I read Biochemistry and Chemistry at the University of Hull in the 1980s and had academic and student friends in various ‘Humanities’ departments. The diversity of ‘pure’ and ‘applied’ departments produced a varied academic and cultural atmosphere within the university. At this time, Thatcher had just come to power and the ‘neo-liberal’ agenda was taking off. When I returned to the University in the 1990s to undertake postgraduate studies in Education, the situation had completely changed.
The ‘senate’ (the governing body of the university) was now dominated by the representatives of local large businesses like British Aerospace, Reckitt Benckiser, Smith & Nephew, BP, etc. Private capital had a majority (and therefore an effective veto) on this body. The whole trajectory of the work of the university had become utterly re-orientated towards addressing and servicing the needs of big capital and this was completely reflected in the changes which had taken place in the departments and the courses which they offered. From now on, ‘pure’ was out and ‘applied ‘ was in. ‘Pure’ was ‘toast’. ‘Applied’ was ‘tutti’.
Departments were closed down and courses axed if they diverged too widely from the material interests and ‘developmental’ demands of capital. Courses were modified in order to make them more appealing to funding from private capital or other associated bodies. The area of ‘Business Studies’ across higher education boomed like a plague of rats in a rich medieval autumn harvest. At Hull, a whole building was dedicated to the false and fetishistic nonsense called ‘Business Studies’. In the philosophy department, for example, applied and medical ethics replaced ‘purer’ forms of study. The whole Maths department was axed and replaced by a couple of roving Mathematicians who serviced the mathematical needs of other courses. Many Mathematicians were ‘poached’ by the University of York up the road. Philistinism was too mild a word to describe what they actually did to the university. Language departments were binned. The Vice-Chancellor became a figure of hate amongst some academics. ‘Tenure’ was axed. Insecurity of employment (casualisation and precarisation) became established and structured into teaching posts in the universities. Teachers were paid by the ‘module’ taught. Many ended up in the dole queue.
The Chemistry and Engineering departments became totally enthralled to private capital. I understand the Computer Studies department is also like that today. I remember feeling like persona non grata in the Biochemistry department, even in the early 1980s, because I was a “known Marxist” active in the university and local community. The Chairholder of the department knew all the local establishment figures like the local Police Chief, top Businessmen and the like. Politically and philosophically, the Biochemists were such a conservative crowd. The hostility to socialism from some was almost visceral. It was the reactionary trend in the ‘middle class’ at its worst. Even racism was to be found in the department. I was told in no uncertain terms by the departmental professor that if I didn’t pay a fine to the university library on an overdue book (Lenin, Volume 38, I recall), I would not be permitted to graduate and not given references for employment. The professor discussed my ‘case’ with the chief university librarian who, at that time, was the poet Philip Larkin. Larkin had marked right-wing politics with racist tendencies. He was the butt of student jokes at the time, especially in regard to his pornography collecting habits. He lived in Pearson Park off Princes Avenue in Hull for 18 years and was a regular commuter on his bike between home and the Brynmor Jones Library, suitably clad in raincoat and bicycle clips. The local kids who encountered him in the park on his bike addressed him as “Phil” with the regular refrain “Hey Phil, give us a poem”.
When I was studying Biochemistry, anybody with a 2.2 degree could get a grant for fees and funding of expenses from the UK state to study for a Postgraduate Diploma/Masters as a prelude, if desired, to go on to study for a PhD. Research funded by private capital was unusual in the Biochemistry department. I recall one solitary postgrad who was receiving a grant from a local brewery to investigate the role played by Dimethylsulphoxide in Lager. Everybody was highly bemused about it, cracked jokes, and I recall the recipient of the grant being somewhat furtive and embarrassed about it.
Today, graduates with sparkling first class degrees in any subject are extremely fortunate to get a grant from anywhere. Many are on the dole (the ‘welfare’ in the US). And this even applies to Oxford and Cambridge graduates. Most funding now actually originates directly out of the pockets of private capital or its agencies. They dictate what they are interested in and they seek somebody to do the research to get the answers which will service the moneygrubbing requirements of capital. If you wish to research Hegel or Marx, or any thinker, they look at you as if you have just been beamed across intergalactic space from an unknown planet. There is a continuous mad rush to get onto vocational courses which take you directly onto the path of an ‘applied’ career like Medicine, Dentistry, Veterinary Science, Accountancy, Pharmacy, Computer Technology, etc. In some quarters, Sociology, Anthropology, Philosophy, History, etc, are seen as areas of personal interest which you can study without the aid of a university and its facilities. I wouldn’t be surprised if that is what will happen to them in the not too distant future.
In the UK, the whole university and further education system is now totally geared towards meeting the needs of capital and its various agencies. So much so that education is now seen as a ‘market’ like any other market by investors. The whole system of funding fees for courses and providing living expenses for students comes out of the coffers of profit-seeking, private money capital. At the end of the course, students are liable for the full debt with interest i.e. for fees and expenses. But all funding by finance capital is actually underwritten by the state power itself. If they don’t get their principal returned back with interest from debtor students, then the state power will make sure they do as an insurance policy. The capitalist moneygrubbers and profiteers are in a win-win situation.