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The Demands of the Alternative White Paper: Solidarity, Campaign & Action

The Demands of the Alternative White Paper: Solidarity, Campaign & Action

Below is an excerpt of a talk about the Alternative White Paper, given by Sarah Amsler at a conference at Leeds Metropolitan University on ‘Reimagining the university’ on 26 November 2011. To hear the full talk, click here.

The Alternative White Paper calls the government to account for it its ideological destruction of Britain’s public higher education system, its unforgivably flawed educational policy, its lies about the financial costs of driving it through, its contradictory and duplicitous use of research evidence, and its steam-rolling of democratic process through the shrinking of time and space for debate. One of the most important theses in the paper is that the logic driving the restructuring of universities in this country and around the world is the same as that driving the expansion and explosion of capitalism; that contrary to the student being put at the heart of anything, the government’s work puts the act of commodification and the market at the ‘heart of the system’; and that the inculcation of people into a world of individualised competition, naturalised inequality and hierarchy, and instrumental rationality is socially dangerous. In this sense, it is clear that the defense of public higher education can be nothing less than a resistance to the logic and values of capital and a political struggle to learn how to create alternative ways of organizing society and regarding human beings.

The Alternative White Paper puts forward a set of propositions that affirm the social and political importance of a mass, public university education for a democratic society. These propositions are in one sense reformist, as they draw on previous government’s educational visions (Robbins, 1963; Dearing, 1997) to affirm and defend key elements of ‘the university’ in its ideal-type liberal-democratic incarnation. But they are also radical, as they assert that even these promises were very far from being established in the existing system and thus still remain a vital political project. The paper does not provide a totalising alternative to either the current system of higher education or to the government’s re-imagined version, but offers a framework for facilitating and proliferating public debate about the social purposes and collective organisation of higher education. The hope is that it will contribute to creating the intellectual, professional and political affinities that have always been necessary, and that are becoming more urgently necessary, for practicing and defending forms of education that have a preference for human autonomy, freedom, liberation and development rather than for the reproduction and concentration of elite profit and power.

But what might we do to actually defend these institutions, relationships, values and principles? The current debate about what is to be done polarises those engaged in direct action with those working in more liberal-democratic or professional ways; the ‘reformists’ and the ‘revolutionaries’. However, whilst the creation of radically critical and democratic educational spaces in autonomous centres, occupations, teach-outs and etc. may have a huge impact on re-imagining and prefiguring totally new, non-commodified relationships between teachers and students (or even undoing these roles), they do not necessarily address in a direct way problems of widespread social exclusion and inequality (sometimes, in fact, reproducing the structure of elite privilege, even in structureless meetings, even in ‘radical’ spaces). On the other hand, work to lobby and forestall the implementation of government policy that has the power to restructure the institutional administration of universities in activities such as admissions policies, scholarship reimbursements, etc. may ameliorate the worst excesses of stratification and elite reproduction, but may do little to address problems of knowledge, power and pedagogy in the classroom. In other words, neither is mutually exclusive.

One of the political significances of the Alternative White Paper is therefore that it maps the complex and multidimensional terrain of the present struggle to determine the possible futures of anything like a system of public higher education in this country, and that it does so in a language that is simultaneously familiar and open to criticalisation. It suggests that, rather than seeking the one thing that is to be done, we might do a great many things. The question for any movement for resisting the privatisation and monetarisation of education is perhaps not which of these is primary, but how they might be articulated in ways that press power to the wall and force it to shift. The question is not how to dismantle what is now being put in place, but how to stop making it possible in the first place.


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