Meeting: Debt Pt. II (and some organisational matters)

23 Sep

The next meeting of ARG will be held on:

Wednesday 28th September


Venue: Room 304 in the Pearson Building, which is located in the North-West corner of the UCL quad (when you enter the quad from Gower street turn left and its in the corner nearest to Gower St). Enter the black door by the ramp in the corner, enter the building and turn right and you need to go to the third floor. See map for location of Pearson Building: [The room is officially booked so building will be open, but please push hard if it seems closed.]

First of all, our apologies for not updating this blog for a while! We have actually met a few times since the last update but co-ordinated all of it on Facebook and hence missed out those of us who do not use that platform.

We talked about debt last week, reading two articles by Marina Vishmidt. We decided we’d like to have another session about it, looking at things from slightly more philosophical and anthropological standpoints.

ALSO – We will be discussing organizational matters either at the beginning or end of the meeting.

Texts to be discussed:

1. Nietzsche, Second Essay from On the Genealogy of Morals, ‘Guilt, Bad Conscience, and Related Matters’:

2. Chapter 10: ‘The Middle Ages (600 AD-1450 AD)’ and Chapter 12: ‘(1971 – The Beginning of Something Yet to be Determined)’ of David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years. The full book can be obtained here:

Meeting 7: Euphemism, the University and Disobedience

2 Aug

The next meeting of ARG will be held on:

Wednesday 3rd August

6pm – 8pm

Venue: QUAD at UCL on grass in North-West Corner. If it’s raining we will be in room 304 in the Pearson Building, which is located in the North-West corner of the UCL quad (when you enter the quad from Gower street turn left and its in the corner nearest to Gower St). Enter the black door by the ramp in the corner, ent…er the building and turn right and you need to go to the third floor. See map for location of Pearson Building:​t-the-department/contacts-and-​location/maps

Text to be discussed:

Alexander Duttmann’s essay ‘Euphemism, the University and Disobedience’

Available here

Background reading 1 and 2.

Meeting 7: H.E. White Paper ‘Students at the Heart of the System’

30 Jul

Week 7: context reading – Putting Vision Back into Higher Education

30 Jul

Document also available here:

Putting Vision Back into Higher Education:

A Response to the Government White Paper

Campaign for the Public University

Oxford University Campaign for Higher Education

Sussex University Defends Higher Education

Warwick University Campaign for Higher Education

Humanities Matter

No Confidence Campaign

Cambridge Academic Campaign for Higher Education

July 2011

This response was written by John Holmwood and Andrew McGettigan, with contributions from David Barclay, Gurminder K. Bhambra, Fenella Cannell, Thomas Docherty, Danny Dorling, G.R. Evans, Robert Gildea, Martin Hall, Howard Hotson, Dave Legg, William McEvoy, Martha MacKenzie, Gregor McLennan, Peter Mandler, Nicola Miller, Karma Nabulsi, Bernard Sufrin, Simon Szreter, and Kate Tunstall.



Executive Summary

1. Introduction

2. Public funding and undergraduate programmes

3. The proposed student loan scheme; complex, insufficient and volatile

4. Chaos over fees, disruption to universities, subjects and communities

5. Privatising public education

6. Increasing selectivity, creating hierarchy

7. Reducing quality for the many

8. Removing the student-teacher relation from the heart of the system

9. Conclusion


Executive Summary

The Government’s White Paper,

Higher Education: Students at the Heart of the System,1 and the Browne Review that preceded it,2 reveal a worrying lack of vision for the future of UK universities. The White Paper makes frequent reference to the excellence and high international reputation of our system of public higher education, but it proposes a set of sweeping, ill-considered reforms that will destabilise and threaten that excellence. The Government claims that it is putting students at the centre of provision, but has passed the burden of funding courses on to fees to be paid back by individual graduates. It reverses the direction for the future of higher education set out by the Dearing Report in 1997 and does so with no mandate.

1 Published 28 June 28. Available at: <;.


Browne Review Securing a Sustainable Future for Higher Education: An Independent Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance, 12 October 2010 <;.


Ipsos Mori Public Perceptions of the Benefits of Higher Education: Summary Report, September 2010. <;.

Less will cost more. Government policy has cut central support for degree programmes by 80%. It has shifted fees onto students who will now carry a massive debt, but the public funds necessary to support the new system of student loans will cost more than the previous system of block grant plus student contribution.

Many students will pay more but will get less. The Government intends that student fees will be reduced below £7500 by competition. At this fee level, students will pay twice as much as at present but there will be fewer resources for teaching, once account is taken of increased recruitment and compliance costs.

Education reduced to investment in employability. Universities are central to the cultural and public life of the country, but the Government fails to support these aims. Professional and vocational courses have a core role in higher education, but the Government views all courses as ‘training for employment’ and all universities as training providers. This focus distorts the wide range of courses currently available and neglects the important social and cultural mission of the public university.

Reducing student choice through course closure. Commercial pressures have already led several universities to close courses such as philosophy, sociology, performing arts, history and classics. The Government’s proposals will exacerbate such developments and lead to fewer study options for the next generation of students.

Displacing the arts, humanities and social sciences. The arts, humanities and social sciences are fundamental for cultural innovation and fostering the public debate essential for a healthy democracy. Government policies will seriously diminish provision in these areas, except for a few ‘elite’ universities.

Dismantling excellence. Echoing earlier Government plans for the NHS, undergraduate degree courses and student loans will be opened to any provider. For-profit enterprises will be allowed to cherry-pick courses thus undermining existing public universities who commit to supporting a broad range of studies. Yet the public supports public funding of higher education, just as it supports the NHS.3 David Willetts’s ‘radical experiment’ will jeopardise a public higher education system that is internationally acclaimed for its excellence.

Education for sale and for profit. The government believes that for-profit providers can bring the level of fees down to £6000. For this fee, the new for-profit providers will expect to pay profits to investors and owners whilst also maintaining a high advertising and marketing budget as they enter the market. They can only trim costs by having fewer and less qualified staff: off-the-shelf curriculum materials will be delivered by service teachers.

Subsidies for the private sector, rather than for universities. Taxpayers’ money will be used to provide loans to students taking private sector degrees, rather than directly to public universities through the block grant.

Destabilisation of universities and possible closures, damaging communities. The Government says it is providing for the long-term stability of the system, yet it contemplates short term chaos and is sanguine about the closure of some universities. This will damage the teaching of current students and those about to apply, undermine research, and threaten the contribution universities make to employment and local economies.

A narrow and limited concept of competition. The White Paper’s thinking is distorted and restricted because of the limited meaning it gives to its key concept, competition. It equates competition with the commercial price competition that exists between businesses selling the same simple and uniform product. In Higher Education competition exists but its primary function is to produce excellence, not lowest prices: it is the critical rivalry between institutions and individuals striving for highest quality.

A narrow and limited concept of choice. Choice and competition in higher education are critically important. But they are to be judged primarily by the proliferation of non-commensurable intellectual diversity that is vital for dynamism and change, not by efforts to produce the same course or commodity at different grades of price and quality. It is adequate public funding which provides for the true values of competition and of choice in Higher Education.



