Let’s make higher education an election issue

In the workplace and at the ballot box, it is time to reject stale ideology, says Thomas Docherty

April 16, 2015

Source: Eleanor Shakespeare

We know that most vice-chancellors will always prefer Schrödinger’s cat to the T. S. Eliot-inspired Cats, which grossed millions of pounds

Robert Jackson, the higher education minister during the final Thatcher administration of the 1980s, apocryphally said that “there are no votes in higher education”. Now, though, in 2015, the university should be a central election issue. This is so not because of any tinkering with tuition fee rates, crucial though that is; rather, higher education is now an election issue in a much more fundamental and pressingly political way. There is an intimate link between the kind of higher education institution we will have post-2015 and the kind of government we will vote into power in May.

Beyond the banal clichés about the “knowledge economy” parroted by politicians, we are encouraged to believe that material progress – the social ameliorations we expect from politics – derives primarily from advances in the specific fields of applied sciences. This justifies political and institutional decisions about differential and preferential funding for the teaching of science, technology, engineering, medicine and mathematics (STEMM) subjects. Too often, arts or social science specialists respond by arguing that we, too, make a valuable and economically profitable contribution. Really, though, we know that most vice-chancellors will always prefer Schrödinger’s cat to the T. S. Eliot-inspired Cats, which grossed millions of pounds. These squabbles divert us from the real politics of higher education, yet their premise – that differential funding is good – is a useful place to start a reconsideration.

In October 2004, Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov published a celebrated paper in the journal Science announcing the isolation of graphene. For Geim, this was a discovery of a “new class of materials” that were, mind-bendingly, “strictly two-dimensional”. The discovery was astonishing for the entire scientific community because no one thought material that thin could possibly exist.

That may have been the case in materials science, but in 1953 the writer Samuel Beckett had indeed imagined just such an existence. He called it The Unnamable, who identifies himself thus: “Perhaps that’s what I am, the thing that divides the world in two, on the one side the outside, on the other the inside, that can be as thin as foil…I’ve two surfaces and no thickness.” What can we make of this ostensibly happenstance coincidence? We know that graphene matters in ways that the identity of a fictional character doesn’t: a million times thinner than hair and two hundred times stronger than steel, graphene could change the world.

Should this give the laboratory sciences an axiomatic priority over the arts, as politics and our institutional norms suggest? What about an angst-ridden W. B. Yeats, thinking back to the Easter Rising, asking: “Did that play of mine send out/Certain men the English shot?” Theatre, too, changes the world, making “sense of historical existence within a bloodstained natural world”, as Seamus Heaney argued.

May 2015 offers us a good moment to reconsider the importance of the old “two cultures” debate initiated by C. P. Snow in his 1959 Rede Lecture. Snow’s argument was straightforward. The polarisation of the arts and sciences was a “sheer loss to us all”, because such division stood in the way of social progress, especially the progress yielded by applied sciences. Snow held that this “contest of the faculties” was structured by two yet more fundamental issues. First, the particularly English instinct or passion “to find a new snobbism wherever possible, and to invent one if it doesn’t exist”. The snob is he who distances himself not just from others but also from mundane material reality and practicality.

Thus, for example, Classics once looked down on pure science, which in turn looked down on applied science, and so on all the way down the social ladder. Second (and Snow was explicit about this in 1963), the real “two cultures” were “The Rich and The Poor” (his initial lecture title). That is May 2015’s question.

Arguing about differential funding between STEMM and the rest is a mere diversion from the real political dynamic of the university as a global institution. Instead, we should be asking yet more fundamental questions of our political class and institutional leadership that sees its role as “delivering” governmental priorities, especially those that exacerbate divisions between rich and poor.

Interviewed in 2006, Geim was asked if his graphene research had any social or political implications. He replied ironically, stressing that contemporary advanced research carried out in universities barely exists at all in the minds of most people. “It is a physics paper!” he said, continuing: “These days, physics is not acknowledged even when people use computers or fly in an airplane…so I am sure that our research will not cause any civil unrest, and no government will fall.”

Graphene, certainly, will revolutionise everyday life, enabling extraordinary material advances in medicine, engineering, fabrics and clothing design, wearable electronic devices, bodily sensors and so on. Yet it remains important to state, however jocularly, that “no government will fall”. This is where we can see not just science but the totality of our institutional arrangements as a political and an election issue.

There are historical precedents. Snow’s “two cultures” question was a major plank in Labour’s electoral policy in the early 1960s. Famously, on 1 October 1963, Harold Wilson addressed the Labour Party conference in Scarborough, where he spoke of “Labour and the Scientific Revolution”. In advocating the embrace of science and technology, his speech was uncannily prescient of our own times. “The danger”, he said, “is that an unregulated private enterprise economy will promote just enough automation to create serious unemployment but not enough to create a break-through in the production barrier.” As for modern computing, he argued that “the essence of modern automation is that it replaces the hitherto unique human functions of memory and of judgment”. Summing up, Wilson said: “Since technological progress left to the mechanism of private industry and private property can lead only to high profits for a few, a high rate of employment for a few, and to mass redundancies for the many, if there had never been a case for socialism before, automation would have created it.” The emergent logic was clear: “We hold it as a basic principle that the profits which result from state-sponsored research should accrue in good measure to the community that created them.”

