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(en) Why students are part of the working class?

From Sergio Fiedler <s.fiedler@unsw.edu.au>
Date Tue, 22 Feb 2000 13:37:41 -0500

      A - I N F O S  N E W S  S E R V I C E

Why tertiary students are part of the working class?

The attacks on higher education by both Labour and Liberal parties over
the course of the last ten years has not been purely economic measures
directed to save or make more money for the State/capital. Deregulation
has also functioned as a strategy to decompose and destroy the student
movement as political subject providing a focus for radical dissent. For
capital, the social basis where the student struggles of the 60s and 70s
were based upon needed to be restructured, if the project of
corporatisation of higher education was to be successful. 

While VSU (voluntary student unionism) has been an extremely visible and
direct attack on student organisations, the very process of deregulation
of higher education has been the one undermining radical student
activism the most. It is important to realize that the political
strength of the old student movement was based on a particular
configuration of social relations within campuses and between
universities and the rest of society. The decline of political activism
on campus is rooted in a radical change in that configuration. The
deregulation of student life is creating a new class composition on
campuses. As a consequence of the shift of the cost of education from
the State to individual students, the cuts in Austady/Abstudy (welfare
subsidies for uni students), the diminishing study conditions and
increasing stress, students now want to go through Uni as cheaply and as
quickly as possible. Deregulation and austerity have also forced a
growing number of students to rely on casual and part-time employment to
be able to make it through higher education. The extension and
intensification of student work resulting from these changes have meant
in concrete that now most students have less time and space in their
lives to get involved in politics in the same way they did it in the

This does not mean that the tasks of todays collective organising are
impossible. The challenge lies then in finding what are the
organisational and political forms and tasks that are adequate and
relevant to this newly emerging student body. Or, to put it in
dialectical terms, student activists need to explore the new world of
higher education where they are operating so as to find a model of
political action which draws its power from the very conditions which
are creating its decline. For example, the increasing integration
between University and business, on the one hand, and of study life with
working life, on the other, would possibly mean in the near future that
student organisations would need to become some sort of postmodern
trade union. This meaning having to represent students directly before
capital and mobilize them on industrial issues such as wages, safety,
conditions and so on. The youth wages and Log of Claims campaigns have
been a step in the right direction. The active support of the CMFU
(Construction, Mining & Forestry Union) to the Bankstown occupation
(campus of the University of Western Sydney) shows that there is an
increasing interest among union activists and organisers on what is
happening on campuses. In the context of the new alliances needed to
address our new student constituency, these are very inspiring

The approach taken by most student activists to the new composition of
the student movement has been mostly a spontaneous and empirical one.
Working basically by trail and error, most activist collectives have not
fully developed a vision of what would constitute the new road for the
student politics over the next ten years. A major obstacle for the
development of this vision has been the ideological weight of
social-democracy and leninism in the ranks of the student movement.
While there are evident differences among these two currents, both share
the fundamental assumption that see the student movement simply as a
tactical springboard for getting access to government and parliamentary
posts or organising within the waged working class. From these points of
view, there is no need to worry too much about the complexities of
autonomous political organising on campus since the main agencies of
social change are some where else, in parliament or trade unions.

By drawing on an analysis of the changing class composition of the
student body, this paper would like to challenge those views. I would
like to argue how capitalist restructuration has transformed the
students movement from being a simply a political appendix of the waged
working class into a crucial sector of a complex new labour movement.

Here certainly I will not refer to students simply as social group
defined in structural terms, but above all as a political subjectivity.
By this I mean not only radical students who are politically aware and
active, but also their broader social constituency on campus that
because of their particular background- has the potential to become an
aware and critical multitude of people pushing for radical social
change. There is certainly an absolute class divide between those
students who can afford to pay up-front fees and that immense majority
who does not. The point for student activists, however, is to discover
how Universities are now actually functioning as sites of
proletarisation and social cooperation for the latter and in which ways
this process facilitates or block the collective and autonomous
organising of students.

The mass university

For hundreds of years, Universities were fundamentally the training
grounds for the children of the ruling class. In order to ensure control
over the working classes, their main role was the intellectual and
ideological reproduction of capitalist personnel to run industries and
the State. Over the course of this century, however, tertiary
institutions have modified radically their relationship with business,
the State and the working class itself. The rise of mass education
during the postwar meant that tertiary institutions including technical
colleges- did not concern themselves only with the reproduction of
ruling class personnel and intellectuals, but above all the reproduction
of highly skilled working class to meet the requirements of an
increasingly sophisticated process of production.

