Summary: Professor Mike Neary speaks on the origins, purposes, and tensions of The Social Science Centre, Lincoln in the UK, an alternative form of higher education provision run as a formally constituted co-operative. The Social Science Centre sets itself against the usual colonial relations between universities and communities, seeking to occupy and re-invent the ‘idea of the university’ by producing critical, practical knowledge grounded in the real lives of its members. Neary raises questions about how such projects can create new, sustainable forms of social wealth against and beyond capitalism.
CW: Could you tell me a bit about your own radical political formation? What led you to create and organize The Social Science Centre?
Mike: I left Leeds University in the late 1970s with a degree in History and Politics. My first job was in South London working with the young unemployed and young offenders on community education projects. The Tory government was launching its attack on the working class and youth unemployment rates were soaring. Young men and women of color, together with sections of the white working class, were taking part in nationwide protests against the lack of jobs and confrontational policing. I was supposed to be retraining these young men and women back into non-existent jobs, but I spent most of my time subverting the system, finding ways to support the activities of these young people in the ‘informal economy’. I went back to college during this period and got a Masters in Urban Geography with a focus on Employment and Planning from Middlesex Polytechnic. The real learning for me on the Masters programme was discovering Marx and Critical Political Economy. I went on to do a PhD with Simon Clarke in the Sociology department at Warwick University and take up a full-time academic post at Warwick in 1994, teaching the Sociology of Deviance and Political Sociology. I brought my experiences from youth and community education into the University. This meant connecting young people for whom University was an impossible idea with students on my courses. I developed teaching programmes so that groups of young men and women who were serving community punishment sentences could spend time on the Warwick University campus with undergraduate students who were doing the Sociology of Deviance course. I arranged these encounters so that both set of young people could learn from each other. Everybody said they got a lot out of it.
I was interested in how teaching could be used as a way of radically transforming academic labour and student life. I was successful in attracting large amounts of funding to support my work. The most significant funded project at that time was The Reinvention Centre for Undergraduate Research. The basic principle behind this programme was that the undergraduate curriculum should be based on research and research-like activities, with students writing and publishing their own research together and in collaboration with academics. We set up a journal, ‘Reinvention: A Journal of Student Research’ to publish students’ writing, and students formed their own co-operative to promote learning in the community. The student journal has now become an international publication. The co-operative was called Furthering Knowledge of Undergraduates in the Community, with the slogan ‘Who Gives a FKUC?’ The co-operative is now disbanded but we had a lot of fun and did a lot of serious work. One of the things we did was produce a film, ‘Universities Plc?’ promoting community engagement in a context of the increasing marketisation of Higher Education.
Those of us involved with this work used to say that we were ‘reinventing the University’, even if our ideas and activities were still in a pretty embryonic form. We were influenced by Ernest Boyer’s notions of scholarship (Scholarship Reconsidered, 1990) and the idea of academic freedom for students that came out of his work (Reinventing Undergraduate Education, 1998). We radicalised Boyer by exposing the idea of Reinvention to Critical Pedagogy and Popular Education. It was at this time we first started to talk about the Student as Producer as a radical interpretation of research and research-like teaching. The concept Student as Producer was ripped off from Walter Benjamin’s ‘Author as Producer’, a lecture he prepared for the Society for the Study of Fascism in Paris in 1934. One of the main questions for this lecture was ‘how do radical intellectuals act in a moment of crisis?’ Working with colleagues and students at Warwick and other Universities we extended the concept of crisis to the crisis of higher education in which Student as Producer becomes as an act of resistance to the increasing student as consumer role that students were forced to adopt. I guess you could see the origins the Social Science Centre in the work that was going on at Warwick at that time. Student as Producer has endured at Warwick as a fund for undergraduate research. Student as Producer has been furthered developed at the University of Lincoln, my current employer, where it has become the organising principle for all teaching and learning across the entire University. Other Universities and academics have taken up the concept of Student as Producer and adapted it in various ways.
CW: Could you say a bit about The Social Science Centre, its mission, its vision, how it’s organized?
Mike: I can’t represent the views of all of the membership of the Centre. We have a broad range of opinions about what we are doing and why we are doing it, along a progressive-radical political continuum. There is not a party-line that we all follow.
