Revolutionary U

Revolutionary U

Jeffrey Williams: Revolutionary U

Edu-factory is a new group trying to revolutionize higher education. It is a relatively small, web-based collective (around 500 on its list) but casts an international net. It began as a listserv of those doing radical criticism of higher education and has since published a book (Toward a Global Autonomous University), developed a journal (see, and sponsored occasional ?days of action,? calling for strikes among students and faculty in universities. Its organizers are largely European-based, intellectually coming out of the Italian autonomist movement and historically spurred by something called the Bologna Process.

The Bologna Process sounds as if it might be a political thriller at your local theater, but it?s an agreement of forty-six European countries oriented toward standardizing college degrees. It?s not an act of the EU, but it arises from work issues in the EU. In many ways, its goal sounds reasonable?European universities have a cacophony of regulations and degree requirements, in contrast to the U.S. system, which is more uniform and translatable, particularly after the credit hour was formalized in the early twentieth century. But Edu-factory sees the Bologna Process as instrumentalizing higher education, operating in the interests of capitalism rather than learning, particularly in its focus on assessment and ?outcomes? and its orientation toward the vocational use of a degree.

The chief intellectual coordinates of Edu-factory come from the Italian autonomist movement and its theorists. These probably have the most influence in the United States through Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri?s sequence of books, beginning with Empire (2000). One key concept is ?the commons,? which private concerns continually try to enclose for their own profit. The goal, then, is to take back the commons for the use of all. Hardt and Negri invoke the commons rather than the public, which they see as compromised, yoked to current capitalism. Finally, Hardt and Negri find hope in the ?multitude? taking power, a term they use rather than the ?masses,? which, like the public, is already defined by capitalism.

One of the insights of the autonomists is that most work now tends to be ?immaterial labor,? a term defined by Mauricio Lazzarato (see Radical Thought in Italy [1996]). It represents the change over the past century from producing physical objects in a factory to more ?creative? tasks and cognitive products. In Hardt and Negri?s reformulation: ?Since the production of services results in no material and durable good, we define the labor involved in this production as immaterial labor?that is, labor that produces an immaterial good, such as a service, a cultural product, knowledge, or communication.? For Hardt and Negri, this is part of the general shift in the mode of production, from agricultural to industrial to ?informatization.?

The strength of Edu-factory theorists has been to bring this framework to bear on higher education, showing how the university is not an ivory tower but a central institution of contemporary capitalism and the knowledge economy. Their goal is for the university to become an organic outgrowth of the commons. This would, in Hardt and Negri?s words, ?provide the potential for a kind of spontaneous and elementary communism.?

We need more proposals for radical change in higher education. One danger in the current ?crisis? is that we are pushed back on our heels and only demand minor adjustments to structural changes. While I would be for saving a lecturer?s job in my own department, for instance, we need to think of and put in place the goal of full employment for all qualified teachers, rather than the exploitive, bipartite academic labor system we now have. So I am for Edu-factory?s effort to rethink higher education from the ground up.

But I have a few problems with their mode of proceeding. First, they are often inordinately abstract; they tend to make manifesto-like statements rather than local analyses or practical proposals. There is a way in which people, when they talk about the university, talk about the idea of the university, and expect that, if one changes the idea, the rest will follow. It thus becomes a kind of Hegelian Idee overarching the particular institutions we have. The university, however, is a historical institution, and the American institution has its own distinct history. (I address this in ?History as a Challenge to the Idea of the University,? in JAC [2005].)

Because they see the university as a broad idea, the Edu-factory cohort talks about the university as a global institution. It is of course right to point out that some of the changes besetting the university are not localized but apply globally, just as capitalism is global. But much of higher education is still primarily a national project, with entrenched national histories, traditions, forms, and structures of governance. The U.S. university has, for instance, a much different history than that of its European cousins: it has largely been a tuition-based rather than state-funded institution, which has enabled an astronomical rise in student debt over the past three decades. The European system really does not have this problem since most schools have charged no or comparatively small tuitions and fees. So student debt is a much more pressing issue in the United States and has much more severe consequences than in most other countries.

I also think that we now need to intervene in policy. The economist Bruce Chapman, for instance, has had a good deal of positive effect in helping develop ?income contingent loans? for students in Australia, in a far better repayment system than the one we have here. The Edu-factory group would probably see this as reformist rather than revolutionary, and thus dismiss it as compromised. But before the multitude reclaims the commons, I?ll still throw my vote and time to initiatives like income contingent loans and the Labor Party?s program for Free Higher Ed. We cannot lose sight of the material effects on people?s day-to-day lives.