Socialists have no illusions about the role which institutions like the universities have to play in class society. Like the government and the churches they serve the interests of the ruling capitalist class.
The basis of modern society is the ownership of the means of production by a section only of society and their consequent use to make profits for those owners. The rest of us, cut off from ownership, have to sell our mental and physical energies in order to live. We, who make up over 90 per cent of the population, alone produce all the wealth of capitalist society.
The time has long since past when the capitalists themselves took any part in production. They have long since become redundant parasites, employing specially trained wage-labourers to perform the jobs, in the administration of the State and the management of their businesses, which when capitalism was younger they used to do themselves.
Modern society and industry is now run from top to bottom by paid members of the working class. All the jobs in the administration, planning, production and distribution of wealth are carried out by workers.
The glaring contradiction in modern society is between large-scale social or co-operative production and the outdated sectional ownership of the means and instruments for producing wealth. Class ownership has become an anachronism that is holding back the use of society’s wealth to provide plenty for all.
So what have we got? A modern technology capable of providing abundance. Workers capable of operating this highly-developed industrial system, yet doing this in the interests of a non-working, owning class who want their means of production geared to profit-making. But whether these are used to make profits or to satisfy human needs the technology is the same. Thus, the owners face the problem of training workers to administer and operate modern industry.
At one time the task of schools was merely, by means of religious indoctrination, to break in the children of the working class to the sort of discipline and hard work they could expect when they went into the factories and mills and mines. But with the growing application of science to production the employers required more and more specially-trained workers. In 1870 the State brought in compulsory elementary education. More money was spent on technical schools. Soon, a three-fold division emerged in education: Elementary schools turning out factory workers; secondary schools turning out clerks; and the public schools teaching the children of the ruling class to be the rulers. This division was recognised and enshrined in the 1944 Education Act which made secondary education compulsory.
Compelled by economic necessity to spend money through the State on education, the capitalists came to expect more of schools than mere indoctrination. They wanted to turn out workers who understood what they were doing in the factory or office. They wanted, in other words, an educated or rather a trained working class.
Hence, in capitalist society, money spent on education comes to be seen as an “investment”, the return on which can be calculated in commercial terms. The educational system becomes the “education sector” of the economy or the “knowledge industry”. Thus Lord Butler, former Tory politician now an academic, can write about students “as the type of capital investment which will accrue with every year” and which has “enormous value” (The Times, 20 November 1968). Labour Ministers are not different. Gordon Walker, who used to be Education Minister, wrote in the Financial Times (11 March 1968) about the colleges of education achieving “a striking increase in productivity”, that is, turning out more teachers per £ invested.
People like to think of education as something outside the commercial world where human rather than commercial values are taught and learned. Thus all this talk of “investments”, “industry” and “productivity” in connection with education seems offensive and cynical. But Butler and Gordon Walker are being realistic. They are telling the truth. What is called education is today prostituted to the service of capitalist industry and its profit-making, pandering to its manpower and research needs. Education today really is an industry, a sector of the economy turning out a certain kind of product, whose performance is judged on the rate of return it brings on the capital invested in it.
This, of course, applies equally to the universities—though how they were captured by Big Business is another interesting story.
For universities existed before the rise of capitalist industry. They came into being in the Middle Ages as centres of religious learning where people could study theology, law and medicine. Indeed up until the end of the 18th century nearly all graduates were Church of England clergymen and until 1871 acceptance of the 39 Articles was a condition for going to a university (the poet and revolutionary Shelley was expelled from Oxford in the 1820’s for being an atheist). In the last century Oxford and Cambridge, the main universities, were institutions turning out Anglican clergymen and top civil servants. Since at that time the governing class still managed its own affairs, their role was to train the ruling class to rule.
Capitalist industry was faced with the problem of turning these bastions of aristocratic privilege into the knowledge industry, of driving out leisurely learning for its own sake and replacing it by business and technical training. Many of the early manufacturers were non-conformists and so were barred from Oxbridge. They therefore used their money to set up their own rival institutions—the redbrick universities—where the emphasis was on science and commerce rather than on Latin and Greek. The capitalists denounced the old universities as “a collection of books” and “a place where nothing useful is taught”.
This was an ironic situation. The mediaeval origins and traditions of these old universities, geared to serving a leisure class, made them value learning as such and resist the capitalist pressures to reduce them to the simple task of training managers, engineers and technicians for capitalist industry.
Traditionally, then, the universities were attended only by the sons of the rich, and especially Oxbridge by the idle sons of the idle rich. This is no longer so. Part of the money invested in education goes to provide grants for children of the working class to go to college. 90 per cent of students are the sons and daughters of workers maintained at college out of local authority grants. When after three or four years training they leave university, they enter the labour market just like someone leaving school at 15. Thanks to the capital invested in them, their ability to work is more valuable and so they can get a higher wage. But wage-workers they still are. The labour market for graduates is conducted partly through the advertisement columns of papers like the Daily Telegraph, the Times, the Sunday Times and the Observer, but now increasingly capitalist firms are entering the universities and trying to sign up students even before they graduate.
Make no mistake about this: students come from the working class and are merely being trained as special high-grade workers who still have to find an employer to live. Most students come from the working class and are being trained to fill the top posts in the State and industry.
Universities are capitalist bodies geared to producing valuable graduates for the employing class to exploit. So it is not surprising that these students who have seen this can only regard as hypocrites those academics who proclaim that the universities are “republics of learning” or “communities of scholars” dedicated to seeking after Truth. Students have every right, like other workers, to protest about being treated as an “investment” and judged merely from a profit-making point of view.