No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Dr. Uncut - Research students analyse cuts in Higher Education

So far, the debate on the increase in tuition fees and cuts in Higher Education has focused mainly on the consequences for undergraduate students. We can all imagine the impact on undergraduates of being saddled with a debt that even the government admits most will not pay back, even over 30 years. However, the government’s vandal measures will have a knock-on effect far beyond that. We believe that the specific problems which will be faced by research students highlight the broader impact of cuts on the way that universities will (or won’t) work in future. For research students, the government’s attack on public universities will bring about a growth in tuition fees and an increase in job insecurity and labour casualization, and will make it virtually impossible to find a job in academia. This is the result of an ideological – not a pragmatic – stance, which views education as a commodity to be bought and sold, rather than a citizen’s right. We must unite and challenge this reduction of education to a marketable commodity. Let’s reassert the public, communal and social significance of our activity as free-thinking researchers! In the words of John Dewey: “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself."

Fees. At the moment, fees for postgraduate students are uncapped. Nevertheless, fees for PhD students are set at the same level almost everywhere, on the basis of the recommendations of the Research Councils. This means that British and EU research students are generally asked to pay some £3,300 a year, while fees for non-EU students can be around £12-15,000 a year. Notably, this amount more-or-less matches the fees set for undergraduate courses. It is very likely that an increase in the latter will result in an increase for postgraduate students as well. Furthermore, graduate fees will doubtless be further increased to soften the blow of the near-total loss of funding for all but a few areas of research. PhD students are a valuable resource to university departments, often contributing actively to the research community by publishing articles, presenting papers, doing research for their universities, and supporting full-time staff. The importance of research students to their host institutions is demonstrated by the fact that the number of successful research students and studentships awarded was one of the assessment criteria in the Research Assessment Exercise 2008. This reflected the fact that research students were a source of external funding, as well as providing income through fees. The economic value of PhD students to their university has led to pressure to take on ever-increasing numbers of doctoral researchers, with the result that the quality of provision suffers. Currently, postgraduate fees cover very little tuition, as the nature of PhDs means that doctoral students – particularly in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences – tend to study alone. Fees therefore cover supervision from an established academic and access to university facilities. While many supervisors work hard to ensure that their students get all the support they need, others have been pressured to take on more students than they are able to accommodate. This looks set to go from bad to worse as universities look for ways to cover the shortfall left by the funding cuts. In the very near future, students will be graduating from their first degree with almost £30,000 of debt from fees alone. The prospect of that debt more than doubling will deter all but a tiny minority from postgraduate study. As a result, academia will once again become an elitist bastion of privilege, inaccessible to all but the select few. This is a retrograde step that stifles aspiration and thwarts social mobility.

Labour casualization. Many PhD students are already employed as cheap labour, working as teaching assistants or sessional lecturers in their departments. Research students can be easily employed as low-cost replacements for full-time lecturers: a phenomenon that is already widespread in the United States. We have to be aware that in the coming years this situation will worsen as a result of the cuts. Universities will see in research students “throwaway” academics to employ temporarily in undergraduate teaching and then to get rid of once they complete their doctoral studies. It is true that teaching experience might be beneficial for research students in the long term; however, this is true only as long as there are work opportunities around. If teaching done by PhD students becomes a way to avoid recruiting lecturers, it is detrimental to PhD students themselves, as it substantially hinders their chance of getting a job after completing their PhDs. In general terms, lecturers working on a sessional/part-time basis have less protection, fewer rights and less stability than people working on full-time contracts. We need to make these linkages between job opportunities and teaching by research students very clear, so that we do not ourselves become instruments of university managements in their dirty battle to minimize the cost of labour.

