Re-Imagining the Idea of the University for a Post-Capitalist Society

Saunders, Gary (2020) Re-Imagining the Idea of the University for a Post-Capitalist Society. PhD thesis, University of Lincoln.

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Re-Imagining the Idea of the University for a Post-Capitalist Society
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Item Type:Thesis (PhD)
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Abstract

This thesis critically examines the practical and theoretical significance of autonomous learning
spaces that have experimented with alternative forms of no-fee, higher education provision in
the United Kingdom (UK). This thesis makes an original contribution to knowledge by: (i)
documenting and critically examining the importance of these autonomous spaces in a way that
can inspire and support others involved in similar projects now, or in the future; (ii) grounding
them within an Libertarian-Marxist theoretical framework that highlights their potential to
prefigure alternative models of higher education provision and self-organisation to crack or
rupture capitalist social relations by functioning in, against and beyond them; (iii) highlighting
their potential for people from different ideological and theoretical affiliations to work together
to overcome differences by working on concrete political projects that is referred to a process
of left-wing convergence; and, (iv) examining the use of participatory action research for
academics involved in political projects as a form of scholar-activism that supports and
encourages more overt political engagement under the concept of public sociology.
The autonomous learning spaces that feature in this thesis emerged out of the student protests
against increased tuition fees and proposed changes to higher education in England that were
announced by the UK Coalition Conservative-Liberal Democrat Government in 2010. While
these reforms were a tipping point for many involved in these protests, they are part of a much
longer ideological and political project that began in the late 1970s to impose a neoliberal
model of higher education on the sector. The culmination of these reforms has had a detrimental
impact on higher education, including a shift towards less democratic models of university
governance, the creation of an unsustainable funding model of higher education, increasingly
precarious and intensified working conditions for staff and growing levels of anxiety and debt
for students creating a crisis over the nature and purpose of higher education.

These changes have not gone unopposed and, in 2010, they triggered a wave of protests, trade
union strike action and the occupation of university property by students opposed to these
reforms. While these protests failed to prevent the Coalition’s reforms to higher education
being implemented, they created a new form of student activism and politics that were part of
an attempt to prefigure alternative forms of education and self-organisation. One example of
this was the emergence of autonomous learning spaces that experimented with no-fee,
alternative models of higher education. This thesis focuses on these experimental spaces and
examines what, if anything, can be learned from them to create an alternative model of higher
education institution contra to the neoliberal model that has been imposed by successive
governments since the 1970s. The research focuses on seven autonomous learning spaces based
in the UK, including one, the Social Science Centre (Lincoln, UK), which I was an active
member of between 2012 and 2014. Indeed, the research stems from an attempt to document
and reflect on my own, and others, experience of being involved in creating and running an
autonomous learning space through a participatory action research project. The data was
gathered using a mixture of participant observation, 28 semi-structured interviews and web
based analysis of minutes of meetings, blog posts and websites.

The research found that while these autonomous learning spaces tended to be embryonic,
ephemeral and contested spaces, they functioned as places wherein people not only resisted the
neoliberlisation of higher education but also experimented with forms of critical pedagogy as
well as models of self-organisation that were underpinned by non-hierarchical and democratic
principles. The research found that these autonomous learning spaces were characterised by a
diversity of different theoretical, political and cultural perspectives and while this caused
friction within groups it highlights the potential for people to work together on concrete
political projects in a way that show left-wing convergence is possible. The research found that
these autonomous learning spaces also had an important affective, non-intellectual dimension. This was supported by bonds of friendship and trust that developed between people working
on these projects.

The practical and theoretical significance of these autonomous learning spaces, then, is that
they have the potential to inform the creation of new higher education institutions or the
transformation of old ones along more egalitarian, collectively owned and participatory
democratic lines as a response to the neoliberalisation of higher education. Moreover, these
autonomous learning spaces provide a fissure of hope and inspiration that alternative ways of
being exist that have the potential to challenge, question, rupture and crack the contradictory
and exploitative nature of capitalist social relations and create spaces wherein it is possible to
prefigure the idea of the university for a post-capitalist society.

Keywords:Higher Education, Universities, Critical Pedagogy, Scholar-Activism, Marxism, Anarchism, Participatory Action Research, Co-operatives
Subjects:L Social studies > L300 Sociology
X Education > X340 Academic studies in Tertiary Education
Divisions:College of Social Science
ID Code:40157
Deposited On:22 May 2020 13:16

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