Patterns of conflict in education


This paper was presented to the European Conference on Educational Research, Vienna 2009.

The course of educational reform in England has been broader, deeper and faster-moving than that of any other country of Western Europe, cutting deeply into what remained, after Thatcherism, of the post-war policy settlement. [[Thanks to Richard Hatcher for his comments on an earlier draft of this paper.]] No sector or strand of education has been unaffected by a programme which ranges from large-scale privatisation to micro-level classroom reform. Yet despite a certain, persistent level of grievance, this is a programme that has not encountered forceful opposition. Teachers’ unhappiness with an assessment regime based on high stakes testing has been well publicised, without being translated into a collective response. Discontent with the government’s programme for ‘academy’ schools – state-funded privately-run institutions – has resulted in a number of local strikes, and in a lively national campaign, but not one conducted on a mass scale. [[See the website of the Anti-Academies Alliance]] School and university teachers have taken occasional, limited action over pay – the NUT’s one-day strike in 2008 was the first national strike since 1987. University teachers have fought local campaigns against redundancies (for instance London Metropolitan University 2004 and 2009, Keele 2008) but have not effectively challenged a policy that aims to align higher education with business needs. Among university students, opposition to the imposition of tuition fees was initially strong, but has waned since, with the passing of the 2004 Higher Education Act, fees became law.

This pattern of continuing, but low-level and only sporadically organised discontent is increasingly at odds with the shape taken by response to educational reform in other countries. Looking in 2008 at the map of Europe, west of the cold war frontier that ran between Trieste and Stettin, one could imagine a giant ‘X’ of protest, with its diagonals running from Ireland to Greece, and Germany to Portugal. In this year alone, there occurred:

  • strikes and public protests against education cuts in Ireland;
  • school students’ strikes, supported by the GEW educational union, in Germany;
  • teachers’ strikes in Catalonia against a package of New Labour style reforms that included against the further advantaging of the church-run but state-subsidised private sector;
  • in Portugal, the largest demonstration ever organised by teachers’ trade unions, which protested against a new system for the assessment of performance;
  • in France, teacher strikes against job cuts, and school-students mobilisation against changes to the curriculum of the lycées;
  • most spectacularly, an autumn of protest in Italy and a Greek hot December, actions in which a range of forces – school and university students, unemployed or precariously employed categories, teachers, university researchers – were strongly engaged.

This paper, in discussing such events, has both substantive and theoretical intentions. Substantively, it aims to trace contrasting patterns of educational conflict in Western Europe. It seeks to explore and explain the discrepancy between England and other countries of this region – here, France and Italy – alike faced with a neo-liberal policy orthodoxy, but responding to it in markedly discrepant ways. Thus in one sense it places itself in a long line of research and speculation about the ‘peculiarities of the English’, or, occasionally, the British (Anderson 1963, Thompson 1965/1979, Johnson 1989, Gamble 1981) – about those historically embedded aspects of the English social formation that have offered neo-liberal reform a place to make its home. The paper’s main focus, however, lies outside England. It aims to chart and explain the ways in which education has become increasingly central to social conflicts in Europe, as a site on which significant forces contest the place they are assigned in the reform programme championed by national governments and by transnational entities, including the European Union. This formulation suggests also something of the paper’s theoretical ambitions: it aims to integrate into the understanding of education policy an appreciation of the role of collective social actors, and to understand the impact of such actors not just on government strategies but on the forms taken by the educational state.

The centrality of education (1)

As several writers have suggested (Hingel 2001, Laval and Weber 2002, Dion 2006), EU policy in the 1990s increasingly recognised the importance of education to economic policy. In 2000, the European Council (Heads of State) meeting in Lisbon took this recognition to a new level of emphasis. The Council declared that the EU, facing the challenges of a globalised knowledge economy, must transform itself by 2010 into ‘the most competitive and dynamic knowledge economy in the world’ (European Parliament 2000). Education systems were placed at the centre of this transformation. They were now too significant to be left to the haphazard and variegated process of nationally-determined change. ‘European policy in the field of education and training,’ the European Council declared, ‘must look beyond the incremental reform of existing systems. It must also take as its objectives the construction of a European educational space of lifelong education and training, and the emergence of a knowledge society’. In this context, it would be advisable to adopt ‘a European framework that defines fundamental new educational competences’ (European Council 2000) Through the Lisbon discussions, and those of the Council meetings that followed, the governments of the member countries thus transferred to the European level the power to formulate and pursue large-scale questions relating to the orientation of education systems, regarded now as economically central. In Dale’s formulation, the locus of policy-making was in some senses ‘upscaled’ from a national to a European level. (Dale 2005)

