Last Tuesday, I attended the Roundhouse Conference on Critical Theory and Education, organised by students at the University of Leeds, who run Roundhouse: A Journal of Critical Theory and Practice. It was a great, inspiring day that reminded me of what it was like to be a student ((It’s been ten years since Graduate School and I don’t have much contact with students in my current role)) and why students are well-placed to affect change in universities, whether it’s pressure from the outside or covertly from the inside.
Rather than simply moaning, there was some good negative critique about the role of universities with both staff and students shifting between anger, despair and inspired subversion of the neo-liberal agenda.
A few things in particular caught my attention on the day. The first followed Mike Neary’s talk during ‘The State of Pedagogy and the University’ session. He referred to the ‘student as producer‘ and this phrase kept returning throughout the day as staff and students seemed to like it. The conference itself was a good example of student/staff collaboration and there were no apparent hierarchies in the running of the day. Students were more than capable of organising, moderating and running a day-long session that critically discussed pedagogy, the role of the university and how it might be transformed.
Secondly, the current industrial dispute at Leeds over job cuts, was a recurring theme during the round table discussions over the course of the day. This helped ground the theoretical critique in a real crisis that staff and students at Leeds are actually part of.
Thirdly, there was a discussion about parallelism, with one of the speakers saying that there was no hope of meaningful reform and that the time has come to contemplate the end of the university as a site of critical thinking. He argued that by remaining within the university, we collude in our own oppression and suggested that new autonomous spaces needed to be created apart from the agenda of neo-liberal education. There was some sympathy with this view, although another speaker referred to the time when Charles Clarke questioned the state funding of Medieval History in favour of subjects that benefit the economy. The point being made was that parallelism would still serve the interests of the State by removing the responsibility of funding ‘uneconomic’ subjects. In effect, parallelism would act as a form of efficiency under the neo-liberal agenda.
Finally, I was really pleased to hear about a couple of student run initiatives at Leeds:
The Peanut Gallery, an autonomous student-run social centre.
I hope they can keep this running as it sounds like there’s pressure to close it down.
The most inspiring aspect of the day for me was learning about The Really Open University, which “sets out to change the expectations that people have of university life, and by extension the rest of our lives.” The conference was leafleted with a recent copy of The Sausage Factory [PDF], describing their launch.
The public launch of ROU took place on March 2nd, when over fifty students, staff and members of the larger community came together to discuss, ‘What is a Really Open University?’ This group was brought together by a recognition of the need for alternatives to the current educational system which puts everything – teaching, learning, our daily lives – up for sale, and makes efficiency drives such as the current budget cuts seem inevitable. Through a collective and participatory process, this group developed several vision statements about what education without restraints would look like.
The Really Open University website has opened my eyes to how students are using the web for education-related activism. The Really Open Union site is a good example that brings together initiatives elsewhere. I agree with Leon’s comment on the Roundhouse blog that The Really Open University is a good example of putting theory into action and should be supported.