Striking for a transformative university - a conversation between Karin Astrid Siegmann and Amod Shah

Staff-student dialogy

Karin (K): I think a bit of reflection on what happened during the demonstrations in December 2018 is good preparation for what is likely to happen in March when a nationwide strike protesting against educational budget cuts will take place.

So many people came to the demonstration in December, many more than I expected, as the year before it was only a small demonstration. Some people estimated that in December 1000 or even 2000 people joined in. So what motivated you to join?

Amod (A): I too was very impressed at the size of the demonstration. I didn’t expect so many people to turn up. For me there was an element of solidarity as I too am part of an educational institution, even though the cuts do not directly impact me, in terms of my salary etc. It is important to realise, however, that there are very real impacts of these proposed cuts on us as a PhD community as well. We are already in a situation where there is limited capacity for supervision, teaching, or learning because things are already pretty tight for the teaching staff. You see that in issues of burnout and overwork, and a difficulty in balancing research and teaching duties. I think these proposed cuts reinforce this difficulty, and make the situation that much worse for teaching staff.

In terms of a direct impact I think the cuts will affect the teaching and the supervision we get as students. But I think there's also a broader discussion to be had here beyond just the immediate impacts on staff and students, and that is the structural reduction in funding for public higher education. The cuts are huge and are institutionalized. What that means for public education, what that means for the university, are very important discussions to be had. That is something we as PhD students are very interested in, and very keen to intervene in and have a voice in.

K: I had similar motivations. On the one hand, many of the cuts don’t affect me directly, at least not yet in terms of my contract: my situation is secure, certainly in comparison to many people I have met from other universities who have repeated temporary contracts, and then multiple contracts at the same time. How to manage that, and how to have a private life in that context? I see colleagues who don’t have permanent contracts and are very worried about their tenure. They don’t dare speak up, criticise, do extra-curricular activities, or anything that would distract their attention from getting the publication points necessary to get a tenure. So that comes very close to ISS.

'I see a public university as a space where people can think out of the box creatively for a better, more just society.'

Overall, I see a move towards the neoliberalization of universities: universities are more and more often managed like knowledge factories. There’s more attention to quantifiable outputs, to the contents of your research, the meaning of what you teach and research for society and for people. As you highlighted, that’s not in line with my vision of a public university. I see a public university as a space where people can think out of the box creatively for a better, more just society. That was probably the main motivation for me to join the demonstration. I use Karl Polanyi’s work quite a bit in teaching and in research. He looked at European societies in the mid-20th century from the perspective of efforts to develop market societies, to modify everything in society to be business-driven. I see the same thing happening now with the neoliberalization of universities. I feel strongly that in a healthy society, the university should be a space that is not commodified, and I believe that doing so will backfire. 

A: I like the way you’ve discussed the movement and countermovement. And I think it is very true, the neoliberalization and commodification in our education is obviously not just a phenomena in the Netherlands. It has already happened elsewhere and it is happening elsewhere now. But I think that the Netherlands, Germany, and other countries in this region have, to some extent, been able to hold out against this move to commodify and privatize education that we’ve seen in the UK and the US especially.

I think there are very real impacts of that on the kind of education that we were discussing, also the kind of research we do, and the kinds of conflict of interest that are created when suddenly instead of government funding you are relying on a private organization, foundation, or company to fund research. And I don't think this has been really thought through in terms of how it affects teaching and the quality of research that Dutch universities are able to produce and who they serve. Are they serving society, are they working to fulfil the particular aims of private institutions or foundations? And I think that is important, and it is something that a lot of people are coming out against and resisting.