I have been involved from the very beginning with the Social Science Centre, with colleagues and students from the University of Lincoln and from other Universities and with activists and people who would never refer to themselves as activists. We set the Centre up as a legally constituted co-operative in 2011, after having spent more than a year thinking about how we might make such an idea work. The SSC provides free higher education managed cooperatively and collaboratively by its membership.
We refer to all members as ‘scholars’ as a way of dissolving the distinction between academics and students.
Student-scholars will leave the SSC with an award at the level of a higher education degree. The award will be recognized and validated by the academic and student-scholars who make up the co-operative, as well as our associate external members: academic-scholars around the world who act as our expert reviewers.
There is no fee, only what members can afford, calculated at one hour of income per month. If members don’t have an income then no payment is due. No one gets paid any wages for the work they do at the Centre.
The context within which we are working is that students at English Universities will be paying 9,000 british pounds a year for their undergraduate qualifications from 2013. Not only that, all public funding for teaching the Arts, Humanities and Social Science in English Universities has been withdrawn. Funding in English Universities now follows the students, in a situation where students are cast as consumers and proto-employees, exacerbated by statistics published online which tell students the earning power of their undergraduate courses. The money to pay for their study is given to the students as a loan. If students don’t earn above a threshold, currently twenty one thousand pounds per year, then they are not required to repay the loan. While some students will never have to repay this loan because their earnings will never reach the twenty one thousand pound threshold, no student escapes the pedagogy of debt. As for students who left school some years ago and are thinking about returning to study, the fear of debt is having a devastating effect on the numbers of mature part-time students applying for University. Debt creates a negative response for people whose lives are already undermined by mortgages as well as credit card and other loan repayments. In my view, this is an act of intellectual vandalism and a declaration of war against the principles of critique and criticality which underpin teaching programmes in the Arts, Humanities and the Social Sciences.
CW: Could you say a little more about what the Social Science Centre looks like? Does it have a physical building?
Mike: The work is collaborative. We take it in turns to perform key roles, e.g, Treasurer, Chair of meetings, note-taker, and we do all our own administration. There is no hierarchical structure.
The Social Science Centre is a formally constituted co-operative. We spent eighteen months working out the most appropriate structure. We felt it was important to set ourselves up in this formal way, recognising the need to radically transform ourselves and our organisational form as the practical work develops.
We don’t have one designated building in Lincoln, but use various sites across the city. These include a community centre, local voluntary organisation premises, a co-operative space, city centre cafes as well as the City Museums and Art galleries. Lincoln is a small city, with a population of about one hundred thousand people, which lends itself to the formation of close networks of practice. We have a website through which we can present our work and engage more broadly with a wider constituency. The Centre recognises the importance of the virtual environment, but the SSC is not a form of online provision: an essential characteristic of its activities is that it is based on direct and personal engagement.
I like to think we are reclaiming our ‘right to the city’, or ‘occupying’ the city as ‘a new pedagogy of space and time’. I’ve written about this stuff (see references below, Neary 2012 and 2013).
We started classes at the beginning of this academic year, October 2012. Our first programme was called Social Science Imagination, framed around a close reading of C Wright Mills’ book ‘The Sociological Imagination’. In this work Mills asks some questions that are key for the social sciences. The central question for him is how can individuals, who appear powerless and whose private lives appear as a series of traps, transform wider social structures in ways that are progressive and humanising? Arising from that question is how to make the link between our own private troubles and public issues, which Mills argues presents itself as a psychology of uneasiness, indifference. For Mills neither the life of an individual or the history of society can be understood without an awareness of the connection between biography and historical change. He called this level of understanding ‘the sociological imagination’, or ‘the intellectual promise of the social sciences’.
Mills represents some of my own feelings: I am uneasy, but I refuse to be indifferent. The SSC is a way for me to exercise my own sociological imagination with others who feel like I do, and, in so doing, recover the intellectual promise of the social sciences.
The co-operative principles that guide the organisation of the SSC also extend to the ways in which courses are designed and run. All classes are participative and collaborative in order to ground inquiry in the experiences and knowledges of the participants. Members have opportunities to design courses together, and those new to teaching and independent learning are offered generous support from others. All members are able to work with academics and other experienced researchers on research projects, and to publish their own writings and other work through the SSC. One key guiding principle of the Centre is that ‘teachers’ and ‘students’ have much to learn from each other.