Job opportunities. The 40% cut in university spending cannot but result in job redundancies all across the country. Entire departments and institutions will default and be forced to close down. According to the University and College Union, some 49 of England’s 130 universities are at risk of closing or being forced to merge as a result of the cuts. In addition, we already know that from 2012, UK universities will accept some 10,000 fewer students than in the past. This crisis will hit particularly those working in the Social Sciences, Arts and Humanities, areas that will experience a 100% cut in State support for teaching. As a result, many mid-career academics will be made redundant and forced to reapply for lower level positions. This will result in a “waterfall effect”, squeezing young researchers out of academia. At the moment, it seems that many of us have not yet realized the scope and implications of these measures. To state it very loudly and clearly: for researchers at an early stage of their career, it will be virtually impossible to get a job in academia in the coming years. It doesn't matter how brilliant you think you are, these cuts will affect everyone in HE – undergraduates, postgraduates and staff members. We must stop thinking that we can get through this thanks to individual skill or verve. The real struggle is not an individual competition to stand out among other researchers, but a collective struggle to defend publicly-funded universities and freedom of research. We are a generation of young researchers with no future ahead of us, if the government’s plans are implemented. If we really believe that what we are doing is worthwhile – not only in personal or economic, but also and mainly in societal terms – we have to say it now, and we have to say it loud.

In addition, these measures are very likely to discourage overseas students from embarking on research degrees in the United Kingdom. This goes against the recommendations made to the government by the independent report “One step beyond: making the most of postgraduate education”, which stressed that, “As other countries invest heavily in their own postgraduate provision, the UK will need to work hard to maintain its competitive advantage. This will mean doing more to strengthen and promote UK postgraduate education on an international stage and to attract the very best students from around the world.” It would be pleonastic to point out that this ambitious goal cannot be met by reducing funding to higher education and cutting employment prospects for UK-based research students.

Although the focus here is on research students, we explicitly refuse a corporatist approach to the problems facing academia. On the contrary, we consider the aforementioned issues to be part of a wider attack on people’s rights and the welfare state in Britain. This government is putting forward an ideological view of society in which private profit is the normative principle. This implies the criminalization of all those groups – such as unemployed or disabled people – whose very existence debunks the myth that a profit-led society is the most beneficial to its members. For academics, this also implies that in the future the freedom of research will be under threat, and entire “non-profitable” research areas will be shut. “Priorities” for research funding will be set by the Research Councils according to apparently neutral, economic – but actually ideological – criteria. Many of us will be easily portrayed as nothing more than idle scroungers, as a burden for society. Thus, we firmly believe that PhD students should take part in the general mobilization against government cuts, rather than isolating themselves. More specifically, we invite everyone to take part in the next student protest, which is supported by Unite and GMB and will take place on 29 January, and in the national March for the Alternative called by the Trades Union Congress on 26 March.

If they say cut back, research students say: fight back!

(this text has been written collectively by a group of research students involved in the campaign Never Send to Know for Whom the Bell Tolls. Phds Unite Against the Cuts!
It has to be treated under a Creative Common license BY-NC-SA 3.0)

Sunday, 12 December 2010

What's next - call for a cultural struggle

Despite mass protest all across the country, last Thursday the Parliament has approved the rise in tuition fees and the cuts on university funding. Despite the mobilization of thousands of students, workers and citizens, 28 Lib-Dems MPs have contributed to approving a bill they had no mandate to vote for. In Westminster Square, the police kettled and charged thousands of protesters for hours, some even till 11 pm. A young protester, Alfie Meadows, was severely injured and risked his life.

A sense of anger, if not disheartenment, arises naturally under these circumstances. Nevertheless, the movement was not defeated – actually, it won on several different points. First, the vote was much closer than it should have been. The parliamentary majority shrunk from 84 to 21 MPs – a very thin edge. This would have never happened without mass protest in the previous month. The most important, education has become a central issue in the public agenda. The ideas that cuts in education and a rise in tuition fees are inevitable and have to be accepted passively have been effectively challenged. Of course, one can still argue in favor of a rise in tuition fees. Differently from when the Browne report was issued a couple of months ago, however, one can no longer stifle the discussion by saying that this is necessarily how things must go. There has been too much opposition to these measures, and too many good points against them have been raised, to maintain the credibility of such a biased, surreptitious, ideological view.

As has been noted, the parliamentary battle is still not over. We can still ask those MPs who are more sensitive to our cause to present amendments in the next months. This, however, is not the main way out of this situation. We have to be aware that the fee rise has been possible because it is consistent with a greedy, individualistic, merciless view of society, for which education is considered a commodity rather than a right. This neoliberal “narrative” has brutalized Western societies in the last 30 years, bringing about increasing social inequality and undermining the fabric of society itself. We will not go anywhere if we do not challenge this narrative.