The resulting policy framework has been concretised and monitored through the EU’s programme for education and training, which allows for the co-ordination of member states’ initiatives, and their checking against agreed bench-marks. The EU is complemented in this process of upscaling by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which carries out thematic reviews of national policies in such areas as ‘equity’ and ‘teacher effectiveness’, publishes the influential annual volume of comparative data, ‘Education at a Glance’, and runs the PISA programme for the comparative assessment of students’ performance (Alexiadou 2005, OECD 2008). Such ‘global’ policy influences have been further elaborated at national level: governments have both adopted specigic objectives, and more generally, cited the global ‘consensus’ in an attempt to legitimate a national programme of reform (Laval 2004). [[A note on sources. Since policy contestation tends not to be well-documented either in academic literature or in the mainstream media, and since, also, the events of which I am trying to track the course are very recent ones, much of the material referenced here is from trade union and social movement sources. In addition I have made use of the reports and insights of ‘committed’ researchers.]]

There has developed a rich repertoire from which projects of reform can draw. It centres on, first, an increased role for the private sector in the provision of public education, together with a rise in private influence on education policy more generally; this partial shift from public to private sometimes goes under the heading of ‘opening education to the wider world’ (Ball and Youdell 2008). Secondly, it envisages higher levels of participation and attainment both in formal education, and in lifelong learning. At the same time, however, formal education is reshaped, with more emphasis on skills and competences, and less on what is regarded as outmoded disciplinary knowledge; differentiation among learners, though discouraged at primary and lower secondary levels, is being embedded at 14+ or 16+, so that academic and vocational divisions are securely maintained. Lifelong learning, like higher education, involves cost-sharing, with the ‘user’s’ contribution rising sharply. Thirdly, the educational workforce requires transformation, so that it is capable of addressing the need for skills and competences, and of working in a focused and cost-effective way. Fourthly educational governance must be reformed: local managements should be incentivised to promote change and local school systems responsive to parental choice; at the same time, the centralised evaluation of the work of schools and universities is developed to a new level of specification.

The centrality of education (2)

The changes promoted by governments and international agencies collide with the experiences and demands of other sections of the population.
The reform of schools and universities has become a focus of intense controversy and conflict across Europe, involving at least two major social actors – youth, and those who work in public sector education. In this section, I explore the basis of their discontents.

If education reform lacks popular legitimacy among students, school students and the youth population more generally, it is above all because it does not deliver on the promise of economic prosperity that is central to its rhetoric of change. This is a problem that predates the recession of 2008. For more than 20 years, levels of youth unemployment in much of Europe have been exceptionally high – according to Eurostat figures, the 2006 figure reached more than 20% in France, Greece and Italy, and nearly 20% in Spain. (European Commission 2008: 75) René Bendit, in a survey of youth in Europe, concluded that the problem was structural rather than cyclical; a new social situation had come into being, that of precarity. Precarity cannot be captured solely by unemployment statistics – it embraces issues of pay, job security and career and lifecourse progression; it prevents individuals, from managing their successive entrances into and exits from the labour market in a way that ‘conforms to their expectations’(Bendit 2006:59).

The mechanisms of precarity have two kinds of effect. For some – working-class and migrant youth, with low levels of qualification – they entail near-complete exclusion from secure employment. For others, those ‘of high educational background’, precarity relates to a gap between levels of qualification and the types of employment that are available. Levels of educational attainment have risen, and expectations have been heightened, yet access to secure jobs, to housing and to an ‘autonomous’ adult life is harder to come by. The French researcher Frédéric Lebaron (2006) writes in this context about a ‘devalorisation’ of educational qualifications, in which students become both intensely sceptical about the value of their studies, yet also watchful of policies that seem likely to create further status divisions in education, and to dislodge the hold of some groups on qualifications they regard as essential to the chance of individual career-building. It was from this suspicious perspective that EU policy was read, and the dramatic onset of the 2008 recession, in the midst of protest against educational reform, only served to strengthen the severity of such a reading.

