It certainly feels as if things are moving quickly in the fight over the thorough-going recomposition of UK higher education. The scale of occupation and student-led resistance has caught many by surprise. The interpretive battle over ‘violence’ may have performed familiar rituals, but the frequency and militancy of what is going on is new and invigorating. The number of occupations is now considerable, and the leadership of the NUS has been forced into support for tactics and strategy they had previously treated as marginalia. How different it looked in the immediate aftermath of the 10 November actions. The early denunciations of militant protest then seemed to foreshadow the enactment of a reformist middle ground. Aaron Porter gave at least one speech in which he appeared to accept that fees were going to be introduced as planned, and sought to move his energies into getting as much included in the £9,000 fee as possible. He mooted such bold objectives as an end to printing costs and a new universities watchdog to ensure value for money. As if to say, ‘we’ve made our point, now let’s go home’.
Last week’s much smaller protest, and its predictable, petty, kettle, seems to have made all the difference. More walk-outs are planned for today, and doubtless more occupations will follow. This has spooked Clegg to new levels of hysteria, warning that opposition to the cuts will themselves scare off the young, and the poor, and those without sufficient sense to make some back-of-the-envelope calculations as to their eventual debt burden. Obviously, this is true in a rather degraded sense of the word, since without sustained action directed at the proposals, many would not realise the scale of changes until they had already been passed. Verily, ignorance is bliss. Meanwhile, ermine-cloaked colleagues in the blue corner are reduced to crying traitor while the imperatives of civic order require ever more draconian shows of strength.
But where are the academics? To be sure, we (or is it They, the Big Others?) are not without our own initiatives, and even Vice-Chancellors are getting a taste for dissent. But the general mood in the highest realms seems to be for a riding of the storm. After all, a fresh cash flow and opening up of opportunities for expansion has been high on the list of desiderata for some time. The expectation is that the utter devastation of teaching budgets, and the requirements to keep up with research scores (whether enforced by state or market), will mean that the more established scholars will be reorientated towards thrilling new levels of research output in an effort to maintain those precious league-table positions. By contrast, the pesky business of teaching will more and more become the duty of those resident at the lower levels of the academic hierarchy. Some of the more extreme predictions aside, this is not a bad position for many university heads or senior academics to find themselves in, especially when conceived of as a potential relief from the increasingly pressurised atmosphere encountered by many over the last years. Here, at least, capitalist realism appears to remain strong, with much talk of no other options and economic realities buttressing self-interest, uncertainty and plain old fear.
It should be repeated that the decisionist economic case for cuts is false, even under the degraded conditions of current possibilities and coordinates. But the response of those who are the actual workers in the institutions under attack still seems strangely subdued. If the university is a factory, it is its future ‘customers’ who are currently putting up the strongest fight against its marketisation. Aside from the bold pre-emptive strikes of UK science, concerted action is in short supply. Bodies like Universities UK (apparently a “higher education action group”) engage only in a quietest collaboration. The students in occupation don’t need the wisdom or leadership of their academic betters. But the fight over fees is not the only one, and it is about time that academics themselves started thinking about, and acting for, the remaking of the university.