This sense of imagination and the imaginary extends to the way in which the Centre is managed and run, with time set aside to consider the meaning and purpose of the Centre, using the critical concepts established in the SSI sessions: gender, ethics and power, to build our own sense of collective activity. These critical reflections can lead us to challenge our own working practices, including, and in particular, how power is distributed across the collective and whose knowledge within the group is privileged. These critical, power-sharing sessions help us to plan future work, including finding ways to extend our activities across the city, organising more regular public talks, making links with similar projects in the UK and internationally, as well as deepen our understanding of the SSC’s own place in the history of alternative radical forms of education and higher education.
CW: Could you say a bit more about your theoretical understanding of this new social institution? In one of your papers you call it “an institution of the commons.”
Mike: I get the idea for ‘an institution of the commons’ from Gigi Roggero’s book The Production of Living Knowledge: the crisis of the university and the transformation of labour in Europe and North America, published in 2011. Gigi is interested in the new institutional forms in which knowledge can be produced as, ‘the organisation of something that did not exist beforehand, or the new composition of existing elements in a subversive social relationship’. And so, the purpose becomes to turn the crisis of the university into a field of radical research in order to investigate and produce ‘living knowledge’, also defined by Gigi as the ‘institution of the commons’.
Gigi provides a practical research method to sustain this idea, which he refers to as militant enquiry or co-research. The importance of this method is that it challenges the borders between research and politics, knowledge and conflicts, the university and its social context, as well as the barriers between work and militancy. Gigi argues that this provides the possibility for a new political organisational form, as a new type of political subjectivity, or new forms of human life as living knowledge. Gigi doesn’t say very much about what these new organisational forms might look like.
The SSC, through its formal co-operative structure, is attempting to give real content to the question of organisational form. My own position is that we are not fetishising the idea of working co-operatively as if it were the moment of revolution; but see co-operation as a moment of possible transition that has emerged out of class struggle, and which needs to connect with other forms of contemporary protests in order for capitalism to be overcome and communism established. This was Marx’s position on co-operatives along with some of the early co-operators in the 19th century in England. In this way, the co-operative as an institutional form becomes part of the movement of transition to communism, or ‘an institution of the commons’.
CW: Why, in the business plan of the Social Science Centre, and in the name, do you limit it to the social sciences, and why not include the natural sciences?
Mike: We do state in our publicity that courses are based on core subjects within the social sciences: Sociology, Politics, Psychology and Philosophy; but, for me, all of the sciences are inherently social. The separation of the so-called natural and social sciences is an historical event reflecting (wo)man’s alienation from the natural world imposed by capitalist work and the way in which capitalist work exploits humanity and the natural word. This separation can be seen as the result of the preponderance of the instrumental and functionalist rationality that underpins the productive forces of capitalist society.
This process of separation is further exacerbated by the separation of all science from how knowledge, meaning, interpretation and experience are represented as art, drama, dance, literature and music. These separations have produced a model of complexity which denies any capacity for humanity to provide any inherent or rational solution to its own crisis, other than through disparate academic activities. There are attempts try to repair this through the notion of interdisciplinarity, but interdisciplinarity accepts these disciplinary separations in the first place. Better to challenge the separation and look for the essence of science and to reconnect science, nature, art, drama, dance and literature in ways that enable us to deal with our current emergencies. As Marx argued, to create ‘One science’, to fix ‘the metabolic rift’ between humanity and the Earth, now ripped apart by the logic of capitalist production; or, the struggle for life against death.
Since moving to Lincoln and reading medieval historians on the origins of modern science I have discovered how the practices and principles of what we now call research methods were invented by scholars in Lincoln, particularly Robert Grosseteste (1175 – 1253), based on the application of practical empirical methods to profound cosmological discoveries. At the time this work was seen as disruptive and subversive: against the dogmatic scholasticism of European Christendom on which the medial universities were founded. In recent writing I have attempted to connect the research methods of these early scholars to the inductive-deductive methodology that Marx used in Capital, and to ground the theological metaphysics of medieval science in historical materialism. I will let readers decide how successful these connections are, but it might provide a starting point to discover the ‘essence’ or ‘spirit’ of research as a new form of living knowledge as subversive, disruptive and revolutionary science (Neary 2012).