Alongside youth, neo-liberal reform has also sparked public sector workers into opposition. Jobs are being lost, by the tens of thousand; conditions, under tighter managerial control, worsened, and the meaning of professional work transformed in a way that lessens autonomy (Jones et al 2007: Chapter 9) But behind these important sectoral concerns lies another set of motivating factors. Peter Gowan has observed that:

‘West European governments and business groups have used the EU since the 1950s to change the pattern of business exchanges both between the EU and the rest of the world and between the member states within the EU itself. But since the mid-1980s, the EU project has acquired an entirely new character … affecting relations between labour and capital not just in economics but in politics and social life more generally’ (Gowan 2005).

In this context, educational change is seen as a strategy for changing the relationship between social classes to the advantage of dominant groups, threatening what are seen both as the historic achievements of working-class and progressive movements, and more broadly as constituent elements of national identity. Kees van der Pijl has argued that many European societies developed against the ‘classical liberalism’ of Britain and the USA: in order to avoid defeat in military or economic competition, they attempted to establish developmental states, in which governments had a strong role in economic planning and social provision, and in which populations were mobilised in support of the national-social project. (van der Pijl 2006) After the defeat of fascism, popular movements were able to push such development further, embedding commitments to equality in national constitutions, and inflecting the social order, at many levels, in democratic and socially inclusive directions (see also Canfora 2006, Chapter 13). It is this process – obviously uneven and incomplete, but capable nonetheless both of affecting the character of the state apparatus and of commanding a certain loyalty – which market-orientated policies put into reverse.

Educational struggles are in this way over-determined by the terms of a wider conflict. They are seen as reactions to a process both of disenfranchisement (van der Pijl 2006) through which key prerogatives of national parliaments have been displaced on to European structures, and of social dispossession and regression – in which historic commitments to equality are diluted, and goods once held in common are privatized, in a move typical of the accumulation strategy of neo-liberalism (Harvey 2005). Thus when educational workers mobilise against current policies, their protests often resonate with popular opinion, and their cause can become a symbol of the defence of a particular social model against the reform project advanced by transnational élites and by a national political class which has accepted the global policy orthodoxy but is not inclined to debate it. [[Viviane Reding, then EU Commissioner for Education and Training, spoke of Lisbon as a ‘silent revolution’, the adjective carrying a greater weight of meaning than she perhaps intended. (Antunes 2006: 41)]]. What might appear to be sectoral issues can in this context ignite wider conflagrations.

Such conflicts are triggered not only by issues of cutback or privatisation, but also by attempts to remake education at classroom level. As we have seen, for the EU, the world of learning is located at too great a distance from the ‘values of entrepreneurship and the world of the economy’ (de Meeulemeester and Rochat 2001: 8). To establish a new curriculum, based on ‘problem-solving abilities, general cultivation and innovation abilities’ (ibid) entails uprooting the disciplinary traditions around which school and university knowledge has been organised, and with which parties of the left had strongly identified (Anderson 2009b). The imperatives of the EU here clash with the value systems of students and teachers, and the politics of knowledge becomes a new arena of conflict. The modularisation of higher education curricula, for instance, uncontroversial in Britain, is seen in other parts of Europe as something strongly to be resisted – opposition to the ‘Bologna Process’ that promoted a credit-based modular system, and a three year undergraduate degree, has been integral to militant campaigns against university reform in Spain, France and Greece. For its critics, modularisation strips knowledge of its complexity, reducing it to a series of bite-sized entities to be consumed by a student body taught to pursue certification rather than learning, acculturated to accept the measurement, in reductive form, of knowledge. Thus, while for the EU, the linking of education to economic imperatives is central to its modernisation, for its opponents students, such a connexion involves a epochal process of degradation.