K: I think calling it a conflict of interest is putting it very politely. Maybe I'm painting a rather a black and white picture here, but, given the fact that government funding is dwindling, we rely more on science foundations at the national and EU level for funding. And I see an increasing influence of corporate and other hegemonic interests which want to uphold the status quo. For example, by framing societal problems as research into shared prosperity, you uphold a commitment to economic growth and de-problematize societal problems. Another example - I see a lot more calls for climate change adaptation rather than for research into what can be done to prevent climate change. This again avoids questioning a westernised consumerist way of life. So, whether intentionally or not - and it's easy to say that it is a conspiracy - this is a very dangerous development and it will be sad to lose universities as a space where you can develop alternative thinking and alternative models.

'...universities are more and more often managed like knowledge factories...'

At the more micro-level you highlighted some of the impacts from the perspective of the PhD community. What I see around me is increasing individualisation. The ‘knowledge factory’ model is being implemented not only in universities but also in other sectors such as healthcare and government where the focus should be on the public good and not on higher productivity. The way in which that is promoted is through individualization and competition, and that provides incentives on the one hand for people to collaborate, but also to recycle their own work in order to make a career. It also makes it easy for institutions to divide and rule, and silence critical voices.

Michael Burawoy has written a really interesting class analysis of how a university manages to divide academic staff from admin staff by providing some privileges to academic staff. That way academics become the powerful actors who do not speak out against the managers, thus enabling this new public management model to be implemented.

A: I think you make a very good point about the creation of these groups in institutions. As an MA student and as a PhD researcher I see that playing out at ISS. I’ve heard from colleagues that this plays out in other places as well. But creating this sort of difference, that as a PhD researcher you are neither a student nor a staff member, you create this differentiated strata amongst people and what they are entitled to. Either intentionally or unintentionally, I think that's also a way of breaking down the ability of people to collaborate. You have a situation where the overall budget is decreasing, so everybody is fighting for a shrinking piece of the pie. And the management reaction is then to create different groups so that people have to compete for these limited funds, rather than collaborating or building something together.

And I think it comes back to the idea of how we envision the university as a space where people competitively push for and achieve excellence, or serve a larger societal aim. These things are not necessarily independent of each other, but there needs to be vision of what the university is trying to achieve. I think the issues of collaboration, societal awareness, and a desire to contribute to social change is very important. And I don’t mean that in a very narrow framework of societal relevance, or a framework or collaboration. I am referring to a much broader understanding that these ideas can be visions which are not restricted to very technocratic, managerial decisions or processes. I think the university has to allow that.

'There are universities and places where people are trying to get away from this rat-race kind of orientation.'

I am aware that there are funding pressures, but it’s important not to let go of the ethos that we don’t have to compete with one another for a shrinking piece of the pie. There is space for collaboration to think more broadly, not to be oriented solely by the next publication, or finishing your PhD, or getting a job. There is a broader social goal that can be achieved through doing good collaborative work. There are universities and places where people are trying to get away from this rat-race kind of orientation. The University of Gent[1] is one example. And a couple of faculty members were talking about how the University of Antioch does evaluations. These are both examples of universities which are moving away from a focus on a very competitive, individualized form of performance and academic evaluation to a more collaborative, solidarity based and socially oriented and directed vision of the university.

These are real examples of how things can be better, not merely pie in the sky.

K: Such examples can be brought into the discussion here at ISS. There is a need to counter these individualizing tendencies which make the university more unequal. Let’s not pretend, however, that currently the university is a space to which everyone has access. Our shared concern is that this inequality is further aggravated, that creativity and critical thinking is stifled, that access is further reduced. The examples you shared are really inspiring and touching. Countering these divisive forces and bringing the real stakeholders together - those who are producing this knowledge such as students and staff - and giving them more say in the management of universities is another way of countering the tendencies which we see in the Netherlands and at ISS.   

A negative example from ISS of this division was when you and other people were involved in fighting for better accommodation for ISS students, and the academic staff remained silent. There was no collective voice at that time, and I felt really ashamed of that. As far as I know that issue was solved fruitfully so when it re-emerged with the current batch of MA students I got the impression that it was much more of a collective voice. There was more involvement and solidarity from the MA conveners, and the Diversity and Inclusion Team at ISS, and I hope this solidarity can be strengthened further.

