Friday, May 14, 2010

the struggle at middlesex

The Attack on the Humanities in British Universities: A Report from the Front Line.

By “Joe Jack-Toe”

Over the last couple of weeks, events in the British Higher Education sector have made me think again about the writings of Jean-François Lyotard, in whose work education was an important theme. Dense and abstract though his work is, it returns to me with a renewed and practical significance. Towards the end of his life, in the 1980s (once he had turned away from the earlier positions of, for example, his book on Libidinal Economies, which intimate that the forces of capitalism, in breaking up the old order of things, might in some ways start to allow the forces of the id to speak) Lyotard worried about the effects of the capitalist organisation of society on education, on our intellectual life, and on philosophical thought – and, of course about the effects of such a transformed world of thought on our social life. In The Inhuman and The Differend he envisioned capital as a totalising “monad in expansion,” a system which sought to extend its monological regime of discursive process throughout all spheres of human action, chaining desire, inquiry, and even the forces of anguish within a system of the production of “novelties” which can never amount to the true “event” of a radical break with what is. Such a regime of novelty echoes Benjamin’s vision of the capitalism of the Arcades – always producing new fashions, but only in order to ensure that nothing fundamentally changes. For Lyotard, such a regime, deeply entropic, involves a kind of a flattening of human potential, the death of what real “thought” might be. 

Though it will seem strange to some (especially those who are more familiar with his earlier works, or with the reputation he gained from these) to enlist Lyotard as a philosopher of “critique” in this way, such real thought, for the later Lyotard, was a matter of the agitation of that which cannot be spoken within a particular regime of discourse, the differend, that which fundamentally disagrees with the system, but which returns on it from outside, like the repressed, in the name of a certain freedom and liberation. This, argued Lyotard, was the importance of philosophy, of art and of intellectual work more generally, standing for that which has not yet been homogenised by the systems of capitalism, harnessed to its production of cheap thrills and petty innovations, and to the flattened, repetitive, and numbing spectacle of its realm of (media) representations. Thought – philosophy – was the pulse of a freedom which stood out against this realm, and which opened up the possibility of something else. The institutions of education and academic life were a vital part of what fosters such thought.

Lyotard thus bemoaned what he saw as the erosion of such a freedom of thought under the pressures of the marketisation of intellectual life. Since his death those pressures have only multiplied. He noticed the pressure, for example, on academics to continually publish in order to have their research quantified and graded by the state in order to ensure the continued influx of research funds, and noted that this leads to an impoverishment of thought where “novel” and publishable ideas are churned out rapidly, yoking thinkers to a mode of time usage which does not allow the space for properly new, radical or substantial ideas to develop. In this, he saw academia becoming a machine for churning out books and papers, and for keeping the funds flowing through Universities and publishing houses, rather than a means to think through issues of deep import. In the UK, Lyotard’s observations have been prophetic in terms of the unfolding implementation, since he wrote, of the “RAEs” (Research Assessment Exercises) which have been running periodically to assess, measure and then reward or punish Univeristy departments’ research outputs.

The discussions of education and philosophy in Lyotard’s late texts thus have a continued, and even increased significance for us today, where the logic of neoliberalism has only intensified under the regime of globalised capital, in spite of ostensibly “left-of-centre” governments such as that of the “New Labour” party which replaced the Conservatives in Britain in the 1990s. Under New Labour, and under the logic of marketisation, quite aside from the submission of research to quantifiable outcomes, the government has abolished student grants and introduced tuition fees. Universities have increasingly been asked to run as businesses rather than as public institutions, and, worse than this, such marketised education has increasingly been the object of manipulation through the ideologised manipulation by governments of the parameters within such a market is to function.