It is time to defend public higher education with the same vigour that was evident in the defence of the NHS from similarly ill-thought-out proposals


The Government has called for a consultation on its White Paper with contributions to be made by 20

th September 2011. The evidence submitted to its previous consultations has been largely critical of its policies. But there is no evidence that the government has given any consideration to the evident risks to higher education that many commentators have pointed out. It is urgent now that academics conduct a different kind of consultation, one in which we present a systematic case for public higher education and its value, both intrinsic and extrinsic.

We now call for contributions to an

Alternative White Paper to be published at the end of the Government’s consultation period in September. This will be presented to the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, together with the weight of opinion that supports it.

Send contributions to:

Closing date: 2

nd September 2011



1.1. Universities serve a range of functions, from teaching the next generation and providing a highly skilled workforce, to cultivating knowledge and culture, to developing the research that underlies innovations in science, medicine, technology and social policy. A fundamental part of our democratic life, they facilitate debate by generating the knowledge, evidence and argument that bears upon pressing public issues. With the growth of public education and mass suffrage, universities have had a key role in facilitating social mobility and empowering people from all sections of society to participate in politics in a way essential to a properly functioning democracy.

1.2. Universities are now fully integrated into the life of communities across the UK, with nearly every major town and city boasting at least one university that contributes in numerous ways both to the local economy and to the region’s cultural life. Universities enhance the life chances of local young people and those seeking a return to education later in life.

1.3. These values are widely shared across the political spectrum. They formed the principles underlying the initial expansion of mass higher education in the 1960s after the Robbins Report (1963) and were reinforced again in the Dearing Report (1997).4

4 The Robbins Report is available at: <;; The Dearing Report is available at: <;.

1.4. Like the National Health Service, universities are a fundamental public resource. The values intrinsic to universities are now threatened by a drive towards privatisation which passes the costs on to individuals and opens the public system to new, for-profit providers. The collateral damage from enabling for-profit providers is potentially enormous. It threatens the closure of public universities and the drastic reduction of programmes in arts, humanities and social sciences, with serious consequences for the cultural and political life of the country.

1.5. Each university shares a common ethos and set of priorities and objectives, while maintaining its autonomy and unique relation to the local region and community. Some institutions have a greater specialism in vocational subjects, others foster excellence in the natural sciences, medicine and technology, and others still specialise in the arts, performance and cultural analysis. The wider system also includes colleges of Further Education with the capability to offer some students higher degree programmes. What matters is that such diversity be properly funded so that each institution can provide the education appropriate to its context, that each institution should be capable of developing its own vision of excellence. Adequate public funding is vital to ensure that there be genuinely affordable, not prohibitively expensive, access for all students who can benefit from further study.

1.6. It is sometimes asked, rhetorically, ‘why should someone who does not attend university pay some of its costs? The implication, with little examination of the issue, is that they should not. The shift from government paying the bulk of the costs of higher education, to individual students (and often in effect their families), is a shift from

all people in Britain having an interest in this education, towards it becoming something that is only sensibly embarked upon if it is in the private interest of an individual or their family. This is not visionary, it is myopic.

1.7. In essence, funding higher education through loans is to fund it by lending money to the affluent from the public purse rather than by taxing them. The government is keen to promote the idea that the graduate contributions are ‘like a tax’ but it’s a tax that the very wealthy manage to escape, since they are likely to repay the loans much sooner than others (or, indeed, not need them). Perversely, the scheme penalises the future middle classes most.

1.8. The White Paper is introducing a system that redistributes monies from poorer families (including the median family in Britain, one that is currently getting poorer already), and from many very young adults towards older adults without dependent children who will no longer be taxed to help pay for the education of the next generation. The claim that poorer families will be helped by the new loan arrangements shows there is some appreciation of the unfairness of the overall proposals, but that does not stop them from being unfair.


PUBLIC FUNDING AND UNDERGRADUATE PROGRAMMES 2.1. November’s Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) announced the removal of the block teaching grant to undergraduate courses in arts, humanities and social sciences (so-called Band C & D subjects) and reduced central funding to STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) by equivalent amounts. Although the government intends to consult on a new form of central funding for ‘priority’ subjects, the removal of this money dismantles the core teaching funding stream for England’s public universities.

2.2. Each degree course will lose at least £3,670 per student per annum (2011/12 figures excluding London weighting), which means that a large proportion of the new 2012 fee levels will, at best, only replace lost public funding, and then only for fees in excess of £7,500.

5 Students and parents should consider that in this new complex and competitive terrain, resources will be diverted to marketing, recruitment and meeting the costs of regulatory compliance, rather than going into teaching that enhances the student experience.


In fact, the loss of income from Government cuts is even greater if the very significant reduction in capital funding and funding for ‘Aim Higher’ and other access programmes is included. These also have to be recouped from fees.

6 Times Higher Report, 3 March 2011 <;.


Degrees of Value: How Universities Benefit Society, 15 June 2011. Available at: <;. See also, British Academy The Past, Present and Future: The Public Value of the Humanities and Social Sciences. June 2010. Available at: <;.

2.3 Research findings commissioned by, and known to, the Browne Review, but which it omitted to publish, showed that: “Most full-time students and parents … believed that the government should pay at least half the cost of higher education. This is because the personal benefits of higher education were seen by many to match the benefits to society.” 6

2.4. Public universities require public money; this money cannot be replaced by tuition fees if our excellent universities are to continue with high-quality teaching and research in addition to their local, social and civic missions. These all contribute to the public good. Indeed, a report by the New Economics Foundation states that, “Universities yield benefits way beyond the individual financial returns to students and human capital gains for the economy. We find that just three social outcomes – greater political interest, higher interpersonal trust and better health – contribute a benefit of £1.31 billion to UK society over and above the economic benefits.”



John Thompson and Bahram Bekhradnia The Government’s Proposals for Higher Education and Student Funding: An Analysis, HEPI, 11 November 2011, Paragraph 54. <’s-proposals-for-higher-education-funding-and-student-finance-%e2%80%93-an-analysis.html&gt;.

2.5. Excellent institutions such as LSE and the University of the Arts London, which includes Central Saint Martins as one of its constituent colleges (a world leader in design, fashion and art), will receive no block teaching grant at all as they only offer Band C & D subjects. The speed with which these profound changes to university financing are implemented will create short-term instability, not to say chaos across the sector. Many institutions are required to replace entirely their annual grant income of £35 million (or more) with private fee income within three years. Very few private sector businesses could survive such radical and rapid change in their trading conditions. Yet the White Paper blithely proposes to impose such chaos across an entire set of valuable national institutions, with no plans in place for the consequences besides offering to administer the winding down of operations where bankruptcy occurs.

2.6. As the authors of a report by the Higher Education Policy Institute state, “The government’s entire economic strategy is based around reducing public borrowing. Borrowing to give grants to universities counts as public borrowing. Borrowing in order to make loans to students does not count as public borrowing, to the extent that the government can show a stream of income to offset the loans. It is smoke and mirrors, and it provides an extraordinary reason for changing the whole basis for the financing and organisation of the university system.”




3.1. Some economists argue that the new scheme is superior to what is currently in place. This is debatable, since in concentrating on monthly repayments it does not take account of the very significant increase in the volume of indebtedness and the time taken to repay the larger amounts borrowed, which creates the conditions for significant compound effects of real rates of interest.

