Education is dying, by which I mean that the university: the social institution entrusted with providing a structured pursuit of learning for the benefit of society is ailing in that task. Its vital functions are withering. It is being replaced with a system of grading, ranking in order to exclude players from a market. However, as has always been the case, education as structured learning for social benefit continues, even thrives, despite this morbidity. What we might call educational practice lives in these corrupted institutions, around its edges and in spaces of resistance. One area where you can see this struggle to keep education alive, is in the (re-)emerging discipline of public sociology.
Public sociology has been given a legitimacy and lease of life since 2004, when Michael Burawoy, then President of the American Sociological Association, delivered his presidential address ‘For Public Sociology’. Burawoy was concerned to legitimate the practice within sociology in the USA, which dominates the discipline internationally. However, his intervention has contributed to the pedagogical practices of academics across many disciplines, as well as activists, community workers and grassroots intellectuals practising education in the messy world of advocating for social justice. Public sociology can be seen as a continuation of historical struggles for educational practice, in response to the current crisis of neoliberal education.
The crisis of education is well demonstrated by the ‘exam fiasco’ when, under Covid-19 restrictions school exams were cancelled and students’ grades determined by a set of algorithms and assumptions. At the beginning of August 2020, the publication of Scottish Higher results started a political crisis which led to the resignation of the Chief Executive of the Scottish Qualifications Authority and a domino effect of about-turns by Education Ministers across the UK’s administrations and beyond. University admission systems were sent into chaos and were forced to accept increased student numbers. The ‘market failure’ of artificially increased demand put extra pressure on supply as universities struggled to accommodate. The fiasco continued in the debate about whether exams would go ahead in 2021, with media featuring high pitched arguments over whether it is possible to grade students if they are unable to sit exams and whether teachers’ grading of coursework builds in a systematic grade inflation. Much of this debate took for granted the assumption of grading students for university admission. How, some asked, can education work if there are no exams?
Another example of market assumptions infiltrating education was the Augar review of funding post-18 education in England. Branding social sciences as ‘poor value for money’, Augar berated the market distortion of universities over-pricing and over-recruiting for (cheap) social science courses and using students’ fees to subsidise (expensive) science and engineering. The result of this ‘has personal consequences for those whose expectations have been disappointed [because they are ‘left stranded with poor earnings and mounting “debt”’] and economic consequences for the state that foots the bill’ as students fail to earn enough to repay loans. Leaving aside the validity of this claim, it is based on an assumption that the purpose of a university education is the graduate dividend – ie that a degree increases an individual’s leverage in the market for well paid jobs. Limited supply of such jobs an over-supply of social science graduates means disappointed expectations. Questions about how policy might stimulate such employment (the austerity-depleted public sector could be a significant employer of social science graduates); or improve incomes (such as increasing trade union leverage) were outwith the scope of the review. However, Augar’s assumption neglects the social value of generally enhanced public understanding of social sciences as a legitimate outcome of higher education.
The roots of today’s battles for the purpose of university education can be found in the nineteenth century battles over Enlightenment knowledge. The names of von Humboldt and Newman are associated with the ideal of universities as places for discovering and disseminating universal knowledge, rather than preparing people for the traditional vocations in medicine, law and the church. Social movements of the nineteenth century moreover raised questions over access to knowledge and whose interests it might serve. Chartists, Owenites and Marxists demanded working class access to Enlightenment knowledge. Also, vocational education for women of all classes was a key demand of nineteenth century feminism. Attempts to democratise the university included the twin objectives of matriculating working class and female students in the institutions, as well as initiatives to make knowledge accessible outside of the university, such as Glasgow’s Andersonian Institution (1795), University Extension (1860s) and London’s Toynbee Hall (1886) which initiated the University Settlement movement. The same twin themes occupied, on the one hand the Robbins’ expansion of higher education and the Open University in the 1960s, and on the other, the Science Shops movement of the 1970s. Today, while widening participation in universities is driven by bodies such as Scotland’s Commission for Fair Access, public sociology seeks to bring academic analysis of society into dialogue with those parts of society who can best make use of it in their struggles for social justice.
Dialogue is central to public sociology, it is a conversation between the quest to understand society and change society. To that end, publics constitute those groups who are organising to challenge the causes of their exploitation and oppression: in Nancy Fraser’s term, ‘subaltern counterpublics’. Sociology provides the tools for interpreting what that means – who and why are groups subaltern in a society? What injustices do they experience? How is their oppression or exploitation perpetuated? Disciplinary boundaries matter little here, and the tools are drawn from a wide range of social, political and environmental studies, not just sociology. Public sociology finds itself at home in sociology departments but equally well in community education or occupational therapy: wherever the analysis of society will facilitate social change,
We can see public sociology in the interaction between women’s campaigns against gender-based violence and feminist theory; between black lives matter and decolonising the curriculum; in the developing praxis of Mad studies; where academics, as trade union activists, organise teach-outs at pickets. Thus, public sociology constitutes education in the same way as Gramsci understood ‘every relationship of hegemony is necessarily an educational relationship’.
While Burawoy’s American Sociological Association might feel secure enough to embrace public sociology as its own, given the attitudes to ‘not value for money courses’ expressed by Augar, and the closure of sociology departments in Britain, such educational practice must by necessity be peripatetic, fleet of foot and willing to make its home in diverse places on the fringes of the university and outside it. This is because educational practice is incompatible with neoliberalism. Its knowledge is uncommodifiable. It receives its legitimacy from those who have no leverage in the market. At the same time, while people continue to struggle against all forms of exploitation and oppression, and seek to understand how they can achieve justice, education will continue to be necessary and inevitable.
As Ettore Gelpi, former head of the Lifelong Learning Unit at UNESCO put it “in every society there is some degree of autonomy for educational action, some possibility of political confrontation, and at the same time an interrelation between the two”.
 Scandrett, E (2020) Public Sociology as Educational Practice: Challenges, Dialogues and Counterpublics. Bristol: Bristol University Press
 Fraser, N. (1990). Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy. Social Text, (25/26), 56-80.
 Gramsci, A (1972) Selections from Prison Notebooks. Edited and translated by Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith. London: Lawrence and Wishart p. 350
 Gelpi, E. (1979) A Future for Lifelong Education: Lifelong education, work and education Department of Adult and Higher Education, University of Manchester p. 11
Eurig Scandrett is Senior Lecturer and Programme Leader in Public Sociology at Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh, Scotland, and a branch official for the University and College Union.