Philosophers united against cuts

Students and academics meet at Institute of Contemporary Arts to discuss university department closu

It was only a matter of time before the protests of 1968 were alluded to in the Nash Room at the ICA yesterday evening. After an academic year that has brought mounting opposition to cuts in higher education, an impassioned crowd of students and academics from across the country had convened at the arts centre for a debate -- "Who's afraid of philosophy?" -- to discuss how to oppose department closures.

Since January, when £2.5bn worth of cuts was mooted, joint student-staff protests have been staged at the University of Sussex, at King's College London and at the University of Westminster, all of whose humanities departments have borne the brunt of attempts at savings, with philosophy departments made to feel particularly vulnerable.

This month, plans to axe the highly regarded philosophy department at Middlesex -- one of the most successful in the university -- prompted a 12-day student occupation of the Trent Park campus. Among those expressing their support for the campaign were Alain Badiou, Judith Butler, Slavoj Žižek and Noam Chomsky.

Last night -- five days after the students were evicted from the building following a high court injunction -- Professor Alexander Garcia Düttmann of Goldsmiths, University of London, warned that the protests at Middlesex represented much wider discontent with a managerial culture that forces researchers to prove their worth in quantitative and economic terms.

"Many of us are fed up with the way in which philosophy, the humanities and higher education more generally is treated by university managers and administrators . . . Whatever [subject] cannot account for its measurable success and whatever does not bring in money has no longer a place in the university, we are told.

"[The idea] that every aspect of academic life, a life now determined by the imperative of getting external funding, can and should be assessed and monitored . . . is a fiction that leads to arbitrary measures, as can be gauged by the decision to close a centre for philosophy that was actually successful according to the adopted criteria," Düttmann said.

In the view of Peter Osborne, senior lecturer in philosophy at Middlesex (who stands to lose his job), closures are being made at the behest of "new university managers and administrators [who] are the organic products of a new capitalist regime" in higher education. And philosophy, "functioning emblematically for the open-endedness of experimental research and unmeasurable quality of intellectual inquiry", has become "the temporary resting place of a capitalistic dread".

Professor Alex Callinicos of King's College London praised the co-operation between academic staff and students in organising the protests. Nina Power of Roehampton University urged campaign organisers to probe funding bodies such as the HEFCE themselves.

"Academics live in daily morbid fear of not getting research grants and approval from these bodies," she said. "We need to find out who makes up them, what they stand for, and why on earth they are unelected."

Readers can follow the ongoing campaign to save the Middlesex philosophy department here.

UPDATE: Good news for academic staff at King's College London, who, after staging a walkout this month, have been told there will no longer be compulsory redundancies in the School of Arts and Humanities.

In a document accessible via the university website, university administrators said: "At the end of the Consultation period, the School has identified the savings required by means other than compulsory redundancies; these include a range of voluntary severance packages, relocations, early retirements, non-replacement of retired staff, and the replacement of retiring staff with early-career academics."

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Brexiteers want national sovereignty and tighter borders – but they can't have both

The role of the European Court of Justice is a major sticking point in talks.

Why doesn't Theresa May's counter-offer on the rights of European citizens living and working in Britain pass muster among the EU27? It all comes down to one of the biggest sticking points in the Brexit talks: the role of the European Court of Justice.

The European Commission, under direction from the leaders of member states, wants the rights of the three million living here and of the British diaspora in the EU guaranteed by the European Court. Why? Because that way, the status of EU citizens here or that of British nationals in the EU aren't subject to the whims of a simple majority vote in the legislature.

This is where Liam Fox, as crassly he might have put it, has a point about the difference between the UK and the EU27, being that the UK does not "need to bury" its 20th century history. We're one of the few countries in the EU where political elites get away with saying, "Well, what's the worst that could happen?" when it comes to checks on legislative power. For the leaders of member states, a guarantee not backed up by the European Court of Justice is no guarantee at all.

That comes down to the biggest sticking point of the Brexit talks: rules. In terms of the deal that most British voters, Leave or Remain, want – a non-disruptive exit that allows the British government to set immigration policy – UK politicians can get that, provided they concede on money and rules, ie we continue to follow the directions of the European Court while having no power to set them. Britain could even seek its own trade deals and have that arrangement.

But the problem is that deal runs up against the motivations of the Brexit elite, who are in the main unfussed about migration but are concerned about sovereignty – and remaining subject to the rule of the ECJ without being able to set its parameters is, it goes without saying, a significant loss of sovereignty. 

Can a fudge be found? That the Article 50 process goes so heavily in favour of the EU27 and against the leaving member means that the appetite on the EuCo side for a fudge is limited. 

But there is hope, as David Davis has conceded that there will have to be an international guarantor, as of course there will have to be. If you trade across borders, you need a cross-border referee. If a plane goes up in one country and lands in another, then it is, by necessity, regulated across borders. (That arrangement has also been mooted by Sigmar Gabriel, foreign minister in Angela Merkel's government. But that Gabriel's centre-left party looks likely to be expelled from coalition after the next election means that his support isn't as valuable as many Brexiteers seem to think.)

On the Conservative side, a new EU-UK international body would satisfy the words of May's ECJ red line. On the EU27 side, that the body would, inevitably, take its lead from the treaties of the EU sans Britain and the ECJ would mean that in spirit, Britain would be subject to the ECJ by another name.

But it comes back to the Brexit dilemma. You can satisfy the voters' demand for non-disruptive control of British borders. You can satisfy political demand for sovereignty. But you can't have both. May – and whoever replaces her – will face the same question: who do you disappoint?

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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