. There is also widespread mistrust of a management that has in the past shown no qualms over doling out redundancies, slashing welfare, or resorting to heavy handed tactics in the face of dissent.
Students as consumers
The disregard for workers' and students' concerns is emblematic of a wider ‘paradigm shift’ in higher education. Under the Damocles sword of deficit realism – the idea that ‘there is no alternative’ to ‘efficiency savings’ and ‘cost-cutting’ – British universities are being reformed along market lines. The trebling of tuition fees has cracked open public universities to competition from private capital while a concomitant removal of public funding has placed greater emphasis on securing corporate donations for teaching and research. Marketization works both ways - for their part universities are dabbling in the property market while issuing bonds secured against incomes from tuition fees. In this context, the outsourcing of services to private providers is a further transferal of ownership and control over universities from public to private hands
This restructuring has been accompanied and legitimised by a wholesale redefinition of what education means. Cherished values and social goods such as learning, critical inquiry and student welfare have been replaced by commercial imperatives of profit, competitiveness and efficiency. Students are now defined as consumers with university degrees products. One immediate consequence of this redefinition has seen swathes of course closures in ‘uncompetitive’ disciplines such as philosophy, linguistics and history in favour of ‘economically viable’ courses such as business studies. For those courses that do remain, the infiltration of private capital into teaching and research agendas threatens to undermine treasured (albeit imperfect) principles of academic freedom.
The new bureaucrats
Another altogether more sinister product of this ‘paradigm shift’ relates to how this control and ownership over academia is being transferred. As the Sussex occupation shows, the privatization of a public university is far from an uncontested process. Accordingly, marketisation requires a committed cadre of administrators tasked with enforcing reforms. Universities Minister David Willets, for example, has long acted as a conduit for corporate access to the public sector, meeting regularly with for-profit education firms in the run up to the publication of the 2011 Higher Education White Paper. Operating below Willets is a squadron of Vice Chancellors across British universities who carry out the concrete work of raising fees, cutting jobs, courses and amenities, opening university departments to private funding, and outsourcing services. Ironically then for an ideology obsessed with cutting red-tape, neoliberalismin education begets its bureaucratisation (at Sussex, there has been a radical expansion of managers, with no less than 31 individuals now on six figure salaries). It is the machinations of this coercive intersection of markets and bureaucracy that the students and staff are increasingly coming up against.
Such is the power of these interests that all might appear lost, especially when considered against the series of defeats within the student movement since 2010. But there is optimism. The occupation is but the latest action in a vibrant and popular grassroots campaign that has linked students, faculty and service staff in common action. Hundreds of students and staff have shown solidarity by wearing square yellow badges pinned to their lapels. Academic staff have also been displaying yellow posters in their office windows. These symbols evoke the victories of the 2012 Quebec student strike, while participants keenly recall the co-ordinated action that brought to a halt London Metropolitan University plans to outsource jobs.
The memories of these past struggles fuels the feeling that when caught between the irresistible force of marketization and the unmovable object of bureaucracy, resistance through direct action is perhaps the most realistic option. It also suggests that, despite numerous setbacks, the movement against the marketization of universities is potentially ready to regroup with renewed vigour and determination. Indeed, shivering against the freezing Brighton night Adriano insists that despite the cold, ‘morale has never been higher. And we’re not going to give up.’