As the process of neo-liberal deregulation unfolded since the 80s, the
provision of knowledge and education did not simply added value to the
new working class in training, but soon it became a marketable commodity
itself in the form of research, consultancies, join projects with other
businesses, private sector liaison and so on. The university ceased to
be an apparatus of reproduction of the capitalist class; under
neo-liberalism it became a business enterprise itself, a truly new mean
of production providing the market with two fundamental commodities:
labour power and knowledge/information.

The political economy of student labour

The closeness of tertiary students to the means of production is
evident. Their social condition can not be reduced, as in the
traditional Marxist perspective, to the notion of "transitional social
strata" waiting to become either workers or bosses. From May 68 to the
UNAM strike in Mexico in 1999, the major student rebellions have proven
to be a fundamental interruption in the stable flow of docile labour
into the market, adding new political variables to the business cycle
and the ways capital plans and organises its future investment. For the
capitalist class, it is a cause of major political concern that the
systems future technicians, teachers, journalists, nurses, social
workers and so on are rebelling collectively on the street, before
actually joining the labour market. The role played by students in the
political revolution in Indonesia and the IMF's demands of political
stabilization could be seen as the most recent example of this type of
rupture. Masses of people going into employment after going through the
enormous learning experience of collective organising on campus is an
economic and political variable that capital needs to reckon with
through specific policies of control and co-option at both campus and
workplace levels. In this respect, Dr Kemp's conception of VSU (Federal
Minester of Education -Liberal Party) as deterrence to future trade
union organising shows a profound political awareness among the ruling
classes of the social power of the student movement.

This power can only be rooted in the participation of students
themselves in the process of production. That participation has made
them into a significant sector of the new working class emerging under
neo-liberal capitalism. Students are part of the working class because
they participate in the production of the most fundamental commodity of
all: labour power. 

Students engage in a very specific process of valorization where they
create themselves as a workforce and therefore as commodities to be sold
in the market. Through their own labour, academics and staff play a
major role in the production of this highly skilled workforce. However,
the weight of the process falls ultimately on the shoulders of students
themselves. The reproduction of students as future labor power is a
collective process that relies on students own productive consumption
of their immediate labour power. Through the different types of labour
involved in the process of learning and training such as writing essays,
lab experiments, reading, presentations and so on, students act as a
fundamental autonomous factor adding new skills and knowledge to their
existent capacity to labour and thereby crafting themselves as a
workforce. The producer, the product and the process of production
within tertiary education, in so far as students is concerned, are not
separated from each other. 

While the workers in factory creates a product that immediately become
separated from him/her, the student at Uni or colleges create a product
that is not separated from him/her until she or he joins sell his or her
labour power to the capitalist. But if this is so, where the
exploitation of the student as a worker then occurs?

The cost of reproduction by students of their own labour power is
calculated like the cost of any other commodity. As a product of
collective education and training, the real value of the final product
would be measured by the amount of time put into training them through
academic labour, general staff labour and student labour itself. Within
this process, however, academics  and general staff are the only ones
that get paid a wage or salary for the work of training students. While
students are the main factor of their own reproduction as workers, they
do not get paid any wage for their work all. Their labour is of little
cost to the State or the University. Certainly, the extraction of
immediate labour power from students has not gone fully unremunerated
all the time. When the family unit is not able to guarantee the
existence of the student (food, housing, health), the welfare State has
provided a social income through Austady/Abstudy, unemployment benefits
and now the youth allowance. But for capital and the State, the monetary
cost of these benefits is incomparable lower than the value created by
students during their years at college. Their surplus labour provided by
students for free to the system is the basis of their exploitation by
capital and the reason why the experience of learning and study has
become such a stressful and alienating activity. 

Productivity within tertiary education is calculated by the amount of
time invested in the reproduction of labour power by students. One of
the main roles of academics is to measure (assessments) the value
students add to themselves through study within a socially defined
period of time. The lesser the time students take through college and
the better they perform, the lesser the cost of reproduction and the
greater the value of the product in the market. Since the Dawkins
report, capital has been introducing a number of strategies directed to
force students to finish college as rapidly as possible and increase
their workload, thereby adding to the exploitative nature of students
work and the proletarian character of most of the student population.
Just to name some:

1- The idea of flexible learning, so popular among neo-liberal
university administrators, seeks in the first place to get rid off the
waged workforce on campus through the massive application of information
technology to Uni training and administration. More importantly, under
the rhetoric of giving students greater individual control and choice
over their learning, flexible learning attempts to shift a great bulk
of academic and service work to students themselves. Some examples of
this are enrolment via internet; less tutorials and more flexible
delivery, downloading lectures and study resources, and printing them at
students own expenses.

