Another despot falls

Issue section: 
Issue: 
(357)

What does the London School of Economics (LSE) have in common with Mariah Carey?

Last month both were exposed as recipients of £1.5 million and $1 million respectively from the Gaddafi family. One can only hope that Carey, like former LSE director Howard Davies, will also be forced by popular pressure to step down from her job.

The downfall of Davies, who called British undergraduate students "loss-making" and international students "high-margin products", has been something to relish.

The LSE was founded by the Fabian Society in 1895 as a night school with the aim of bringing higher education to the working class. Today, most major investment banks are involved in sponsoring student groups at the college.

So it is easy to dismiss the LSE's entanglement with Gaddafi as the logical conclusion of the corporate mindset of its senior managers. But is this just peculiar to the LSE?

There are other recent examples of the marketisation of education. In March we saw the sickening spectacle of David Cameron flanked by representatives of Cambridge, UCL, Imperial College and Bangor universities as he toured the Middle East touting British arms to repressive regimes.

The resulting occupation at UCL demanded that college head Malcolm Grant "must choose between being the provost and president of our university and being a business ambassador".

These are the fruits of the neoliberal restructuring of our universities which began under the Tory governments of 1979-97. The widening of access to higher education - 30 percent of young people now attend university compared to 7 percent in the early 1960s - is often denounced by the government today.

Last December universities minister David Willetts announced that 10,000 university places were to be cut by 2012. This reflects the elitist idea that universities should return to being the preserve of the rich.

Ironically, the rhetoric of neoliberals often condemns universities as being ivory towers of liberal or left academia. They portray themselves as defenders of education for all, calling for universities to focus less on "abstract" subjects like philosophy or sociology and instead to focus on "relevant" subjects like science or technology. What they really mean to do is to replace these ivory towers of academia with ivory towers of business.
The LSE has seen the proportion of its offers for undergraduates from state schools fall steadily since 2001. This was consolidated by New Labour's focus on the "knowledge economy" - the drive to generate new ideas and turn them into commercial products. This led universities to reject subjects that do not lead to the production of obvious and immediate consumer goods, in favour of science, technology, engineering and maths.

The shift was best summed up in 2003 by then education secretary Charles Clarke, who laid out one of his goals as "better progress in harnessing knowledge to wealth creation". New Labour began to push more business investment than ever into research and development (R&D) in universities. They aimed to increase investment in R&D from 1.86 percent of GDP in 2002 to 2.5 percent of GDP in 2014. But this investment can't be used for universities to research whatever they like.

In 2010 Cambridge University received £212,000 from the US Army for research, and a further £119,000 from the intelligence-gathering Government Communications Headquarters. Cambridge refuses to explain what the money is funding.

Academic pay has fallen in relative terms and the amount of money spent on each student has rapidly declined. Thirty years ago lecturers each taught on average nine students; now they teach 21 - a 150 percent increase in productivity.

The unearthing of links between British universities and corporate interests is hardly surprising. It reflects the broader trend in the past two decades towards a complete restructuring of education along neoliberal lines. Where universities used to appoint academics as directors or vice-chancellors, they now appoint the richest men (it is still usually men) from the business and finance sector.

In a confidential letter from Lord Anthony Grabiner announcing the reasons for the appointment of Peter Sutherland as chair of the LSE Council he stated that, "The committee's view was that he would be a superb appointment for the School... His writings reflect a strong academic ability, sympathy and interest." Sutherland was chair of BP and former director of the World Trade Organisation - hardly roles reflecting "academic ability, sympathy and interest".

The LSE has long been jokingly known by those on the left as the "finishing school for the international bourgeoisie", but if the rise in tuition fees is not resisted all universities will become havens for the rich and powerful.