3.2 What is not at issue is that the scheme uses a type of loan – termed ‘income-contingent repayment loans’ – with which few people are familiar. Monthly repayments, once they begin, are determined by income rather than the amount initially borrowed. The government intends to set the repayment threshold at 9% of gross salary above £21,000.

To further reduce its investment in higher education, the government intends to charge real rates of interest on the loans and is seeking legislative power to charge close to commercial rates ‘prevailing on the market’ (2011 Education Bill).

Given the increased amounts initially borrowed to cover fees and maintenance, in the majority of cases annual repayments will not cover the interest accrued on the loan.

The debt is not dischargeable in bankruptcy though any outstanding amount is written off after 30 years or on death.

Although outstanding student loans will not be classed as debt in terms of credit referencing or mortgage applications, the impact on monthly disposable income will evidently have knock-on implications for all individuals.

3.3. It is not possible to predict one’s future earnings, but the scheme is also volatile because small changes to variables which are impossible to predict over the medium term, such as RPI and wage inflation, play a central role in determining monthly repayments. In effect, having just come through a profound economic crisis in which all are agreed that excessive levels of personal indebtedness were a major component of the problem, the government is now proposing to force

an enormous level of personal indebtedness on a large part of the younger generation at the beginning of their adult lives and under conditions they cannot control.

3.4. Children from lower income backgrounds (for example, those in receipt of free school meals) will be discouraged from attending university. Many students from such backgrounds are being asked to contemplate a debt that their parents would not. The sums of money involved will seem daunting to them. This is not simply a ‘perception’ that can be overcome by better ‘information’, since the very nature of the information available about the scale of their potential indebtedness is precisely the problem (and compounded by the fundamental uncertainty attaching to the levels of repayment).

3.5. The White Paper encourages a misguided language of ‘value for money’ which considers higher education only as a private benefit to the individual.

3.6. The loan scheme does not provide sufficient support for students. The maintenance loan limits (up to £7,675 in London in 2012) are not sufficient to meet rent and living costs. These levels are far below the equivalents of full-time employment at the National Minimum Wage. This will require students to spend too much time working during term-time or entering into additional debt from commercial lenders. A properly designed loan scheme would avoid this particular risk.

3.7. Owing to the amounts involved, many people will be tied into the loan system for thirty years. The threshold at which repayments begins will be linked to wage inflation (uprated annually). However, there is a real possibility that future governments will break this link since, from current models, it appears that overall graduates will repay too little. Governments would prefer a means to manage the sustainability of the scheme by moving the threshold up or down. The government of the day has the power to vary the terms of the loan agreements. Although there are no precedents for ‘retrospective’ changes, clauses in the agreements for all previous income-contingent repayment loans allow variation of the original repayment terms .

3.8. The government’s own figures show the new loan outlay as extremely large and ballooning. It estimates that the ‘loan book’ will reach £70 billion by 2017/18. It does not provide an estimate for when annual repayments begin to match or exceed new annual outlay.

3.9. In fact, the Government itself recognises that the proposed loan system is unsustainable. The White Paper explains that the government has commissioned Rothschild, an investment banking organisation, to investigate the potential for ‘monetizing the loan book’. Chiefly this involves exploiting the current legislation, the 2008 Sale of Student Loans Act, to see how to make the whole or part of the ‘loan book’ attractive to third party purchasers. This could see the sale of loans made to students at particular institutions.

3.10. It is widely accepted that the financial services sector of the economy caused the current hole in the government’s public spending which provided the justification for the removal of 80% of the public funding for teaching in universities. The White Paper now proposes to involve that sector in the financing of higher education – something that is a vital aspect of our nation’s life and future –

3.11. A spokesperson for Santander confirmed to The Guardian that they had been in formal talks with the government about launching an independent loans scheme for students based at the most prestigious higher education institutions.

9 On this basis, those loans that remained within the public system would be the ones less likely to be repaid over the 30 year repayment period.


‘David Willetts in secret talks with banks… Guardian 25 June 2011 <;

3.12. The many deficiencies in the Government finance proposals will skew the decisions made by applicants towards courses which promise high rates of graduate employment and boast of impressive starting salaries, regardless of whether or not those promises can be fulfilled in the longer term. The first cohorts of applicants under this new scheme are particularly vulnerable here.

3.13. Institutions will be required to provide ‘Key Information Sets’, but in the crucial aspects of prospective income and student satisfaction, this information is hardly fit for purpose since the data does not allow comparison. In the immediate short-term, it is more likely to give rise to mis-selling than to facilitate student choices.



See, John Holmwood ‘Code of Practice Needed to Prevent Degree-Course Mis-Selling’ Research Blogs, February 7, 2011 <;. See also, footnote 14 below.


4.1. Government promised that only an ‘exceptional minority’ of institutions would charge the upper fee of £9000. In contrast, most commentators predicted that most universities would do so. These predictions are now confirmed by the initial period of fee-setting in preparation for the first cohort of students in 2012. The costs generated by these fee levels could only be offset by cuts elsewhere or a manipulation of the distribution of student numbers across the sector.

4.2. Regarding the latter option, the Government intends to disrupt the fee plans of universities by an aggressive opening up of higher education to new forms of competition, with ‘for profit’ and other ‘low cost’ providers offering vocationally-oriented, undergraduate degrees at £7,500 and less. At the same time, it wants to dictate the kind and number of students that public universities should recruit with a complicated mechanism that will squeeze the majority of institutions, threatening courses at many (especially in the arts, humanities and social sciences), and even the viability of whole institutions. This is to take risks with the current diversity of choice in the higher education system, and thereby to reduce not to increase choice.

4.3. The consequence will be disruption at all levels in the system. This disruption will not only be experienced in terms of teaching, including in STEM subjects, but also in research. In so far as most academics undertake both teaching and research, the uncertainty about student numbers, including the risks at individual universities of under-recruitment in some subjects and over-recruitment in others, will undermine the stability necessary to plan and sustain excellent research.

4.4. The White Paper announces that ministers are sanguine about public universities going ‘bust’. It is stated that, “like its predecessors, the Government does not guarantee to underwrite universities and colleges” (Paragraph 6.9). The implication is that such an eventuality would only mark the loss of a weak or a ‘marginal’ institution. In truth, it would be a consequence of an institution having been pushed to the margin by Government policies and the instabilities they have caused. An artificial supply-side mechanism controlling recruitment numbers will make it more difficult for universities to recruit even though total demand for higher education currently outstrips the places available. Waiting in the wings, however, will be ‘for profit’ providers seeking access to cheap ‘infrastructure’, able to take over ‘ailing’ public institutions in new ‘private-public’ partnerships.

4.5. Many public universities are at the heart of their community, providing employment and contributing to a vibrant local culture.

11 In many places, they have provided an alternative to the decline of other employment and industries, taking over derelict buildings and re-energising localities. Government ministers should undertake to visit such towns and declare that it has no obligations for the consequences of its policies. A private, for-profit university would have no interest in meeting this broader public remit – its primary responsibility is to its owners, investors and shareholders. A policy of welcoming private takeovers will, therefore, be corrosive for both the Big Society and ‘localism’ agendas professed by the Coalition government.




