April 30, 2009

It's our history

by Mark Hailwood

In recent weeks a debate has been stirring on campus about the role business plays in higher education. Professor Alex Callinicos, visiting the Warwick PPE Society, gave a talk about the neoliberalisation of higher education, and warned of the dangers inherent in ‘the systematic subordination of higher education to competition’. This was followed up by an exchange in the Boar (10/03/2009) over whether big business and private sector money has any legitimate place in higher education. Whilst this debate has become more prominent in the current economic climate, it has been at the very centre of the University of Warwick’s history and identity from its foundation in 1965.

Only five years into its life, the university was the subject of a damning critique in a book entitled Warwick University Ltd, edited by one of the most prominent academics ever to work here – the historian Edward Thompson. The book demonstrated how the interests of business and industry had driven the direction and development of the university from its inception, with several unsavoury side effects. The provision of an appropriate social space within which an academic community could flourish was constantly rejected by the controlling powers; manipulation of the committee system served to limit the role staff and students could play in the decision-making processes of a supposedly democratic institution; and, most disconcertingly of all, the political activities and affiliations of staff and students were monitored and, in at least one case, used as grounds to reject admission to the university. Many contemporary students and staff were well aware that these issues were part of much broader problem: ‘What was wrong was the whole concept and structure of the University. The ideals of academic excellence and the pursuit of knowledge had to be reasserted over the aims of the “Business University”’.[1]

And yet, despite this desire of many to shift the balance in this clash of interests between academic excellence and big business, the latter has continued to dominate the development of the university. By the late 90s Warwick’s reputation as the ‘Business University’ was as strong as ever, and it claimed to rival Oxford and Cambridge in its ability to secure private sector funding. The students of the time were less impressed: ‘On an educational level, it’s not living up to what I expected. It’s more “This is a business”, and we’re part of that business. There are lots of facilities but they seem to spend more time on research and impressing conference guests.’[2] The warnings offered by Callinicos suggest that the detrimental effects of business models on academic output and quality of teaching may be about to get even worse.

There is, however, another history to be told. Running alongside the university’s reputation as the ‘Business University’ is a history of radicalism and protest. In 1970 students responded to the university’s neglect of their interests with direct action, staging a famous sit-in at the Registry. Edward Thompson was a member of the academic staff at the time, and a supporter of the actions of the students as well as a radical in his own right, combining academic research with committed activism, especially within the CND. His research also left a radical legacy, and his work on the history of popular protest launched a generation of historians prepared to challenge established – and often elitist – academic orthodoxies. And this alternative history and identity of Warwick, like its ‘Business University’ counterpart, continues to be reflected on campus today. It is memorialised in the painting of Kevin Gately, who died at a protest opposing the National Front in 1974, and persists in events such as the Gaza sit-in, the campaign against the arms trade, and even, perhaps, in the award of the Warwick Prize for Writing to Naomi Klein. All these count as examples of the continuing vibrancy of this alternative identity of Warwick as a centre of protest and radicalism.

These two contrasting trends in Warwick’s history are summed up in a question posed by Thompson in 1970: ‘Is it inevitable that the university will be reduced to the function of providing, with increasingly authoritarian efficiency, pre-packed intellectual commodities which meet the requirements of management? Or can we by our efforts transform it into a centre of free discussion and action, tolerating and even encouraging “subversive” thought and activity, for a dynamic renewal of the whole society within which it operates?’[3] This question is perhaps even more relevant now than it was then, as the role of business and markets in higher education, and the detrimental impact they have on our society at large, comes under increasing scrutiny in the face of economic meltdown. The answer to Thompson’s question, and the answer to which trend in Warwick’s history and identity will represent it’s future, will be determined by how actively the present students and staff respond to this crucial historical moment.

[1] E.P. Thompson (ed), Warwick University Ltd: Industry, Management and the Universities (Harmondsworth, 1970).
[2] The Independent (07/06/1998).
[3] E.P. Thompson (ed), Warwick University Ltd: Industry, Management and the Universities (Harmondsworth, 1970), p.166.

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