Magazine article Soundings

The Neoliberal University and Its Alternatives: The Second of a New Series of Articles, Soundings Futures, Which Sets out to Develop Programmatic Alternatives to the System of Neoliberalism

Magazine article Soundings

The Neoliberal University and Its Alternatives: The Second of a New Series of Articles, Soundings Futures, Which Sets out to Develop Programmatic Alternatives to the System of Neoliberalism

Article excerpt

The concept of a 'neoliberal' university itself implies that there are, or have been, universities of other kinds. But what other kinds? This article will ask if we can situate the 'neoliberal' university in a theoretical and historical context which makes sense of what is happening to universities, and may help us to imagine them in a different way. *

Education and society

In his chapter 'Education and British Society' in The Long Revolution, Raymond Williams describes the development of schooling in Britain as the outcome of struggles and compromises between three different traditions. (1) The first of these was that of the 'democratic educator', the second that of the 'industrial trainer', while the third was that of 'old humanism'--the commitment to preserve and sustain a traditional hierarchical culture. The ideal of the first of these was linked to the idea of an educated, participating democracy, and it held that education should be as widely and continuously available as was possible. Arguing against class-based assumptions, Williams wrote that we need to:

   ... get rid of conscious or unconscious class thinking and begin
   thinking of educational organisation in terms of keeping the
   learning process going for as long as possible in every life.
   Instead of the sorting and grading process, natural to a class
   society, we should regard human learning in a genuinely open way,
   as the most valuable real resource we have, and therefore as
   something which we should have to produce a special argument to
   limit rather than a special argument to extend.

The 'industrial trainer' conception saw the purpose of education as essentially to provide the workforce needed by the capitalist economy, both in terms of skills and appropriate kinds of 'social character', accepting the inequalities and hierarchies natural to class society. The 'old humanist' conception aimed to preserve the values of 'culture' against both industrial materialism, and the corruptions and dilutions of commercial mass culture. The 'democratic educator' conception was championed by the labour movement in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and in part informed post-war policy on the expansion of both universities and education. Thus, although no-one could argue that the 'democratic educator' conception has much traction in twenty-first century universities, this was not always so. Before looking at the major changes instituted by successive neoliberal governments, it is helpful to consider the changing role of universities in different historical periods.

University and society: an historical view

One way of understanding the role universities play within our social system is to look at their different phases of development as modes of production and relations between classes have changed. This is a complicated story. Universities were originally a 'steering mechanism' of an earlier social formation, socialising its elites, and functioning as one of the bearers of its knowledge and high culture. Late medieval and early modern universities like Oxford and Cambridge educated members of ruling classes for high positions in the church, the law and government. Until the nineteenth century, their principal function was more to provide a cultural and social formation for elites than to produce useful knowledge. (The Royal Society, and provincial societies and networks, and not the universities, were the early incubators of the scientific and technological revolution in England--Scotland had a different tradition.) We can thus see the original role of English universities as one of cultural reproduction and transmission for a predominantly aristocratic social fraction, which did however offer some opportunities for social mobility for talented individuals from lower classes, and gave capabilities to the state and the church.

These functions became substantially enlarged during the nineteenth century. …

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