See, UCU Report, ‘Universities at Risk: the impact of cuts in higher education spending on local economies’, December 2010. Available at: <>.


5.1. The primary purpose of the White Paper is to create opportunities for private, for-profit providers to enter the higher education sector. It is this that explains the removal of the block grant for undergraduate subjects in the arts, humanities in social sciences, enabling new providers to ‘compete on a level playing field’.

5.2. Just as with legislation deregulating higher education in the US, the second aspect of the reforms is to allow students at for-profit providers access to the loan scheme. In this way,

the public cost of maintaining the loan scheme will serve to subsidise for-profit providers and boost the returns to their shareholders and investors. Student fees will pay not just for teaching but for the much higher marketing costs and the dividends and high executive salaries typical of for-profit providers.

5.3. The White Paper also proposes to change the legislation governing degree-awarding powers and to allow more institutions to title themselves as ‘universities’. Private providers have been lobbying for these changes and the government has met all their demands.

5.4. In the space of 14 years since the publication of the Dearing Review, which specifically argued that such developments would be damaging to higher education,

the Government has reversed the direction of higher education and has done so with a barely disguised contempt for proper discussion, and without a mandate. Opportunistically, the government is using the current short-term budgetary deficit to implement irreversible changes.

5.5. The White Paper threatens the excellence of higher education in England. It is a reckless gamble: a radical experiment in university funding, with no precedent in British experience but with parallels to the privatisation wrecking the financial solvency of high-quality public universities in the US, such as the University of California, where net private revenues have not covered the public funding lost through cuts despite spiralling tuition fees. 5.6. The Browne Review advocated a new funding model because of uncertainty over public funding. However, the present proposals will not produce stability; indeed, the uncertainty is switched to the ballooning student support arrangements necessary to maintain a fee-based system of loans and the Government’s overriding interest is now to reduce their cost. It places all the risk and uncertainty on the shoulders of the next generation of individual graduates.,.

5.7. Worse still, the recent American experiment in private for-profit ‘universities’ provides grave grounds for expecting that these reforms could have precisely the opposite consequences to those

intended: driving down quality and value for money across the system, burdening students with debts acquired while obtaining credentials of little value, and ultimately passing on much of the cost to the taxpayer while enriching only private investors, shareholders and company executives.12


Howard Hotson ‘Short-Cuts’. London Review of Books, 2 June 2011 <;. See also, Howard Hotson ‘Don’t Look to the Ivy League’, London Review of Books, 19 May 2011 <;.


Sutton Trust, 3rd December 2010 <;.


This is set out in Roberts, K. (2010) ‘Expansion of higher education and the implications for demographic class formation in Britain’ “21st Century Society: Journal of the Academy of Social Sciences 5(3) 215-28.


6.1. At the same time, the Government seeks to introduce a ‘core’ and ‘margin’ system of funding that will favour for-profit providers (and others) charging lower fees and ‘selective’ universities charging higher fees. The majority of universities between these two poles will see their student numbers and resources being squeezed.

6.2. The proposals suggest that any institution can recruit as many applicants as they are able to at AAB and above. However, institutional caps determining how many students each university is able to recruit will then be reduced proportionately (based on historical data). In this way, the pool of such high-achieving students, numbering 65 000, will be fought over by universities. Any institution that fails to recruit its previous share will be prevented from recouping their student numbers from students with lower grades.

6.3. A further 20,000 places are to be removed from existing recruitment caps across the sector. These are to be put out to tender to low cost institutions with consequent knock-on costs and risks of failure.

6.4. The intention is that there will be a further shift of student places from core to margin in future years. The consequence will be disastrous for the majority of universities who will lose student numbers and, therefore, revenue. The White Paper proposes to put students at the heart of the system, but these measures will tear the heart out of the system. Recruitment will replace teaching as the primary aim of the university.

6.5. For the Government all that seems to matter is the achievement of students prior to attending university, not their achievement while at university. Recent research reported by the Sutton Trust is illuminating about who does best at University. Students from state schools do better than those from private schools. This is so across the university system, and at the most selective universities. As the report states, “Comprehensive school pupils also performed better than their similarly qualified independent and grammar school counterparts in degrees from the most academically selective universities and across all degree classes, awarded to graduates in 2009.”


6.6. Rightly, much attention has been given to the problems of recruiting children from disadvantaged backgrounds into higher education, but less attention has been given to a new alignment that will be created between universities charging ‘premium’ fees and independent and public schools which charge premium fees. This will exacerbate the recruitment differential between them and students who have previously attended state secondary schools.


6.7. The Government is also concerned that our most ‘selective’ universities do poorly in terms of widening participation. Paradoxically, its solution is to allow unrestrained recruitment at institutions of students achieving AAB at A-level. Many applicants to university come from non-traditional backgrounds and do so as mature students with other forms of qualification and equivalent experience. In other words,

the Government plans to enforce greater selectivity at the very institutions that do badly in terms of widening participation, many of which will be very adversely affected by the proposals.

6.8. The Government wishes to reinforce hierarchy by creating an explicitly elite group of Universities that it intends should have greater resources than other universities providing similar programmes of education with a similar high quality of teaching.

6.9. Universities in the UK are not currently differentiated in terms of teaching quality. The National Student Survey shows that there is a very high degree of satisfaction of students across all universities with their courses (in the region of 85%, a figure that many commercial organisations would envy). Although there are various rank orders of Universities that are produced using the NSS (by THE and the Guardian newspaper) all independent studies and statistical evaluations of NSS show that those rank orders are invalid, precisely because nearly all Universities are clustered within a few points of each other and the differences among them are, for the most part, not statistically significant.

15 The best courses are not necessarily found at the most selective institutions.


See, ‘Enhancing and Developing the National Student Survey’. Report to HEFCE by the Centre for Higher Education Studies at the Institute of Education, August 2010 <;; Cheng, J.H.S, and H.W. Marsh (2010) ‘National Student Survey: are differences between universities and courses reliable and meaningful?’ Oxford Review of Education, 36: 6, 693-712.

6.10. The Dearing Report (1997) recognized that there was a status hierarchy among institutions, but that it was the role of public higher education policy to mitigate it. The NSS currently shows high satisfaction across all types of institution since resources devoted to student education vary only slightly across the public sector (Oxford and Cambridge perhaps excepted given the additional revenue generated by the endowments and property portfolios of their constituent colleges).

6.11. We now have a Government explicitly committed to the stratification of students and degree quality within higher education thus reinforcing inherited privilege.


7.1. The Government’s intention to produce a market in higher education, in which some universities will charge significantly more than others, has the ultimate aim that the majority of students will attend institutions charging £6,000 or less.

7.2. In this way, the Government is bringing about a reduction in the quality of higher education available to the majority of students. Even at £6,000, students will be asked to pay nearly twice as much as they do at present, yet the overall resources available to universities to support those courses will be reduced by a factor of about 20-25% (this is the consequence of reducing public support through the block grant which is only being partially recovered by fees). There is no London weighting incorporated into the scheme, which means that universities in the capital face additional cost pressures.

