University: A New Way of Life

Thursday 24th March, 2016

A film by Brian Baker and Bruce Bennett. Voiceover by John Schad.

‘The university is a critical institution or it is nothing’ (Stuart Hall)

The UK government’s publication in March 2015 of a ‘Consumer Rights Guide’ for undergraduate students is an indication that the transformation of British universities from public institutions to privatized institutions is at an advanced stage. What Henry A. Giroux describes (with little understatement) as neoliberalism’s war on higher education may be moving into its final phase. This short film is a reflection upon the ways that these transformations are visible in the physical spaces and architecture of the university campus, a beautifully landscaped environment organized around open-plan spaces, gleaming steel surfaces and acres of glass that connote transparency, openness and free-flowing movement. 

Transparency is a useful term with which to think about the changes that are taking place as universities undergo privatization, since they are also becoming panopticons in which we are all subject to continuous monitoring. Far from affording academics, students and individual institutions greater independence, the neoliberalization of the university binds and gags us with ever greater effectiveness. This is evident in the REF, the proposals for the TEF, the phenomenon of trigger warnings, or the implementation of PREVENT strategies. While it might appear pointlessly nostalgic or idealistic to invoke the idea of the university as a liberating and intellectually progressive space in the face of ‘the realities’ of a bureaucratized, corporatized, gated and bordered future, what is at stake here is the silencing of critical voices and dissent.

As the privileging of ‘STEM’ subjects at secondary and HE levels makes clear, the arts and humanities and the social sciences are in the firing line in this war. As the current UK Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan asserted in 2014, ‘the subjects that keep young people’s options open and unlock the door to all sorts of careers are the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths)’, not the arts or social sciences. Terry Eagleton observed in 2015 that the consequence of this has been the ‘slow death’ of the university since ‘The British state continues to distribute grants to its universities for science, medicine, engineering, and the like, but it has ceased to hand out any significant resources to the arts’ (Eagleton: 2015). Far from a slow shift, this has taken place at dizzying speed and has accelerated with the ‘austerity’ program, which was introduced opportunistically after the global financial crash to open every area of public life to the catastrophic and socially regressive inefficiencies of the deregulated market. Henry A. Giroux writes that:

universities are losing their power not only to produce critical and civically engaged students but also to offer the type of education that enables them to refute the neoliberal utopian notion that paradise amounts to a world of voracity and avarice without restrictions, governed by a financial elite who exercise authority without accountability or challenge. Literacy, public service, human rights, and morality in this neoliberal notion of education become damaged concepts, stripped of any sense of reason, responsibility, or obligation to a just society. 

This short film, a documentary fiction, is an oblique response to the situation that Giroux describes, invoking the dystopian fiction of JG Ballard, the apocalyptic science fiction cinema of John Carpenter, Peter Greenaway’s early documentary fantasies, Jacques Tati’s cinematic reflections upon bodies and architecture, and the archaeological analysis of the present undertaken in Patrick Keiller’s films about the British landscape. What we hoped to do is highlight the dystopian consequences of the utopian futures promised by neoliberalism, and the university campus is a particularly appropriate space through which to explore this since it has a particularly interesting temporality – conscious of history and yet oriented towards the future. As a result, it is one of the crucial battlegrounds on which neoliberalism’s war is being fought.

This is the first film we have worked on collaboratively and it emerges from conversations, teaching and writing about higher education, visual culture and landscape. It constitutes an exploration into practice-based research which enabled us to think critically about space and the institution since, in filming it, we were forced to look at the environment around us, to make the ‘transparent’ visible. This film, which we hope will engage the viewer in processes of estrangement and further critical reflection, offers a means by which to produce and distribute research through different, complementary circuits to REF-able, audit-friendly formats, and official, increasingly commercialized (and access-restricted) channels.

Bruce Bennett is Senior Lecturer in Film Studies at Lancaster University. Brian Baker is Senior Lecturer in English and Creative Writing at Lancaster University.

Here's more you may be interested in: