The ‘reality’ of ideology and the struggle for the university

One of Trinity’s Provostial (presidential) candidates, Colm Kearney, hits the nail on the head in his manifesto when he says:

“Our current situation is thus:

  • We face a projected deficit of €80-100 million by 2015.
  • The government provides 90% of College’s funding, and will not change its funding model to suit Trinity College.

Once we accept this reality, we can put in place the appropriate response.”

This is the central idea that governs the present crisis of the university, the idea that reality is fixed and unchangeable and consists in one thing: the withdrawal of state funding and the consequent budget deficit. Don’t think about it, just accept. Everything else is secondary when faced with this ‘reality’. If we don’t ‘accept this reality’ we are naive dreamers. If we do, we can get to work and start coming up with all manner of ‘creative’ and ‘innovative’ solutions.

The question of the university thus becomes one about whether or not we accept this reality. In this context, several points become central.

  1. Reality is political and never ‘objective’. In the present situation, the absence of public money doesn’t reflect an objective situation but rather a specific set of readily identifiable priorities: the state has decided to prioritize the financial system, international investors and property speculators above all else. It has put our future, and the future of all our public services, down as collateral on an insane loan to do this.
  2. Money is not some kind of natural resource like water, and humans are not naturally subjected to its comings and goings, its rainy seasons and droughts. Money is made by humans, it develops value through the subjective meaning we attach to it and it reflects social relations. Money above all else expresses the domination of capital. Today the clearest example of this is the international credit ratings agencies. When a state cuts the minimum wage its credit rating is likely improve. If we increase minimum wage, hey presto, it costs more money for us to borrow, or , in other words, our money is worth less. Whenever equality and freedom are attacked the markets read this as a positive sign that government’s are taking the ‘tough decisions’. This is a power relation. What we lack, in dealing with it, is not money but politics. The problem is not the absence of money, but the absence of anything but money.

‘Accepting this reality’ (as described by Kearney) means accepting the domination of capital. It is to accept that the State is undermining every independent and egalitarian element of our society (health care, community development, citizenship, worker’s rights and a long etc.) It is ultimately to accept that the university is subordinated to the economy.

The pragmatism we are encouraged to take up, as if it were some kind of call to arms, is simply servility. The pragmatic abandoning of all principle and ideology is today’s paramount principle and ideology. No one actually believes in capitalism, no one is willing to defend it. It’s just a reality that we have to accept.

The response today has to be a ‘ya basta’ (enough!)- a pure and simple refusal to accept the ‘reality’ we are presented    with. From an aggressive negation of this ‘reality’ can begin to emerge not just a belief but a material and subjective alternative, a movement in which economics is subordinated to living knowledge and to equality.

This is the challenge that confronts the student movement and anyone concerned with education today: to negate the fatalism of the pragmatist and to create the alternative within a movement, within a living network which gives value to the generation and sharing of knowledge. This means taking over teaching and learning, reappropriating them as free and equal activities. The university is not their’s to destroy- it’s time to take it back.


Mick O’Broin

The ‘porous’ university

There is a growing consensus that we need to find new ways of generating wealth. Sites and activities we may once have cherished as ‘independent’ or ‘autonomous’ become willing or unwilling agents in evolving mechanisms of capture and appropriation. One area where this is emerging is the university. Previously understood as the ‘ivory tower’ it was sheltered from the shifting demands of the market. As resources decline and global competition grows it must now find ways of situating itself within new networks of value. What is quietly transpiring is a fundamentally new type of institution. As the university slowly adapts as a hub for the ‘creative’ economy it must develop new relations with the city it once rejected.

In 2009 Dermot Desmond launched his new ‘philanthropic’ project: ‘Cultural Odyssey: Creating a Global University for Culture and the Performing arts’. Desmond proposed a global university based in Ireland which would become a hub for culture and the arts. It would be connected by the internet, and thus open to all, but based in a number of affiliate institutions that could hold events and real-world encounters. The online manifesto states: “Our ambition is to make the expertise and experience of universities in Ireland and around the world accessible to greater numbers of students. Equipped with the intelligence and reach of the Global Hub, we will broker the provision of modules from existing higher education providers. We shall do so by identifying demand and matching it to suppliers. This will provide new streams of income and new markets to participating institutions.

Desmond’s proposal is to ‘disrupt the current model’ of university education. What dictates this shift from the ‘traditional’ university to the ‘porous’ university? Desmond’s analysis, as usual, is accurate: the current university model is not sustainable. Even before the state decided to re-channel resources from public institutions to banks and speculators the writing was on the wall. Demand now far outstrips supply. The cost to a heavily burdened state of providing ‘traditional’ university education in Ireland alone is 428 million euro a year. Already the government and the universities have accepted the necessity of re-introducing fees as massive cuts to core funding are set to continue. As ‘traditional’ education becomes obsolete, new demands and opportunities arise. Currently these opportunities, and precisely how they can produce value, are hard to quantify: knowledge and creative output are not as easy to gauge as the production of cars or grain. One part of the institutional shift is the need to develop more efficient ways of identifying and capturing the wealth of ‘untapped’ creativity that flows through the university and the city.

