Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Marxism and Higher Education

In their continuing quest to ensure a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of rich people and their families, the Browne report, released yesterday, gives the Tories and LibDems the green light to dismantle higher education provision in this country and let the market take over. There's commentary and opinion here, here, and here.

Again, for all of Saint Vince's
faux reluctance the government's enthusiasm for dismembering the university system and organising it along the lines of the oh-so successful American model is justified by the deficit. Once again it is the cover for an experiment in neoliberal social engineering. And like similar policies in the past, and quite apart from the social consequences, the effect this could have on the profile of British capitalism is potentially catastrophic. In his recent book, The Writing on the Wall: China in the 21st Century, Will Hutton argued that the key advantage Western economies have over China is their 'soft' cultural and institutional infrastructure, on which successful capitalist economies depend. As technological innovation, entertainment, knowledge and other forms of "intangible" commodities become more important for global capitalist production the greater the advantage accruing to those countries with large further and higher education sectors. From the standpoint of British capital, the government's attack on higher education threatens the preeminent place it occupies in the global knowledge economy. While science and advanced manufacturing are to be protected by subsidy, the so-called soft subjects which sustain strategically important entertainment and creative industries, as well as providing the kinds of transferable analytical skills essential for any advanced economy are threatened by the government's reckless plans. In plain economic terms, market share and billions of pounds are at risk.

One argument advanced by opponents of free HE, whether Liberal, Labour or Tory is how unfair it is for the poor to subsidise the education of people who, on average, will earn far more over their working lives (curiously, the logic of this argument is never deployed in relation to corporation tax cuts and tax breaks for business). This is an example of bourgeois
economism, of deploying a "common sense" that appears to stand up for the economically weak while reinforcing a socially regressive agenda.

If you want to get all Marxist about it - and I do - capital gains far more from a well educated workforce than the economic rewards accruing to individual workers. As regular readers and anyone with a passing acquaintance with Marx know, the ultimate source of profit lies in the difference between the amount of money paid out as a wage (determined by what is necessary to reproduce a worker at a historically and socially given physical and cultural level) and the total wealth they generate over the course of the working week - this difference accruing to the employer. From this perspective, qualifications serve to make available workers with certain sets of skills to fill particular niches in the social division of labour. Regardless of their wage, salaries and other privileges, graduates are as economically exploited as any other section of the working class.

Until the abolition of free education by Tony Blair, HE funding from general taxation reflected this (to an extent). Capital profits from a well educated workforce, and so capital paid. Under the Tory/LibDem-endorsed Browne report, capital will will receive all of those benefits without having to pay for the cost - in effect, students will be picking up the tab and subsidising their future employers.

As with any other measure being pushed by the Tories and LibDems, it is a statement of intent. It can be stopped by mobilising as wider a coalition as possible against the cuts. If, as the political elite like to think, a new spirit of cooperation and working together is abroad, then let our movement be the repository of it. Let us turn their slogan of 'all in it together' into our own. Students, public sector workers, the elderly, parents, public-dependent private businesses: this is the vast constituency the government are determined to clobber. It is the labour movement's challenge to bring it together and give it shape and a sense of direction. Because if we don't, these counter-reforms, this decimation of the social wage is a recipe for generations of misery. It's not much, but where HE is concerned there is a march on 10th November. Details


Boffy said...


I agree with all this. There are questions, as I've raised elsewhere though concerning now, and a socialist society.

1. In both cases there are limited resources. Choosing to use them in one way, means not using them in another. Even if we say, don't build Trident expand HE, we have to recognise that in a Capitalist economy the immediate effect would be job losses at Barrow or wherever with no logical transfer of those workers to providing HE, or for the needs of the students for 3-4 years. A socialist economy would deal with that by planning over a longer period to be able to make adjustments.

2. Rationing HE (or any other) education on the basis of ability maintains inequality, for the reasons Marx sets out. Some people are more intelligent or academically inclined, so providing them with further advantages through education increases inequality. Moreover, the reality under Capitalism is that these two qualities are closely related to existing wealth anyway.

3. Although, what you say about Surplus value is correct, there is also the question of turnover rates. Bikharin in his "Economics of The Transition Period", shows that you can screw up an economy by putting to many resources into long-term projects. They may result in higher Value production later, but in the meantime all of the workers/students not putting value back into the economy have to be fed,clothed, housed and so on, by other workers who are putting value into the economy. Get the balance wrong and instead of rising output, you enter a death spiral.

4. That's one reason that marx advocated that Education should be combined with work. He and the International argued that everyone from the age of 8 upwards capable of work should work. He argues that the value put into the economy by those in education, should be used to offset the cost of that education. He also argued AGAINST free higher education, because it did mean subsidising the rich - though times have changed, and I don't think that argument stands.

I do think his ideas on Education are relevant, and the UK has some strange practices on HE - such as students not studying locally - that do not exist elsewhere. I always thought that some of the young people I worked with who were sent to College, and University at the same time as earning and gaining experience benefitted.

jamiepotter said...

"in effect, students will be picking up the tab and subsidising their future employers."

This is one of the things really jarring me. HE is being geared even further to suit the whims of the economy but students are effectively being asked a HUGE entrance fee to be able to take part in it. If the economy is going to benefit so much from HE then surely it should make some kind of contribution to it?

Boffy said...

The question being what is the "economy"? Just like the question what is "society"? In effect society, and the economy are not one thing of which we are all homogenous parts of. Both the economy and society are divided into classes with antagonistic interests. Because Capital controls both, when its said that "society" or "the economy" should contribute, what it actually means in the end is that Workers should contribute, while Capital takes the benefit. The vast bulk of the taxes collected for such things are not from Capital, which either avoids paying, or else passes on the cost to workers in prices, but are paid by workers and the middle class.