7.3. This will create serious financial instability for Universities, which will experience new and unpredictable patterns of demand for their courses, at the same time as they experience competition from for-profit and other low cost providers, such as colleges of Further Education operating in concert with private corporations (such as EdExcel owned by the publisher, Pearson plc) providing curriculum, textbooks and other services.

7.4. The further implication, as advocated by Vice-Chancellors in the Russell Group, is that this upper cap on fees will at some point in the near future be lifted, with universities allowed to charge what the market will bear (their aspiration is fee levels in line with US Ivy League institutions). Education will become a ‘positional good’ at ‘elite’ institutions, a mark of exclusivity, and vocationally oriented at other institutions, where it is vulnerable to competition from for-profit providers, whose ‘exploitation’ of students has been the subject of a US Federal review.

16 The corporate corrupt patronage of the US for-profit sector, the object of much public debate in the US, is likely to be reproduced in the UK.




Howard Hotson ‘Short-Cuts’. London Review of Books, 2 June 2011 <;.


8.1. The Government’s White Paper claims it places the student at the heart of the system: but, as a consumer in a marketplace rather than as a student in a university. Chiefly, it fails to see the university as a diverse community, made up of researchers, teachers, students, administrators and support staff who work together to provide an education and not solely ’training for employability’, however important the world of work may be.

8.2. Professional and vocational courses hold a key place within higher education, but the government’s proposed system distorts the broader, more fundamental aim of university which is to foster critical thinking, learning and understanding of the individual, and of social connections, both globally and locally.

8.3. People come together in universities as a community of individuals from different walks of life, different social classes, backgrounds, and ethnicities, to create new ideas, foster mutual understanding, and to become motivated about their future and the future of others around them. University should be accessible to everyone, because society benefits from the ideas universities explore and publish: about social justice, about histories of oppression and its resistance, about medicine, science, law and ethics. Crucially, they are places in which disciplines intersect, where geneticists meet philosophers of ethics, where performers meet doctors and architects, where lawyers meet experts in language use.

8.4. True choice in university is at its heart about diversity of subjects and diversity among students. This is directly threatened by the Government’s representation of the term ‘choice’ by analogy to shopping in a supermarket. Its banality is belied by the serious threat it represents. True choice in diversity will be eroded by the proposals to allow narrowly-based new providers to cherry-pick courses, by the removal of public funding from the arts, humanities and social sciences, and by the proposals to reinforce the market position of ‘selective universities’.

8.5. Within higher education, the student-tutor relation is paramount. Students need to be taught by individuals who draw on new ideas and the history of their subject, in dialogue with others. For students to develop a critical understanding about institutions and social policies, they

need to be taught by independent thinkers.

The minimal recognition this receives in the Government White Paper is then undermined by the policies being proposed.

8.6. The Government wishes to give new providers the status of Universities and to confer on them degree-awarding powers, yet they will not draw upon the wider resources that are otherwise understood to constitute a ‘university’.

8.7. The Government is dismantling the basic principle of university education – that those who teach in the sector should be part of a self-critical academic community who safeguard common standards. In these new colleges, students will have teachers who are themselves consumers of other people’s knowledge, that is, tutors who are not themselves researchers in their subject area.

8.8. Most students will be paying more but getting less. But more important than this, they will be taught misleadingly to put a price tag on everything that they read and write. The intellectual freedom and critical autonomy of the individual, which democratic nations have sought to develop for centuries, will be irreparably damaged.



9.1. The White Paper purports to put students at the centre of its proposals. In fact, it only does this insofar as individuals will take on a much larger burden of debt. Previous generations received that education for free, or more affordably, because governments supported public universities by providing central teaching grants directly to institutions. Individuals will now pay much more but are unlikely to see a proportionate boost to the student experience and indeed seem likely to suffer from a reduced range of study options.

9.2. The many deficiencies in the Government proposals will skew the decisions made by applicants towards courses which promise high rates of graduate employment and boast of impressive starting salaries, regardless of whether or not those promises can be fulfilled in the longer term. Professional and vocational courses hold a key place within higher education, but the government’s loan system reinforces its preference for ‘training for employability’, at the cost of other purposes for education, which, in truth, have not been in conflict with employment up to now.

9.3. The Government’s White Paper encourages a misleading language of ‘value for money’ which considers higher education only as a private benefit to the individual. It promotes acceptance of a stratified system where quality of degree varies wildly – standards will be lowered in the interests of cheap competition.

9.4. This focus distorts the true meaning of the key concepts of competition and choice in the field of higher education, which can only be served by public universities: to provide a broad and dynamic range of high quality study options. In particular it threatens courses which offer less quantifiable, but no less important,

public benefits

9.5 Universities are central to the intellectual, cultural and economic life of this country. They connect our past to our future. They embody and communicate cultural knowledge, and generate the debate and discussion essential to artistic, scientific and business development and innovation. We can hardly put it better than the Dearing Report (1997), that it is necessary for higher education to “sustain a culture which demands disciplined thinking, encourages curiosity, challenges existing ideas and generates new ones; [and to] be part of the conscience of a democratic society, founded

on respect for the rights of the individual and the responsibilities of the individual to society as a whole”

The present polices must not prevail. There is no mandate for the privatisation of higher education and for the despoiling of the social, cultural and public value of universities.

Week 7: Euphemism, the University, and Disobedience by Alexander Duttmann

30 Jul

 Unpublished conference talk, reproduced with permission.

Alexander García Düttmann (Goldsmiths, London, UK)


Euphemism is the linguistic condition of contemporary society and spreads through the university as much as through any other institution. But what, exactly, is a euphemism? After having turned his attention to the different meanings of the Greek word from which “euphemism” is derived, and having considered the fact that they seem to contradict each other and bring about a “euphemism of the euphemism”, French linguist Émile Benveniste states that, once the distinction between language and speech is taken into account, it appears that the “proper meaning” of the word is “doubtlessly positive”: “Since what should be self-evident has been misconstrued, we need to stress that euphemein means always, and only, „to speak words that bode well‟.”[1] A euphemism, Benveniste explains, can be used to ward off a risk or a danger, the menace of a fatal interruption, where even “futile words” may prove precarious and lead to a catastrophic reversal. In this sense, euphemisms denote an active rather than a passive usage of language. Yet Benveniste also insists on the necessity of establishing the precise conditions of the usage made of a euphemism in speech. It is “the situation alone” that determines the euphemism‟s function and functioning. What Benveniste calls “semantic deviation”, a deviation caused by the “play of different usages”, may erase the traces of a euphemism, turn the active usage of language into a passive one. Thus the linguist shows that “tuer“, the most common word for killing in French, has “euphemistic origins”.[2] In English, the word “killing” as it appears in Killing Thinking, the title of Mary Evans‟ excellent book on the “death of the universities”, on the replacement of “argument” by the establishing of “the „right‟ process”, the setting of the game‟s rules, and the recruiting of “cooperative and consenting players”,[3] should not be understood as a euphemism, and even less so as a metaphor, but quite literally. One could be tempted to conclude from Benveniste‟s remarks that precisely because one cannot understand what a euphemism is without moving between language and speech, structure and actual utterance, or between a “proper meaning” and a meaning dependent on the particular circumstances of linguistic usage, euphemisms remain an ambiguous phenomenon, hovering between the active and the passive, between memory and forgetting, as if the euphemism were itself in need of a euphemism, a “euphemism of the euphemism”.