What makes Desmond’s university for the arts and culture so special is that it is a not- for- profit organisation. Unlike existing universities that are being attacked for the re-introduction of fees in order to ‘survive’ Desmond can present his model as a benign, philanthropic charity encouraging the ‘best of humanity’. Fees will not be charged, state of the art facilities will be free to those who qualify on merit of their work. Money will be generated through the creation of a new brand. The aim is to create an institution like RADA or Julliard and from this brand to create connections and alliances with other institutions, spaces, activities and resources so as to build a thriving network of creativity; a constant circulation of ideas and innovation. Income will be generated by spin off projects that are be promised by such a rich concentration of creative thinking matched by the growing demand for new ‘experiences’.

Already this year, backed by artists, writers and academics, the project has a proposal to acquire the Grangegorman buildings as part of Dublin Institute of Technology. Taking up a permanent place in Bolton St. would allow the centre to develop vital connections with other institutions (including other universities) in the city and the country. Suggestions for the use of heritage houses and empty spaces (after the collapse of the property market) are made in terms of regenerating the area and developing on the already rich and successful tradition of residency programmes. These alliances would give the “incentive for the creation of a new bohemian quarter around Bolton Street and Henrietta Street, spreading towards the Liffey like a slow tributary tide, spawning galleries, studios, workshops, cafés, meeting places, exchanges and interactions of all kinds.”




Desmond is not the only one exploiting new possibilities in the provision of education and the economic value associated with it. Trinity College and UCD have been fomenting relations for several years now as they harbour ambitions of developing a united university ‘brand’. A central part of this is the idea of the university as part of a ‘creative ecosystem’ within the city.

Last year Trinity commissioned a report, ‘Creativity, the City and the University’ which identified the ‘knowledge’ city as the bedrock of the ‘smart’ economy. A ‘Cultural Policy Research Group’ is examining the ‘role of student extracurricular activity and its potential links to the university and city’, with a report due in May. A new post of ‘cultural co-ordinator’ has been established to develop and strengthen links between the university and other cultural institutions in Dublin. The example they are hoping to imitate is Columbia University in New York which had the mission of making ‘all of Manhattan our campus’.

University managers have been complaining for years about the difficulties of maintaining quality and competitive third level education without any new investment. They have been amongst the first calling for the re-introduction of fees as the only ‘rational’ thing to do. As blame for the abandonment of third level education is placed at the feet of an incompetent state these institutions are already thinking within a global context, fighting to ensure they can hold their own in an increasingly desperate struggle for resources: competing for quality lecturers who bring the promise of research funding, for international students who pay inflated tuition fees, for funding from the state, the EU and private investors, for contracts in the development of commercial knowledge for industries such as pharmaceuticals and gaming technology. The consensus that the market is our only reality becomes evident when our education is subordinated to this constant demand to ‘adapt’ to the irrationalities of global competition.

‘Creativity’ has the benefit of appearing as universally positive and benign. But it is clear that it is an intrinsic part of an emerging consensus on the future of the university, the city and the economy. The ‘creative’ university, in the ‘creative’ city, is not just the avant-garde of capitalism; it is also the emergence of a new form of institutionality, one that makes familiar distinctions between the ‘inside’ and the ‘outside’ impossible. When students stormed the university walls in 1968 their mission was to liberate new desires, to create a university open to all. Now we are faced with the prospect of a monstrous institution that is attempting to do just that. The institution becomes the instrument of market logic, enclosing more areas of the city, extending the consensus.

But our creativity remains our power, emerging from our thoughts, our desires and our relationships. Creativity is our commons. The question is how to turn this power into counter-institutional power, resistance that works against the consensus. To begin with we need to stop thinking so positively. We need to refuse the happy consensus on creativity. We need to resist being part of the solution. We need to develop a new counter-culture borne out of a negation of the emerging status quo. We need to claim spaces and activities of antagonism, ‘unaesthetic’ alliances and collaborations that challenge the limited and exclusive vision of the ‘creative’ city.

P. Bresnihan


The university-factory?

The relationship between the university and capitalism is the key to the politics of 3rd level education. But the nature of this relationship is far from clear. We are perhaps familiar with the argument that neo-liberalism has eroded the idea of ‘the public’ while advancing the logic of the market in all directions. As far as the university goes this usually means two things. First, 3rd level education has become a commodity more than a right. This takes the form of increasing registration fees, the threatened reintroduction of full fees, but also the corporate logic which pervades university management structures and treats students as ‘consumers’. Secondly, and related to the last point, the management of the university today resembles that of a business, with output target’s, measurements of productivity, proliferating bureaucratic control, and an emphasis on competition both within the university and in the global academic rat race.

Taken as a whole, this amounts to a general subordination of the university to capitalist production. However, there is another analysis, more dominant particularly in Italy, which conceptualizes the relationship between the university and capitalism differently. This perspective, associated with writers like Antonio Negri, Andrea Fumagali, Christan Marazzi and Maurizio Lazarato, argues that the university is directly a site of capitalist production.

