The Global University in Crisis-I: Knowledge Struggles in Europe and USA

May 23, 2010

By Amit Basole, Sanhati

NOTE: This is planned as a two-part article on the politics of global higher education today. In the first part I discuss the Euro-US movements against the University. In the second part I will talk about the Indian higher education context and what the Euro-US movements mean for us.

The University has no history of its own; its history is the history of capital. Its essential function is the reproduction of the relationship between capital and labor. – Communiqué from an Absent Future, Manifesto of the California Student Movement

The implementation of the `Bologna Process’ is taken as one of the most dangerous threats to the university as we used to know it. But should the university `as we used to know it’ become the object of a rescue operation? – Factory of the Commons, Seminar Group, Amsterdam, The Netherlands


Middlesex University, England
(Source: Edu-Factory)

The University is the most prized product of the capitalist age. It is sometimes thought to represent the highest achievements of modern culture and to provide the intellectual atmosphere necessary for the preservation of capitalist society via a judicious mixture of consent and dissent. As California’s militant student movement puts it, the [modern] university’s history is the history of capital itself. Not surprising then that the fortunes of the university are tied to the fortunes of capital. The protracted crisis of global capitalism, which started in the 1970s, and to which Neoliberalism was the response, resulted in the Neoliberal University that we know today. The most recent capitalist crisis has unleashed a fresh wave of “reforms” from above and unrest from below in universities across Europe and the USA. The cry “We Won’t Pay for Your Crisis,” originally the slogan of the Italian “Anomalous Wave,” has resounded in student movements everywhere. Most strikingly many of these movement, such as the “Anomalous Wave” in Italy and the “Absent Futures” movement in California display little nostalgia for the way knowledge was produced and distributed in the past. They speak of a new type of university that produces “living knowledge” instead of teaching abstract, dead knowledge. They dream of a fundamental change in the modern university in such a way that it no longer serves as the pillar of capitalist society.

I. The Neoliberal University-Factory

Marc Bousquet in his hard-hitting book, How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation [1] offers a compelling picture of how the neoliberal university was born and nurtured, and how it functions. The picture that emerges is that today most universities are run like or by corporations. Students are customers to be attracted via state of the art gymnasiums and dormitories, while the faculty becomes casualized, services (like dining and construction) are sub-contracted out to private operators, and entire departments deemed irrelevant (such as Philosophy or English) are threatened with closure.

Paradoxically, even as they are customers to be wooed, students are also labor to be exploited. In a chapter titled “Students are already Workers” Bousquet notes that in US universities, student workers may account for as much as half the total labor time expended on campus. Further, student workers are no longer working only for libraries or in community service (the traditional public image of student work) but rather in food services, day cares, janitorial work, building security, laundry services and so on. Even as students are coerced into the low-wage labor force, their tuition costs have risen many times faster than the rate of inflation. The result has been “unmanageable levels” of debt for fully 40% of graduating students. In the United States, for the class of 2007 the average student debt level was $21,900 [2]. As the California student movement manifesto puts it:

We work and we borrow in order to work and to borrow. And the jobs we work towards are the jobs we already have…We work to make money we have already spent, and our future labor has already been sold on the worst market around.

It notes that student loan volume, which has increased even as government spending on education has declined, rose by nearly 800% from 1977 to 2003 [3]. Not for nothing is the student loan market touted to deliver the next great bubble to keep global capitalism going.

That’s the demand side of the education market. On the supply side, tenured faculty has given way to casualized, adjunct teachers on permanently impermanent contracts paid a fraction of a full-timer’s wage while “compensation” has steadily increased for the upper levels of University administration behind the rhetoric of paying salaries that are “competitive with the private sector”. Bousquet reports that as early as 2000,

it was difficult to find any sector of higher education institutions in North America where the tenure-stream faculty (assistant, associate, and full professors) taught more than 30% of course sections- even in the Ivy League [1, p. 71]

In other words adjunct or contract labor accounted for majority of classroom teaching. In Italy these teachers, alongside other contract workers are called “precarious workers” and they have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the student movement in opposing neoliberal restructuring.

