A Lesson from Warwick

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Little Fable
(by Franz Kafka)

“Alas,” said the mouse. “The world is growing closer every day. In the beginning it was so wide, that I was afraid. So I went on further and was happy when, in the distance, I saw walls to the left and to the right. But these walls race towards each other so quickly that I am already in the last room and there in the corner is the trap, into which I run.” – “You only need to change directions,” said the cat and ate her.

Warwick University was founded in 1965. It is a satellite university, some miles outside the towns of Coventry and Warwick. The roads on campus are shiny, as are the buildings arranged in regular blocks of a similar height. The buildings are clearly marked as different research units, such as the ‘International Automobile Research Centre’, sponsored by the Indian automobile manufacturer, Tata. There are restaurants, hotels, supermarkets and cafes on campus. Barclays, Costa, Costcutters. But perhaps the biggest brand name is ‘Warwick University’. It is written above the giant TV screen which looms over one of the main thoroughfares on the campus – beside the glass-fronted Student’s Union –  booming out news and sport from morning to night. It is also emblazoned on the uniforms of all the staff that work there,  like workers on a Martian space station.

Like a space station all the doors are automatic. Passing into the reception I am stopped by two security guards who ask me my business. I am here for a summer school. I am directed to the special Conference Marquee set up for the summer. Here, the girl at the long counter tells me that there are twenty three conferences taking place that day. She claims it is a quiet day. Two thousand teachers will be arriving in a couple of days for a primary teacher’s conference. They have conferences for everyone: Nike; Trade Unions; even Coventry Football Club, who take advantage of the state of the art football pitches. Later on, I meet a man wearing a Warwick University uniform jangling a set of keys. He tells me that the conferences are all about money. He claims the organizers get paid £500 a day. Money, money, money, he says.

I was in Warwick for a Summer School at which Nigel Thrift, the Vice Chancellor, gave a keynote talk on the future of the public university. Only four weeks before, part of the Senate House, where I was checked by the security guards, was occupied by undergraduate and postgraduate students of the University. The occupiers called themselves ‘Protect the Public University’. Their protest was against the growing inequality that has become so evident in the UK university system. A microcosm of society at large, this inequality is a consequence of privatization and marketization, the insertion of the university into a global competition for resources and investment and the withdrawal of the state as the guardian of public goods, such as education.

Nigel Thrift began his talk: ‘In order to understand what the future holds we must first understand and recognize where we are beginning from. We are beginning from a situation in which there is no money. I cannot emphasize this fact enough: there is no money, no money, no money’. Three times for clarity. From this fact he proceeded to put forward certain prognoses. First, that competition for scarce resources is a reality that the university must adapt itself too. This involves developing in order to become more attractive to top students, funding and investment. Second, that privatization in some form or another is a reality which cannot be ignored. Universities cannot rely on public funding, which means that they must generate other forms of investment in order to maintain high research and teaching standards. Finally, the globalization of the university is a reality that will require opening up to markets abroad, attracting an ever-expanding population of potential students and researchers who wish to gain a high quality education and entry into the job market.

To begin with the ‘fact’ of scarce resources is to allow arguments such as Nigel Thrift’s to occupy the ground of ‘the no alternative’. His arguments are presented as pragmatic and realistic. Nearly all of the questions and comments which came afterwards consented to this pragmatism. The one question which raised the possibility of opposition, alluding to the occupation, was dismissed with the same calculating voice of reason: the protestors were only ‘a small minority’. They did not represent the larger student body. As if to convince himself, and us, Thrift kept repeating the phrase: ‘The fact of the matter is…’. It is a mantra; it obscures the political nature of decisions and policies that entrench inequalities and exclusion. It closes down the possibility for disagreement or debate by turning everything into an economic question: how to efficiently manage scarce resources. This justifies further privatization. It justifies an increase in fees for students. It justifies pay rises for Vice Chancellors. These are the decisions that have thus far enabled Warwick University to climb the League Tables and become one of the most competitive and successful universities in the UK. They are also the decisions that have made it a dystopian vision of the future.

The future of the university heads off down this narrow path, like the mouse in the fable, because we begin with an apparent shortage of money. But there is money everywhere. We can begin with the money spent on my two-day participation at a Summer School. My flight and accommodation were paid for. As a participant in the conference I was brought out to dinner both nights. The first evening was to a French restaurant, where all the delegates enjoyed a three course meal. The second was to one of the two hotels on Warwick University Campus, a development designed to cater for visiting academics and, presumably, the large amount of conference attendees. The restaurant was empty except for us. The table was enormous, something like a comical banquet. The desserts arrived on a trolley.

But I wasn’t paid a wage and my expenses were small. The occupation of the Senate House in Warwick University was triggered by a salary rise of £42, 000 for Nigel Thrift, the Vice Chancellor. This raise brought his salary to £316, 000. This is not so different to the salaries of the Provosts and Presidents and Vice Chancellors of major universities around the world. In the case of Warwick, Thrift’s salary is twenty-two times the wage of the lowest paid employee in the University – such as the janitor who I met opening the doors for the conferences, and who saw clearer than Nigel Thrift that money was everywhere, just not for him. In this way the janitor has something in common with the students who pay £9000 a year in tuition fees, leaving them with crushing debts in a job market that doesn’t exist.

Here, we must go beyond the university, because Nigel Thrift is not the only person in a position of power who begins with the assumption that we live in a time of austerity. But as cuts and taxes rise we see everyday the plain fact that there is more wealth today than ever. It is visible in the astronomic figures signifying the money channeled from society into the hands of financial institutions and speculators. It is visible in the profits made by trans-national corporations and circulated around the world out of the hands of any tax regime. It is also visible in the vacant plots and empty buildings that populate cities, perhaps the most tangible and everyday evidence that there is an abundance of resources. The problem, as always, is not scarcity but the distribution of wealth, a question of access. If we begin from this abundance, and the recognition that it belongs to everyone, then we open up a very different horizon of possibilities.