One example I have heard about and am quite curious about is at Manchester University where they are thinking about setting up a cooperative university to counter the increasing privatization of universities, which reduces the number of students who can fund a university education thus making universities a more and more exclusive space. At Manchester they want to develop an alternative model with students and staff as the main stakeholders rather than the management. It’s still in process, but two or three months ago the University got accreditation for a new Masters programme. 

A: That’s another real example of efforts to move away from this customer-service provider orientation and language. I don’t think higher education and education in general was ever intended as a business, so the fact that it is increasingly seen as one is unfortunate. But I think a lot of people now share this vision of pushing back on this business approach to education, and are coming up with alternatives. For me, what’s happening in the Netherlands is really symptomatic of a more globalized move of the state withdrawing from higher education. I was wondering what your thoughts were on that?

'...parallels in terms of a withdrawal of the state from university funding...'

K: I have already referred to Martin Burawoy and his class analysis of neoliberalized universities. I heard him speak about that two years ago in Lahore, Pakistan, at a private university to which I’m affiliated. I found it so interesting that somebody coming from a public university in the US, presented an analysis based on the situation in the US that resonated with students at a private, elite university in Pakistan, and with somebody like me teaching at a public university in the Netherlands. Very different contexts in terms of countries and education sector, but what he said rang a bell with so many people in that audience. For me that’s one answer to your question.

I see lots of parallels in terms of a withdrawal of the state from university funding, or the rejection of the ideal of a university as an inclusive space, as a creative space, as a lab for new ideas for a more just society. The societal relevance of universities is increasingly understood as a place where research that can be patented like an industry. Academic learning with that objective is seen as increasing human capital or employability at the individual level, and greater productivity at the company level, or micro-economic growth at society or economic level. I look at those discourses from a very different context, so if you have to resist it, you have to know your context very well.

A: I agree. And one thing I would add is the notion of the university as an egalitarian space: the idea that it’s a place where people from very different backgrounds are able to come and study together. And again, this idea of neoliberalization and privatization of the university is one of the first casualties of a move towards private education in which you create classes of universities: you have the good private universities where people who can pay can go to, and you have withdrawal shrinking of a good public university system. In this way you start creating tracks for some people who are able to benefit from a good university’s reputation, and other people who struggle to do that. I see that a lot in India now, this mushrooming of private universities, both good and bad. But I think those are the things that a well-funded public education system should offer and which are being threatened by these proposed cuts.

'...we will take to the streets again in March'

K: I think even in the existing publicly funded universities in countries that claim to be very egalitarian, countries such as the Netherlands and the more egalitarian states of Scandinavia, you see the reproduction of class and status, and that influences whether you enter university or not. I don’t pretend that right now public universities are great egalitarian spaces, but they can be, although a lot can be improved, also here in ISS. But in private universities the exclusivity is very clear with the principle of the customer pays being the norm. In public universities you can contest that approach, and there’s space to demand more inclusiveness. You lose this ability when you privatize or commodify universities.  

A: I really like the way to put it - the existing space for contestation. I think that’s what these protests are about - maintaining a space for contestation in the public higher education system. And I definitely identify with that, that principle and emotion of supporting the move against these cuts. At a more personal level, I recognise the points that you raised about how these things affect us at ISS. So it’s important to take a stand and contest, not just in our own institution, where, as we discussed, there is room for improvement and more solidarity and cooperation. The fight is on many levels: at the level of our institution, but also much more broadly in terms of resisting this move towards commodification by building solidarity in our universities. For me it's been a very enriching experience to see what is happening in terms of the response from other universities.                      

K: So we will take to the streets again in March.

A: Yes!


[1] Thanks to Zuleika Sheik for sharing this information.

Karn Astrid Siegmann

Karin Astrid Siegmann - Senior Lecturer Labour and Gender Economics 

Amod Shah

Amod Shah - PhD researcher at ISS


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