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Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

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After the success of the piece that I co-wrote with Jennifer M. Jones for The Guardian last week, I have had several requests to read the original version from which the final published version was excerpted.

Fees Protest

When the press writes disparagingly of dangerous university radicalisation, it should be remembered that radicalism sits among the core functions of the University. Indeed, one of the most salient residual legacies of the Enlightenment within all disciplines of academic modernity is a rejection of that which appears self-explanatory. As atomism was validated by seventeenth- and eighteenth- century chemistry, shattering all that seemed solid into (predominantly) air, other fields realised that they too must be radical. Psychology found its figure in Freud, whose incalculable influence revealed the existence of previously inaccessible mental recesses; literature, perhaps arguably, later in Derrida. It is worth recapping this history because the etymology of “radical”, radicalis, itself means “of roots”.

Increasingly, especially among the ranks of early career researchers, opposition to many of the long-standing aspects of the PhD are taking form. Foremost is an anger at the commodification of postgraduate study exemplified by The Economist. Under this rubric, university education has lost its supposed purpose of furthering scientific knowledge, fostering and renewing critical appreciation of the arts and creating an educated, critically self-aware populous. Instead, it has become a space wherein the former two of these aims must be subordinated to utilitarian servitude of the abstraction known as “the economy” while the latter goal is dropped, serving, as it does, no purpose for the authoritarianism of the market State. Under such a model, several movements now seek a return to the idealistic root of the university in a desperate bid for alternate, utopian, spaces of education to (re-)emerge.

The PhD sits at the eye of this whirlwind of commodification, poised as it is between the student and faculty worlds. Indeed, the postgraduate is firstly cast as student-consumer, then held to ransom as researcher-producer until finally, as with other internships, the PhD candidate is expected to build a teaching portfolio at an extremely poor rate, with few employment protections and expected instead to revere their privileged participation in the academic sphere. Given this, PhD students are among the best poised to perceive these deficiencies in academia: they are the least preconditioned and the most likely to suffer because of them. However, they are also the least empowered to effect practical change. Perceiving the differences is only the start, however. How could disempowered postgraduates influence the extremely hierarchical world of academia?

The answer was born amid last year's protests against the damaging changes to HE funding structures. Among these protests were occupations, in which students commandeered a building -- most significantly, spaces on university campuses -- and converted them into places of learning; those in occupation held discussions, readings, workshops and meetings relating to their cause. Some instances replicated traditional lecture formats while others attempted to challenge the established pedagogy of higher education. Regardless of one’s stance towards the politics, it was clear that these transformed spaces had been re-appropriated in the name of learning. They represented the struggle, but also the desire for an alternative.

From this, a proliferation of radical spaces -- both virtual and physical -- have emerged, existing to transform or critique through a longer term, idealistic struggle. Some have been ephemeral; theUniversity of Strategic Optimism held ‘flash-mob’ lectures across London. Some, such as the Really Open University, the University of Utopia and Leicester's Third University are more conceptual in nature, aiming to re-imagine and implement real, radical futures for higher education. Finally, others are theorising long-term strategies, such as the Social Science Centre in Lincoln, where education will be delivered as part of a cooperative, rather than a commercial, operation. All share similar goals, where education is fore-fronted as being something more than a commodity and students more than consumers; the university as other than a training in the prerequisite socialisation for employment.

PhD candidates cannot be the only ones to have noticed these problems, which begs the question: why are established academics willing to perpetuate a culture of damaging practice, so blind to a radical re-evaluation of their own area? Self-interest must, surely play some part in this conservatism. Those already installed have been served well by the setup as it stands. John Kenneth Galbraith, the Keynesian economist put this well when he said that “the modern conservative is engaged in one of man's oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness”. Ignorance is another cause. How many academics are aware of their auto-subversion when they publish in journals whose subscription costs are destroying their own institutions’ ability to provide them material?

While these experiments in re-imagined beginnings cannot possibly hope to thoroughly integrate within a society so rooted in free-market economics -- or even at a more fundamental level, propose how expertise should be remunerated given resource scarcity -- their tear-it-down to build-it-up radicalism is important, perhaps if only as a regulative idea, and sits at the very heart of what the University should be. To appropriate Naomi Klein:

These are movements that do not seek to start from scratch but rather from scrap, from the rubble that is all around.”

Featured image by Monika Ciapala under a CC-BY-NC license.