Education for Sale: The Culture Industry and the Crisis in University Education

By Christine Grandy

The latest white paper on education coming out of British Prime Minister David Cameron’s government is one that threatens to “name and shame” “dead-end courses” in British Universities.[1] This endeavor promises to give students more value for their money and justify skyrocketing tuitions in Britain. Yet, naming and shaming neglects to do just that, as it places responsibility for the current crisis in education in both Britain and Canada on university training, rather than on other forces at work on the labour market. What needs to be named and shamed in the current crisis is the complex relationship between university education, myths of social mobility, and a capitalist economy.

Britain is undergoing a fundamental change to its university structure, one that will radically alter a system that has been in place, in the scope of British history, for a relatively short period of time but has profoundly influenced the population that benefitted from that system. Britain’s investment in post-secondary education was, not unlike Canada’s, a post-war phenomenon that saw university education entrenched firmly within the public sector as part of the new welfare state. In the heady days of post-war ‘affluence’ and a commitment by the Labour Party in 1945 to cradle-to-grave care for its citizens, and largely funded by US money through the Marshall plan, Britain was able to offer comprehensive education to members of the working and middle classes. Since then, we’ve seen Britain move from largely free university education after World War II to the imposition of moderate tuition fees in 1998 and then to the current tripling of that figure to 9,000£ (roughly 14,000$ CDN) a year for tuition that roughly two thirds of British universities are hoping to impose next year. This leap in tuition fees is to make up shortfalls resulting from deep cuts to university funding by Cameron’s government. These cuts are part of the current ‘austerity measures’ in place in Britain and include these moves towards the privatization of the university sector, a process that began with Thatcher. The recent condensed changes within the British system make its progress both horrifying and fascinating to watch, as Britain accelerates what has been happening at a much slower, protracted pace for years in North America.

What many are slow to acknowledge in this explicit debate about Britain’s university system is the implicit debate about notions of class mobility in the 21st century and education’s place within those. Education in Britain in the immediate post-war period, and indeed since the late 19th century, has been seen as the great leveler. It offers class mobility within what has been a largely hierarchical society. More importantly, however, an education also seems to allow workers to tame the uncertainty of the job market. The logic in the post-war era was that if one went to university, one would gain entrance to the much-vaunted middle classes and a better standard of living than one’s parents. Workers of all incomes and classes subscribed heavily to one of the only means available of navigating the uncertain forces of 20th century capitalism. Enrollments increased and more and more universities opened their doors or broke ground. Yet I would argue that the lure and promise of education functioned as much as a misleading and soothing balm as mass culture did in the early 20th century, or Methodism did as the ‘pap’ of the people in the 18th century. Education, unfortunately, can increasingly be seen as part and parcel of what Adorno and Horkheimer termed the ‘culture industry’ of the early 20th century.[2] They used the ‘culture industry’ to describe the popular fantasies in film and fiction that deluded the masses and granted workers comforting images in order to maintain the status quo. In this case, education as a means of class mobility and job security, briefly funded as a collective right of citizens by the Labour Party, now functions as a powerful myth for the working and middle classes to purchase. Governments in both Britain and Canada are banking on the working and middle-classes willingness to purchase the grand narrative of success through education, rather than they themselves taking responsibility for providing access to education as part of a civil society.

Since the collective fantasy of post-secondary education took hold, we have seen the mass exodus of working-class jobs to cheaper labour markets in India, China, Mexico, etc and the failure of middle-class jobs to materialize, while finance became both increasingly central to the economy and located abroad. The exodus of working-class jobs, at least, was not terribly alarming at the time to students (although not of course to the striking workers being affected) because they were not likely to take up those jobs in their imagined future as the new educated middle classes. Thus we had the vague protests of the 1960s where students were unable to clearly merge their causes to those of the working classes.

What we have now is the partial realization that the imagined future of generations of students was just that—imagined. Middle-class jobs either do not pay salaries sufficient to maintain definitions of middle-class life, helpfully defined as home ownership or that couch from Pottery Barn, or they are piecemeal and uncertain contract work with limited or non-existent pensions. Or worse, they don’t exist at all. Consequently we have people supplementing mediocre or intermittent wages with credit and the tripling of individual personal debt in both Britain and North American since the 1970s, imperiling future generations whose parents will have less to offer them.[3] In the meantime we have a growing sector of people identifying themselves strongly as middle class as a result of university education.

The results of this identification by students as middle class, rather than working class, have a number of ramifications in both Britain and North America. According to Marx there actually is no middle class. There are those who sell their labour, and those who buy that labour and control the means of production. The stratification of the middle classes into the ‘lower middle classes’, the ‘middle middle classes’, or the ‘upper middle classes,’ but above all else ‘middle class’ really began, according to Peter Bailey, in the early 20th century as a tool to differentiate manual labour from other, albeit also poorly paid work, such as that done by office clerks and shop girls, who rubbed shoulders with the wealthy rather than factory walls.[4] As E. P. Thompson noted about the middling sort in the 18th century and as Bailey notes about his office clerks of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the upward aspirations of this group tended to limit political activism as the middling sorts were reluctant to identify themselves with the working classes and the trade union movement.[5] It also fostered imitation as an important strategy for class mobility, no doubt contributing in the 20th century to imitation through consumption and rising debt loads.

