Nurturing Dissent: Developing the Unruly Subject in Higher Education

Dr Cassie Earl of the Lancaster University Centre for Social Justice and Wellbeing in Education delivered a presentation to accompany the release of her book Developing the Unruly Subject in Higher Education: students learning dissent.

Earl began with a disclaimer: this work is based on a very specific politic, and born of [her] being angry (as all good research is). She then showed coverage by The Telegraph of the 2010 Millbank occupation as part of that year’s protests against the then-coalition government’s proposed tuition fee raise and cuts to the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA).

The protesters in the video managed to occupy 30 Millbank, then the home of the Conservative Campaign Headquarters (CCHQ), because the National Union of Students (NUS) had liaised with police and told them to expect no more than 5,000 student protesters. In the end, around 50,000 arrived, saying no on behalf of secondary school pupils, primary school children and even those yet to be born.

Earl rattled off a list of recent stories about academic discontent with the contemporary university order: Prof. Sarah Ahmed’s resignation from Goldsmiths; Prof. Patricia Leary’s response to criticism over her wearing of a Black Lives Matter t-shirt; Ian Parker’s suspension and subsequent resignation from Manchester Metropolitan; and the suicide of Prof. Stefan Grimm of Imperial College London. These complaints, said Earl, reflected that the university had become just another part of the global neoliberal project, focused on employability and metrics above actual research and critical thinking. This focus is antithetical to the true purpose of a university—we do not want good employees and servants of capital in our universitys, we want activists.

Having written elsewhere about alternatives to institutionalised higher education, Earl clarified that this talk would focus on reasons to be hopeful within HE. She returned to the introduction of the £9,000-per-year fees in 2010. Whether intentional or not, this had the effect of both reinforing the elitism of HE and of saddling lower-income students with insurmountable amounts of debt. The effect of this, according to Earl, was to depoliticise students, who began to view themselves as consumers of education rather than participants in it. The employability agenda, suggest Earl, was the peak of this attempt at depoliticising education.

Earl discussed her own involvement with the occupation of Manchester Univeristy (along with her son), during which some entrepreneurial student listed the Vice-Chancellor’s Jaguar on eBay. These occupations inspired others around the world, such as the occupation of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, but that this was mostly at elite and research-intensive institutions.

Earl recounted an incident during the interviews she undertook as part of her research: an academic asked a student whether they would support academics on strike, and the student was not sure, as the academics had not supported the students during theirs. The academic, when pressed on this, said that those protests had been just about student issues. Earl expressed her belief that both the issues the students protested against and those that were driving the academics to strike were both symptoms of the same, shared problem: neoliberalism. She quoted Andy Merrifield’s Magical Marxism: Subversive Politics and the Imagination in discussing the value of mad, destructive acts (such as the smashing of the windows of the CCHQ), but said that Prevent legislation impeded academics’ abilities to publicly express support for such acts to their students. Earl advocated defiance through compliance, such as a weekly email to the Home Office containing all lecture material asking for a review—such subversive compliance would only work, however, if performed en masse.

From her interviews, Earl had found that both activist and non-activist students, though they used different terminology, described the same issues. They felt that universities were too focused on employability and league table rankings at the expense of real teaching. Staff concurred with the identification of issues, but were less radical in their proposed solutions: staff talked of widening participation, whilst students talked of melting the walls of the university and of forming new communities. Reiterating that it was educators’ responsiblity as much as students’ to create a new world in the crumbling shell of the old, Earl ended with coverage from the Guardian of the same 2010 protests.

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