Now if euphemism is indeed the linguistic condition of contemporary society, this means that those who live in this condition know about the reality of their lives without actually confronting it; deception and a belief in some magical power merge in euphemistic speech, and the ability to deceive oneself and others collapses into self-deception as fate. When speaking, writing, and thinking, euphemists actively contribute to the suppression of their awareness, and are therefore aware of what they seek to conjure away, as well as of the repelling conjuration itself. They produce an ambiguity in which they install themselves. For example, the administration of a college whose survival is, as everybody admits, particularly endangered by the imminent privatisation of the humanities, the arts, and the social sciences in the United Kingdom, has formed a group charged with the task of pondering the college‟s future; but the final dismantlement of the university that consists in this privatisation does not prevent the academics and administrators concerned from calling their group “Blue Skies”. For a British professor to make it into the highest salary band, teaching and research are not decisive; what counts, in the end, is a profile as an administrator, as someone who has secured funding or served on committees that administrators hold in high esteem. What counts, in the end, is whether the academic has played the game, whether he has turned into an institutional networker and politician, or not. Professors who are paid the highest salary are ideal academics; as such, as administrators of intellectual abilities, they are all part of a sort of nationwide corporation. In Hegel‟s Philosophy of Right, the corporation represents the State since the individual has only limited access to the modern State‟s “universal business”.[4] It allows for a transition between civil society and the State. Yet the State must also supervise the corporation for it not to decline into a “miserable guild system”. With the administration ruling the university, and the principle of efficiency and accountability reigning sovereign over it, the university has become still another access point to the State‟s business, one, however, that no longer requires supervision. If, in the past years, the financial identification of the ideal academic with an administrator was already a clear sign of the administration gaining control of the university, the privatisation of the humanities, the arts, and the social sciences is the last step on the path towards the crisis of all crises, towards the administration‟s unimpeded domination, towards the inescapable alliance of the “bureaucratic agenda”[5] with a market- and commerce-driven view of academic values. Inasmuch as this domination results in an abolition of the university, in the subversion of the university by the principle of efficiency and accountability, the administration needs euphemistic speech to justify its dominating existence: just as it speaks of professors when it should refer to them as administrators, lobbyists, or politicians, it needs to continue using the word “university”, which it empties of all meaning, selling it off to the one who is willing to pay the top price. Hence the ambiguity.

In the middle of the 1950s, Adorno observed that ideology had undergone an important transformation: “Nothing is left from ideology except an acknowledgement of what exists, except various models of a behaviour that submits to the overpowering force of existing conditions.”[6] Now to the extent that acknowledgement entails an active behaviour, not simply a confirmation but also a creation, and inasmuch as ideology has ceased merely to dissimulate and transfigure the prevailing forms of social domination, it is the invention of euphemistic speech that today achieves the effect of ideology, which consists in an acceptance of these forms. Using a euphemism always signals a resistance that stems from a fundamental acceptance. All acceptance is ultimately a virtual resistance, at least insofar as there is an active element to it, or insofar as pure passivity could never accept anything. What the euphemism does, then, is to exploit the resources of acceptance in the realm of language. Sometimes acceptance is bluntly demanded. For example, academic research is now also measured in terms of its “impact” outside the university. Not too long ago, at one British university, the dean of research sent out a message saying that, although colleagues might not like it, the category of “impact” was here to stay, so they‟d better cope with it, accept it as a given. In many cases, the “impact” of academic research, of an original idea developed by someone teaching at a university, is most difficult to ascertain; by definition, there is always a surplus in an idea that resists its having an easily recognisable, measurable “impact”. Occasionally, ideas that have such an immediate “impact” vanish without leaving much of a trace. Just as education and culture do not know of “correct customary practices”[7], as Adorno writes in an essay on the relationship between tutors and students, just as the “finest education is one without aims and objectives”,[8] as Mary Evans has it, just as the God-forsaken student who constantly looks for rules, norms, or guidelines, especially when it comes to assessment and evaluation, has ceased to be a student, as Adorno once again suggests in his essay, the “impact” of an idea must remain unpredictable for the idea to be one. Therefore, “impact” as a category of research entails simplification, generates simplistic ideas, and works as a euphemism. It fosters the “specialist‟s credence in facts” and what Adorno recognised as the complement of such “scientific spirit”, the “faith in grandiose expressions and magical turns of phrase”.[9] At Goldsmiths, the progress of a so-called research student, a PhD candidate, is also determined according to whether he has presented his findings to a “non-specialist” audience or not. Anna Gielas concludes an article published in the “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung” with the following sentence: “The future of the humanities in England lies, it would seem, not in exceptional research but in a convincing press office and in lively tweeting.”[10]

If euphemism can be understood as exploiting the resources of acceptance in the realm of language, if the one who uses euphemistic speech reveals to all others that he is a player, it should be clear why there is no place for it in the university. Using euphemistic speech is a manner of saying something with the intention not to say it. Today, it is even a manner of not saying something with the intention of saying it, as if the euphemism were being used against itself, a husk of a husk. The university, however, is the place where, as Jacques Derrida remarks in his lecture on the idea of an “unconditional university”, the “fundamental right to say everything”[11], and to say it publically, even in the guise of fiction or as an experiment of knowledge, must inform the teaching imparted and the research undertaken. It follows from this paradoxical condition that the restrictive fiction of euphemism subordinates teaching and research to power, hence to exclusion, and destroys the very idea of the university. It abandons its name to manipulation and domination. The operation performed by euphemistic speech severs the link between the word and the idea; as a result, it transforms words into euphemisms not only by substituting a particular content for another content but also by way of the substitution itself, of a formal procedure, as if language and speech, or structure and actual utterance, were inseparably intertwined. Once the university is governed by euphemistic speech, once the word “university” is severed from its idea, it is already a euphemism, regardless of how it is used in specific academic, political, or social contexts. Seven years ago, Mary Evans noted that “the word „university‟ is, in contemporary Britain, a vague and unreliable term”.[12]

