An Analysis of Further Education

The Leviathan at the heart of Britain’s Further Education


Plato’s ideal was that power must be coupled with wisdom. Ranciere’s ideal is that wisdom requires the absence of power. Thomas Hobbes ideal was a supreme power that can hold autonomous individuals under control and lead to the development of ‘civilized life’. For him, all competing rules that govern what the absolute power may do are abolished and a draconian state must exist. Only one of these metaphysical contributions is the empirical reality of Britain; its education system and in particular, the system of further education. It is the doctrine that should finally lie to rest any pretence that this nation is ‘pluralist’ and that the philosophy of learning emancipates the individual. It derives from the seventeenth century and it is known ironically as anarchy. ‘Hobbesian Anarchy’ (Hobbes 1651).

Since the UK finally succumbed to the gang lords of international capitalism in the mid 1970’s the economy has been directed external to the State. First OPEC and then the IMF and finally by the machinations of corporate globalisation. Britain is now in the hands of the unelectable and the unaccountable (apart from likeminded oligarchs). A normative politics of liberation and cerebral emancipation has long since succumbed to the agenda of instrumentalism. The dominant ideology (hegemony) requires subservience to profit and wealth creation. An illusion may be propagated to the contrary, in the form of learning in which qualifications are offered that service society over shareholders, but as WG Runciman (76) observed it is not the reality but the perception of reality that is most important. Ever since the 1970’s, the sights and heavy artillery of clandestine and open assaults, by governments on behalf of plutocrats, have been aimed not at the private, money making, sector but at the public, service providing, sector. Ideologically the hegemonic control of capitalism has become as much about pragmatic expansion as it has about physical growth. Order is therefore maintained and reinforced through the illusion that freedom and choice are a reality for all and that there is no alternative.

The superstructure generally and the education system specifically have been key in this process. Significantly the superstructure has increasingly become less influential in its relationship with the forces and relations of production. As systems are expected to become more efficient the role of education is being reduced to the identification and supply of skills that realize this demand. The obsession with economic growth and the use of language such as ‘recession’ and ‘depression’, in particular, focus the mind and behaviour to the exception of almost everything else. Once the capitalist oligarchs identify their targets it becomes both ritualistic and recurrent. As Gamble (83) observed ‘‘the state uses its power to roll back state intervention from whole areas of state activity to enable the state to protect the market from vested interests and restrictive practices and prevent the conditions in which it can flourish being subverted either from within or without.’ The role of education is thus well and truly nailed.

There is no more evident demonstration of this than the realm of Further education. Historically the salami in a vegetarian’s sandwich its popularity amongst the media, another tentacle of the superstructure, is noticeable if only for its lack of it. Public discourse welcomes A and AS levels annually but prefers to ignore vocational courses completely (unless specialized journals or supplements are included). Yet the instrumentalism taking place during these two years of education is as profound as any other aspect of the system, both mandatory and non mandatory. If GCSE’s and A levels are more nebulous in the instrumental role the same cannot be said for vocational courses. From Entry level programmes to Level 5, hundreds of thousands of students a year are being prepared to play their part in the economy and, most notably, the private capitalist economy.

Further education colleges in particular are a prime example of ‘Hobbesian anarchy’. From the governing body to the Principal to the senior leadership teams to the departmental managers to the lecturers and support staff to the students – the hegemony of job preparation and earning a wage are omnipresent. This serves to reinforce all of the ideological mechanisms that have molded the pubescent and post pubescent members of the population up to this point. For anybody in the institution to publically declare that education has another purpose would be manifestly regarded as anything from ‘weird’ to ‘pariah’. Qualifications are merely tickets to the lottery. The lottery of employment. To argue any different is to ignore the reality. Nowhere is this reality more explicit than the control implemented by the dominant funding mechanism in place and the ‘supreme’ measurer of educational quality: OFSTED (Office for Standards in Education).

The Young Persons learning Agency (YPLA), which is the current main fund providing incarnation of what was up until 1993 performed by the Local Education Authorities, is instructed by government to fund colleges depending upon certain criteria ranging from the number of students on role, six weeks from the course start date, through to the number who successfully complete. On the face of it this perhaps, seems fair. However, the consequent obsession within college cultures to maximize the number of successful students whilst keeping as many on role means that the learning experience becomes monopolized by the outcomes at the expense of the process. The process of teaching young people to think is subordinated to all students having to achieve at least a ‘pass’. Thus quality gives way to quantity – the paradigm at the heart of capitalism. This though creates a potential problem relative to control at the micro level. Most people who aspire to become teachers are not inspired by this pragmatism. Therefore the role of the Principal is to ensure that all managers within the institution create the conditions in which the only success is that which is externally determined by the corporations, the government and the funding agencies. Governing bodies are often nowhere to be seen as they too are ‘trained’ to let the Principals get on with it. Only when a catastrophic failure by the senior managers to achieve ‘their targets’ occurs is it possible to find any noticeable stirrings from them.