The questions of the nature of thought and education in the capitalist milieu comes back to me particularly strongly, however, in the light of current events in British education, and in particular within the University in which I work, Middlesex University. Readers of scurvy tunes may well be aware (to some extent at least) of the current controversy which has sprung up at Middlesex. On the 26th April, the University announced its perplexing decision to close its Philosophy department, a decision which shocked both staff at the University and the international philosophical community. The philosophy department at Middlesex can hardly, it would seem, be thought of as a failing department. In the recent RAE it was the department in Middlesex with the highest-rated score, and one of the top Philosophy departments in the country. Middlesex was formed in the 1970s first as a “polytechnic” institution (the Polytechnics in England were primarily vocational colleges and though they offered degrees did not have the prestige of a “University” education proper) and only in 1992 obtained the status of a University, so does not have many departments with serious academic research credentials, and Philosophy is the one beacon of real excellence which the University has. Its academics (Peter Osborne, Peter Hallward, Eric Alliez, Stella Sandford and Christian Kerslake, for example) have truly international profiles and their Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy – along with the journal Radical Philosophy which is largely produced at Middlesex – is probably the most important centre of “continental” (non-analytic) philosophy not only in Britain but in the English language. The CRMEP is also a key hub within the intellectual life of the humanities in London, with frequent and high-profile events bringing important scholars from around the world into the city. Philosophy at Middlesex has one of the largest Philosophy MA programmes in the UK and a healthy turn-through of PhD students (in fact, more PhD students complete with the Philosophy staff than the rest of Middlesex’s School of Arts and Education combined).

The closure has caused widespread protest, both within the university and also beyond it. The students on the course have occupied one of the buildings on the Trent Park campus and set up a Facebook site(now with over 11,000 members), a petition (with close on 15,000 signatures) and a campaign website. Staff in the University bombarded the School’s Dean, Ed Esche, with emails. Statements of support have come in from international intellectuals of the highest stature, such as, for example, Alain Badiou, Noam Chomsky, Slavoj Zizek, Judith Butler, and Michael Hardt. They also came from faculties across the UK and beyond, from the American Philosophical Association Executive Committee, the British Philosophical Association, and many, many other individuals and groups. Talks have been organised by the occupying students on campus, with speakers such as Tariq Ali (Sat 15th May) and Tony Benn coming up. A conference will be held at Goldsmiths, co-organised with the ICA, entitled, “Who’s Afraid of Philosophy?” on 19th May.

So why has the University decided to close this seemingly thriving department? The reply, to Philosophy staff, was that the department made no “measurable” contribution to the University. They stated, rather bizarrely, that courses at Middlesex are expected to contribute 55% of their income (beyond what they spend directly on their students) back to the centre of the University, whilst Philosophy in the coming year would only be able to contribute 53% – a shortfall of a whole 2%! Lyotard’s nightmare of what happens to thought (and education) when it is yoked to the logic of capital here is taken to its most perverse extreme.

But such University statements, of course, cannot be taken at face value. Such slim and short-sighted grounds for closing the University’s most internationally prestigious department suggest to any minimally critical spectator that there is more than meets the eye here. Understanding the decision means both understanding something about the University and its executive, but also about the wider structure of education in the UK, and more generally within the neoliberal, marketised framework within which education is increasingly asked to function for all of us in the West.

The importance of the Middlesex Philosophy fiasco is thus that it is not an aberration, a special case of insanity, but rather a matter of the structural conditions of education today. To put it in a more snappy way, this horror show will be coming to a theatre (or, rather, a university or college) near you, soon! The closure of Middlesex Philosophy fits into a broader pattern of closures of humanities courses throughout the UK. It is only the exceptional prestige and success of the department that has meant that it has become a cause célèbre and as such publicly revealed the logic at work in the closure of other departments. In 2006 Middlesex, for example closed its History department, with hardly a murmur. Since then, modern  language courses, amongst other humanities subjects are being dismantled at the University. At the same time as the Middlesex Philosophy students occupy their building, there are also protests against course closures at other British Universities: at Cambridge, in response to Architecture disappearing; at Kings to the loss of Chemistry; at Durham, East Asian Studies; and at Sussex to the recent announcement of £5 million of cuts.

If the pattern (Kings aside) is that humanities bear the brunt of these cuts, this is not accidental. The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) puts students into different “bands” according to the subject they study, and allocates institutions different amounts according to the band: for Band A, medical students, the Universities get the most funding from the State per student; Bands B & C are for courses with laboratory or workshop needs and thus though they are funded less generously than medical studiers, these get more than Band D, the “chalk and talk” humanities subjects, which are judged the cheapest to run. Recently, HEFCE have changed policies, capping Universities’ student numbers and thus stopping them perpetually escalating recruitment in order to grow income. In this situation, it becomes economically rational for managers (and they seem to know no other rationality but economic rationality, as the work of the University becomes entirely subservient to the bottom lines of spreadsheets, rather than vice versa) to stop recruiting Band D students so that they can recruit Band B or C students instead, and hence enhance income streams. (Forget, of course, that the Universities receive more money for these students only because their education is supposed to cost more: any University staff used to the logic of growing student numbers and escalating staff-student ratios, and without concomitant growth in facilities or resources will be familiar with the fact that this is not how things will work…) Such a logic is further fuelled by the fact that HEFCE have further “liberalised” their systems by which Universities are accountable for how they invest their money and what students they take.

