Image: Maddie Scrimshaw

‘The Business University’: a reflection on E.P. Thompson’s critique of the University of Warwick

It’s 3 February 1970. As a student of the relatively new University of Warwick, you are one of the 300 students marching on the Gibbet Hill site to occupy the registry offices as a protest against the administration’s unwillingness to accept proposals for a Students’ Union (SU) building. A few days into the occupation, dossiers recording the political activities of members of the university community are discovered. Staff immediately go on strike, demanding a full investigation and accountability of the senate and council for their authoritarian surveillance of the university’s workers and students. 

These are the events that historian E. P. Thompson relayed in his 1970 book Warwick University Ltd. As a second-year history student myself, Thompson is all too familiar to me because staff in my department proudly claim him as one of our own. What they have never mentioned is the scathing critique of the University of Warwick that he wrote when he resigned. His argument was this: from the University’s inception, its interests have been subordinated to that of local industry and industrial capitalism. As a result, the University’s leadership acted with no respect for the interests of its staff and students, whom it treated like recalcitrant agitators. At the same time, they catered to the private interests of “an industrial-intellectual oligarchy.” It is for these reasons that he condemned it with the epithet, “The Business University”. 

Sunak’s heavy-handed plans deny intellectual freedoms 

As The Boar reflects on Warwick in the ‘70s, I wanted to bring this work to light for its insight into the then and now. Though they are far from prophets, historians sometimes offer prescient warnings about the future. Do Thompson’s criticisms about the marketisation of the university hold up today? 

Higher education is currently having an identity crisis. Since the 1970s, state funding to universities has been cut, causing them to seek more and more investment from private sources. The introduction of tuition fees in 1998 fully formalised the transformation of higher education into a commercial product as opposed to a state provided service. The financial burden and means of access now falls to the private wealth of individuals rather than the state. 

The impact of this is still being reckoned with today as the government’s education reforms hold employability and economic outcomes in the front and centre. Rishi Sunak’s “crackdown” on so-called “rip-off” degrees that don’t increase employability or earning potential is the result. Thus, what is available on the higher education market has become economised and subject to state interests before the interests of individuals. Alongside the brutalisation of degrees deemed to be unprofitable, Sunak’s heavy-handed plans, that force students between 16 and 18 to continue to learn Maths and English for these same reasons, further deny the intellectual freedoms and possibilities of our education system.  

Preparing people for the career world is what university is about, isn’t it? Today this is a widely agreed with viewpoint. It’s hard to go two steps on campus without stumbling upon representatives from banks, investment firms, hedge funds and companies seeking to recruit you. Our SU hosts a multitude of societies that reinforce the idea that the university is a launchpad into the career world. Even academic societies do their part in running LinkedIn workshops and CV clinics. I don’t want to derogate these aspects of university life. In fact, I believe the careers-based support at Warwick is one of our advantages. It screams opportunity, ambition, and future thinking. No doubt they greatly benefit and enable many people.  

A lack of participation dampens the potential [of the SU’s democracy]

Yet in my view, I think we’ve lost the general spirit of academia and what it means to be a student as a result. It sometimes feels as though students are just slugging through lectures, seminars, and exams so that someone like J.P Morgan or Goldman Sachs will recognise us more favourably in their recruitment processes, as a result of the Warwick name, regardless of any personal passion for the subjects we are doing. In this case, degrees have simply become a rubber stamp that mark you as a potentially valuable asset to someone else that you are incurring thousands of pounds of debt for. Therefore, the degree itself is robbed of its enriching potential.  

Thompson also saw how democracy at the university was also at risk. Of chief concern was how the higher management continually acted against the interests of its members. Through continued pressure, the goal of having an SU building was finally realised in 1975. It’s also reassuring to now see that the University Council has two student members from our elected SU leadership, as opposed to the business cabal he describes in the 70s.  

The SU is a firmly democratic institution with elected leadership and termly All Student Votes (ASV). Nonetheless, levels of participation are low, with only 671 individual voters taking part in Summer 2023 ASV. It seems that most of our interactions with the SU are for its commercial services like the club, the café, and the pub rather than political campaigning. I reckon it’s possible for you to spend your entire time here without even knowing its politics. Technology has the potential to widen student participation, but the low levels of engagement in these digital votes may stem from a general lack of awareness of the SU’s political functions. In Thompson’s Warwick of the 70s, such alienation seems impossible as they were dependent on word of mouth or print for the spread of information. While democracy at the university is promoted by the SU, a lack of participation dampens it’s potential.  

Higher education primarily produces workers before thinkers

The tradition of activism at Warwick continues, with demonstrations from groups such as ‘Plant-Based Universities Warwick’ and ‘Warwick For Palestine’ seen on campus this October. The upper management of the university still comes under fire from community campaigns as they did in the ‘70s, such as those in recent years that criticised their handling of sexual assault cases, their involvement with the arms industry and the new Warwick Housing Organisation that is fighting for more affordable campus accommodation. Strike action taken by The University and Colleges Union (UCU) during the cost-of-living crisis against the casualisation of teaching expectations and real terms pay cuts have further increased the pressure. That being said, the possibility of hundreds of students storming Gibbet Hill seems unlikely, let alone being led by the SU itself. It’s even more surprising when you bear in mind that the population of the university at the time was approximately 1,800 students compared to the nearly 30,000 that there are today.  

It’s hard not to see Warwick today as reflective of Thompson’s belief that higher education is a commercial product serving economic rather than educational purposes. In this way, capitalism does subordinate the university by making this its primary function. We live in a world where higher education primarily produces workers before thinkers, managers before academics and capital before creativity. That being said, Warwick has maybe not suffered such a democratic crisis as Thompson foresaw. The SU has been transformed to take on a more integrated role in the university’s governance rather than being an antagonist to it. Activism on campus continues to pressure the university and be an important vocalisation of student and staff demands. Yet most concerningly, it’s entirely possible for students to glide through time at Warwick without giving university politics a second thought.  


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