Why is the condition of the university a paradoxical condition, and does this condition not threaten to enclose the university, or its discourse, in euphemistic speech? As a condition, does it not threaten to install power at the center of the university? Surely it is not enough to point to the attribution of unconditionality to the university for its condition to prove paradoxical, at least not to the extent that the condition of unconditionality indicates the impossibility of separating the condition from the conditioned, the form from its content: in the unconditional university, there can be no euphemism because the idea is not separated from reality by a gap. Yet inasmuch as the university is an institution, an institution placed within a larger social and political context, and inasmuch as it has a history, the force of its independence is also the impotence of a dependence, and idea and reality, condition and conditioned, do not simply coincide, so that the condition proves paradoxical indeed. If the university, or its discourse, can fall prey to euphemistic speech in principle, it is on the basis of this paradox; it is because the university‟s condition does and does not differ from its unconditionality. This can also be expressed differently, by stressing the fact that unconditionality cannot be an extrinsic attribute of the university, of a whole that would then be nothing else but the agglomeration of its parts, of the subjects taught at the university, of the knowledge produced, accumulated, archived in its departments and libraries. In this case, in the case of a totality achieved only externally, condition and unconditionality would never really be one. If, therefore, unconditionality must be intrinsic to the university for it to be a whole, then its criterion must be sought in what makes the whole into a whole in the first place, namely its inclusive character: the university as the place where “everything can be said”, hence the university as the place of the open and of openness, as a place that remains “heterogeneous in relation to the principle of power”,[13] to quote Derrida one more time. And yet there would be no “fundamental right to say everything”, the university would not be the whole of a radical openness, had everything been said already such that teaching at the university would consist merely in the repetition, the rehearsal, the reminder and the recalling of acquired knowledge. As a whole, the university has to be the place of an event “worthy of its name”,[14] as Derrida puts it, the place of what resists euphemism, because otherwise it would turn against itself; it would need to claim that nothing unknown is left that could still be researched; it would dissociate teaching from research, rendering itself superfluous or succumbing to its own reification. The university is the place, perhaps the only place, of the paradox of the whole and of its unconditionality. It is thus the criterion or the mark of unconditionality itself, the “fundamental right to say everything”, the fact that “saying everything” must be a “fundamental right” and cannot be a mere fact, that opens up a gap between the university‟s condition and its unconditionality, and in doing so allows for the possibility of euphemistic speech and the principle of power to take hold of the university. When this can happen, the question “whose university?” arises; that Derrida does not locate the unconditional university, the university “without conditions”, inside the university, within “the limits of what today is called the university”,[15] testifies to the necessity of the question, or to the specter of power and euphemism haunting the university from within. Yet another way of expressing the same thought is by distinguishing between, on the one hand, an openness conditioned by the kind of “neutral theoreticism”[16] that Derrida does not wish to renounce, and, on the other hand, an openness that refuses to go along with the neutrality of theory and with theory itself, exposing it to a “critical and more than critical unconditionality”.[17] While it is true that the “chance” of such a “critical and more than critical unconditionality” may lie in a “neutral theoreticism”, it is also true that its manifestations remain a challenge to theory and cannot easily be accommodated by its neutrality, not without being altered. “Neutral theoreticism” is more on the side of conditions and the conditioned than on the side of a “critical and more than critical unconditionality”. Why does Derrida hold fast to it? Probably for two reasons. Derrida holds fast to “neutral theoreticism” because only the “neutrality” of theory can have the catalysing function that a “critical and more than critical unconditionality” requires if it is not to petrify; any non-neutral discourse or practice could not obtain the effect of catalysis without biasing the unconditional‟s “critical and more than critical” import. But Derrida holds fast to “neutral theoreticism” also because “theory” flags the particular institutional set-up “unconditionality”requires, the set-up of a university placed in a larger context; “unconditionality” cannot be unconditional without being “critical”, without referring critically to theory and its neutrality. Thus the “fundamental right of saying everything” should not be misunderstood as a “fundamental right of saying anything“. Rather, whatever is said in the university, must pass the test of both the neutrality of theory and an unconditionality that by its very nature is “critical and more than critical”, and it is in the struggle between the two as a struggle that defines and defies unconditionality at the same time, that the university exposes itself to euphemistic speech, charlatanry, and the usurpation of power. What appears here is that an unconditional university is, inherently, a university open to risk, to the risk of being subverted, while a university dominated by power, charlatanry, and euphemistic speech is a university that has ceased to expose itself or that seeks to minimise such exposure. If what an idea does is to exhibit the thing as such, if the idea of the university is the exhibition of the university as such, that is, as a whole, and if the whole of the university resides in the paradox of a speech divided between a saying everything here and now, and a “right” to say everything, then the idea of the university is not just one idea amongst others but, in a sense, the idea of all ideas, or the idea as such; then the life of the university, the reality of its idea, is about the idea and the paradox of the whole. For, once again, the whole must open up, expose itself, to be a whole. From this angle, it does not come as a surprise that Derrida draws attention to the problem of the “as” at the end of his lecture.[18] How can the whole of the university be exhibited “as such”, according to the idea, if the whole itself demands an opening, if saying everything, and doing so in public, as Derrida stipulates with a Kantian overtone, splits into a virtuality and an actuality?