In the case of Philosophy these economic rationalities are reinforced by another liberalisation in HEFCE policy. Though the official HEFCE policy is that areas of “excellence” should receive intensified funding, there is also now less accounting back to HEFCE of where within the University money goes. Added to this is the strange fact that even if a department closes, the University will continue to receive the agreed funding for that department on the basis of the last Research Assessment Exercise until the next has taken place. In such a situation, with the closure of Philosophy Middlesex will suddenly be able to liberate the research income that this department has generated and spend it elsewhere. This amounts to approximately £250,000 per anum. Of course, this means that the University will no longer have this stream of income after the next assessment (still several years away), but in the short-term scale of calculations of profit and loss, this fact will hardly show up, and for deans and other upper-level managers who are looking to go up the ladder and perhaps find a job elsewhere in the sector in the next few years, and who will personally receive generous bonuses for meeting financial targets, these things may not factor in their interests or thus interfere with what starts to look rather like asset stripping. Bizarrely, Philosophy, it seems, under this economic regime, may have become the victim of its very success.

However, this bizarre economic system of rewards and punishments for Universities does itself have a certain political – and ideological – logic in the neoliberal agendas handed down from the highest levels of government. The changing rewards for Universities regarding their intakes is a part of the marketised systems of regulation which the government has set up to implement this vision. Another way of understanding the cutting of Philosophy at Middlesex, and of other humanities courses elsewhere, is that these courses simply no longer fit into the visions of the Universities’ management for their institutions, which are, in turn based on government visions for higher education overall. This would make a certain sense of the strange, opaque and seemingly arbitrary procedures through which the cut at Middlesex happened.  Every time the philosophy staff were challenged to come up with a business plan, and to show how the course could be made sustainable – and did so – the criteria of “sustainability” were changed.

The vision of the government and of the executive officers of universities such as Middlesex is a deeply sinister one for anyone who sees education as a right, as something of social value rather than a commodity, who wishes class division to be reduced rather than enforced by education, or who fears that the Higher Education system may become for many little more than a job training system run for the benefit of business, but with the expense of these apprenticeships now born by their potential employees – who will leave university with no guarantee of a job, only a huge loan to pay back over the rest of their life. What we see emerging is the increased divide between the ex-polytechnic, “new” Universities, and their older, more elite cousins. The humanities will become the preserve of the old Universities. These, it is certain from the manifestoes and agendas of all the major British political parties, and in particular that of the Conservatives who have just taken power, will soon no longer have their fees capped, and can charge applicants pretty much what they like for an elite education. The ex-polytechnics, such as Middlesex will return (though even more so than they actually did before they became Universities) to playing the role of primarily technical and vocational educators – or, rather, what they will offer is training rather than what I would call education per se, which seems to me to involve more than the acquisition of skills for employability.

Such a skilling for employment, however, will be the “University” experience for those who cannot afford the luxury of a humanities education – the “luxury,” that is, of thought or philosophy, or of the critical relation to their lives which a true education should offer. An education in humanities will become once more that acquisition of “cultural capital” that Bourdieu recognised it to be in France in the 1960s. In this regard the admirable project of the widening of education with which the polytechnics or new Universities were once associated (however much this was always undermined by underfunding and instrumentalisation) will finally have been overtaken by its evil twin, in which a “mass” education is merely the training of the mass of the population for the workplace. The closing of History at Middlesex in 2006 should have been a sign here: its particular value was as a key centre – I think the only history degree in the UK – which allowed a specialisation in Black history, and along with the courses unique archives and educational resources on this closed. Philosophy at Middlesex, too, was perhaps unique in this country in the gender and ethnic mix of its students, and its taking on of Marxist, feminist and postcolonial thought into the philosophical curriculum. Such was the positive legacy of the “widening participation” Polytechnics and New Universities more generally, often in the forefront as they were of late-twentieth-century disciplines such as Sociology, Cultural Studies, Film Studies, Visual Culture, or human geography and social history where critical thought about the experiences and politics of ordinary social and cultural life were enabled. Now however, in its marketised, instrumentalised form as training for employment, education would no longer  be a matter of increased freedom, as the “Enlightenment” ideal had it, but rather of increased enslavement. For me, this takes us back to Lyotard and his musings about the importance of real thought – thought which carries the stamp of heterogeneity – in the face of an increasingly monadic and monological capitalist world. The attack on Philosophy at Middlesex is clearly an attack on the possibility of such thought.