As in the case of popular mobilisation in support of educational institutions which remain in many respects inegalitarian, there is something of the imaginary in this defence of traditions that have historically been linked to elitism and educational stratification, and are now presented as bastions of critical humanism. It is only in the context of precarity that the protests can be fully understood, in their more material dimensions as well as in their historicist allegiances. Students argue that it is the mass university that will be most affected by modularisation and the demands of ‘work’: the grandes écoles, and the ‘Serie A’ universities which students think the Italian state wishes to create, will be relatively immune: knowledge, therefore, will be stratified, in a way that lacks intellectual legitimacy: ‘the value of the degree is related not necessarily to quality of knowledge but to the position of the university in the hierarchy of the educational market’. (Do and Roggero 2009).For similar reasons, school-students have been wary of reforms that seem to weaken disciplinary tradition – the opposition of French lycéen(e)s to changes in the baccalauréat, expressed in the student strikes of 2005 and 2008, illustrate such fears.


Van der Pijl’s analysis provides two insights into current patterns of mobilisation. The first is that they are driven by political as well as by economic factors: the deteriorating position of youth – and of workers more generally – in the labour market has an obvious impact on levels of protest; but so, too, does a population’s notion of the meaning of its education system in relation to what are seen as key elements of national identity. The second is that the forms taken by such movements need to be understood in terms of the location – historical, as well as contemporary – of a particular national state within a world system. As van der Pijl puts it, ‘the ability of different societies to submit to capitalist discipline varies, and the very pressure to do so tends paradoxically to reactivate the specific heritage of each separate society in new combinations’ (2006:31)

It is from the vantage-point provided by such insights that the following sections trace recent episodes of policy contestation in France and Italy and go on to compare them with developments in England. In France, since 2003 there has been a succession of mobilisations against government-driven change, involving, at their centre, both teachers and young people – school-students, university students and the unemployed.

The largest of these was the Spring 2006 campaign against the Contrat Première Embauche. [[The following paragraphs are an expanded and updated version of the account of the anti-CPE campaign given in Jones et al (2008).]] The trigger for the movement was the legislative response of the de Villepin government to youth uprisings in the suburbs of major cities in late 2005, whose fires – almost literally – illuminated a racialised condition of near-permanent social exclusion. The government interpreted the unrest as evidence that France required, in both its labour market and its education system, a dose of modernisation. Its response included an educational dimension, labelled ‘equal opportunity’, that strengthened academic/vocational tracking at 14, and an element of employment law that aimed to increase the chances of employment by flexibilising the youth labour market – that is, by making it easier for companies to take on, and lay off, young workers.

Proposed in January, the CPE had within two months given rise to an immense opposition. Tuesday 7th March 2006 saw demonstrations in 160 towns and cities, involving a million people, most of them higher education students and school-students. From the 7th onwards, most French universities were occupied. By the 18th March, a movement of students and workers had been created, with a million and a half people on the streets; and in the demonstrations of Tuesday 4th April this number doubled again. 750,000 took to the streets in Paris, 250, 000 in Marseilles; there was a mass strike by workers in the public sector. As protest took more dramatic forms, with roads blocked and railway stations occupied, the government gave in and on 10th April announced the withdrawal of the law.

The movement against the CPE showed that the extension of neo-liberalism to the public sector, and to particular sectors of the labour market, remained a controversial and uncertain project, and that opposition to such change retained an impressive social resonance, built around a sense of solidarity that was an end as well as a means. The sociologist Bertrand Geay had noted the significance of the organisations created by an earlier wave of protest, in 2003: the strike-generated assemblées genérales of schoolworkers and citizens were lived by their participants as a kind of ‘retour à l’essentiel’ – in which the founding principles of public education were reactivated, and knowledge and the conditions of its diffusion became matters for public appropriation (Geay 2003). Something similar happened in 2006. The frequent mass mobilisations became ‘weekly rendez-vous’ where ‘the employed, the unemployed, parents and grand-parents’ joined with students from schools and universities. One basis for such mobilisation, contra accounts which suggested their definitive weakening (Rayou and van Zanten 2005), was the continuing resonance of ‘old’ commitments – to equality, to democracy and to professional self-definition, which provided a perspective from which to understand and react to present miseries.

