The global economic crisis has highlighted the inherent problems with unfettered free-market capitalism (not to mention, more specifically, the high-risk activities of those working in the deregulated financial sector). Similarly, the worldwide meltdown has also exposed the dangers of an obsession with short-term profits and of a worldview that comprises only the economy where there is also society, culture and politics. Despite the clear lessons of the global recession, the response of governments around the world has been to pass the debt on to the poorer sections of society, to further privatize and deregulate and, so, depoliticize the public realm. Costs are cut and profits boosted for immediate short-term relief, regardless of the longer-term economic consequences or their effect on culture.
In the UK, this process has taken a peculiar trajectory, showing a particular disdain for anything “cultural” that is not directly linked to (and fused with) business, or that does not convincingly contribute to the economy (or that does not contribute enough, or that does not see its sole goal in terms of its contributions to the economy), or that sees long-term investment for future benefit as more important than providing an immediate boost either to the treasury or to gross domestic product (GDP).
Although the prospect of a Conservative government in the UK, especially during a period of such economic instability, would have prepared voters in May 2010 for cuts in public spending, the “chaotic, stumbling and unstrategic”  nature and far-reaching scope  of the retreat from the extended state, not to mention the “reckless velocity” with which the cuts have been implemented, has come as a surprise to some. The fact that their coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, have failed to restrain the vigor with which these cuts have been pursued has surprised still more.  In the case of higher education, despite the Lib Dem manifesto pledge to “scrap unfair university tuition fees” and claim that such change is “affordable even in these difficult times,”  the Coalition has implemented an unprecedented rise in tuition fees and felled funding to universities in general, and to social-cultural-political subjects, in particular. Such a measure hadn’t featured in the manifesto of any party, and the white paper setting out its details wasn’t published until six months after the legislation had been debated and voted on in Parliament (Collini, 2011), after limited consultation, little evidence and the bypassing of trial schemes (Campaign for the Public University, 2011).
In the wake of the government’s plans to make society pay for the economic crisis, we have seen student protests against the rise in fees in November 2010  and 2011, a trade-union-organized protest against the cuts to spending, jobs and services in March 2011, riots throughout English cities in August 2011  among the young and poor (those with no prospect of access to higher education or employment, as well as those with degrees but still no prospect of a job), and now the Occupy London protesters (their action ongoing since October 2011),  campaigning in solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street and Indignants movements against international cuts to public spending as well as against economic inequality more generally.
Within academia, there have also been a number of initiatives, such as the Campaign for the Public University,  which have recently produced their own alternative White Paper  arguing against the application of a market model to higher education and emphasizing the social benefits and public value of universities over the private benefits to individuals and the economy.
But how meaningful is the idea of the “public” university, and how useful is the public-private dichotomy for negotiating the ideological terrain over which structural transformations to policy areas such as education have played out?
The Assault on the “Public University”
There are certainly easy distinctions to draw between institutions in terms of their funding and ownership structures (whether public or private), but the efficiency and effectiveness of public regulation and public accountability are also important, as well as the ways in which knowledge is produced and disseminated, and more abstract notions of public service ethos or public value, where those terms refer to the benefits of institutions such as universities for wider society and future generations, and not just the individuals directly related to a service sector by contractual fee-paying or wage-receiving relations (Calhoun, 2006). Whether privately or publicly owned, public services are those that everyone needs in their private lives, as well as those that contribute toward public life (Arendt, 2003b).
The government’s White Paper 2011  and the Browne Report 2010  upon which it was based, however, are the only major UK public policy documents on higher education written over the past 50 years not to mention the “public value” of universities (CPU, 2011), despite the “importance of considering the balance between private and public returns” in shaping public policy on education stressed by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) report, Education at a Glance, cited in the Browne Report. Indeed, the latter sees universities as public only in terms of their “contribution to and potential drain on the national economy” (Allen, 2011), highlighting instead the private benefits to consumers and the economy.
But putting consumers “at the heart of the system” is not the same as putting students at the heart of the system, despite government claims to the contrary. Consumer sovereignty substitutes market relations for the whole variety of social relations, in this case reducing the “well-informed student” to an economically calculating individual with access to league tables which quantify the “student/consumer satisfaction” of a hierarchized list of institutions, rather than an actively and intellectually engaged “student” of their chosen discipline. The associated audit culture reduces the quality of education to the number of hours spent in class, regardless of content, and regardless of the hours which students (in the humanities and social sciences, especially) are expected to spend reading, writing, researching, thinking, engaging et cetera in “their own time.”
