By Jonny Mundey
"Emancipatory politics must always … make what was previously deemed to be impossible seem attainable" (Mark Fisher)
Students often think they are at the cutting edge of political change, but could that actually ring true in the context of the general election? Arguably, taking a look at higher education is a useful way of getting a purchase on Corbyn’s achievement. Many political and philosophical undercurrents swirl beneath the numbers that make up the extraordinary snap-election result. None may be as significant as the sense that those supporting Corbyn’s Labour did so in part to see public services run in service of the public good, not the profit motive. This challenges free market orthodoxies that have been masquerading as plain old common sense for decades. Private is efficient, choice equals freedom, competition drives excellence. Really? Voters are no longer convinced. What is normal, i.e. considered common sense. What ‘the voting public will accept’ - has changed. In fact, to paraphrase Mark Fisher, what was previously ‘presented as necessary and inevitable’ has been revealed to be “a mere contingency”.
Labour argued that the institutions that provide healthcare and education in the UK are not compatible with market thinking and this has resonated with voters. For many the defence of the NHS is the prime example, but another policy stood out amongst Labour’s pledges; the promise to abolish university tuition fees. This surely contributed to the surge in support for Labour amongst younger voters, but the argument behind this pledge is just as crucial: not all services can be run like a business.
Students hit the papers last week for just showing up at the polls. That is a welcome development (when I was studying in Manchester a few years ago there was widespread dismay the day after a BNP MEP was elected, partly it seemed due to low student turnout). That said, the figure of the student has been politicised in a broader sense. The ‘marketisation’ of higher education in recent years has seen students recast as consumers. This has been narrated as a good thing by successive governments (even while part-time student numbers have dropped by 56% since 2010 and arts and humanities courses have been cut across UK universities).
What the application of free market principles to higher education fails to acknowledge is that knowledge is a public good, not a consumer product. You cannot reduce the value of a degree to the future salary accruing to an individual student, because higher education provides more than training for a well-paid job. Universities can and should provide a space in society where thinking critically and deeply is recognised as a good in itself. Everyone in a democratic society is a thinker. This is something that the Corbyn campaign appeared to fully grasp in the emphasis placed on universal access to education. If we want to be part of an egalitarian society that is resilient enough to take on the frenetic, polyphonic, accelerating reality of 2017, it will pay to recognise the support shown last week for putting the public good before the market. Higher education is a test case for this.
Jonny Mundey is co-founder of The IF Project