Sarah Amsler: The death of philosophy in the neoliberal world

Sarah Amsler: The death of philosophy in the neoliberal world
Sarah Amsler, Aston University

Nowhere have the battle lines of neoliberal power in education been draw more clearly than in Middlesex University’s recent decision to close its renowned department of Philosophy. It is home to Radical Philosophy, boasts one of the largest MA philosophy programmes in the UK, was the university’s best performing research unit and houses some of the country’s most eminent Continental philosophers. More pragmatically, much work in the department has been recognised as ‘world-leading’ by the state’s research regulators and the faculty have apparently contributed nearly half of their combined earnings from tuition and research to the university’s budget. So why is the department being shut down, and what should we be learning from this situation?

According to the Ed Esche, Dean of the School of Arts and Humanities, the decision to close the department is ‘simply financial’, as it will be more profitable for the university to teach ‘Band C’ rather than ‘Band D’ students. For those not initiated into the labyrinthine system of state funding for higher education in England, allow me to explain. Each year, the Higher Education Funding Council of England allocates universities a certain amount of money according to various criteria in teaching and research. One funding stream distributes money according to the numbers of students universities teach in particular types of disciplines. Each student accepted falls into a different ‘price band’ and embodies a different monetary value. ‘Band A’, for example, includes students studying clinical medicine, dentistry and veterinary science. This year, they are each worth £15,788. ‘Band B’ includes scientists, pre-clinical medical students and those in engineering and technology. Requiring cheaper technology and expert labour to educate, their value drops to £6,710. ‘Band C’ students include anyone studying subjects involving studio, lab or fieldwork projects. £5,131 per year for each of these. And ‘Band D’ students, including philosophy and ‘all other subjects’, annually rake in a mere £3,947 from the state. Comparatively speaking in terms of market value, therefore, and despite the fact that the university apparently taxes 55% of each academic unit’s income, Esche claims that Philosophy can make ‘no measurable contribution to the university’.

Obvious concerns about ‘measuring’ the contributions of philosophy aside, in reality this decision is just the latest battle in a state-business-industrial campaign to decimate the humanities and social sciences in British academe under the aegis of neoliberal ‘progress’, now wholly green-lighted by the all-party assurance of savage cuts — perhaps twice Thatcher — to public spending in the coming year. The programme of marketizing and commodifying higher education began so many years ago that it seemed almost banal when all UK universities were subsumed under a new Department of Business, Innovation and Skills in 2009, or when universities began referring to students in terms of ‘key performance indicators’ and ‘clientele’. Perhaps this tolerable, slow-boiling to death of political sensitivities is one reason why students and academics across the country are radicalizing outside of the business-as-usual of contemporary university life: in other recent struggles to save philosophy programmes at Kings College London and Liverpool, for example, or the remarkably sustained student occupations to oppose widespread losses at Sussex. The closure at Middlesex is part of this larger trend. It is particularly appalling for the sheer absurdity of its rationale, and as the department’s directors have said, for its regrettable implications for philosophy education in the UK. But it is most alarming because, effective campaigning notwithstanding, the swiftness of its execution illuminates just how weakly equipped we still are to effectively understand and resist the crushing negations of neoliberal power in our universities and other public institutions. Much less to build alternatives.

However, the crass and anaesthetized method of this closure is also a purifying revelation that might push the movement along: the emperor has finally admitted there are no clothes. It is not about education or research or knowledge after all. The decision is not savvy or politically slick. It does not even need to be convincing in academic, professional or pedagogical terms. It is, as the dean asserted, ‘simply financial’ — and this is enough. We knew it all along, but now it is confirmed: no philosophy, no matter how good, can be evaluated according to what Max Weber once called the ‘sheer market principle’, and in a world of capitalist realism, therefore cannot have any value at all. Perhaps we can be now liberated from the temptation to validate intellectual work by squeezing it into the narrow criteria of what Alex Callinicos has called the ‘Orwellian’ inspired Research Excellence Framework. Perhaps we can finally accept that there are no ears to even receive arguments about the importance of humanizing education, the power of ideas and research to transform the world, or the necessity of critical thought in a frighteningly possibility-limiting social system. Such revelations and crises should come as no surprise at this very late stage in the long march of capital through our cultural institutions. Yet it seems they do, every time.

But perhaps this surprise is still a good thing. It is true, as Slavoj Zizek writes, that we must dare to believe that ‘our side no longer has to go on apologizing; while the other side had better start soon’. This is nowhere more obvious than at Middlesex now, where at least a reversal of decision, far more than just an apology, is clearly in order. At the same time, the shock, disgust and anger that are pouring out from across the world in response to Philosophy’s closure confirm that all is not lost – not the department, neither philosophy nor education, and not the potential for organised collective struggle beyond individual institutional battles. But as the stakes to save public education get higher and higher – and they assuredly will with the coming crisis – even this last possibility is under threat. If we don’t mobilize against the neoliberal takeover of universities now, we stand to lose much more than we can either imagine or repair. The wagons are well on their way down this path, and we would be wise to jump off, barricade and reorient now. For, as Michael Apple once wrote, ‘it’s a long walk back’.

Universities in Crisis, 06/05/10

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