1980s >> 1980 >> no-913-september-1980

Universities today

Universities today are not what they were. But then what would you expect of institutions which have existed in Europe for six or seven centuries?

Originally, universities were scholastic guilds, similar to trade guilds in protecting the interests of their members. These were often foreigners who had come together to study in a particular place and were in need of protection from the extortion of the townspeople. Towards the end of the fourteenth century the guilds came to be recognised by civil and church authorities and to receive licences to teach. Today, universities are huge institutions, often employing several thousand workers, which take millions of pounds to run, find their place in a whole network of other social institutions, and ultimately serve the interests of the ruling class in capitalist society.

The extent to which universities are bound up with the wider capitalist society (in contradiction to the ivory tower image so firmly set in popular imagination) can be gauged by the statements of influential members of the ruling class. Stuart Sexton, political adviser to the Secretary of State for Education, recently said that over the next decade there would be a reassertion of the obligation of higher education to meet national needs. But these are hard times, and the chairman of IBM (UK), said more bluntly (and more threateningly) that unless the relation between education and industry improved, industry would not be successful and there would be no money to fund education. While the need to make things and to sell them has become the cornerstone of survival, he complained, incense had been burned at the altar of scholarship.

He obviously knows a thing or two about what makes capitalism tick. But the present Prime Minister is not noted for soft-heartedness and she does profess to have a zeal for cutting public expenditure. Readers may judge for themselves, therefore, whether it is likely that she would sanction the spending of £987m (the total grant to universities for the current year) to make a nice smell at the altar.

The government expect a return on this money and they will get it. First, in the shape of the production of skilled manpower—doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers, and others whose mental training will have made them adaptable to the needs of capitalist society in a variety of roles such as civil servant, personnel officer, social worker. In this regard the universities of British capitalism are (for the moment) among the most cost-effective in the world, since they produce qualified graduates in a shorter time than most (usually three years) and with a lower failure and drop-out rate. Most of these graduates (over 60 per cent) go directly into industry and commerce.

The second return on government money comes from the fact that universities exist not only to teach but also to engage in research. It is here that there is a slim connection with the origin of universities and a grain of truth in the ivory tower image. “Research” covers many different types of activity in widely varying areas, from ancient history to nuclear physics. Some research will be merely scholarly, and if it has any worth it will have it simply as an addition to the culture in which we live. Some will involve work to find a definite solution to a definite problem. And some may or may not have any practical application, but it will not be possible to tell in advance.

This last point is important. There is research currently going on at Glasgow University into hepatitis and cirrhosis, and at Hull into liquid crystal displays which may replace cathode ray tubes in televisions. Much other research may turn out to be useful in these ways or it may be “useless”. But one never knows which. Florey and Chain investigated penicillin out of curiosity, not expecting to find a systemic antibiotic, and Rutherford was criticised for bothering about neutrons only fourteen years before the first atomic bombs were exploded. Now any businessman knows that a certain amount of speculative investment of resources is inevitable, and consequently funds are made available not only for research on some definite problem but also for speculative and possibly “useless” research. That is, it pays to have work going on in an environment where people are not asked at every turn “Does it pay?” (It has been estimated that the immediate financial profit produced by universities is of the order of £500m.) This in its turn makes for a climate where, by the standards of capitalism, there is relatively free discussion.

As one would expect with institutions closely bound up with society in this way, their recent history has broadly followed the fortunes of British capitalism. In the boom years of the 1960s, when demand for skilled manpower was very high, the number of universities increased from 23 to 44, with a particular increase in those chiefly concerned with technological subjects. The Robbins Report proclaimed that higher education should be available to anyone qualified to pursue it, and student numbers rose rapidly. Along with this went a change in the undergraduate image, from a pipe-smoking, tweed-jacketed “chap” to a long-haired, jean-wearing hippy. The majority of students were probably never either.

But booms are followed by slumps, and this era of rapid expansion has come to an end with a vengeance. The CBI has given notice that the proportion of national resources for higher education in the last 20 years cannot be sustained in the 1980s. The government has responded to the piper’s calling of the tune by cutting £17½m off the universities’ recurrent grant for 1979/80, which was itself based on the laughable underestimate of an inflation rate of 8½ per cent. The number of qualified 18-year-olds continues to rise, but universities have been ordered no longer to increase their intake. A discussion paper prepared under the chairmanship of the Vice-Chancellor of Sussex University has spoken of the possibility of losing 60 staff posts in two years and needing to find £lm- £2m from somewhere. These are bare facts and figures which have to be translated into human experience. All universities over the last few years have been affected by frozen posts and the policy of leaving vacancies unfilled. This means that at all levels-teaching, secretarial, maintenance, technicians and kitchen staff-workers have had to do more work and, given inflation, for a smaller real wage or salary. This is, quite simply, increased exploitation, increased extraction of surplus-value from a section of the working class.

Effects on students are more varied, since not all students are members of the working class. The ruling class have to educate their offspring somewhere, and the more prestigious universities are one of the places they choose. Sons and daughters of industrialists and cabinet ministers and the like, can be found quite easily at Oxford and Cambridge (though not, say, at Strathclyde or Essex). Perhaps this is what led one academic to refer to Oxford as at once a centre of high-powered thought and a finishing school. Which role it has for any particular student becomes apparent when the time comes to leave. At Bristol University (one of the more prestigious) 3 per cent of graduates from one faculty declared themselves “not available for employment’’. For them, the garden parties held to celebrate their obtaining a degree can go on for the rest of the summer and the rest of their lives. For the rest, it will be the basic, inescapable condition of being a worker: they will have to find someone prepared to buy their labour power, and their fear is likely to be the opposite one of employment not being available for them. Being a highly educated worker is no proof against the dole queue, and this was illustrated by a recent report in The Times. Five hundred young people turned up for eight jobs in a clothes shop in Sheffield at £32.50 per week, and they included several with degrees.

In 1968 the year of phoney revolutions, universities in Britain and elsewhere were headline news. Though some thought the end of capitalism was at hand, the upheavals in them amounted only to civil disturbances, since they involved questioning only some aspects of capitalist society. They also fed the pernicious belief to be found in some left-wing circles that an intellectual elite is needed to produce a socialist revolution. Intellectuals, and especially left-wing intellectuals, should never be encouraged in their vice of exaggerating their own importance in that way. High intelligence and a brilliant mind can and do coexist with pathetic ignorance of the true nature of our political and social system. The workers by brain have no special insight, but they have no special immunity from social conditions either, and they will join forces with other workers when all finally realise where their class interest lies.

Bill Valinas