The capitalist remodelling of Higher Education and the communist alternative

 The goal of reforms to higher education undertaken by successive governments has been to subject universities to the immediate needs of the capitalist class. Through pouring money into universities, funding research, the tuition of future employees and through creating links with specific courses, capital is remodelling higher education to benefit its operations directly. The government white paper indicated that there would be no government-imposed restrictions on this kind of employer-university collaboration. The Director General of the Confederation of British Industry, John Cridland, was quite open about the consequences of closer links between business and education, presumably confident that no one could object to the economic ‘necessity’ of remodelling universities to serve the needs of capital, predicting that “more sponsorship by companies, changing the curriculum to fit what the sponsoring employer wants if they are supporting the young person”[1].

Slavoj Zizek has called this “the reduction of higher education to the task of producing socially useful expert knowledge”[2], setting academics the task of offering solutions to concrete problems rather than universities being a space in which the problems themselves are formulated, however what is crucial is that it is capital specifically, and not society in general, that universities will increasingly function to serve in this instrumental way as a result of these reforms.

The introduction and subsequent increase in fees have already had a profound effect on universities and their perceived role. The tripling of tuition fees, despite government claims that this move was undertaken in order to shift the burden of funding higher education off the state, actually looks set to increase the cost of funding higher education to the public purse due to the increased size of the loans guaranteed by the government, lower graduate salaries and poorer employment prospects (resulting in an estimated increase in loan write-offs of 40%[3]). Tuition fees are not simply about shifting the cost of higher education onto individuals but about commoditising higher education, marketising universities and refocusing these institutions towards the provision of skilled workers for the labour market. In the current system the student is an indebted consumer of intellectual property produced by a university, which despite its charitable status, is effectively a business. In this situation the student is encouraged to view their time at university as a financial investment in order to secure greater bargaining power after graduation and so education becomes instrumentalised. This is already having a detrimental effect on the humanities within higher education, which have borne the brunt of the spending cuts at many universities as governments slash funding for these courses whilst preserving courses seen as being of strategic or economic importance.The closure of humanities courses across the UK represents an attack on critical thought within higher education.

Marketisation looks to create greater divergence between universities as they compete to attract the prospective students with the highest grades in order to charge the highest fees possible. The state-administered market in higher education has led to an increased amount being spent by universities in non-academic areas such as advertising and managers’ pay. The commoditisation of higher education does more than restrict access to universities but actually effects the ‘product’ itself. As with any other commodity, the owners will attempt to cut the costs of its production and in an industry that already sees many staff of zero-hour contracts, we can expect many more attacks on the jobs, pay and conditions of academic and non-academic workers alike.

As students we need to display the utmost solidarity with education workers in these struggles and reject managements and ministers who argue that students should support cuts to jobs and wages as consumers demanding ‘more for their money’. Another result of commoditisation is standardisation and the requirement to measure output: in education, of course, this is impossible to do accurately. Competition between courses and universities will undoubtedly result in an emphasis on grades and teaching focused on exam preparation.

The capitalist class has seen in higher education an opportunity for investment and recent years have seen the growth of the private sector provision of higher education. A decline in state investment, rising tuition fees and the relative success with which the higher education industry has weathered the economic crisis have been indicated as reasons why capital is being invested in education. In the long term, though, what is crucial is that economic development will increase the demand for skilled labour and so businesses are positioning themselves to make a profit.

Whilst we must resist the current remodelling of higher education, we do not call for a return to what existed before. Higher education has always served business interests (in a less direct way) and even when grants existed, universities were spaces reserved for a tiny minority. Equally we must expect, in a society based on capitalist production, that whatever education system that exists is subject to some kind of control by the ruling class in order to utilise it and prevent subversive elements gaining too strong a foothold. Of course sections of academia are all too willing to perform the function of social control that the state and capital wish it to, the announcement in 2011 by Arts and Humanities Research Council that the ‘Big Society’ (the coalition’s half-hearted and much derided initiative to increase third sector provision of services previously undertaken by local government) was to be a research priority, prompting resignations from the AHRC’s peer review college and serving as a reminder of this.

Communists do not aim to preserve higher education but to radically transform it and take the means of producing knowledge into the hands of the working class as part of our project for communism. The enclosure of academic space is a defeat for our class and so we call for free education with full grants. Communists call for the highest levels of academic freedom in teaching and research and for democratic universities run by students and education workers that enable individual creativity to flourish and put these important institutions in the service of human development rather than profit.

Callum Williamson


[1] Clair Shaw, “Universities are employers –  they are businesses”, The Guardian, 02/09/2013

[2] Slavoj Zizek, Living in the End Times, Verso (2010) p.411

[3] David Mercer, “University funding changes set to cost more than they save”, The Independent, 18/02/2013


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