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24 April 2024

Britain is divided by educational status

The crisis at Goldsmiths is symbolic of what is going wrong in our universities.

By Jonathan Rutherford

Shortly before Easter, Frances Corner, warden of Goldsmiths, University of London, announced the “Transformation Programme” that would take the college into “a new era”. And so, in the bureaucratic doublespeak of corporate management, the cutting of up to 132 full-time academic jobs was announced, and an iconic institution laid to waste.

With its long line of artistic, musical and intellectual alumni, Goldsmiths in south London has been a symbol of a bohemian cultural class. Home to such disciplines as critical theory, postcolonialism and queer history, it has also been a beacon of leftist, radical academia. The college has an intellectual history that makes it unique, and the last surviving institution with links to the cultural studies tradition dating back to the New Left.

The origins of the New Left lie in Communist Party dissenters EP Thompson and John Saville roneo-ing their ideas on culture and humanist Marxism in the New Reasoner in 1957. In 1960, they joined with the Oxford University-based Universities and Left Review to become the New Left Review. Stuart Hall was its first editor.

Such was the beginning of an extraordinary intellectual flourishing and a renascence in the study of culture in British universities. Its influence rippled through the social sciences and humanities, through politics, the media and journalism, and on across the world.

This tradition gave me my education, and my introduction to it came in 1986 at a Communist Party day school on the Marxist Antonio Gramsci. In 1989, I enrolled in the BA in contemporary cultural studies course at Middlesex Polytechnic. I received an Oxbridge-style education. I had a grant. I stayed to do a PhD and received a British Academy award to live on. All of this has now gone: the democratic ethos of “the poly”; the student grants and postgraduate awards that opened up opportunity; the introduction to an intellectual life of the left that stretched across numerous institutions, political groups, publications and events; and the wonderful library at the poly’s Cat Hill site in north London – torn down to make way for a new Tesco.

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I stayed for 20 years and then left academia. The crisis at Goldsmiths has brought it all back.

In 1997 I was teaching cultural studies. The New Labour government had embraced the knowledge revolution. “Knowledge and its profitable exploitation by business is the key to competitiveness,” announced Peter Mandelson, minister of trade and industry. Universities would be transformed from unproductive consumers of public money into centres of economic competitiveness. Globalisation would turn the most prestigious and efficient into international learning businesses. Market forces would begin to permeate every aspect of the university, undermining its traditional ethos.

Cultural studies began as a challenge to the idea of culture as the imaginative work of a small elite. It was, wrote Raymond Williams in Culture and Society (1958), “a whole way of life”. For Edward Thompson in The Making of the English Working Class (1963) class consciousness is forged in culture: a rebellious traditional culture resists economic exploitation in defence of its customs. Both men were part of the romantic tradition of British modernity, conservative and radical, at odds with Enlightenment rationalism and the avant-garde of continental modernism.

This tradition could not accommodate the postwar winds of change. It was the younger Stuart Hall who introduced race and anti-colonialism as foundational elements of cultural studies. As director of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, Hall led and was sometimes led by the growing scholarship of feminism and sexual politics as it contested meanings of culture.

Cultural studies gave form to the post-national and cosmopolitan language of the expanding metropolitan middle class created by mass higher education. In a brief heady moment, as its presence in the academy was disappearing, it found common cause with the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn. But in a country deeply divided by educational status, this only confirmed its confinement to the city and its class exclusivity.

A growing interest in continental Marxism and theories of structuralism and post-structuralism rejected the parochial thinking of Williams and Thompson. An anti-humanist and rationalistic scholarship took hold in the humanities and social sciences. Academia, with its own exclusive speech codes, was beginning to talk only to itself, often from rarified heights.

In our searching to understand the global, the theoretical, the exceptional, and the different, those of us who practised cultural studies lost sight of, even became contemptuous of, the virtue of the ordinary, the familiar, the everyday and the local in the lives of the majority of all ethnicities, who abide by often quite traditional moral values. This does not translate into a winning radical politics. Nor does it understand the value of culture in people’s lives.

The destruction of Goldsmiths will not resonate beyond the metropolitan class. Frances Corner is wrong about the beginning of a new era, however. It is the end of an era, and our universities are no longer capable of imagining the next.

[See also: Sectarianism has returned to England]

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This article appears in the 24 Apr 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Age of Danger