2- As a part of their own studies, students have also provided unpaid
labour mainly to the State- in the forms of practicums, which are
usually done each term since year one. While practicums have always
added to the stress of nursing and teaching students, now university
admins are planning to extend this training component massively. In the
attempt to network with other business enterprises, the neo-liberal
university formulated another fancy concept such as workplace learning
or "work based learning". This idea describes a range of educational
practices which involve students learning in authentic work settings .
Of course, it is not clear at all yet if students are going to get paid
for this or not.

3- Under the neo-liberal University students do not only have to
reproduce the workforce without getting paid, but they have to buy the
right to create themselves as workers by paying HECS. As I argued in the
introduction, given that Austady/Abstady and other welfare payments have
been substantially cut, students have been forced to do their studies as
quickly and cheaply as possible in order to minimize the damage of
potential debt and existing poverty.

But students are waged labour anyway

The creation of the value occurs at the immediate point of production of
a commodity, but its realization as such only when the commodity is sold
in the market. Theoretically speaking, when the student sell her or his
labour in the market is when the cycle of reproduction initiated by
training is finally closed. Under neo-liberalism, however, the process
of training is being made more permanent. As business enterprises
coordinated their activities with Universities and colleges even more,
workers from different industries are forced to go back to tertiary
education to streamline their skills according the needs of capital if
they do not want end up losing their jobs. In a climate where capital is
demanding the workforce the ability to adapt rapidly to technological
and organisational "innovation", tertiary training is no longer a
transitional stage in the life of workers but a constant condition for
their reproduction as labour force. From there the other new concept 
coined by the administrators and pedagogists of the neo-liberal
university: "learning for life" or "life-long learning"

This, however, has been a two way process. As more and more workers are
forced into tertiary education, more and more students are forced into
the waged workforce to survive in a context of increasing fees and
government's cuts in basic income (Austady/Abstudy and Youth allowance).
Apart from reproducing themselves as labour power, students are joining
in mass the ranks of a mostly casualised and part-time workforce.


Under neo-liberalism, increasing workloads are invading students' lives
within and outside campus, transforming radically the nature of their
relation with the waged workforce and coming to share with it a common
subjectivity. The power students play in social change is not lower or
greater than the power of coal miners, nurses, public service as
separate social groups. The specific disruptive power of each of these
sections of the working class is define by their specific class
political composition at a concrete moment of the struggle. If there is
lower coal prices or large unemployment among miners, a strike by coal
workers could politically damage the ruling class far less than nurses
going on strike when there is a financial crisis in the provision of
health services. The bottom line is that the power of the working class
is not defined by the type of work people do, but by a permanent 
process of social cooperation each of these social groups establish with
each other in order to make capitalism function. The power of students
lies precisely in the fact that they are part of that network of

The role of students in modern capitalism signals a greater role of the
mass intellect in the process of production. Gramci argued in the 30s
that all workers were intellectuals, but in a capitalist society with a
hierarchical division of labour the function of being an intellectual
was conferred to a small number of people. At the time, this was not
only the social premise of highly hierarchical workplaces, but of the
vanguardist and centralized revolutionary organisation itself. The
workers were the body, the intellectual were the brain. Today these
premises no longer exist. The rise of the working class as a mass
intellectuality means that workers as a collectivity do not only produce
material things. More than that. As the forces of social cooperation
develop, workers become organisers and designers of production
themselves, using not only physical strength while they work but the
force of their own ideas and creativity (immaterial labour). The new
realities of the student movement are inscribed within this process.
Workers as a collectivity are taking over those intellectual functions
once limited to a small number of bourgeois experts. If the neo-liberal
reforms has destroyed something in this sense is not the working class.
Capital can not exist without working class. What neo-liberalism has
done is to destroy the elitist function of the intellectual in order to
maximize to the full the exploitation of the corporeal and mental
abilities of the workforce as a whole. 

Sergio Fiedler

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