You can see the traces of this metaphysical philosophy reappear in the minds of the idealist philosophers who invented the modern European university. The concept of ‘higher’ for them suggested that the University is the highest level of what we know about ourselves, as an ideal social form of knowing. This was what Wilhelm von Humboldt and the German Idealists were thinking about when they set up their University in Berlin in 1811, where the University is understood as a philosophical idea as well as a progressive political project.
For me, the work we are doing at the SSC, provides the potential to ground this philosophical idea in the real lives of the direct producers who fabricate this knowledge as an institution of the commons or living knowledge. In that sense, we might be able to disrupt the institutionalized form of the university, currently constituted as the capitalist knowledge factory, so as to be created in another form, as an institution of the commons, understood as an intensely revolutionary theoretical and practical project.
CW: I was just wondering why it’s framed as a higher education institution. What do you see as the relation between it and the wider education system and other radical movements, including cuts to higher education?
Mike: We want to be clear that we are providing an alternative form of university education for those who do not want to take on the burden of debt. But debt is not the only issue, nor is the SSC a stand-alone project. We are connected to other community groups in Lincoln, including Transition Lincoln, local anarchist groups and Hackspace, as well as to the local Trade Union Council. We do run projects that include people from groups that have been marginalised in the city, including the homeless and offenders. For example, the SSC runs a course in social photography: ‘Our Place, Our Priorities’. The people who attend this course may not have considered higher education as an option, but through their connection with us on these projects feel able to join the higher education programme. We’re good friends with many of the other radical alternative university projects in England, like Tent City University, the Free University of Liverpool,and People’s Political Economy in Oxford. We support the developing network of radical groups who are trying to do similar work across the UK, and have attended workshops in Oxford, Birmingham and Edinburgh on sustaining alternative forms of higher education. We maintain transnational links with other academic activists around the world mainly through the Edu-factory collective (see reference below, Neary 2012)
CW: You mentioned before that the awards that will be given to students will not be recognized by a government accreditation body, but you said that there might be some way for academics more widely to recognize these awards. Do you have thoughts on how that kind of alternative recognition will work?
Mike: SSC awards are recognized by our academic and student-scholars. Our academic-scholars include academics not involved in the day to day running of the Centre, but who act as our external reviewers. The first group of student-scholars have now finished the Social Science Imagination programme. They have each written papers on the issue of Identity and the Social Science Imagination. These papers are ready to be sent off for review. We are hoping that our external academic-scholars will see these essays as being at a standard that is equivalent to university work, at the undergraduate or postgraduate level, depending on what level the student-scholars are operating.
CW: Could it be possible that these awards you would give could become recognized within a network of cooperative institutions?
Mike: Yes, they could be recognized within a network of co-operative universities, and, even in the already existing university network. As you might know, there’s a system whereby work that’s being done outside the university can be approved inside the university. In the UK this is called Accreditation of Prior Learning. So, after having spent time with the SSC, students could decide to go back into a mainstream university if they wanted to. And, indeed, some of the students are saying that they want to study at a local college and the Social Science Centre. There is no reason why, as you suggest, this model couldn’t be extended further into a more radical network, if people thought that was appropriate.
CW: I don’t know too much about the UK accreditation context, but here in the US government regulators are pretty strict. Do you face any government repression for calling yourselves a university?
Mike: The titles of ‘degree’ and ‘university’ are protected under UK law, although recently the Coalition government have made the legal conditions less restrictive to allow private colleges to brand themselves as universities. One of the main recent concessions is that colleges in England and Wales can call themselves universities even though they do not have research degree awarding powers.
The Social Science Centre does not claim to offer degrees, but, rather, provides awards that are at an equivalent level. We make it very clear that these awards are not validated by any organisation that has the ‘official’ power to confer degrees, and that our awards are validated by our own system of academic review. Our expectation is that the reputation of academic-scholars involved with the Centre will give us intellectual credibility and provide a reason for student-scholars to want to come and study with us.