With this background in mind, the motto of (Edu-Factory), an Italian collective which has transformed into a transnational network of university students and teachers, becomes comprehensible. “What was once the factory, is now the University” is their slogan. While the exact meaning of this phrase is left open to interpretation, one meaning ascribed to it is that in the new Knowledge Economy (dubbed “cognitive capitalism”) the primary or most obvious locus of struggle has moved from the factory to the University, at least as far as the advanced capitalist economies are concerned. Events in the first decade of this century seem to have borne this out. Even as labor unrest is reduced to being a distant memory in Euro-USA, universities have seen a recent surge in protests. As I write this essay, the student strike at the University of Puerto Rico has entered its fourth week, paralyzing the functioning of the University since April 21st. The past three years have seen thousands of large and small struggles in Universities across the world, in the United States (particularly California and New York), in England, France, Germany, Austria, Italy, Greece, Serbia, Croatia, Hungary, Holland, Spain, Denmark, the list goes on. A comprehensive summary of these protests for the year 2009 is available at Emancipating Education for All.

The anger that was already brewing against the destruction of the archetypal public university, against rising costs of higher education and declining benefits of degrees, multiplied itself during the recession of 2008-2009. The latest crisis of world capitalism has clearly engulfed the University. Across the advanced capitalist economies and into the so-called emerging markets, undergraduate and graduate students, part-time faculty and staff are rising up against the management to protest fee hikes, budget cuts, department closures and other “reforms.” As money gets funneled into engineering and management departments and the liberal arts and social sciences are left to their own fate, what was always clear to us in the periphery has now also become open in the center. The University must impart only such education as meets the needs of global capital if it seeks to be well-funded. With the disappearance of the high profit rates and the welfare state of the Golden Age, the liberal arts are once again an unaffordable luxury.

II. “Against and Inside the Bologna Process”

In Europe neoliberal “reforms” have been introduced since 1999 under the guise of the “Bologna Process” whose stated aim is to create a “European Higher Education Area” (EHEA). While most of the member countries are European, the process has recently expanded to include Turkey, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. The Bologna Process is intended to be a process via which the disparate higher education systems in different European countries would be homogenized to create a uniform higher education area corresponding to the European Union, which is a political entity. The idea is to increase student mobility and to create a uniform labor market throughout Europe. In fact remodeling the education system along the lines prescribed by the Bologna Process has become a precondition for new countries to join the European Union.

According to its official website

overarching aim of the Bologna Process is to create a European Higher Education Area (EHEA) that promotes mobility; attracts students and staff from Europe as well as from other parts of the world; and is internationally competitive. It aims to do this by facilitating greater comparability and compatibility between the diverse higher education systems and institutions across Europe and by enhancing their quality.

Concretely the following changes are being implemented :

1. Creating uniformity in curricula and introduction of multiple-choice tests

2. Structuring higher education along three cycles (Bachelor-Master-PhD) and phasing out other types of formats

3. Instituting a European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System so that transfer of credit across countries becomes easier.

However the rhetoric and reality of the reforms are somewhat different. In practice implementation of the Bologna Process has meant cutbacks in public funding, in particular reduction of funding to and even phasing out of humanities and social science departments, increasing privatization of Universities services, higher tuition fees, introduction of student debt, unpaid and obligatory internships and so on. Higher education is being made more and more inaccessible. Activists note that “behind the rhetoric of “competitiveness”, “efficiency”, “merit”, “student mobility” and “euro-compatibility” the purpose of the Bologna Process is to create a unified continental education-labor market capable of producing a large intellectual workforce able to make Europe competitive in the knowledge global economy.” The line between “student” and worker” is also becoming more and more blurred. Thus activists against the Bologna Process argue that the student protests are actually protests of the new workers.