From macro to micro, ‘Hobbesian Anarchy’ becomes a reality and consequently the norm. Through the appraisal system; meetings; emails; classroom interaction… the culture of the institution is hegomonically determined. The most successful colleges are the institutions in which the most staff accepts this domination of consciousness without challenge. Those colleges in which the staff does not conform to this prevailing mantra tend to result in a Jacobean like rule by fear. This leads to a ‘silence’ that renders any consultation and democratization virtually impossible. Fresh ideas are rendered dangerous unless they are controlled from the centre. Any criticism of the misguided nature of either the idea and/or the management is dealt with harshly so staff retreat to the offices around the college and their homes to reflect their anger, frustration and discontent. Meanwhile the ‘Hobbesian anarchy’ remains and the college staggers on riddled with disillusion. Staff must give up any pretence to the ethos they began with at university and fall, very quietly, into line. This is especially so if they aspire to anything above ‘satisfactory’ in the judgment of OFSTED.

The students to are conditioned to see themselves increasingly as ‘consumers’ of knowledge and skills and are further indoctrinated into the hegemony required for capitalists to increase profits and wealth. They are trained to produce products, services and ideas all of which must conform to the ideals of the economy. The illusion of democracy is sold to them through student reps, student councils and student diplomats yet the dominant values that determine the direction of the college are not even on the agenda or contemplated. It appears that both the macro and micro levels of society have what Stephen Lukes’ described as the ‘third dimension of power’ in common (Lukes 74).

The whole experience in Further education becomes a reaction to the needs of the capitalist economy. However, as Manheim concluded the ideology of the ruling class and thus all of its servants reflect a limited and false view of reality. It is distorted and incomplete because of the reactionary stance adopted to protect its own vested interests. Whether it is a corporate oligarch; a politician; a college Principal or a student in the classroom their success is all measured by how much they are ‘convinced’ to conform to the production process. This production process must be made more efficient for a hierarchy of success to be established. All other ideas are largely ignored. Success according to the hegemony of capitalism becomes the objective measurement. Competing paradigms are relegated to the subjective and the deviant. Through ‘Hobbesian Anarchy’ the Leviathan of seventeenth century Feudalism and mercantile capitalism becomes the Leviathan of twenty first century globalised corporate capitalism. The role of this instrumentalism through the education system, and further education in particular, merely feeds the monster!

Part 2

‘Everyone thinks and everyone speaks’ is Jacques Ranciere’s most basic assumption. To think anything is possible as it evades regulation and contests classification. To state that it is possible though does not expect it to be aspirational, certainly not universally. The freedom that exists within our minds is also incarcerated by the lack of authorization to contribute. It must be compliant. It must not be a threat to the prevailing order. It must perceive the world as consisting blue skies, fluffy clouds and as an infinite opportunity to maintain this illusion or deny an alternative. But if herein lies the problem so does the solution.

Education, at whatever level, subverts. It is in its nature. Two people with an imbalance in knowledge lead to an inequality in power. Or does it? Is it possible that it is the mechanics of educating that render many as unthinking and voiceless? The learning of division through the preparation for labour. The cogs in the machine. As Althusser once put it: ‘the function of teaching is to transmit a determinate knowledge to subjects who do not possess this knowledge. The teaching situation thus rests on the absolute condition of an inequality between a knowledge and a nonknowledge’.

Thus different cogs, different machine! Let me suggest an example.

The Washing Machine.

Not too long ago many a female dedicated one day a week to washing clothes and either hanging them out on the line or drying them on the airer. Then an idea became a design which became a product and then a consumable and then multiple consumables and the economics, politics and culture of washing clothes…, especially in Western societies, changed, possibly forever. The mass production of varieties of washing machine and washing liquids (or solids) required multiple roles before it could be plugged in and ready to go. Small businesses and corporations sit side by side united in one thing – the absolute desire to exploit the idea and all those that subscribe to it or depend upon it.

 Allowing people to think freely does not sit comfortably with this existence.

However, what is absent is an appreciation of the correlation between the dynamics of industrial capitalism; the expectations of gender identities and the question, followed by another question and another… The solution is in the problem as always. People are taught to look to others for the answers and then the question ceases. Whereas the question has only just begun and never ceases! The answers are infinite and in themselves are merely parts of a tapestry that is unclassifiable. The route out of oppression is to understand there is no end – it is a permanent revolution of ideas, experiences, narratives, feelings… that must not be classified but have an inalienable right to freedom.

Douglas James