We don’t claim to be a University. The title Social Science Centre links us directly to the Social Centre movement that emerged in Europe from the 1970s as radical spaces that sought to provide community based and collective alternatives to state provision, or the lack of it. These Centres first appeared in Italy, Spain and the Netherlands, with links to Autonomia, and other leftist political organisations and projects. We took advice, support and inspiration from the UK Social Centre Network when we were first setting up the Centre in Lincoln. The difference between us and the Social Centre network is that we concentrate on the provision of free higher education.
More of a concern for the SSC is the danger of being seen as part of the Coalition government’s ‘Big Society’ agenda: where the Tory-led coalition looks to find ways to reduce state funding for health and education and other welfare services by promoting the idea of volunteering.
Right-wing governments often look to find ways to appropriate leftist projects for their own purposes. We are very clear to make the distinction between our approach to the practices and principles of co-operation and whatever version of mutuality and co-operation the government is attempting to promote. The Government’s model is based on an individualist libertarian self-help approach with no real sense of collectivity or community other than the community of money as a collective capitalist enterprise. Co-operation, for me, as it was for Marx and many of the pioneering co-operators in England, is part of a movement toward the development of communism.
While I protest against the cuts to public funding, I am not simply arguing in favour of public education as a ‘public good’, as if that were somehow antithetical to the private sector. For me the public and the private, represented by the state and the market, are complementary forms of the political and economic regulation of capitalist society. Any revolutionary project needs to find ways to dissolve the capitalist relation out of which these forms of political and economic oppression have emerged. A move in this direction is to develop concrete forms of activity that suggest there is another way of doing things against the community of money for the benefit of humanity and nature.
The issue is not to sustain capitalism, through a more equitable distribution of public resources, but how to overcome capitalism through recovering the social power of humanity, in which the production of critical practical knowledge is a key issue. The SSC is not a demand for the state to provide higher education, but a recognition that revolutionary education cannot be provided by the capitalist state; and, therefore, we have no other option but to establish our own necessary revolutionary alternative form of higher education. The Social Science Centre is not in competition with the capitalist university, but is the critical and necessary form that emerges out of the contradictions of capitalist higher education. In this way the SSC is part of a revolutionary experiment that involves groups all over the world, often not aware of what each other are doing, but all of us undermining and subverting capitalism by exploiting the dysfunctional contradictions or ‘cracks’, to use an expression popularised by John Holloway in Crack Capitalism, on which it is based.
CW: As someone who works within a public university, I wonder how you negotiate the tensions between working within and against and beyond, creating this other institution, all at the same time?
Mike: The Social Science Centre has no formal connection with the University of Lincoln, nor, indeed, with any other University. The Social Science Centre is not against the University of Lincoln in any way. I am committed to my colleagues and the students in the University and want to see the University of Lincoln thrive and prosper. What I am against are the government policies of marketisation and commercialisation that make it increasingly difficult for English universities and for the academics working within them to move forward with a radical and critical academic agenda. These policies mean that Universities in England are mainly organised along corporate structures, restricting decision-making to a narrow group of senior managers led by University Vice-Chancellors who operate as Chief Executive Officers.
The exposure of English universities to commercial principles and practices is not new, but the recent introduction of high level student fees has made clear the forces that are driving higher education in England, and why they must be urgently resisted.
In my view the best way for Universities to sustain themselves as Universities rather than money making machines is to maintain criticality and critique within teaching programmes and research agendas. It then becomes possible to challenge the current uncontested assumptions of many senior managers in universities about the meaning and purpose of higher education as an activity that is limited to student employability and economic growth. An important part of this practical critique is finding ways to utilise the potential for collective and considered decision-making. I think the co-operative model offers the best framework by which this can be achieved.
CW: One question I have is about academics or grad students who go through their PhD training but then find that the job market is so tough that they’re forced to take shitty, precarious employment. In the US, something like 70% of teaching jobs are in precarious, contingent conditions. So, I wonder if you see the Social Science Centre and institutions like that as a potential place for academics who are pushed out?
Mike: For sure. We always saw the SSC as a place for academics to work with dignity outside of the University. This includes academics who have lost their jobs or students with PhDs who are unable to find academic work.
