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

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

Re-Imagining the Idea of the University for a Post-Capitalist Society
Saunders, Gary - Sociology.pdf - Whole Document

Item Type:Thesis (PhD)
Item Status:Live Archive


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 neoliberalisation 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.

Divisions:College of Social Science > School of Education
ID Code:44274
Deposited On:09 Mar 2021 13:39

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