This, then, is why the fight over Philosophy at Middlesex really matters. Not just to protect an “excellent” department, but because this is part of a bigger picture and a wider struggle to protect education – and ultimately thought itself (which appears in Lyotard to be another name for freedom). The extraordinarily high profile which the campaign to save Middlesex Philosophy has taken on makes it our current best chance for a victory, but we must understand this as a first battle within a larger war. Only if there is some measure of success in the fight to save Philosophy at Middlesex will there be a chance of halting what look likes the start of a massive avalanche of further cuts in the humanities in British Universities. If they can get away easily with cutting this prestigious centre of excellence, around which an international array of thinkers and institutions has rallied, then they will feel secure in being able to get rid of other, less illustrious departments which nonetheless may in themselves be quite sustainable, offer a decent education to ordinary people, and foster in their academics important and valuable contributions to knowledge. If a stand is made about Philosophy at Middlesex, then future deans and vice-chancellors in the new universities may think twice before cutting courses or departments which simply do not fit into their sordidly economistic visions of their institutions.

What would seem to me to mark a victory in this struggle would ultimately be if the future and importance of higher education – and the humanities in the New Universities – found their place as issues within the broader realm of political discussion. In the recent elections in the UK, whilst governments talked tough about financial belt-tightening in the wake of the “credit crunch,” they were careful to distance themselves from possible unpopular cuts in defense, schools, hospitals or the police. This caution may, of course, now be left behind by a government that may not need to go to the poles again for another 5 years. Higher Education, however, was the one area where even the Labour Party was openly and enthusiastically talking about cutting before the election. In the current global economic climate, these political priorities will not just be local to the UK.

•    Sign the online petition. The more signatures, the more pressure will be put on the University administration.
•    Join the facebook page.
•    If you are in London, go and visit the occupation in Trent Park. They are having an exciting series of talks and other events there, of which they give details on their website. There is also an upcoming conference at Goldsmiths.
•    Write (preferably publicly) to the various members of the executive involved in the decision to close philosophy, and/or to the University’s board of Governors (details on the Campaign website.

This matters!

Liz Ford writes about the closing of History at Middlesex in 2006 for The Guardian
Coverage of the current struggle  is not lacking: The Guardian (6 May, 7 May, 9 May, 9 May) . Times Higher Education (5 May, 6 May), London Review Blog (4 May), New Statesman Blog (29 April).


  1. Ah, the placid silences of neoliberal dreaming: simulated universities without philosophy, conditioning purged of critical questions and heckles, British culture minus Radical Philosophy. Those poor administrative calculators, those dreamers of power's dreams - their sleep has been rudely interrupted by the clamor of contesters and the hydra of solidarity. Some thinkers won't submit, and those feisty students are thinking as well. That's botched the figures. Arrrggggg!!!!

  2. i hadn't realized that the Higher Education Funding Council policies had come to that. thanks for this insightful overview. keep us posted!

  3. Thanks for this text, it's a major issue.

    What's happening in this economic crisis is really the total liquidation of the welfare state, which the elites have been aiming for since Reagan and Thatcher. Critics of neoliberalism rather carelessly said this had already been done, but in reality, no, there remain very large sectors of state services everywhere in the core Trilateral countries and the pressure on these is now extreme. You are totally right to say that if the current trend continues, the Humanities will once again become the province of the elite culture of private schools: that was exactly the conservative definition of a literary education, for them it is a practice of gentlemanly self-cultivation that is part of the techniques of power of the ruling class. And they would like to return to that old definition of culture, no doubt about it.