To do this, we have to keep asserting our presence, and our dissent, in the public space. We have to keep demonstrating and saying that this is happening “not in our name”. The march called in London on 20 December Is a good starting point.

The most important, we have to undermine the neoliberal narrative as such. To do this, we need to carry on our battle in the cultural field. We have to turn our anger and dissatisfaction in cultural forms – songs, videos, tales, writings, whatever can be disseminated among the general public – that give vent to and symbolize our dissent. Most of us are young, creative and are very familiar with the new media – we have to use these youthful skills in a revolutionary way. We have to be at the same time radical and trendy – this would help massively to gather consensus among other groups of society, and win our struggle.

In the cultural field, we have a huge advantage on our opponents. We have the skills to produce catchy cultural items and to spread them as widely as possible. We have the Internet, something that the previous generations of protesters did not have. As we have seen, Internet can help organize protest. It can also help massively to get our message through. Potentially, whatever we publish in the Internet is accessible to anyone, anywhere - without any need for formal politics or organizations. The web can help to build an alternative narrative in a spontaneous way, from the grassroots. We have to be original, catchy, subversive, and use this unvaluable resource in the most appealing way as possible to overcome the neoliberal discourse.

We need an alternative narrative. We can build it, both individually and collectively, and win our struggle – our struggle for cultural hegemony!

"One must speak for a struggle for a new culture, that is, for a new moral life that cannot but be intimately connected to a new intuition of life, until it becomes a new way of feeling and seeing reality"
Antonio Gramsci, Selections from cultural writings (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1985), p. 98

Thursday, 9 December 2010


today is the day-X.
what is at stake here is actually much more than the increase of tuition fees - a very relevant issue itself, indeed.
what is at stake here is the kind of society we want to live in in the next decades.
it is time to say stop to an idea of society based only on greed and unrestrained individualism.
it is time to say stop to this institutional politics that systematically betrays the interests of the majority of the citizens.
it is time to say stop to a world in which an elite of white, male, adult people educated at Eton and working in the City of London ask - better, try to force - the middle and the working class to pay the price of THEIR crisis.
this is not the kind of place I want to live but mainly...
... this is not the kind of society I want my children to grow up in!
it is for them, for the generations to come, that tomorrow I will stand up - peacefully, but firmly and loudly!
someone said that he would think twice before going to protest today.
if I were you, people of Britain, i would think twice before NOT going to protest today. it is time to take our future back!!!!

Friday, 3 December 2010

Open letter - against La Trahison des Clercs

This letter is for you, my dear academic colleague who are reluctant to support the student campaign against the rise in tuition fees and the attack on public university by the government of our country.

You think that many academics are not keen on seeing themselves as part of a Union;

you believe that many of us do not sympathize with the struggles of other groups;

you find that the anti-cuts movement is somewhat ideological and refers also to issues which are ‘ephemeral’.

In a sense, I am very grateful to you. In fact, I think that in the present situation these are exactly the issues that have to be addressed.

First, I am afraid that we academics are not going to go anywhere if we do not start questioning our middle-class, intellectual snobbery. We – and especially those who work in Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences – are one of the groups which will be hit most by the policies of this government. For several different reasons, linked to the devastating impact of the Browne review: because of job cuts; because students paying higher fees will be much more likely to behave as customers (with all the expectations on the staff that this implies); because our middle-class daughters and sons will be deeply affected by the rise in tuition fees. We are also one of the groups who have less societal sympathy surrounding us (exactly because of our tendency to live in a sort of snotty Ivory tower) and will be easily portrayed as a bunch of idle scroungers.

It is also time to question the lack of solidarity that academics share. The inability of sympathizing with other groups of workers is nothing but the result of widespread careerism, misconceived meritocracy (for which any of us in the end thinks that himself or herself is actually the main person entitled to benefit from it), unrestrained individualism. What kind of working conditions this mindset leads to is under the eyes of everyone, and one of the main reasons of this crisis. It is quite funny that those who believe to be the most critical minds within society are not able to be critical of the neoliberal propaganda they have been brainwashed with.