These traditions of social republicanism have been accompanied by, if not completely linked to, newer interests: the precarity of youth is at the heart of the French social crisis, and the movement against the CPE demonstrated this in the strongest of ways. But the movement’s course and outcome also suggested something of the uncertainties of opposition, at several levels. The first problem, here, was constituted by internal divisions which related not just to differences in political opinion but to gulfs in social experience. Sociologists have written about the parallel lives of ‘deux jeunesses’ – the youth of the cités (estates, social housing), and the ‘scholarised youth’ of the lycées and the universities. Mauger (2006) emphasises that these categories, while both internally heterogenous, and partially overlapping, reflect a real divergence of experience and prospects. The social segregation of life on the estates is a world away from that of many lycéen(e)s, with the risk of long periods of unemployment much higher; these differences were reflected in the protest movement. But by underlining the insecurity of those who might have thought that their qualifications would keep them from the life of precarity that lay ahead of those with fewer educational resources, the anti-CPE movement brought together sections of the population which had previously lived segregated lives, in both social and spatial terms. It created, at least temporarily, an ‘improbable’ alliance of social categories (Mauger 2006) – an alliance whose tensions were considerable.

Movements for change in the post-war period saw themselves as modernising forces, and gave modernisation what was in broad terms an egalitarian content. The past was seen in terms of obscurantism, classroom authoritarianism, privilege. For those in the twenty-first century who continue to work in this tradition, the terms of the counterposition have changed: the ‘past’ signifies a period of partial democratisation and social reform, a resource to be defended. Yet for many of those marginalized youth, who have hurled their energies into protest, the attachment of social movements to an imagined ‘good time’, when structural reforms brought about improvements in the condition of the masses, is itself part of the problem. In the words of one participant:

‘We (the students) are struggling against the system because to us it seems unequal; they (the youth of the banlieues) are fighting because the system excludes them a priori … And they also consider us to be part of the system (which is true), and therefore they direct their hatred towards everybody, including us. For them, even the rebellious part of the system still belongs within it. … For me the violence (of some of the banlieue youth) is not part of our action, but it poses the problem of how to renew the dialogue with these people, so that their struggle lends weight to ours.’ [[‘Cécile’ interviewed in Visco (2006)]]

The second problem relates to the movement’s political scope and continuity. The concessions that ended the mobilisation were the least the government could have offered, and amounted to much less than what many protestors wanted. A national assembly of students in Dijon called for the cancellation of the government’s entire recent legislation on ‘equal opportunities’, for an amnesty for those arrested during the riots in the banlieues, and changes in new laws on immigration. (Visco 2006). Teachers, students and parents traced a direct line between government intentions for the labour market and its school policy, which aimed to strengthen tracking; in the words of one lycéen, ‘we’re mobilising not only against the new employment law, but against the new legislation on “equal opportunities”; and in those of a Sorbonne student, ‘the withdrawal of the CPE is an important demand, but it is not the principal grievance of those who have launched this movement’. [[André’ lycéen from Pau, interviewed in ‘Paroles des lycéens’ L’Ecole Emancipée 90 (7) April 2006, p. 13; ‘Cécile’,in Visco (2006)]] A major difficulty in securing these demands, that addressed the whole range of educational, labour market and civil liberties issues facing youth, was one of representation. The movement was a vast and turbulent social force, but relied for its negotiating capacity on organisations – the main trade union federations which had more limited aims. Linked to this was a problem of political expression and continuity: for all its momentary impact, the movement was not easily translated on to the political plane – the 2007 Presidential elections were contested, in the main, by candidates who favoured a neo-liberal transformation of the social model and were won by the most right-wing of these figures, Nicolas Sarkozy. As one protestor commented, governments refuse ever to consider closed the question of the social model’s future; after enormous efforts of mobilisation have achieved concessions, the French government would, after a brief pause, want to play ‘extra time’ to achieve a result in its favour. This, essentially, is Sarkozy’s project.

