The Contradictions Of Radical Politics At Uni: Disruption or Co-option?

It is with a heavy heart that I must announce that the university is at it again.

The St. Gallen ‘Wings of Excellence’ award for a “disruptive” essay that will “break the status quo” has recently been publicised to students at the University of Glasgow. Apparently this is our chance to ‘become a world changer’, to ‘meet 200 of the world’s brightest minds’, and ‘Become [a] member of a truly unique and strong global community’. The prize money for such an ‘radical’ essay is 20,000 Swiss Francs split between the three best applicants.

Quite what “disruptive” idea would be acceptable for this award is left open. Presumably, with a panel that includes “professors, corporate executives and entrepreneurs”, prospective applicants would do well to not put forward anything too disruptive, or an idea that too accurately critiques current structures which those three groups belong to. Indeed, the topics for previous years include such ‘radical’ ideas such as ‘deconstructing economic growth’, ‘the clash of generations’ and ‘rewarding courage’. Retaining the outline of our current economic system, playing the old against the young, and giving startups more money do not seem like especially groundbreaking concepts to this writer. 

Any interested party will immediately find that one has to be studying at a postgraduate level at a university, and be able to ‘inspire World Leaders’ through their work. Putting aside the immense hurdles that exist towards being able to sustain yourself on a postgraduate course monetarily, the idea that change or new concepts must inevitably come through the university system is frankly laughable. 

Even with its partial autonomy from the centralised education system, the university still performs a primary function as the conveyor belt for the youth into their allocated slots of the socio-economic machine. How are students supposed to hold authority to power when they saddled with increasing amounts of debt — if they are able to attend University in the first place at all —  and the few chances to negate said debt is to take part in essay competitions designed to reward students who can fit most seamlessly into existing power structures.

This relates to the current furor around the Teaching Excellence Framework (or T.E.F.). The TEF is a system purported to rank universities based upon the quality of their teaching, but instead is based around the principles of commodifying a university education. Indeed, the higher the score an institution gains in the TEF, the higher the fees said institution is allowed to charge prospective students. 

Indeed, aside from feeding the information from the National Students Survey into the algorithm that determines the overall institution’s score, there is nothing in the Teaching Excellence Framework that actually links back to teaching quality at all. The other two criteria are on dropout rate and employment rate post-studies; quite how this relates to how stimulating the education provided was is left unclear. 

The current ‘Boycott the NSS’ campaign being run by the National Union of Students is perhaps a step in the right direction, but doesn’t particularly address any of the structural problems in the conception of linking education so blatantly with market forces. Students — and not just English, Welsh and Northern Irish ones either — should be watching the current sell-off of the Student Loan Books by the Conservative government with some amount of trepidation. This process could easily be rolled out across the other loan companies, especially given the lack of coherent political voice for students that exists at the moment.

Perhaps it is naïve, but a certain amount of the appeal of a university education is that it provides the space for critique and questioning of existing ideas and concepts, rather than to simply act as four more years of secondary education on the way into the precarious workforce of the 21st century. A ‘radical’ ideas competition would not be limited to a small number of students who are willing to formulate their ideas in the narrow space of existing discourse, but open to any regardless of their educational status, and perhaps not be judged by business leaders, but their peers. 

But, of course, what the esteemed fellows at St. Gallen’s seem to want is not an idea that ‘disrupts’ very much at all.
[Conor Boyes]

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