But, for me and other members of the Centre, there is a more fundamental project than finding people work. This more fundamental project involves recasting the emancipatory notion of what constitutes wealth in a newly substantiated post-capitalist world. In capitalist society waged work is the organising principle and main source of social value; therefore, capitalist work will have to be abolished if a new form of general social wealth established. Any new form of common-wealth can only be materialised through an understanding that capitalism has made an exponential improvement in the productive power and knowledge of humanity, but that these powers and knowledge have been used to oppress its own productive populations. Any revolutionary project must be based on the need to re-appropriate this knowledge and power for the populations that have produced it; not simply to make available new knowledge in less restricted public forms, nor to reify new forms of property relations through co-operation; but, rather, to produce a new common sense: raising critique not only to the level of society as the German idealist philosopher desired, but to ground that highest level of what we know about ourselves in the real life of social individuals, so that society can recognise its real nature and recompose itself in more life enhancing and resilient forms.
This is not simply a theoretical issue, but a deeply practical problem and what lies at the heart of the SSC for me.
CW: How do the public know about you?
Mike: We had an Open Day in March last year. We didn’t know if anybody would come. In the end there were about forty people at the event. They were from different sections of the local population, including eighteen-year-old school leavers with their parents, some retired people, a number of unemployed academics as well as adults who had left school at sixteen and wanted to find a way of returning to education. This level of attendance gave us a lot of confidence about what we are trying to achieve.
We started with nine students on the Social Science Imagination programme in October 2012, and are now actively recruiting for new student-scholars for next year. We have a target of twenty students to begin in October 2013.
To raise our profile in the City we are going out to talk to community organisations, the local JobCentres, the Probation Service, Trade Union Council and leftist political groups. We have posters and flyers and plan to do some guerrilla marketing.
We organise public events, with invited speakers to talk and run workshops. These events are an important way to make connections with the local community and for them to come and find out what we do. Previous sessions have looked at ‘Democracy and Education’ as well as the issue of ‘Radical Pasts and Contested Futures’. We have a programme of forthcoming public seminars that includes ‘Reading the Pussy Riot Act,’ ‘Moving the Goalposts: some realities of democratic football governance’, ‘The Contradictions of Copyright’, and ‘Hacks and Spooks’.
We have attracted a considerable amount of publicity in the national and local press. Recent feature articles on the SSC include ‘Anyone can teach, everyone can learn’ in the National Institute for Adult and Community Education’s publication and ‘Something New in Freedom’ in the Times Higher Education, the main publication for academics in the UK.
CW: Do you see this as a model that you hope other people will see, be inspired by, and maybe pick up and adapt to their own situations?
Mike: Yes, I think that’s exactly what we see it as: a social institution that is inspirational and adaptable. We want to maintain the activities of SSC at an appropriate level for what we are trying to achieve based on our own resources. We have created a model for alternative higher education that people could use and develop, changing and adapting it to suit their own local contexts. We are excited about what has been established in Lincoln, but there is still a lot of work to do. We have been able to show that there is another way of doing higher education.
To read more on the Social Science Centre, Lincoln see http://socialsciencecentre.org.uk/
To read more about Mike’s work and ideas see:
Neary, M (2012) ‘Student as producer: an institution of the common? [or how to recover communist/revolutionary science].’ , Enhancing Learning in the Social Sciences, Higher Education Academy, York
Neary, M. (2012) ‘Teaching Politically: Policy, Pedagogy and the New European University’, Journal for Critical Education Policy Studies, 10 (2) http://www.jceps.com/index.php?pageID=article&articleID=266
Neary, M. and Amsler, A. (2012) ‘Occupy: A New Pedagogy of Space and Time’, Journal for Critical Education Policy Studies, 10(2) http://www.jceps.com/?pageID=article&articleID=277
Neary, M. and Hagyard, A. (2011) Pedagogy of Excess: An Alternative Political Economy for Student Life, In M. Molesworth, E. Nixon and R. Scullion, (eds) The Marketisation of Higher Education and Student as Consumer, Routledge, London and New York
Neary, M. ( 2012) ‘Beyond Teaching in Public: The University as a Form of Social Knowing’ in M Neary, H Stevenson and L Bell ( eds) Towards Teaching in Public: Reshaping the Modern University, Continuum, London and New York
Neary, M. (2014), “The university and the city: Social Science Centre, Lincoln – forming the urban revolution”, in Temple, P. (ed) The Physical University: Contours of space and place in higher education. Abingdon: Routledge