How does post-secondary education relate to this? On the one hand, universities have functioned as rare and very important places to foster critical thinking, but on the other hand, they have also functioned – it must be acknowledged by those of us working within them – as sites where students begin to identify collectively, if they haven’t already, as members of the middle class. This was, after all, what the promise of post-war education was. University is a site where the possibilities of class imitation are manifold and indeed required as a successful strategy within the confines of an undergraduate degree, with the assumption that this will serve the student in the job market as well. What the British government is currently engaged in—the abandonment of their part in collective post-secondary education as the great leveler—is, to be clear, something that I very much regret. Yet it is also exposing some very nasty truths about the relationship between education and capitalism: one does not mitigate the great uncertainties of the other. Education is being exposed as a collective fantasy of the newly minted middle classes with only uncertain ties to an even more uncertain job market, yet a fantasy that is expected to draw customers.

Universities have not mimicked the guild systems, providing practical instruction for students stepping into journeymen or master roles; rather universities looked upward and took as their model in the post-war period the education of the upper classes or the upper middle-classes and aimed to provide comprehensive education in the hard sciences and the humanities. That type of education can be life changing and indeed, class changing, as it was for this writer. University instructors have worked tirelessly to foster critical thinking and to break down historical constructions of class, race, and gender for students. Certainly the history taught within universities has changed for the better since the 1960s. Yet we have been doing this in a relatively short period and within a system that holds troubling assumptions at its core. We’ve been using a 19th century model that idealizes the middle class in a number of ways as a strategy for a 20th century labour market that has no room for the middle-class worker and which frowns upon identification with the working classes. We, as lecturers, can propound critical thinking skills for three or four years, yet the medium ultimately remains the message and that message for many undergraduates is to think and identify as middle class in a world that privileges that mind-frame and its spending habits, while denying both its livelihood and identification with the working-class past, present, and future.

One of the major problems with David Cameron’s white paper on education is that it fails to address the lack of jobs available for a work force educated for and expecting middle-class jobs. According to Cameron’s government, high quality education will be for those who can afford it and who will thus gain a competitive edge, while the rest will pay for lower quality education that is publicly acknowledged as such, by both the institution offering it and the student purchasing it. In North America, these are colleges and they simply do not offer the same powerful narrative of education and employment offered by the university setting. Furthermore as governments move away from funding universities they sever their own ties to the uncertain links between education and labour. If the graduates aren’t getting jobs, then we can look to the failure of the privately funded institution to secure that student that job, rather than systemic weakness in the economy.

It’s difficult to say whether the fantasy of education into the middle-class will be strong enough to weather the current crisis or whether enrollments will decline. Sadly it depends on the desperation of the workers (and by this I mean both teenagers themselves and families hoping to help them) and the level of uncertainty faced collectively in the job market. This raises a number of questions: Will education continue to exist in the minds of the worker as the best means of navigating the job market? Can universities count on this enduring fantasy for their funding and should they? What have we as university teachers collectively done to address the dangers of middle-class identification for our students? Certainly Britain and North America are facing the historically unique position of producing a large, educated, if somewhat depoliticized, middle-class that has subscribed to a very powerful vision of education’s relationship to class for at least three generations. The possibilities of that group are endless. However, what we as educators need to be aware of are the larger class structures at work in our administration of university education. We have to be the ones to educate students out of the bubble of post-secondary education and into the reality of labour conditions. For those students who are not yet workers, we must educate them that they will be workers and define that for them in the past, present and future. For those students already working, we will have to educate them about the types of labour possible beyond their current positions, on unions, employment insurance, pensions, strikes, back-to-work legislation and the like. Just as we, as a university workforce, are being (or are resisting being) collectively disciplined to work more for less, we must share these struggles with students. Class belongs in the classroom more than ever, yet we must be aware that the classroom itself sends its own powerful message about class that we need to break down. Through this awareness I hope we can shift the relationship between class and education in such as way as to foster political and economic activism within the university system and disrupt education’s growing role as part of the ‘culture industry’ for sale.

Dr. Christine Grandy
Nipissing University

[1] Jeevan Vasagar and Jessica Shepherd, “Naming and shaming for degrees with poor jobs records,” The Guardian 28 June 2011,

[2] Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1947; reprint, 2002).

[3] David Harvey, The Enigma of Capitalism (Profile Books, 2010).

[4] Peter Bailey, “White Collars, Gray Lives? The Lower Middle Class Revisited,” Journal of British Studies 38, no. 3 (1999): 273-290

[5] E.P. Thompson, “Patricians and the Plebs” in Customs in Common (London: Merlin Press, 1991).

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