It is here that neoliberalism celebrates its own triumph. Its hegemonic rhetoric has been able to take over also those institutions and individuals who in principle should have worked as to undermine its power and build up a counter-hegemony. It is time to advocate again our role as critical thinkers, to put our critical thought into dissenting practice – and fight back!

The only way to deal with the present on public university to recognize that what is happening within university is part of a wider picture, which sees the crisis of post-war consensus and a massive attack on the middle and the working-class. Those academics who do not recognize this now will probably discover it brutally later, when it will be too late. I will not empathize with them, once they will have sunk with the whole boat without saying a word just because they were too busy looking at the distant skies of the Empyrean.

With very best wishes,

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Youth radicalism 2010

In 1930, the Communist thinker Antonio Gramsci wrote in his Prisons Notebooks that ‘the crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying, and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.’

The mass, radical demonstrations of young people in the last months have caught many by surprise. From Greece to France, from Italy to Britain, crowds of young women and men, often teenagers, have taken to the streets and protested against their governments. This protest has been mostly characterized by direct action and the refusal of political affiliation. In addition, young protesters have shot thousands of photos and videos to visualize their protest. By disseminating these images in the internet, young people have been able to tackle the official media representations of the protest and recount their stories by themselves. Unexpectedly, youth radicalism has become again one of the main issues in the political agenda. Reactions from politics and the public opinion have ranged from stereotypical scaremongering to open support. What has become clear very rapidly, however, is that the demands of young people can no longer be ignored.

What these protests tell us is that the new generations are not necessarily distant from politics, as generally argued. The real point here, is what we mean by politics. If politics is a party game played by a limited elite of white male adult upper class lads, young people are effectively distant from politics. If politics is the process of conflict and negotiation between different groups of society, the protest of young people is the most political act, for it is the way in which young people assert their public presence as a collective group. In this sense, the protest of young people is not simply occupation, but repossession of the public space by a "subaltern group" (subaltern for young people are not a constitutive part of the ruling class that decides upon their lives - the protest of schoolgirls and schoolboys who cannot vote and stand up against the rise of the tuition fees that the government wants them to pay is a case in point),

What students protest tells us is also that the narcotizing representation of society promoted by mainstream media, however hegemonial it is, cannot completely stifle conflict where the rifts between different groups of society become too evident (as in the case of tuition fees). In addition, the skill of young people in using the new commercial media (e.g. Facebook) and consumption object (e.g. iPhones) as a means to protest shows us how subaltern groups are never passive targets, but agents able at using the new consumption items to their own ends.

Of course, young people by themselves cannot save the world (differently from what the Italian writer Elsa Morante wrote on the spur of 1968 in her book Il mondo salvato dai ragazzini). First, they are far from being a homogeneous group. The most important rift is between those who are in education and those who are outside education, which is intertwined (but does not coincide) with class divisions. Among students, those who seem most militant seem to come from a middle-class background (especially where the parents work in the public administration) or from a working-class background. These young people are those who experience more directly the collapse of the post-war consensus – and of its “meritocratic” rhetoric based on personal improvement through education. Many students coming from a middle class background know that they will be asked to work more, in more insecure conditions, and with less (or no) welfare insurances as compared to their parents. Students coming from a working-class background are aware that the reform of the school and university system will thwart the possibility for working-class teenagers (e.g. their siblings) to improve their social condition through education (as themselves are trying to do).

A new “political generation” arises when a group of young people enter collectively the public arena on the basis of a new, pervasive and urgent issue. This issue becomes the defining trait of the political identity of those young people. For the 1917 generation of Communists, for example, that issue was revolution; for the 1945 generation of resistance fighters, that issue was Antifascism; for the 1968 generation, that issue was the Vietnam war and anti-authoritarism. It is too early to say whether we can speak of a 2008-2010 generation. In case, we might probably speak of a “generation of the crisis”. The real point, here, is what the term crisis refers to. So far, the Western governments have tried to turn a crisis of the financial economy into a crisis of the welfare state, of public education, of all the remnants of social justice inherited from the Keynesian era. If young people and all the other groups who are affected by these policies are able to form a new “historical bloc” and fight back, however, the meaning of the term might shift into “crisis of neoliberalism”. This would be the best legacy that the 2008-2010 generation might bequeath to the generations to come.