The argument here involves a historical analysis of the development of European capitalism which sees fordist productiongiving way to post-fordist or immaterial production. In response to the power of the workers movement as well as the new social movements around 1968, capitalist production shifted from the centrality of mass manufacturing or industrial production to immaterial production, i.e. services, information, culture, desire, communication etc. In this context knowledge is no longer something separate from work or exploitation. Much of this analysis derives from an interpretation of a passage from Marx’ Grundrisse, usually referred to as the ‘fragment on machines’. This passage argues that within capitalist production the role of knowledge, primarily but not exclusively scientific knowledge, is steadily increasing. As such Marx predicts that what he calls the ‘general intellect’, the overall and collective social knowledge, will increasingly emerge as a ‘direct force of production’.

One of the interesting things about this analysis, especially as developed by Italian Autonomist politics, is the argument that capitalist production has extended outside the workplace across the entire social space. Under this form of capitalism the nature of exploitation changes in important ways. Most significantly, production no longer takes place within a factory controlled by the capital. Production can take place wherever people share knowledge, transmit information, generate ideas and so on (the internet being the paradigmatic example). Rather than the disappearance of the factory, it is perhaps better to understand this as the emergence of the ‘social factory’, in which the basic fabric of social life becomes productive in itself. This production is then ‘captured’ by capital.

In some instances it seems like the establishment have been quicker to grasp this shift in production than the radical left has. Mary Coughlin, former Minster for Enterprise Trade and Employment, talks of ‘the capacity to capture and transform…ideas…into commercial reality” while Brian Cowen celebrates the progress made in “capturing, protecting and commercialising ideas and know-how”. As Hardt and Negri argue in their latest book, Commonwealth, this type of capitalism resembles what Marx called ‘primitive accumulation’ or ‘accumulation by expropriation’. In other words, capital pillages collective immaterial wealth. Just as the enclosure of common lands in the 18th century was a form of capitalist accumulation, today capital ‘encloses’ knowledge, innovation, creativity and so on. Patenting and copyright are the clearest example here. When a company patents a scientific innovation, the centuries of collective human experience and learning that underpin that innovation are appropriated and privatised.

This has implications both for how we understand the transformations taking place in the university and in terms of how we understand the struggle against them. First of all, if knowledge becomes a direct force of production this means that the neo-liberal managerialism mentioned above is more about controlling production than eroding public services. The neo-liberal attack on the university is not just a symptom of anti-working class politics, but an element of a transformation in the form of capitalist production.

The second implication of this analysis relates to struggles at the university. These struggles are no longer about defending public services but direct struggles against capitalist production, analogous to the factory based struggles of the 20the century. Reappropriating the university becomes a 21st century version of taking control of the means of production. Moreover, the traditional distinction between ‘workers’ and ‘students’ looses relevance: if the university is a factory than students are workers, in the sense that they are figures of production, they are part of the productive web of contemporary capitalism.

The two analyses described here are the dominant ones in terms of the radical university movements in Europe, and they have relatively different prominence in different countries. Whereas UK groups or our own Free Education for Everyone are more likely to talk about defending public services and education as a right, Italian and Spanish movements are more likely to talk about occupying the university as a ‘strike’ against ‘cognitive capitalism’. Organisations like the UniNomada in Spain, Bartelby in Bologna or the transnational collective edu-factory are promoters of the second analysis. Most of the student movement in the UK seems to be more oriented towards the first. Indeed, on February 13th-15th student movements from around the world met in Paris to talk about organising a European wide student movement against austerity, and some of the differences between the various analytical perspectives were evident. That said, it would be wrong to treat this as some kind of ideological schism.

Whatever your take, the relationship between the university and capitalism, as well as the relationship between knowledge and production, will continue to be definitive issues.


Mick O’Broin

Kathleen Lynch on Neoliberalism

This article is based on a paper delivered by Prof.  Kathleen Lynch (Equality Studies Centre, UCD) at the European Conference on Educational Research in 2005.

It deals with the neo-liberalisation of higher education as well as the role of adacemics as public intellectuals in creating a ‘counter-hegemonic’ discourse.

Research and Innovation in Trinity College Dublin

The Rationale

An article in today’s Irish Times supplment ‘Innovation’ has the title: ‘Fewer universities with one big brand leader known as the University of Ireland is in the wider national interest’

Sean Flynn, the journalist, writes: “Reducing the number of universities and building up one university to be a real global leader would transform the situation. It would give us a much better prospect of delivering new jobs and it would raise our international profile immeasurably.”

Flynn writes that a meeting two years ago between UCD , Trinity College and the Cowen adminstration attempted to bring this about:  “The logical step, they argued, was for a full merger of UCD and Trinity, pooling the best of both in a reshaped institution that would glide onto any list of the best universities in the world.”

They compromised with current UCD-TCD Innovation Alliance. But the rationale remains.

Read the article here.

For more about the Innovation Alliance.