Students, staff and revolution

In a period of capitalist crisis there are no longer any reforms to give but only counter-reforms and attacks on the working class to make. No area is safe from sacrifice to increase the profitability of capital. In these periods the reality of liberal ideology and capitalism itself is laid bare. Talk of the inalienable rights of man and the advancement of the human condition is struck down as health services are cut, the most vulnerable are attacked and funding dries up in the search for greater and greater profits.

This story now plays out in every corner of British life; health, social care, transport, shop floors, and education are just a few areas which face these attacks. The iron logic of capitalism compels increased profitability by any means necessary, cutting that which doesn’t produce, lowering standards to the brink of unbearable for the actual producers in society, the working class.

Ever since 2011, this process has been taking place on an ever higher level in universities across the country: casualisation of employment; uber-fication of jobs and deep internal changes to the relationship between education and capitalism.

Two words immediately spring to mind for all students regarding education and capitalism: tuition fees. In 2011 the Tory-Lib Dem coalition altered the way in which university was funded, rather than being predominantly government funds, backed up by a relatively small tuition fee, fees were instead trebled and government funding slashed. Today government funds are only 25% of a university’s budget, whilst 50% comes from fees. However, in some respects this is nothing more than a political magic trick because, although we certainly see a system which creates a huge burden on one layer of society than all others i.e. the youth compared to everyone else, ultimately the loans still came directly from the government, paid back later by what was effectively a graduate tax by another name.

So now, rather than a lump sum given by the government to educate society through universities, university funding instead became directly dependent on the number of students attending the institution. With the removal of the caps on student numbers the recruitment of as many students as possible to cover the university’s costs is common. More than that, universities are now in open competition to attract as many students as possible and those that invest money to attract students through new buildings, fancy accommodation, high league-table positions, greater capacity etc. found themselves able to gain access to greater and greater funding and therefore able to attract even more students. Those universities which fail to abide by this logic of capitalist competition see their funding, reputation, and research all shrivel up.

We are thus seeing British campuses brought under the logic of the capitalist system. Even where university management has the best of intentions to consistently strive to improve the collective knowledge of humanity, they must continue to increase the profits on commodities sold (i.e. education) in order just to keep the university open. This therefore requires savings to be made and that in turn means attacks on the workers of a university. The very academics who are supposed to be the central purpose of such an institution are transformed, under the logic of capitalism, into those who the institution must exploit the most.

Casulisation of academia has been the most prominent result. A recent report by the University and Colleges Union (UCU) estimates that half of academic staff are on precarious contracts, either zero hours, very short term, or hourly pay. In universities such as Warwick and Birmingham this affects up to 70% of staff. Meanwhile management figures find themselves on six figure salaries. What is even more shocking is that many universities will only allow post-graduate students to study on the basis that they take part in teaching on precarious contracts like this.

The rate of exploitation of staff will be continually driven up in the coming years as more and more students are pushed through universities, with fewer and fewer hours actually being taught. Now over 90% of university vice-chancellors’ primary aim is to bring in greater online participation in the form of MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses) and combining this with plentiful data on LinkedIn and other platforms to effectively Uber-fy the education system. Need a lecturer on the history of mathematics? No problem – the department can simply hire someone for that course, that term, or that lecture with a click of their fingers. This is an extreme scenario but such is the future under the logic of capitalism.

This is not being taken lying down. Staff across the country are constantly organising to fight the newest wave of attacks: Graduate Teaching Assistants struck for higher pay in KCL; academics in Leeds and Warwick are organising against attacks on redundancy rights; and protests are erupting backed by students and staff to fight capitalism in education.

However, to win we need to build our individual victories into a broader strategy. The tide is pulling firmly in one direction and unless we get out of the sea there is no escape. As long as universities remain under the control of management, in a system dictated by production for profit, the attacks will continue. Instead, staff and students must fight for democratic control of universities on the basis of a socialist economy, where production is for social use rather than capitalist exchange. Only when power is in the hands of workers rather than the capitalists will the latter’s dictatorship finally end.

These may seem lofty goals, but the attacks we’re experiencing are not a sign of the strength, but of the weakness of the capitalist system. The fight of students and staff in universities has, in the past, inspired the rest of the working class, who see in that struggle the struggle of all workers against the capitalist class. In France, May 1968, these processes led to an insurrectionary situation, and if not for the betrayals of the Stalinists, would have seen a successful revolution.

These are the sights to which we should raise our eyes, to build on the concessions that we can win through our individual campus struggles, so we can take down the entire rotten system and establish one based on a flourishing of the human condition rather than a flourishing of profit margins.

by Thomas Soud, Warwick Marxists