It is not, however, a project that has become consensual, and if the political problems of opposition have not been resolved, then nor have those of government. In van der Pijl’s terms, the ability of French society to respond to calls for neo-liberal discipline remains limited. Two years after the CPE protests, in the context of widening social protest against rising unemployment, the same combination of forces continued to mobilise against reform, with the memory of 2005/6 shaping the actions of both protestors and politicians. In November 2008 teachers struck against a cluster of policies. Their protests – the third round of action that year – centred on job losses, but were linked also to a cluster of policies seen as devaluing the ‘professionalism’ of teachers and discriminating against working-class students: the abolition of schooling for the under threes and the network of specialised help for ESN pupils; a cut in the number of hours in baccalauréat classes in the lycées , phasing out university departments for teacher training, surveillance of what teachers wrote in the blogosphere, constant administrative pressure. (Mouloud 2008) According to the FSU, some 200,000 people joined in the 20th November demonstrations. The Minister of Education, Xavier Darcos, dismissed the protests, claiming they belonged to an old and disappearing tradition. More alarming for the government was the mobilisation of lycéen(e)s and the re-emergence of protest in the banlieues – anxious headteachers reported that hooded youth from the estates were appearing outside their gates. Having earlier declared that ‘hesitation’ formed no part of his vocabulary, Darcos, announced that he was postponing for a year the lycée reform. His reasons, Le Monde inferred, had everything to do with the balance of forces between reform and its opponents, in which economic crisis and youth revolt threatened to re-ignite the fires of 2005/6 and expose France to the Greek experience of youth revolt. (Frezzoz 2008)


The leftist writer Rossana Rossanda has pointed out that the precarity which provided the focus for French protest had become institutionalised in Italy without significant opposition: it was the norm in all but the biggest organisations in the services sector, was a fact of life in education and involved 2.5 million workers across the country. Unions and centre-left parties tended to confine themselves to denunciations of the phenomenon, while in effect they encouraged a process of arrangiarsi – of personal accommodation to circumstances perceived as unalterable. (Rossanda 2006)

But at least in relation to education, Rossanda is overstating the case. Precarity may be a fact of educational life, but it also a source of persistent grievance, that feeds into a wider opposition to reform. The campaigns against the ‘Moratti laws’ drawn up by the 2001-2006 Berlusconi government mobilised hundreds of thousands of students and teachers. . Launched by smaller ‘autonomous’ unions such as Cobas-Scuola, the campaign was joined in 2004 by the larger education confederations. The movement saw Moratti’s reforms as harbingers of privatisation and austerity, and of an institutional and a cultural transformation of the Italian school, by means of which national knowledge traditions would be replaced by competences, and lateral lines of communication between teachers involved in a common educational project would be redrawn to emphasise the vertical transmission of government initiatives. The demands of the action were couched in defensive terms. Citing the constitution of 1948, into which they read a guarantee of teacher autonomy and collegiality and a commitment to equal opportunity, the unions opposed measures of regionalised decentralisation – seen as a vehicle for uneven development across regions and increased managerialism – and the shortening of the primary school day. Sections of the movement sought to go further and to organise around the defence of education a wider-reaching campaign. The occupations in which university students were involved in Autumn 2005 attempted to express such an alternative, criticising the exclusionary policies of Moratti, and demanding the introduction of a national law demanding the right to study and free access to knowledge. (Yeaw 2005)

With the return to office of Berlusconi in 2008, these contests were renewed with increased vigour. According to Anderson (2009a: 6), the scale of his victory tempted Berlusconi to pursue a ‘tougher socio-economic agenda’, especially at those points where achieving the desiderata of global policy orthodoxy could be linked to an attack on ‘opposition constituencies’, in particular the ceti medi riflessivi – civic-minded professionals and public employees – whom some writers have identified as a core progressive force (Ginsborg 2002) . Thus, while tackling tax evasion was not on the agenda, the reform of education certainly was. In Summer 2008, the government announced legislation that affected both schools and universities; it combined cultural conservatism with economic neo-liberalism, and linked educational restructuring to financial cutback. At school level, the reforms (the ‘Gelmini Laws’), included:

  • in primary schools, a single class teacher (‘maestro unico’) to replace the current system of three teachers rotating between two classes.
  • In lower and upper-secondary schools, the reintroduction of the ‘good conduct grade’, with a low mark meaning that students have failed their end-of-year examinations.
  • A grading system in primary and secondary schools, with students who do not achieve a pass grade made to repeat the year.
  • In primary and lower-secondary schools, separate ‘inclusion classes’ for those (foreign) students judged to have poor Italian.

