In February, the Annual Dearing Higher Education Conference 2012 was held at the University of Nottingham entitled The Business and Growth Benefits of Higher Education. At the meeting, the Director-General of the CBI, John Cridland, demanded that business does not only co-operate with universities in the setting-up of spin-off companies but that it should also be more closely involved in the actual shaping of university curricula. But should the training of future workers for industry, the city, and the knowledge economy in Britain really be the main preoccupation of higher education? The workshop ‘For a Public University’, recently organised by the local UCU association and supported by the Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice (CSSGJ), the Centre for Research in Higher, Adult & Vocational Education (HAVE), and the International Political Economy Group (IPEG) was a crucial counterweight to the interests of business on our university campuses. Significantly, it too was held at the University of Nottingham, on June 15, and raised some pressing issues as to whether universities should be generating profits for business or prophets for society.
John Cridland’s demand is, in many ways, symptomatic of wider developments in higher education both in Britain and around the world. In the UK, the introduction of tuition fees of up to £9,000, the related commodification of degrees, and the increasing focus on employability has gone hand-in-hand with salary cuts and the devaluation of USS pension benefits for staff members. These material concerns have been accompanied by a general devaluation of the academic profession as a whole.
Globally, a battle is being waged against students, academics, and the public service of education. In Canada, the premier of Quebec, Jean Charest, has announced that university tuition fees should be raised over the next five years leading to an increase of 60 percent sparking wide student protests. In Chile, across 2011 to 2012, massive student-led protests have sought more direct state participation in secondary education as well as an end to the existence of profit in higher education. After all, student tuition fees in the country account for 80 percent of spending on higher education and the protests have ‘presided over the biggest citizen democracy movement since the days of opposition marches to General Augusto Pinochet a generation ago’, according to the Guardian. In Australia, despite the University of Sydney recording a substantial surplus, management have proposed job cuts of up to 340 staff members. In 2012 the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) launched a campaign calling for management to rescind the planned cuts and to “invest in staff, not stones”. In the United States, Noam Chomsky has railed against the assault on public education, including sharp tuition fees coupled with cutbacks in services threatening to undermine the much-admired University of California state college and university system. In Britain, the 2010 protests against impending fees resulted in 50,000 students on the streets of London becoming subject to police brutality, leading prominent human rights lawyer, Michael Mansfield, to highlight that the riot squads were aimed at quashing political protest. The calls for the co-ordination of a global education strike across November 14-21, 2012 by a coalescing international student movement might be significant in binding such developments.
Within universities in the UK, the trade union experience in many institutions is that management informs the union with neither a consultation of the union’s views on these developments nor an attempt to negotiate over these changes. Ultimately, this is down to the way power is distributed within institutions. As long as local associations fail to mobilise their members more successfully to balance the power of management, the latter do not have to pay attention to the views of their workforce. Yet, even if a union was invited to negotiate changes, these negotiations would mainly focus on the shape of restructuring, not on how to do it differently. In order to achieve the latter, trade unions need to set the overall frame of reference. Demonstrations, strikes and negotiations with management are all necessary and important, but on their own they are not enough. Unions need a clear vision of what an alternative to the marketisation of education could look like. The formulation of what such an alternative vision might resemble was one of the objectives of the ‘For a Public University’ workshop.
In his essay on ‘Intellectuals and the Class Struggle’  in Revolutionaries, the renowned historian Eric Hobsbawm surveyed how university students were likely to form a permanent discontented mass providing movements of the left (and the radical right) with activists.
“In a sense the system which maintains vast numbers of young people for a few more years outside employment is a modern middle-class equivalent of the Old Poor Law of the early nineteenth-century: a concealed system of outdoor relief”.
Today, though, we are far from the aftermath of 1968 and the radicalisation of intellectuals, young or old, allied with the support of workers and other discontented strata. In deliberating how to support higher education as a public good accessible to all it is important to avoid the presumption of an assumed ‘Golden Age’. Yes, mass higher education made universities accessible to ever larger parts of society. But higher education also excluded the more marginalised members of society on the basis of race, class, and gender. Alternative visions for the public university also have to be aware of the new technological possibilities and dangers embedded in the increasing internationalisation of education. The public university of the twenty-first century will have new dimensions and it will look differently from mass higher education during the second half of the twentieth-century. What is, however, essential is heightened resistance against the commodification and marketisation of higher education in the first place. The workshop ‘For a Public University’ held at the University of Nottingham was one advance in this respect. Will it be supported?