“Students who acquire large amounts of debt putting themselves through school are unlikely to think about changing society. When you trap people in a system of debt, they can’t afford the time to think. Tuition fees increases are a disciplinary technique and by the time students graduate they are not only loaded with debt but have also internalised the disciplinary culture. This makes them efficient components of the consumer economy”.
(attributed to Noam Chomsky).
University tuition fees, and the student’s preoccupation with ‘occupation’ as the defining goal of higher education, reflect the realities of current education provision within modern capitalist societies. Societies have to reproduce themselves and education is part of that process. Getting students and society to accept this version of education requires an ideological straightjacket underpinned and reinforced by a disciplinary practice, e.g. debt or fear of unemployment, or fear of exclusion from desired goods and services, or fear of poverty in a post welfare state economy. This fear is reinforced by the globalisation of labour power in which vast reserve armies of labour have been drafted into the relations of production in a competitive race to the bottom. A race which requires ‘flexible’ labour markets. Students, and their parents, are increasingly aware that skills and knowledge is being ‘outsourced’ to the emerging economies in a competitive globalised market. Those who cannot compete will be relegated to the poor prospects, low wage, part time, zero hours contract economy, to become the ‘precariat‘.
Thus, Higher Education is increasingly a commodity to be sold in a market aimed at the reproduction of the relations of production in a global competitive marketplace. This how the Corporate Class Executive and the Political Power Elite (CCE/PPE) under financial capitalism requires it to be. They inhabit, own and run this market place and compete to reap the rewards that they enjoy. To continue to do so, their vested interests in the current system has to be supported by reproducing the current conditions of production.
In ‘On Ideology’ Louis Althusser outlined a theory of the reproduction of labour power through a mechanism of ideology, as well as repression when required. This operates in the following way:
As stated above there is a requirement to reproduce the ‘conditions of production’: every social formation arises from a dominant mode of production and in doing so, and to survive, that social formation must reproduce the productive forces and the social relations of production. These sound very technical. What this means is that society has to ensure the next generation engages in the world of work and the social relationships that make up how we work together. So far, so what? Hunter gatherer societies had a very sustainable ‘mode of production’ – they hunted and gathered! Their conditions of production were their small group kin relationships and the natural environment they found themselves in, with property rights, if they had them, manifested in their cultural practices. The next generation had to learn the skills and knowledge required to reproduce the conditions of production they grew up in. Or die. However, even in these so called ‘primitive’ societies there was room for art, as expressed in the cave paintings that survive to this die. All their educational practices were not only to reproduce the way of life and the goods and services they required. As far as we know, early human groups also seemed to engage in ‘art for art’s sake’.
So, a mode of production is the way a society organises the provision of goods and services (hunter-gather, feudal, mercantile/industrial/financial/state capitalism). This ‘mode’ describes how we go about making things, growing things, distributing and exchanging things that we all want. This of course involves social relationships, which includes in the modern era communities or workers all focused on producing certain goods. This also involves the relationships these workers have with the owners of any land they work on. Another social relationship is that of ‘contract’, we promise each other to do or provide something and the terms that surround that promise. Productive forces might include the availability and bringing together infrastructures such as railways or information technologies to those with goods or services to sell. Together the forces and social relations of production are the ‘conditions of production’. The ‘means of production’ include land, capital, factories, call centres, railways, the internet.
Productive forces must reproduce the means of production and reproduce labour power. In order to smoothly reproduce labour power, Labour (workers/students) must learn the skills needed in the economy, and the rules that govern Labour’s place in the social relationships of production.
This where higher, and other forms, of education and training comes in. To ensure the smooth running of the capitalist system, Labour must accept its place and preferably not question the social relations of production. Education that focuses only on providing skills and knowledge for a job will not equip students with critical tools. The system of rewards and incentives can then be reproduced without query. In a capitalist mode of production, wages must also reproduce labour power otherwise the next generation can’t pay their bills to eat and pay rent. Competence also reproduces labour power otherwise the next generation can’t undertake the work that is required. Ideology also reproduces labour power, the work ethic must be passed on while the system of rewards for work has to be seen as legitimate and as serving the needs of all fairly rather than serving the needs of the few unfairly. Not to do this will lead to a ‘crisis of legitimation’ in which the citizenry cry ‘enough!”
So, the reproduction of labour power also requires the reproduction of it’s submission to the rules of the established order, to the ruling ideology, and a reproduction of the ability to manipulate the ruling ideology for the benefit of the agents of exploitation and repression so that they too will provide for the domination of the ruling class in words.