Three academics with their thoughts in speech bubbles above their heads

Science does not have a monopoly on progress: the arts and social sciences also provoke substantial and material change in the conditions of life

It is impossible to imagine any UK politician today sharing Wilson’s ease with the word “socialism”. However, his speech reveals the core of our current political and electoral predicaments. Wilson was profoundly aware of the dangers involved in a situation where the profits of scientific advance, carried out in universities, were accruing to the private interests of a small elite. In our time, sadly, this is not seen as a danger: on the contrary, our political, governmental and institutional structures are all set up to encourage it. This is?where the academic community as a whole – not just science, whether its research funding is ring-fenced or not, not just the arts and social sciences, embattled but rich in critical sophistication – needs to unite as an institutional force, to recall the university to some fundamentals of its existence as a social and public good for all.

The current standing of STEMM is relatively new. In earlier periods, laboratory sciences were for those who had to work manually to make a living, unlike the leisured aristocracy of culture. The industrial, mercantile and scientific revolutions changed all this. Snow argued, with some passion, that the absolutely fundamental social condition of the time was that “most of our fellow human beings…are underfed and die before their time”. Technological progress could change that, yet “the Industrial Revolution looked very different according to whether one saw it from above or below. It looks very different today according to whether one sees it from Chelsea or from a village in Asia.” He could be writing today.

Science does not have a monopoly on progress: the arts and social sciences also provoke substantial and material change in the conditions of life. Yet, a half-century after Snow, the social inequalities he lamented persist. Where are our “global institutions”, our universities with their “global citizens” and “global leadership”, in the face of all this? Well, it appears they are on hand to exacerbate the inequalities that cause such immiseration. That is a political choice we have made, not an accident; and, as a choice, it can become a political and an electoral issue.

When Wilson spoke of “the community” that created the profits that accrue from advanced science, he did not mean just the scientific community or the universities: he meant the whole of society that sustained the possibility of our making scientific advances. This no longer persists. “There is no such thing as society,” said Thatcher; and governments since have done their best to ensure that societies are fragmented, “sectorised” into fabricated “communities”, ghettoised and fully atomised. The celebration of the “liberal individual” has been perverted, such that every individual is now in market competition with every other individual: the contemporary self is an entrepreneurial project, our lives translated into “journeys” managed for personal competitive advantage over others.

Within our education systems, individual universities are in a generalised competition with each other; faculties fight for internal funding; departments seek prestige over other departments for institutional standing. The entrepreneurial individual self also competes with last year’s self in a myth of continual improvement whose purpose is to secure yet greater funds and yet greater personal rewards in the divisive annual rituals of performance review. Even our collaborations have become competitive.

That is what produces the divisive logic now taken as the inevitable norm. To question it is to be called “unrealistic”. Tough-talking, no-nonsense, hard-nosed managers identify “realism” as acceptance and, worse, endorsement of the world as it is. We can change nothing, except our internal protocols, and these are changed only to produce yet more competitive atomisation: a Hobbesian war of all against all, in which life becomes nasty, brutish and short. To question this is to face the charge – the charge – of idealism. Such views are not just defeatist, however: they are also political determinations to preserve privilege.

Institutionally, the ideology of competition engenders league table wars, which become the tabular realisation and visible sign of our new snobbery, now structurally institutionalised in the sector. Vice-chancellors of “leading” institutions seek to distance themselves from the vulgar masses, the better to grab all the resources. When we hear the Russell Group arguing the “realistic” case that “competitiveness” demands that its members should have the lion’s share – the entire pride’s share – of research funding, for example, the clichéd prattle about our “world-leading” position being under threat is really just the squealing of the already richly endowed and privileged protecting themselves against vulgar society. Less dramatically, as the late Sir David Watson suggested, such groups in their self-promoting pomp are the single greatest threat to sector unity. They are also a threat to social unity.

Our current university leadership, business elite and political class now behave as an unholy trinity demanding that we believe that market competition is the only game in town. It is not the only game: it is a political choice that has been made and can therefore be unmade. This unholy trinity is itself now a community divorced from the real world that Geim’s work – or Yeats’ poetry – will affect. They talk each other’s language, to each other, in silo-cultures removed and protected from the distasteful vulgarity of the mundane and material facts of everyday lives. The political class, expressly endorsed by a sector leadership that sees its duty as “serving governmental priorities”, now works alongside corporate giants to protect and enhance privilege.

That is the political and electoral issue. To address it, though, we must reject division and competition. Choosing the kind of institution we want is also choosing the kind of society we want. Here is Snow: “Trade unions, collective dealing, the entire apparatus of modern industry – they may be maddening to those who have never had the experience of the poor, but they stand like barbed wire against the immediate assertion of the individual will. And, as soon as the poor began to escape from their helplessness, the assertion of the individual will was the first thing they refused to take.”

Politically, electorally, our responsibilities are to society, not to individual institutions. These responsibilities go beyond what we owe our students and reach out also to those who cannot or do not attend our institutions. We – academics and students – should serve them most of all; and we have forgotten them, to the terrible detriment of our institutional dignity.

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