It’s worth watching carefully what is happening in Britain with university education. As part of its austerity program, the British Conservative-Liberal-Democrat coalition govt is making massive cuts across the whole public sector (mainly because the UK government ran up a huge debt bailing out its banks – its ‘real’ economy is in quite good shape, or it was until the government decided to make the massive cuts). The higher education sector has not been spared.

This e-mail came across my desk today

From: [] On Behalf Of Andre Pusey

Sent: 20 November 2010 13:24


Subject: [yorksclimatecamp] ‘Reimagine the University’ – 24-26th November

Are you a skint student? An overworked member of University staff? A Leodian with a vision of a more inclusive University system?

The Really Open University invites you to ‘Re-imagine the University’, a three-day event dedicated to exploring and demonstrating an alternative educational system. How can we transform the universities? How can students and lecturers learn differently through more creative, critical and empowering processes? How can higher education institutions benefit their local communities? How do we secure free education for all? Is it even possible to transform the universities?

These are just some of the questions that will be explored in a series of free workshops, lectures, films, plenaries, installations and interventions across the city [presumably York in England]. All events are free and open to everyone.


For a long time the university has been undergoing a process of privatisation. Universities are now run as businesses, with students as consumers and lecturers as creators of products. Knowledge has become a commodity that can be bought and sold. The recent Browne report exacerbates the threat to education with proposals to increase student fees to £9000 a year, while universities face funding cuts of 40%. All this results in students taking on more debt for the same education, lecturers being forced to carry out ‘economies exercises’ and staff working longer and harder hours for less money.

It doesn’t have to be like this. Another University is Possible

The university system is becoming bankrupt and in need of profound change, we need to envisage an alternative, a solution, a way out. As workers and students at different places within the university system, The Really Open University can see a different way forward, we don’t have all the answers, but we have many ideas and are sure there are many more out there.

We would like to explore how universities can become a place where creative and critical thought is fostered, where participants teach what inspires them, learn what they are passionate about, where people share and develop their skills and knowledge in order to create a more equitable and sustainable world, not simply for jobs and profit.

The Really Open University calls on YOU – students, lecturers, university staff and local residents – to come together and demonstrate that another university is possible. It is time to Re-imagine the University. Download the programme here:

I’m still struggling with this, not the principle that universities need reform and some new visions, but the British government policy of making the user pay full cost, which will almost certainly reduce accessibility and probably lead to large drop in those going on to higher education (which is likely to cost Britain dearly in the future, according to most economists).

The UK policy will almost certainly appeal to the Tea Party in the USA, although they don’t seem to have picked up on it yet (or at least made full cost tuition fees a public issue). Instead, they are pushing the ‘dysfunctionality narrative’, maybe as the artillery barrage before the infantry charge of full cost tuition fees for state universities.

What I’m struggling with is whether there is another route to reform that does not require the privatization of the higher education system aka the UK. Do we need an economic crisis to force change, or is there an alternative way to bring about change in our institutions? Or do we even need major changes rather than just some tidying up?

I’d be interested in your thoughts on this.

See also: Hauptman, A. (2010) Assessing England’s Risky Leap into the Future Chronicle of Higher Education, November 21. Interestingly, Hauptman argues that it would be safer to allow universities to increase enrolments without putting up fees, because of the low marginal costs of taking extra students. I would like to have seen some data supporting this argument, as this is more likely to apply to online than to face-to-face programs. I would not be happy to see online education used as a cheap alternative to classroom teaching. It should stand on its own merits for the students it can help best.


  1. Well the response by some Canadian universities in the face of much less stringent exigencies is to call for them to be able to set (higher) tuitions independent of government policies.

    This is essentially a call for a return to the time when universities educated only a small, elite, and well-connected pool of people (probably the pool that would today be represented by McGill, Queens, St.F.X. and maybe Simon Fraser). It conjures an image of a brighter, purer past.

    Such a future would be devastating for most academics, who would quickly discover that they have neither the breeding nor contacts to obtain employment in such a system. Those that could would find employment in the (now extended) private career and community college system (non-union, of course) while the rest would find work in the service industry.

    It would also be devastating for Canadian society, exaggerating the distance between rich and poor, and setting the stage for a repeal of many of the social reforms we have earned over the decades, including income support and health care. It would reduce Canadian academia to a rump, and spell the end of innovation and science in Canada.

  2. > is whether there is another route to reform that does not require the privatization of the higher education system aka the UK?

    This one is harder. The lesson from the previous reply is that the HE sector in Canada is intransigent, which will lead to a nightmare scenario. Can the sector be saved in spite of itself?

    I believe that the answer is “yes” but that we have to let go of the current model of education. We want (and need) to retain the role and concept of the academic, but need to be able to organize the sector in line with 21st century realities.

    I think that we ought to define a set of distinct types of academics, organize them such that they are employed directly, rather than in universities, and that each provides a unique type of support to the learning community as a whole. Breaking up and breaking apart the traditional concept of ‘discipline’, ‘class’ and even ‘cohort’ will be essential to the well-structured system of the future.

    I think that in many Canadian universities we already recognize that not all professors should be all things to people, as we hire graduate students and support staff to fulfill many of the traditional roles, such as technical support, teaching and marking. But the resulting unfair and divisive class system that has resulted in academic institutions has been demoralizing for staff and devastating to the institution as a whole, which can no longer function without a supply of low-paid academic labour (I’m sure Foucault would have much to say about academic servitude).

    We ought to organize out academic sector in terms of a series of publicly funded support systems, such that a person availing themselves of an array of services from these support systems can fabricate an education for themselves, which they would then prove to a federally (or provincially) monitored evaluation (not necessarily testing) system.

    Such a system would end the distinction between those who can obtain an education in this country and those who cannot. It would allow any Canadian to obtain as much or as little of a higher education as they desired, generally at little or no cost. Though not a privatization of the system, it allows for private sector provisioning or support. And ends government support of the ‘Yale-type social club service’ that has characterized learning for our ruling elite since before confederation.

    I’ll have more on this in the future.

  3. Hi Tony – I cannot do justice in reply to your question “Do we need an economic crisis to force change, or is there an alternative way to bring about change in our institutions?” But you might enjoy this blog post by Michel Bauwens at the P2P Foundation on that organization’s future direction. The question he grapples with is one that transcends nearly all institutional change (it seems to me): “What do distributed networks really bring to the table, that is new and unique, and points the way forward?” No doubt some will be surprised at the latitude he provides for answers. I personally find it encouraging. … Regards, Gary


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