Ruling class interests requires that labour/students submit to the dominant rules, and that this submission is reproduced. Ruling class ideology must be seen as being the ‘normal rules’ which are required to ensure the system functions efficiently for all and not just for the ruling class. Class interests must be covered up by an ideology that masks the exploitative social relationships of production. Ruling ideas must become ‘common sense’ that everyone in society accepts.
Thus it is becoming common sense that one is required to pay for education on the basis that she or he who pays also is the one who benefits from education. Common sense argues that middle class beneficiaries of education must not benefit from the tax contributions of working class people who do not go to University. It is also common sense that if one has to pay for education then this should lead to paid employment, that the course above all other objectives must lead to skills for the workplace. Currently this means a focus on STEM subjects in order to prepare the UK workforce to compete in a global marketplace. Why waste an education on the Arts and Humanities when what is required is skills in the sciences, maths and technology?
Philosophy and Critical Sociology are luxuries we can longer afford.
Thus for the current system of capital to continue as a mode of production, the CCE/PPE need to ensure that Labour (students) accepts the tenets of this brand (neoliberalism) as serving not only or just the ruling elite or class but also that it serves Labour’s own interest.
To do that it needs an ideological apparatus, backed up by a repressive apparatus when required, i.e. when labour/students no longer accepts the ideology. The disciplinary techniques mentioned above are part of the repressive apparatus used to keep students in line. The paradox is that the more repression is required over and above the ideological, the less acceptance of the ideology there is. Repression may actually highlight that ‘the rules’ are not legitimate, but are self serving rules for the ruling class. This is evidenced by the Occupy movement, the ‘Indignados’ and what Paul Mason has called the ‘graduate with no future’ who increasingly argue that the current system is unjust.
The ideology supporting tuition fees is that of neoliberalism: Unfettered markets, deregulation of capital, the withering away and de-legitimisation of state provision, control of Labour and its immasculation as a force in politics, and the primacy of individualism. This is supported by a materialist culture that values consumption as an end in itself. Other social goals are relegated as useless in meeting the demands of markets and consumption. Globalisation backs this up through threats of undercutting wages and moving production to where Labour is weaker.
This ideology supported the development of Finance Capital as it replaces Industrial capital as a dominant mode of production in developed countries. Finance capital provides fabulous rewards for those that access and control financial assets, but it produces nothing concrete. It may provide capital for investment for actual production of goods and services but even this base function has been overshadowed by its overreach into speculation, trading on credit default swaps, hedging and betting on futures markets.
The promise of material rewards, the manufacture of demand for consumer products, fear of precarious work, the collapse of the structure of opportunities, fear of migrant workers, the powerlessness of social democratic control, and the loss of collective social solidarity in a liquid modern world, leads many students to accept fees and experience its disciplinary nature.
Students therefore get trapped into a higher education system that reproduces the social relationship of production that suits the needs of the CCE/PPE. Unless there are liberated territories for critical thinking that are not linked to ‘getting a job’, a generation of students will find it hard to articulate against power, to organise against power, to speak truth to power and will resort to credit fuelled consumption locked onto the treadmill of mortgages they can neither afford, or not to afford to have. They’ll be damned if they do, and damned if they don’t. Not getting into mortgage debt means facing a lifetime of rent and that could take an increasing share of their income. Getting into mortgage debt, on top of the fees debt, ensures they keep compliant or lose risking their home as well as the loss of their critical faculties as disciplined consumers. The other way to ‘escape’ fees debt is not too earn too much and wait for 30 years.
Finally, there is a small group of ‘elite’ universities who are particularly complicit in all of this. Supported by long established histories, nobel prize winners, wealthy benefactors and huge corporate and state funding for research they provide the instrumentally based education that supplies and supports the next generation of the CCE/PPE. They get prestige, power and funding, they provide a compliant uncritical graduate whose only goals are their ‘discipline’ and naked self aggrandisement as members of an ‘elite’ group. Their failure to forecast economic collapse indicates the level of their paradigm bound understanding. Just at a time when the modern university should have been critiquing ideological policies, they capitulated, unable to analyse the systemic risk that resulted in the collapse of Lehmann’s and nearly the entire global financial system, an error that students are now also paying for.
The riposte to this is that the system is inevitable, that society has to reproduce a workforce that can do the ‘work’ and that someone has to pay for that education. This misses the point. It is a given that this is so, but it is the form of that education and the nature of work itself as well as the social relationships which direct reward and incentives that can be critiqued. However, while education trains for skills for the workplace it cannot focus on the ideological reasons that underpin the current system.
It does not have to be this way. For the student working in a burger bar who will graduate to a precariat ‘non job’, they have little choice and little voice, in this Hobbesian educational and social environment.