Thursday, August 12, 2010

after the occupation

Middlesex, the Morning After

by "Joe Jack-Toe"

Since my post to Scurvy Tunes back in May (“The Struggle at Middlesex,” 14 May 2010), much has happened in the conflict between staff/students and management over closure of philosophy programmes at Middlesex University, and all in all the outcome has not been good.

The students occupying University buildings were served a writ and evicted. Further protests and occupations met with heavy-handed opposition from the management, who suspended staff and students for their involvement, and launched what was essentially a smear campaign claiming that the students had “broken bones” of a member of security staff during the occupation (something patently untrue). Several staff who sent public emails criticising management through the University email system were disciplined. On 28th May, the (sluggish) lecturer’s union (UCU) finally got involved, issuing an ultimatum to management to lift the staff suspensions or go into formal dispute. On 2nd June this dispute was declared, but on 8th June the Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy announced that it had done a deal to move to Kingston University on the other side of London, effectively robbing the campaign to save philosophy at Middlesex of its gathering momentum.
To call this rescue of the centre a merely a “partial victory” (as CRMEP’s statement did) is rather an understatement of just how slim the achievement was. The good news about the outcome was that CRMEP, and its excellent and valuable work in the study of traditions of European and radical thought can continue, and this is, in the end, something to cheer for.
However, the form in which it has been saved is a much reduced one: only postgraduate teaching and research and no undergraduate programmes will move to Kingston; furthermore, two members of staff from the department have not been included in the deal, and now face an uncertain future of redundancy or redeployment. Had the management at Middlesex proposed such an outcome (job losses and axing of programmes) the reaction would have been indignation. In effect CRMEP have acceded willingly to a programme of “rationalisation” and downsizing of the sort that we should be vigorously resisting as damaging to the nature of education and to the rights of people to receive an education (and not just job training). Moreover, once the current BA students have finished their courses, there will be no philosophy at Middlesex University: the very thing which we fought against has now come about.
What the staff at CRMEP have done is understandable and the inevitable result of a rationality which is forced on them – both in terms of their individual careers, and (to view the matter a little more generously) in terms of their commitment to the continuation of a key institution in the dissemination of radical continental thought within Anglophone academic discourse. However, for the undergraduate students, and for other staff in the humanities at Middlesex it feels like something of a betrayal (especially to the undergraduate students who have placed their futures on the line by protesting, and the academic staff who have been picked out to be disciplined for their open criticism of management).
The students’ brilliant campaign – largely using “web 2.0” technologies – to save the department caused a storm of controversy, with a petition drawing over 18,500 signatures and a Facebook site with over 14,000 members. On the back of this, the international outcry of academic superstars raised coverage not only in the blogosphere but the national press. Shortly before the CRMEP announcement the management were beginning to look profoundly discomforted by all this negative publicity and cracks between the positions of different senior staff seemed to be opening up. (As Bruce Lee says in Enter the Dragon: “The enemy has only images and illusions… Destroy the image and you will break the enemy.” Debord could hardly have put it differently.) 