In the last five years students across Europe have repeatedly come to the streets in massive protests against the reforms in higher education that have been introduced since 1999. In addition to street protests involving thousands of students and “precarious workers” (teachers and other workers on short-term contracts) in Rome, Paris, Vienna etc., students have also occupied university lecture halls and offices, and conducted their own workshops and activities autonomously from the University. In Vienna, a spontaneously formed group of around 1500 students took over the main lecture hall of the famous Academy of Fine Arts. This occupation lasted nearly three months before the University administration was able to force the occupiers out. During this time no exams or lectures could take place in the main lecture hall. Occupations in particular have formed the centerpiece of resistance. The philosophy behind this is explained by the activists from Vienna:

Occupation means to take a certain space away from the influence of the existing powers, who have little choice but to use police force to reassert their control. As long as a space is occupied, the people inside have at least the chance to define what’s happening in it. [4]

A meeting of ministers from the 47 countries that are party to this process was held this March in Vienna to launch the EHEA. Students and activists from across Europe descended on Vienna in order to protest this meeting and to hold their own counter-summit. In March 2010, just after the ministerial summit, I met with Italian and Austrian students who had just participated a large “counter-summit” in opposition to the celebration of 10 years of the Bologna Process. The protest to which activists came from Italy, Germany, France etc, lasted four days. On the first day there was a “wildcat rasta roko” wherein the students ran through the city in a wild way blocking all circulation. Before the police could stop them they moved on unpredictably to the next intersection. In addition to this disruptive activity, the protestors also engaged in constructive activity like self-organized workshops.

III. No nostalgia for the past

Strikingly, even though they are protesting neoliberalization of the University, most movement literature as well as the activists I spoke to all stress that they do not want a return to the old University, which they say taught “dead knowledge.” Rather they speak of a new type of University, which will be autonomous and will be a space for the production of living knowledge, rather than a space of one-way transfer of dead knowledge. As one movement pamphlet puts it:

Resistance does not mean nostalgia for the old university model that was embedded in state power and supported by an idealistic and ideological conception of the university as an “ivory tower” of national and cultural pride. The resistance against the Bologna Process, in fact, produces living knowledge…and experiments in building another university [5]

It goes on to theorize that the movements across Europe have

foreshadowed a new constituent European space without any nostalgia for the past, but claiming the excess and immeasurableness of knowledge (the impossibility of imposing a measure), unveiling the real nature of neoliberalism, opposing the privatization knowledge and the new enclosures established through patents and copyrights. At the same time these movements, fed up with the control of the state bureaucracy upon the university and knowledge, claimed a public but not State university.

This sentiment is echoed in California, where the authors of the Absent Futures manifesto point out that French and Greek students, during their protests,

made almost no demands…Not because they considered this a better strategy, but because they wanted nothing that any of these institutions could offer.

They go on to assert:

Though we denounce the privatization of the university and its authoritarian system of governance, we do not seek structural reforms. We demand not a free university but a free society. [3]

The movement has tried to combine its protest with the new vision of the University. In Rome, the students of La Sapienza university, the largest university in Italy have built alliances not only with the precarious knowledge workers (adjunct faculty), but also with precarious workers outside the university and in particular with migrant workers, who in Italy, as in other places form the most vulnerable section of the working class. The student group which hosted me in Rome has its own space where it holds seminars, movie-screenings etc and also runs Italian classes for new migrant workers as well as offers legal help to migrant workers whose rights are being violated. Thus out of the university struggles the students are actively building links with the new working class in society at large. The success or failure of these new struggles will indeed depend on such alliances that the students can form with society and this time the students seem to realize it.

IV. Further Reading:

Books, Articles, Pamphlets:

1. How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation by Marc Bousquet, New York University Press, 2008.

2. Towards a Global Autonomous University: Cognitive Labor, The Production of Knowledge, and Exodus from the Education Factory, New York: Autonomedia, 2009.

3. Communiqué from an Absent Future (

4. From a Fall of Protest…to a spring of resistance and refusal: a collection of written insurrections from Vienna (

5. Europe Calling, A Pamphlet of the Uniriot Network (

6. Squatting the Crisis: On the current protests in education and perspectives on radical change by Lisa Dokuzovic and Eduard Freudmann (


1. (against the Bologna Processs)

2. (latest news and analysis of struggles in the world of knowledge)

3. (videos on protests etc)


5. (journal of the University of California movement)

6. (official Bologna Process website)

7. (critical theory and content from the nascent california student occupation movement)

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