But there is another position to begin from. While Nigel Thrift’s vision was determined in one sense by an acceptance of scarce resources, it was also determined by an assumption that you need lots of money to have a university. Money to build facilities for conferences and hotels for conference attendees. Money to build world class sports facilities to attract foreign students. Money to invest in cutting edge bio-technological research. In that familiar and revealing rhetoric, the university was described as both an essential part of economic growth and as the preserve of independent research.

But the university is neither of these things. First and foremost, the university is defined by the activity of the student. And this activity is driven by a desire to discover things, to question and understand. In this sense it is not the preserve of the university. We learn from others and by reading books, but we don’t just acquire knowledge as though it was a commodity to consume. The student always performs his or her own capacity for reasoning. They connect one text or experience with others, thereyby using their own intelligence. This is the basis of intellectual life, of critical thinking, and it can occur anywhere at anytime. You don’t need money to think. You need money to get a certificate to get a job. All that the university institution has (and it is a lot) is a monopoloy on what counts as knowledge and education and what doesn’t.

The current organization of the university is excluding the very subjectivity, the very desire, on which it relies. It is becoming, in the words of Patrick Pearse, a murder-machine. If we consider the university today, enveloped by institutional torpor and hierarchy, competition and assessment, then it is hard to see where this figure of the student might be found. Despite the shiny appearance of a university like Warwick, the experience of being in the university today is not one of desire and optimism. Not for the student working under the pressure of a large debt and the need to ensure a job, or the postgraduate researcher competing for limited positions, forced to publish and apply for rounds and rounds of funding streams, or the lecturer who is faced with students ‘paying’ for a ‘service’ and the pressures to publish in departments with limited budgets for genuinely critical research.

A different place to start thinking about the future of the university might then be to get beyond ‘defending or adapting’ the institution to current ‘realities’, and instead focus on those places and people where critical thinking and learning is taking place, where questions are being asked by people who want to get beyond the narratives and explanations given by so-called ‘experts’ and ‘analysts’. While there are important struggles to be fought within and against the university as institution, it is also the case that these struggles are themselves processes of learning and knowledge production. If things are to change new categories and visions must be created. This can only emerge through a process of thought in motion – people asking questions and trying to figure them out collectively. Through this process new knowledge is produced, but more importantly new agents of knowledge are produced – people who can think for themselves. This is the university we should be defending.

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13 comments

  1. Really nice post. I think this is an important argument, that even as we defend the public university under assault, we should ask just what it is that we are defending, and if there are other, better ways that we might pursue the project. It is resonant, I think, with an argument I made (though less eloquently) on my site: http://pathtothepossible.wordpress.com/2012/10/15/schools-of-our-own/

    1. Hi Mark. Thanks for the comment. I read and liked your own blog which is very similar to our own position. Ranciere is an inspiration for our own thinking and politics. We wrote a longer text on some of these ideas which you might like to read too. We turned to the Irish hedge schools of the 18th century as an inspiration for autonomous education. https://provisionaluniversity.files.wordpress.com/2013/07/ontheuniversity.pdf

  2. Splendid piece. As an ex-Warwick employee, you captured the affluent soulnessness of the place very nicely indeed. Nigel Thrift, allegedly a critical geographer, and claiming (in the title of his latest book) to be of the ‘left’, appears to have become the ideologue for this sort of knowledge factory. Remember though, EP Thompson and others wrote about ‘Warwick University Ltd’ in 1970, so perhaps the mouse had started walking even then.

    1. Hi Martin. Thanks for the comment. Interesting to hear that E.P. Thompson was writing about Warwick in the 1970s. He also knew well the force which narratives of scarcity have played in histories of enclosure going back to the 18th century.

  3. Maria Daskalaki · · Reply

    Indeed, Martin…! Great post, provisionaluni

  4. James Storbeck · · Reply

    As yet another former employee of Warwick, I concur with Martin’s assessment of this post and The Place. I, too, noticed the irony of Thrift’s desperate attempts in past years to penetrate ongoing Marxist discussions. It seems he’s achieved final penetration. If former (and present) employees should ever form a blog such as “Warwicki Leaks,” please let me know! Cheers, jim.

  5. Comical banquets, flights and accommodation paid for? CHRIST ALMIGHTY. Did you win your place in a grand prize draw?

    A £42000 pay rise? (for a man named Thrift of all things)…that is just obscene. Loving your article.

  6. Even Warwick departments one might rely on to promote critical thinking, critical awareness of power differentials and the freedom of speech, actually do the very opposite, and censor such critical commentary. We need to act on such an abandonment of ethics. Protect the Public University@warwick!

  7. […] by an ef­fective de­com­mis­sioning of the right to protest within uni­ver­sities. The privat­isa­tion of the uni­ver­sity, nat­ur­ally, re­quires a strip­ping back of the public di­men­sions of what stu­dents […]

  8. […] Uni in the UK, Warwick, which has taken its branding to brilliant wasteful heights beyond Monash. https://provisionaluniversity.wordpress.com/2013/07/22/a-message-from-warwick/ via Monash Uni Watch […]

    1. hi, thanks for linking our article. We’re not actually based in Warwick. We’re based in Dublin and don’t have any institutional affiliation. We visited Warwick last spring to participate in a conference and the article is drawn from that experience. Check out oue ‘about’ page if you want to find out more – or email us at wearetheuniversity@gmail.com, it’d be good to hear what you are doing over in Monash.

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