Resisting the white paper for higher education

David Willetts, Minister of State for Universities and Science

David Willetts’s white paper on higher education, to be published today, is being trailed in the newspapers. The response from what we call ‘universities’ – which actually simply means their decision-taking heads, the vice chancellors, over whom academics at universities outside Oxford and Cambridge can exercise precisely zero democratic influence – will almost certainly be sycophantic and ideologically collusive. So what will be in the white paper? As a taster, the Guardian reports that

A Whitehall source said: “The reforms are all about ensuring that students get their money’s worth. We’re asking graduates to contribute more once they are earning, so it is only right that universities deliver for students. Universities will become more accountable to students and they will have to be far more transparent about what they are offering.”

Like every statement from government sources, this can be unpicked. Let’s take it point by point.

1. ‘The reforms are all about ensuring that students get their money’s worth.’ Little more needs to be said than that this mantra is the politically necessary way that people in power (governments and vice chancellors) dress up the truth, which is that the reforms are about paying much less for higher education out of the public purse, in line with the general trend of neoliberal economics.

2. ‘ We’re asking graduates to contribute more once they are earning, so it is only right that universities deliver for students.’ Again, the reality is that although graduates are being asked to pay universities, this is not more than universities used to be paid when higher education was free, but simply (approximately) the same amount that universities used to be paid by government before – for neoliberal reasons – it decided (under Blair, at first) not to pay. The universities are not earning more than they did under the former arrangements, and while graduates should indeed feel aggrieved that they have to pay for their education, the universities are the wrong target for their anger. Universities are not charging more to provide the same service, which is the implication; universities are charging the same, but the traditional payer – the state – is welching on its debts and graduates are bailing out the government (to put it in the kind of terms that the current discourse uses). The correct response is to be angry with government, not universities. But our ideologically purblind vice chancellors will of course uncritically accept what it is convenient for the government to have them accept, and will as precisely as they can toe the final line:

3. ‘Universities will become more accountable to students and they will have to be far more transparent about what they are offering.’ If it calls for this (which it assuredly will) the white paper will demonstrate a failed understanding of how capitalism works. The suggestion here is of course that because (a) students are paying universities ‘more’ now (false, but syllogistically necessary for the obscene logic of this government) and (b) will need to earn sufficient later in life to be able to cover the cost, then (c) universities must demonstrate a financial benefit to studying there.

Now this is simply not how capitalism goes. Capitalism draws its life blood from desire, not use-value alone. When Gucci advertise their handbags they never say ‘If you buy this bag, which admittedly costs a thousand times more than the Gola one in the sports shop opposite, you’ll be able to fit more stuff in it. It will materially benefit you to have one of our bags because, although it’s more pricey, it will last longer, will be more practical, and will actually reduce the burden of carrying all your stuff, relative to the Gola bag.’ Instead, the message is: ‘Buy this bag. It is more desirable than the other. The price reassures you exactly how desirable it is.’ Capitalism circles round the Lacanian objet a, an indescribable, unquantifiable, ubiquitous, non-existent but very insistent something/nothing that exists in commodities and is conceived as the cause of the desire. People want the Gucci bags, just as people want Coca Cola or BMWs or even sex (there’s no surprise that commodity fetishism is so frequently intertwined with sexual suggestion: you don’t need to look at many adverts to see that) not because these things are capable of satisfying desire (buying a bag, drinking a drink, having sex, will never stop you wanting to do it again: there’s no once-for-all with these things) but simply because they contain the objet a, the thing you want but cannot get, precisely because it doesn’t exist.

For different people the universities’ objet a will be different things. For governments and public discourse at the moment, universities exist instrumentally to give people better and higher-paid jobs. This is of course pure bullshit. Universities exist to make people independently thoughtful. For those of us who are not rentiers or aristocrats, that independent thoughtfulness will of course be played out for most of our lives in the workplace, as we earn our keep. But this does not establish a direct link between universities and jobs. Of course universities want students to get good jobs – so do doctors, builders, astronauts, bakers, brothel-keepers, and politicians. It is a statement so banal as to be unworthy of being treated as an object of thought. Yes, we want students to get good jobs. But that is not the primary function of the university, and the best response to government pressure of this kind – which will never come from our supine vice chancellors, unless we can institute democratic structures in our universities to control them – is simply to say, repeatedly and with supporting argument, ‘WE DO NOT ACCEPT YOUR TERMS’.

If universities become more private there should be no requirement, despite the claims of this Whitehall statement, to be ‘accountable’. If I buy a car (a comparable expense to buying a degree, under the new provisions) nobody tells me how it will materially improve my life, nobody could claim that it is a sound economic investment, nobody could explain to me why this car rather than that is better for getting me to work (which is why I need it). The car is sold simply on the basis of desire. This car is sexier than that one, basically. And this is how increasingly privatized universities should work if they obey the normal rules of capital. ‘Come to King’s College London because it’s sexier than the University of Crud. You know you want to. The cost will reassure you of its value.’

The more private they become, the more universities should change their motto to ‘Caveat emptor’. Everyone is welcome to respond to the inducement to desire their particular brand, but the service comes without guarantee of any kind: what you’re getting is a hit for your desire, and nothing more. Just as Mercedes might give you statistics of how quickly their machine will get you from 0-60 miles per hour, universities will list the courses available, the names of the staff teaching them, and so on. But just as Mercedes will not make a connexion between the product and the new material conditions it will generate, neither will universities. The desire is all, and it is precisely the indefinability of the rewards that will provide the essential basis for the purchase of the degree course. Let the buyer beware.

There are small signs of resistance, of which the Manifesto for Higher Education is a fine example. It makes certain demands on government and universities, of which the following gives a flavour.


  • Increase proportion of UK public expenditure devoted to higher education to at least the EU19 average of 1.1 per cent (up from 0.7 per cent) – a move that would bring in billions of pounds to the sector.
  • Restoration of maintenance grants and abolition of fees to be paid for through an increase in corporation tax and an increase to the top level of personal income tax.
  • Restoration of the block grant for all subjects.
  • Scrapping of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) and its replacement with a way of monitoring research work based on respect for the ability of individuals and groups of researchers to define their own research aims and priorities.

I encourage everyone to sign the petition. In general, though, individual academics, individual academic departments, individual heads of departments, and ultimately vice chancellors need to take a stance of resistance that is based on the refusal to accept the terms of the government. To take just one example, we should not accept the need to demonstrate ‘accountability’ by increasing student contact hours; instead we should explain why increased contact hours reduce the development of the independent thoughtfulness that it is the basic function of universities to develop. Every announcement from government should be met not with a galley-slave willingness to adjust to the new conditions and do the best we can within them but with clearly articulated resistance. While there are so few voices, and virtually none collectively, willing to attempt this, the university system is utterly screwed.




  1. Worse is what this public discourse (that universities should produce graduates capable of securing better paid jobs, etc.) is designed to conceal: that this government is seeking to engineer a populace too incapable of critical, independent thought (perhaps even too unwell) to mount the kind of resistance of which you speak. A university system that will produce a generation of Tory voters!

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