The pedagogical relationship between teacher and student is complicated – in my own experience, forcing students to somehow balance their time and obligations between paid work and study, and encouraging a minority to believe that they can stroll in late to class, spend seminars sending text messages and listening to their iPods, and dispute their poor grades on the sole basis that they’ve paid for their degrees.
The amount, content and type of research undertaken is also affected, privileging individual over collaborative research and filling libraries only with those publications that feature as part of pre-set packages from contracted vendors, producing graduates and young academics with skills and knowledge only in as far as they are marketable (Morrish, 2011), and, coupled with weaker employment contracts, reconstituting the tenured academic as casual worker or entrepreneur (Giroux, 2011).
More than just a draconian cut in state spending, this assault on the public character of the university is also more than a step closer to the demolition of the welfare state; it is an attack on the Enlightenment project of which the Kantian ideal of the university as a public space for the pursuit of knowledge and strengthening of civil society was an integral part (Allen, 2011). In such a context, the immediate reference of the counter-cry has been to the idea and autonomy of the public university, and to delineate higher education’s relation to both the state and the economy.
In the UK, in particular, the academic defense has sought to argue the worth of the humanities and social sciences (particularly from those working within those disciplines) and to stress the social, cultural and political (and not just economic) functions of academia, as well as against the rise in fees and drop in state funding. But because of the incorporated status of universities – which means that, publicly funded or not, they’re always in some way private – and the long-term decline in academic autonomy and decisionmaking within the university (whether public or private), some have suggested that the public-private dichotomy is unhelpful for making sense of the significance of the changes (Wernick, 2011).
Public and Private
In the UK, implicit in the fear of what the future may hold is a dystopian vision of the US system. We’re fearful of the astronomical fees that force parents to start saving for their children’s education from the day they’re born, and of the inaccessibility of higher education for the poorest. We’re fearful of the weakened autonomy and insidious militarization of US higher education and the increasing influence of both corporate and governmental influence on university life (Giroux, 2008). And we’re increasingly dubious about the long-term financial efficiency of the changes proposed by the UK government, as well as their effect on public life; the world university rankings that consistently highlight American dominance have been coming under scrutiny of late, with alternative interpretations emphasizing the negative effects of market competition on public universities and the poor performance of institutions outside the top 100 in the United States, alongside the relative strength of the UK system as a whole (Hotson, 2011a,  2011b;  see also Marginson, 2006).
Neoliberalism has been more entrenched in the United States than it has been in the UK and Europe, illustrated by the contrasting approaches to diverse policy areas. The US model of broadcasting, for instance, has from its inception in the 1920s been to package the audience as consumers for sale to advertisers, whereas the UK system was seen as a public good catered towards the education of citizens (Murdock, 1999). US jurisprudence sees the right to privacy as the protection of the individual from public (the state) not private (corporate) authority, and enforces that right through retrospective lawsuits rather than through regulatory agencies, individualizing privacy both in terms of how it is conceived and how it is regulated (Dawes, 2011). At the root of these contrasting approaches is a fundamental irreconcilability between understandings of “private” and “public,” and the relation between them, and a tendency to construct the dichotomy as an invariable relation between fixed entities.
But the public-private dichotomy is more complex and interconnected than that. Although the ancient Greek distinction between public and private was clear-cut and the importance of maintaining that distinction emphasized, the long-term spread of private interests into the public domain associated with modernity, or what Arendt called the “rise of the social” (Arendt, 2003a), has meant that the days of ever distinguishing clearly between public and private spaces, institutions or information, are long behind us. The public has always been dependent on the private realm, and the confusingly named “public sphere” (Habermas, 1989) is a domain rooted in that private realm, occupying an abstract position between public and private, its function to hold public authority to account. And the two realms are increasingly protean and porous, the boundary between them shifting and blurring over time.
As private interests have encroached upon public ones, the nature of those private interests has become synonymous with economic imperatives, while what is left of the public realm is reduced to a shadow of its former self. Neoliberalism works to dismiss the distinction between public and private, seeing everything as always-already private and always-already economic, identifying the common good with corporate interest and, thus, withering away the public realm and depoliticizing politics. We become consumers who only occasionally act in citizen-like (or student-like, or teacher-like) ways, depending on the situation; the character of our activities even then being a mixture of the economic and the more specific or contextual.
But rather than accepting that this difficulty in making the distinction is proof of the dichotomy’s contemporary redundancy as a conceptual framework, we should recognize it instead as evidence of the success of the rise of the social, now in neoliberal form. Rather than a question of erecting a distinction between public and private institutions, the campaign to defend the “public university” draws its validity through stressing the public-private dichotomy as a process and not a matter of substantive content or binary oppositions. Defending the publicness (or “publicity”) of the university is therefore about recognizing the character and significance (as well as the true target) of policy trends.