    I think the test case for Europe is Greece: if the Greek government manages to reduce the deficit from 13 to 3 percent of GDP in a year, as they are now announcing, that is likely to encourage deep cuts all across Europe. If the Greek people continue to resist (as they've been doing so fantastically), and if, say, the French find a way to do the same (just to name the most likely suspect) then the leaders will realize that even with the golden opportunity of this last severe economic crisis they created, still they cannot just walk all over us.

    You write:

    "What would seem to me to mark a victory in this struggle would ultimately be if the future and importance of higher education – and the humanities in the New Universities – found their place as issues within the broader realm of political discussion."

    I totally agree, but the thing that academics will have to do is fully politicize, and not just try to defend their particular positions as they mainly have thus far. Your point (which I had not read before) about the closure of the History dept in 06 is really important. This apparently went unnoticed, unprotested (I certainly heard nothing about it when I came to Trent a couple years ago). But that's just inter-academic solidarity. In order to regain a justification for the Humanities as a public expenditure, a new address to the public at large is required. What people in the Humanities have to do now is to take up the crucial issue of the measures of value in a language that speaks to non-specialists. You have to ask the question, what is society good for? What is life good for? How do we measure it and what consequences does that have? How can these measurements be changed?

    I say "you academics" have to do it, cause I've been doin' it for a long time already! From outside the academy where I chose to go because I found it, frankly, too repressive and conformist. For many years I found academics to be mostly diffident, unwilling to take up frankly anticapitalist positions, or only willing to do so "in theory" without any other type of commitment. Often, the upper levels of Humanities professors in the public universities seemed to believe that they were part of the elites - when actually they were sitting on an ejectable chair without knowing who had their hands on the emergency cord. But that's all water under the bridge. And now I think a crucial issue is exactly this one, the issue of the universities, of universal access to culture. So I will see you in the self-organized seminars and in the streets!

    solidarity, Brian Holmes

  4. Thanks very much for your comments Brian - your points are incisive. I don't think there's anything you say which I would disagree with. What you say about the need for academia to "fully politicise" and to make these issues enter the public realm in terms of the larger question of a good society – and a society that is good for something – is right on the nail.

    Unfortunately, as you note, even intra-academic solidarity is painfully lacking, certainly in Middlesex, where departments cower in isolation, defending their fragile little corner of funding. The management of the University runs a very effective divide and rule policy. There is very little which would count as the kind of intra-academic political life in which the kinds of questions you raised might become part of a discussion amongst us, let alone with those outside academia...

    As a brief update on the occupation situation:
    at 8p.m. on Fri 14th May, the University served a high court injunction against the occupying students to end the occupation, and the occupation ended, though the campaign goes on.

    But as I have been writing this, I have just had news that a new occupation has started on the Trent Park campus. Around 50 students have taken over the library there.

    To be continued...


  5. Much has happened in this campaign since the initial post, not all of it good news. After the initial occupation and the occupation of the library, staff and students were suspended from the University. Students were allocated "penalty points" on their academic records, and some remain barred from the campuses at which they take their degree, without the prior consent of the management.

    The Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy is to an extent "saved" - it has been bought by Kingston University, a British "new University" which seems to retain a certain ambition and intellectual vision which Middlesex lacks. This is certainly, to an extent, no small thing in itself, and it is surely a relief that this key institution in the promulgation of critical and political philosophy in the Anglophone world can continue its work. But this is only a partial victory, and a a rather two-edged one at that. The move to Kingston means that the struggle to keep philosophy at Middlesex is lost, and its seems as if management have "got their way," and now have a way out of all of the controversy without comeback upon themselves. If even their attack on the most prestigious and internationally renowned department in the University has been carried out without final loss of face, will they not just be encouraged to continue with their programme of cuts in the humanities? For those of us left teaching other arts and humanities subjects at Middlesex, the outcome is a rather depressing one: we know that we are still all subject to the irregular, draconian procedures by which courses are shut in this University, and the move of philosophy to Kingston deprives of us of a means and a focus through which we can campaign against these.

    Furthermore, the move to Kingston is not without its casualties. Two lecturers, and the undergraduate programmes have been left behind. The department that has moved is an altogether "rationalised" version, maximised for economic viability...

    For those interested in this microcosm of the struggle within the current climate of cuts in social provision, you might like to read a recent article by one of the student occupiers at Middelsex, with their reflections on the outcome and aftermath of the occupations, and on the lessons to be learned from them: