Radical Universities

While universities are stereotypically seen as hotbeds of radicalism, particularly of a left-wing type, the bureaucracy and fake democracy that sits within most universities doesn’t really fit this mould. Most real power-holders in university (deans, chancellors and the heads of bureaucratic committees) aren’t elected and have little contact with the general student body, as well as the professors and researchers. Thus the students unions also become stunted, taken over by radical leftists who launch programmes or campaigns that bare little relevance to students’ issues, or they become quagmires of wannabe politicians who see this as a CV booster. Issues of accommodation, living costs, study spaces and class times, as well as the wider problems of the neoliberalisation of universities by cutting ties to local communities in which these universities are located, attracting international investment at the expense of local investment and student experience and denigrating certain degrees so as to favour more income-intensive ones, are ignored by the universities power-holders.

One of the main issues that creates this is the disconnect between students and certain faculty and the wider ‘owners’ of the university who make the actual funding decisions. Thus funding decisions are made on the basis of profitability and student intake. The hierarchical structure that creates this pushes students into the role of consumers, looking for careers in high-paid service sector jobs or as engineers on an international scale.

Another element that creates this structure is the funding of universities. The majority of universities in most Western countries are public, and even private ones have large state subsidies that recreate the situation of public universities. The state in the modern context is the protector and maintainer of capital. It subsidises it, provides it markets and so on. In the case of students, this means creating student-consumers who can be turned into productive, upper echelon service workers. The idea of university being a centre for higher culture as, Scruton describes it, and an institution that works within elements of a market but not being encompassed by the market has come to an end. In its place we see bureaucratised environments removed from the reality of their communities.

Rothbard recognised such a process. In Confiscation and the Homestead Principle, Rothbard rubbishes the idea of actual private property within modern capitalist relations. Rather, the property of large corporations and universities are subsidised via stolen funds. The real owners are the ones actually using it. The chancellors and deans of universities are illegitimate controllers as the real owners of the university are the students and faculty.

What this means is that modern university structures are illegitimate and put the student into a marginalised position. Real concerns are ignored in favour of the concerns of venture capitalists and large investors. However it needn’t be this way. I propose a radical re-envisioning of university governing structures. Instead of student unions and bureaucratic committees, funds are decentralised to working committees, made up of students and faculty. Each department would have one, with decisions on funding being made by each committee, drawing up a plan, which then goes to a university wide body delegated by each working committee who agree or amend the plans, send them back with approval or not, and then split all the universities’ funds into each department. Alongside the teaching departments’ committees, there would also be extracurricular funding committees and housing committees, covering the gamut of real student issues. The ideas that encompass this come from Pat Devine and Hahnel and Albert’s ideas of participatory economics. Decentralised planning committees are developed to decide on collective funding issues, with each group having a stake and a say relative to it. This system gets rid of bureaucratic backwash and the neoliberal environment of universities, and instead empowers students on real issues with real solutions.

Alongside this reinvention inside the university, the university’s reaction to the outside community needs to change. I’ve written before that the economies of scale seen today are inefficient, and the role of the state is to maintain them. Thus in a stateless or near-stateless society, economies of scale would significantly decentralise without transport and communication subsidies, and the massive competition unleashed by varied actors in local and regional markets by the removal of top-down regulatory apparatuses and entry barriers, which would make large corporates redundant as economic players. Universities would thus lose quite a large chunk of the funding they get, as it comes from large corporates and capitalist investors. To maintain funding levels, universities would have to re-engage and invest in their communities.

Let’s take the example of my university, Warwick. It has large engineering and mathematics faculties, with large investment from manufacturing corporations. However, it provides little investment in Coventry (the city it is situated in). This is because it doesn’t have to. Coventry once was a manufacturing mecca but since the 70s its been slowly destroyed. In its place are low-paid service sector jobs and high unemployment. However, under the system of stateless, freed markets, entrepreneurs from any background could start up small companies and factories in cheap accommodation or even their own home. With this, the University of Warwick could provide necessary human capital in the way of graduating students, and the general business and democratic community (the commercial commons) could provide the funds necessary to run the university and pay the costs of student education. Thus you get two benefits: no tuition fees and guaranteed employment placements for students, or even the easy opportunity of starting a business due to the low overhead costs and easier access to capital.

Now this is fine for students of science and engineering and even business, but what of social sciences like politics or sociology. Well within systems of freed markets, there is no reason why we wouldn’t see forms of adhoc democracy and civil society action occurring on a frequent basis. Instead of think tanks and charities all being in capital cities and large metropolises, they would begin to develop sites of resistance all over a region or locality. So the provision of jobs for students of the social sciences also increases.

What this does is it places the university back into the place of an institution of education and community provision, rather than a simple market actor. It interacts with local markets, but it wouldn’t be controlled by them. This radical conception of a university is one of many things libertarians and anarchists should be fighting for. It fits their ideas of decentralisation and ground-up institutions. Students and the faculty become the masters of their own destiny, rather than it being controlled by internal bureaucracies and the facelessness of neoliberal corporate statism.

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