The neoliberal assault on the public university constitutes the idea of the “public university” that campaigners seek to defend. It is not merely a left-wing partisan defense of state intervention, nor simply a nostalgic yearning for a mythical golden age (see McQuarrie, 2006), nor is it purely the self-defense of those academics and students (and prospective students) directly affected by proposed changes to funding structures; it is the recognition of what’s at stake for wider society and future generations. If the democratic process is premised in part on the ability to “translate private troubles into public issues” (Mills, 2000) and the political efficacy of the public sphere (Fraser, 2007) asserted through the capacity of the private realm to influence public authority, then the neoliberal assault on the public realm and the links between public and private – of which the privatization of higher education is a part – risks reducing the extent to which this translation and influence can take place, thus weakening the public sphere and threatening democracy.
The discontent of the protesters and rioters across the UK and around the world can be seen as society speaking out against the withering away of the public realm and the smothering of the private realm by the imperatives of the market. And, in the context of higher education, the idea of the “public university” can be read as shorthand for the “not-neoliberal university,” where neoliberal means more than just private funding; it means “not good for democracy.”
Allen, G (2011) “The Public University and the Private Student: A False Dichotomy,” Campaign for the Public University (CPU) web site (accessed 03/11/11).
Arendt, H (2003a) “The public and the private realm,” In: Baehr P (ed.) “The Portable Hannah Arendt.” London: Penguin Books.
Arendt, H (2003b) “Reflections on Little Rock,” In: Baehr P (ed.) “The Portable Hannah Arendt.” London: Penguin Books.
Calhoun, C (2006) “The University and the Public Good,” Thesis Eleven, (84).
Campaign for the Public University (2011) “In Defence of Public Higher Education,” (accessed 01/11/11).
Collini, S (2010) “Browne’s Gamble,” London Review of Books, (32.21), 4 November
Collini, S (2011) “From Robbins to McKinsey,” London Review of Books, (33.16), 25 August.
Dawes, S (2011) “Privacy and the Public/Private Dichotomy,” Thesis Eleven (107).
Fraser, N (2007) “Transnationalising the Public Sphere: On the Legitimacy and Efficacy of Public Opinion in a Post-Westphalian World,” Theory, Culture & Society, (24.4).
Giroux, H (2008) “The Militarization of US Higher Education after 9/11,” Theory, Culture & Society (25.5)
Giroux, H (2011) “Beyond the Limits of Neoliberal Higher Education: Global Youth Resistance and the American/British Divide,” CPU web site (accessed 07/11/11).
Habermas, J (1989) “The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere,” Cambridge: Polity Press.
Hotson, H (2011a) “Don’t Look to the Ivy League,” London Review of Books, (33.10), 19 May.
Hotson, H (2011b) “An inappropriate model,” Times Higher Education, 6 October.
Marginson S (2006) “Putting ‘public’ back into the public university,” Thesis Eleven (84).
McQuarrie, M (2006) “Knowledge Production, Publicness, and the Structural Transformation of the University: An Interview with Craig Calhoun,” Thesis Eleven (84).
Mills, CW (2000) “The Sociological Imagination” (40th Anniversary Edition), New York: Oxford University Press.
Morrish, L (2011) “Con-Dem-Nation and the attack on academic cultures,” CPU web site (accessed 02/11/11).
Murdock, G (1999) “Corporate Dynamics and Broadcasting Futures” in Mackay, H., O’Sullivan, T (eds) The Media Reader: Continuity and Transformation. London: Sage
Wernick, A (2011) “Will there still be Universities after the Revolution?” CPU web site (accessed 09/11/11).
3. None more so than students, among whom the party was most popular, and those voters who were unaware of the “Orange Book “(2004), the “unofficial” (free-market embracing) manifesto of the party, co-written by Coalition cabinet members Nick Clegg, Chris Huhne and Vince Cable. (See https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-12310041)
10. https://publicuniversity.org.uk/ (See also the British Sociological Association’s “Sociology and the Cuts” (https://sociologyandthecuts.wordpress.com/); the Culture Machine debate on the future of higher education in the UK and internationally, and on the position of the arts, humanities and social sciences within the university (https://www.culturemachine.net/index.php/cm/issue/view/12); and the Academic Funding section of Sage’s Social Science Space (https://www.socialsciencespace.com/category/academic-funding/).)
11. “In Defence of Public Higher Education” (https://publicuniversity.org.uk/2011/09/27/higher-education-white-paper-is-provoking-a-winter-of-discontent/).