It is interesting that, in his lecture, Derrida mentions a euphemism. He does so when asking himself to what extent the “organisation of research and teaching” should be supported, “that is to say directly or indirectly controlled […] in view of commercial and industrial interests”; after referring to this form of immediate or mediated control, he adds: “let‟s say, by way of euphemism, „sponsored‟”.[19] When, later on, Derrida denounces the increase in “underpaid and marginalised” part-time staff at universities, he reminds the listener of the fact that the increase tends to be justified “in the name of what is called flexibility and competitiveness”,[20] thus once again exposing a euphemistic usage of language in the university. From a purely sequential point of view, Derrida mentions euphemism shortly before he alludes to a “principle of civil disobedience“[21] which he associates with deconstruction in the humanities. As is well known, “Civil Disobedience” is the perhaps unfortunate title chosen posthumously for the republication of an essay by Thoreau initially called “Resistance to Civil Government”. Although Thoreau wishes to speak “practically and as a citizen”,[22] refusing to present himself as a “no-government man”, it is also true that the resistance he advocates is not the resistance of a citizen against the State but the resistance of an individual whose citizenship is at stake, precisely; of an individual who refuses allegiance to the State”, withdrawing and standing “aloof from it effectually”[23]. This is why Stanley Cavell describes it as the “power to demand the change of the world as a whole”[24], a description that resonates with his concise summary of one of the senses of Walden: “And the nation too must die down to the root if it is to continue to recognise and neighbor itself.”[25] When it comes to the university, it is also a question of the whole, and of its resistance to reification. However, what Thoreau‟s essay and Derrida‟s lecture have in common is not so much the insistence on a “register of lasting” and enduring as it appears in a “public crisis” when the majority has established a “form of tyranny”; it is not so much the insistence on the “power of passivity” that Cavell emphasises in relation to “civil disobedience”; what they both have in common is rather an appeal to urgency. Thus, having raised the question of the possibility of an unconditional university, of the meaningfulness and the intelligibility of such a concept, Derrida ends his lecture with an apostrophe. He tells the audience to take its time when trying to find an answer to his question, and then says: “But hurry up, for you do not know what is in store for you” – or perhaps, in a more literal translation: “what awaits you”.[26] The urgency of the appeal stems from the unpredictability and unaccountability, the radical inefficiency of the disruptive event to which an unconditional university exposes itself, the event on which the whole of the university depends for it to constitute a whole, and that at the same time thwarts it as a whole, the event of an idea or a thought, of a practice or of research that prove truly innovative. Yet the urgency of the appeal also stems from the risk of the university being entirely permeated by euphemistic speech after surrendering to the conditions imposed by the principle of efficiency and accountability. Has the appeal gone unheard, is it still being ignored now that academics know more about what is in store for them? “The professoriate is awfully quiet, essentially nonexistent as a collective voice”,[27] states in an article on the “crisis in Higher Education” that deals with the current situation in the United States and that appeared in “The Nation” on the 4th of May 2011. Is this absence of solidarity a symptom of academics serving the administration as machines instead of exercising their judgement freely? Thoreau begins his meditation on “civil disobedience” with his belief that the best government is the one that “governs not at all” – here, an analogy would allow a contemporary academic to state his belief that the best administration of a university is the one that makes itself imperceptible, not because it has become ubiquitous but because it is almost superfluous. When it emerges for the first time in Thoreau‟s text, the appeal to urgency takes on the form of an “at-once”, an expression Thoreau uses repeatedly. The government must change “at once”,[28] he claims; it would be wrong to assume that one ought to wait until a new majority is found rather than disobeying and transgressing unjust laws “at once”.[29] It is all a matter of time, of raw time, as it were, not of domesticated, timelesss time, not of procedure, plotting, negotiating, compromising, as if a change could never be brought about other than “at once”, immediately, or as if the urgency of the appeal reflected the urgency, the harshness, the convulsiveness inscribed in change itself, in the opportunity that must be seized each time a change needs to occur: “As for adopting the ways which the State has provided for remedying the evil, I know of no such ways. They take too much time, and a man‟s life will be gone. I have other affairs to attend to.”[30] Can irony be detected in Thoreau‟s remark that “a man has not everything to do, but something”, and that “because he cannot do everything, it is not necessary that he should dosomething wrong”? At this point, the analogy with the university, or at least with the idea of an unconditional university, could run like this: the right of the academic to say everything and to say it in public, is not necessarily the right to say something wrong, for, unable to say everything and yet constrained to say something, he does not have to say just anything. In short, the urgency of saying and doing something does not entail that what will be said and done will prove wrong, quite the contrary: “what is once well done is done forever”,[31] and what is once well said is said forever, too. Saying can even be a doing when “loving better to talk about it” ruins both. The time of procedure, of method and lobbying, of hesitation, regret and petitioning, of opposition “in opinion”, is a kind of euphemism that dissimulates the necessity and also the risk of such urgency, of an urgency that is the very manifestation of thinking and doing something. It alone bears the chance of thinking and doing something, something new, something speculative, perhaps because thought or “action from principle, the perception and the performance of right”[32] that alone changes “things and relations” must add urgency to the urgency of saying and doingsomething. Such action must break with any given conditions, interrupt the course of things and the reliance on established relations. A university forced to entrust itself largely or entirely to the market is a university based on acceptance, hostile in principle to criticism and to the new, unless criticism and the new can be transformed into commodities and thereby appeal to potential clients, patrons, sponsors. It is, to a larger or to a lesser degree, a conditioned, not an unconditional university, a university under control. Euphemism as the exploitation of acceptance in language is the linguistic condition of such an institution. Disobedience as that which happens at once is the only manner of committing oneself to the idea, or to an unconditional university. If disobedience is therefore also the only manner of resisting euphemism, academics and administrators should start calling things by their names. This practice would activate the resistance inherent in all acceptance and direct it against the restrictive fiction of euphemism, against the distancing that both disguises and shows itself, though never so as to make something visible but always so as to make something acceptable. To the extent that, on the one hand, things may have more than one name and that the “play of different usages” can always extend further than one anticipates, beyond what one takes to be a “proper meaning”, and insofar as, on the other hand, fiction has a distancing effect, this practice would amount to the creation of the most outrageous fiction, a fiction that would no longer differ from reality but that would constitute the point of indifference where the “as if” and the “as such” can no longer be distinguished from each other and coincide at once; a fiction that would distance the academic and the student from euphemism only to expose them to what the euphemism says without saying it, the awful truth, and to do so at the limit where truth and fiction cannot be opposed anymore. Killing Thinking, the title of Mary Evans‟ book, is an example of this calling-things-by-their-names since it can be regarded as creating an outrageous fiction – how does one kill a non-physical object? – inseparable from the uncovering of an awful truth – thinking is killed. Ultimately, it is not so difficult to spell out what a university that deserves its name must look like: it must do all it possibly can do to support actively the disobedient academic who pursues his teaching and his research with integrity, a virtue or a force or a value resilient to methodological verification, not pushing him to serve on committees, attend endless meetings and engage in institutional politics, spend his time with administrative paperwork, with double and triple marking, meet “goals” and “objectives”, teach “transferrable skills”, secure massive amounts of funding, publish a fixed number of books and articles, or have an “impact” with his work outside the university.

[1] Émile Benveniste, “Euphémismes anciens et modernes”, in: Problèmes de linguistique générale, volume I, Paris: Gallimard 1966, p. 309.

[2] ibid., p. 314.

[3] Mary Evans, Killing Thinking, London and New York: Continuum 2004, p. 62.

[4] G.W.F. Hegel, Grundlinien der Philosophie des Rechts, in: Theorie-Werkausgabe, volume 7, Suhrkamp: Frankfurt am Main 1970, p. 397.

[5] Evans, Killing Thinking, p. 42

[6] Theodor W. Adorno, “Beitrag zur Ideologienlehre”, in: Gesammelte Schriften, volume 8, Suhrkamp: Frankfurt am Main 1972, p. 477.

[7] Theodor W. Adorno, “Philosophie und Lehrer”, in: Eingriffe, Gesammelte Schriften, volume 10.2, Suhrkamp: Frankfurt am Main 1977, p. 485.

[8] Evans, Killing Thinking, p. 124.

[9] Adorno, “Philosophie und Lehrer”., p. 483.

[10] Anna Gielas, “Philosophie, die dem Tourismus nicht nützt, ist entbehrlich”, in: Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 18 May 2011, section “Forschung und Lehre”, p. 5.

[11] Jacques Derrida, L’université sans condition, Paris: Galilée 2001, p. 16.

[12] Evans, Killing Thinking, p. 105.

[13] Derrida, L’université sans condition, p. 18.

[14] ibid., p. 74.

[15] ibid., p. 78.

[16] ibid., p. 42.

[17] ibid., p. 43.

[18] ibid., p. 74.

[19] ibid., p. 19.

[20] ibid., p. 58.

[21] ibid., p. 21.

[22] Henry David Thoreau, Walden and Civil Disobedience, New York: Penguin Books 1983, p. 386.

[23] ibid., p. 407.

[24] Stanley Cavell, This New Yet Unapproachable America, Albuquerque: Living Batch Press 1989, p. 115.

[25] Stanley Cavell, The Senses of Walden: An Expanded Edition, Chicago: Chicago University Press 1992, p. 116.

[26] Derrida, L’université sans condition, p. 79.

[27] William Deresiewicz, “Faulty Towers: The Crisis in Higher Education”, in: The Nation, 4 May 2011.

[28] Thoreau, Walden and Civil Disobedience, p. 386.

[29] ibid., p. 395.

[30] ibid., p. 396.

[31] ibid., p. 398.

[32] ibid., p. 395.


Meeting Six: Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast

26 Jul


The next meeting of ARG will be held on:

Wednesday 27th July (that’s tomorrow!)

6pm – 8pm

Venue: Meet foyer of Birkbeck University (TBC)

Text to be discussed:

Antagonism, Neo-liberalism and Movements: Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast
The Free Association
Available here:
or in their book Moments of Excess.

Fifth Meeting: Revolution, Fascism and Communization

11 Jul

The next meeting of ARG will be held on:

Thursday 14th July

7pm – 9pm

Venue: Meet foyer of Birkbeck University.

Text to be discussed:

Gilles Dauvé, When Insurrections Die (1979)