The success of this campaign, and the prestige of the Philosophy department offered a rallying point to those of us worried about the wider general tendencies within the University (and HE more generally) of which this was so obviously symptomatic - tendencies to cut humanities subjects, to yoke education to the vocational, to transform it from a right into a commodity and to subject it to calculations of profit so narrow as to make them almost arbitrary. The highly visible campaign was a battle within a larger struggle within the University, and CRMEP’s retreat to Kingston leaves those in other vulnerable (and less prestigious) areas feeling as if the rug on which their opposition was able to stand has been pulled out from beneath their feet. When smaller, less “important” departments are picked off in future, it will be much harder to mount a campaign against such cuts than in this case.
What also emerged clearly into the light of day in the controversies around philosophy were the highly irregular and arbitrary ways in which power is exercised in Middlesex: the general lack of accountability or safeguard procedures within the University and also the ability of management to ride roughshod over what few safety checks and balances there are. The decisions made over philosophy opened an opportunity to challenge these systems and procedures to which all of us are subject. The flight of the department means they will now be hard to challenge.
This lack of accountability may be a contributory factor as to why the protests at Middlesex have been so much less successful than in other recent cases in other Universities. (In older Universities, decisions to close down courses may need to go through an academic Senate, for example. A look through the biographies of the Board of Governors at Middlesex is also informative: they are all heavily invested in the marketisation of education.)
The management had other advantages at Middlesex. As a multi-campus University, the staff at Middlesex are more than usually dispersed and isolated. Divide and conquer has long been the order of the day: other departments that have been closed in the recent past have gone with hardly a splash in the consciousness of others, who are looking only after their own patch. Management at Middlesex, furthermore, have a stranglehold over the use of the University’s email systems so that only “official” emails can be sent globally to all staff. Many thus knew nothing, little, or only what management told them about the dispute. Perhaps the management at Middlesex were also just smart in the choice of when to announce the closure: at the end of a term, when staff were finishing teaching, and preparing to disappear to pursue the research projects which have increasingly been squeezed into Summer months by increasing teaching loads. This made organization (and industrial action) difficult.

The background of a lack of solidarity was exacerbated by the weakness of the Union. In spite of strong feelings from the membership, UCU officials seemed loathe to get involved in the dispute – partly, I think, because they are invested in a system of everyday local bargaining over small issues, and were slow to recognise this as a matter of a crisis rather than business as usual. Arthur Husk, the Branch Chair, talked of avoiding an “equal and opposite” reaction from the University administration, and voiced a belief that management was ready to negotiate as soon as they could without loosing face. This placatory attitude meant that Union involvement was slow to come. Perhaps if it had come sooner, it would have forced the matter to some kind of resolution before the move to Kingston was announced. Union caution is, however, understandable, with the general weakness of Unions under current legislation in the UK. In a recent ruling on a dispute in the HE sector, for example, a precedent was set upholding the right of employers to withhold all pay for even the smallest withdrawal of labour, as with “industrial action short of a strike.” The Student Union was even less involved. But then, when the SU proclaimed support of a sit-in on the art and design campus back in 1989, they were held liable for damages and were still paying the University back many years later.
All in all, this has been something of a gloomy picture I have painted. But are there grounds for hope too? What positive lessons can be learned from the Middlesex philosophy fiasco? First, off, of course, one of the achievements of the campaign is the rescue of CRMEP - perhaps without the strong campaign, this could not have been achieved, or would have been achieved on even less favourable terms.
Second, the creativity and energy of the students’ campaign is also to be praised, and stands as a positive model. Their technologically savvy but also grassroots strategies (drawing on the legacy of 1968 and the anti-globalization movements) were highly effective in drawing support and publicity, hitting the University in its most sensitive area, which is to say: its public image. During occupation, University buildings were transformed into temporary autonomous zones of creation, critique and festival: they were, that is to say, exactly what a University should always be…
Finally, even if Middlesex faces the inevitability of further rounds of cuts, and now without a philosophy department, so with an altogether less lively academic culture for that, I hope that what the campaign has brought about is an increased awareness amongst staff and students in the University of the threat hanging over them, of the need to take collective action (rather than minding their own patch), and of the possibilities of campaign. It was Rosa Luxemburg who saw the revolutionary defeats of the present and the past as preparing the ground for a future victory. I can only hope that the experience of increased solidarity which gathered around the Save Middlesex Philosophy Campaign, and the network of contacts with campaigners in similar situations in other Universities will remain resources in the coming months.
And in any case, is the campaign really over? Talking to some of its campaigners, they told me that they had suspended the campaign over Summer, but were looking to begin it once more when term starts again, with the aim of re-establishing a philosophy course at Middlesex, and with the aim of challenging the processes through which the courses were closed. Save Middlesex Philosophy may grow into a “Save Middlesex” campaign per se, just one cog in a larger machine of protest against the current policies of the marketisation of education and everything that this entails.

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