In addition to these measures, the draft law presented to parliament by the Berlusconian deputy Valentina Aprea in July 2008 – and approvingly noted by the OECD – sought to bring about a more systematic and longer-term reform, involving school autonomy, the competitive recruitment of teachers, and the closer management of their work (OECD 2009: 106).

In higher education, the government planned large-scale cuts, and a reduction in the recruitment of staff: one new lecturer for every five retirees. The law also ‘envisaged the possibility that universities (might) convert themselves into private foundations’ (Muratore 2008).

The response that these measures called into being was diverse and passionate. By early October, students occupying the Università L’Orientale in Naples acclaimed a wave of student strikes and faculty occupations that extended from ‘Turin to Palermo’, mobilising undergraduates, doctoral students and researchers – a category whose precariousness could only be increased by the reductions in recruitment (Rete 2008). On 17th October, a strike called by the autonomous unions mobilised hundreds of thousands of protestors. By the end of October, there had been another national strike, across education sectors, this time called by the larger, recognised, unions – Flc-Cgil, UiL and Cisl-Scuola – and La Repubblica was reporting that the movement had the backing of 50% of the Italian population (Diamanti 2008). 14th November saw demonstrations across Italy, with perhaps a million people mobilising in Rome; and there was a further national strike, called by the autonomous unions, on 12th December. As in France, educational protest was the precursor of wider action: in February 2009, the metalworking and public sector unions called a one-day strike, against the whole range of Berlusconi’s social and labour policies.

As van der Pijl suggests, we need to distinguish between the different components of this uprising, to establish some sense of a diversity of motivation and objectives, and some sense, too, of points of convergence and unity. The most spectacular element of the protests was the movement calling itself L’Onda, the wave. Based in the universities, but involving also students from the licei and the scuole medie, as well as many from the precarious sectors, the wave surged through the centre of many Italian cities, blocking the streets, and reclaiming public space – for instance, some of the bridges in Venice, from which protest had been banned. In its political articulation, the wave tended to reprise some of the classic themes of Italian autonomous politics: it was a sector of the movement that was ‘not political in the strict sense of the term, but rather a defence of [protestors’] own concrete needs and conditions’ (Anon 2008a) It refused to be ‘represented and instrumentalised by anyone’ (Anon 2008: 3) and presented itself as a:

‘radical refusal of the imposition of an economic model (starting within the national education sector), of cultural forms (racism) and of repressive actions (police). The movement calls itself the “anomalous Wave”, referring to the fact that it does not rely on traditional forms of representation, that it is transversal and not predictable. The Wave is more emotional than organizational, more improvised than structured. In relation to its anomalous nature, the recognition of “being precarious” as a common identity is central, as the different subjects that participate in the movement recognize themselves in this condition’. (Anon 2008: 4)

The political logic of this section of the movement pointed towards ‘autoriform’ and ‘autoformazione’ – the self-organisation of all the precarious, and all knowledge-workers, outside the established structures – an exodus articulated in the slogans ‘free knowledge’ and ‘free university’, which imagined a university outside the state. These were objectives at odds with the emphases of the mainstream (centre-left) trade union movement, which wanted to rally support around what one of its leaders called the ‘defence of the public school system’ against a government whose ‘only logic’ was one of ‘cutting funds and jobs’ (Muratore 2008). While many in the movement did not accept that the issues were as limited as this, the notion of ‘defending the public school’ had considerable resonance. As in France, the principle of free access to all levels of an integrated education system was seen as an historic social conquest, embedded in the post-war constitution. It was recognized, of course, that the system was riddled with clientilism, inferior in size and attainment to that of other European countries, and weakened by years of neo-liberal management; but for reasons both symbolic and material, it was still worth defending, and to defend it was for some to vindicate the social movements of an earlier period. [[In Anderson’s summary: ‘Spending on education, falling in the budget since 1990, accounts for a mere 4.6% of GDP (Denmark 8.4%). Only half of the population has any kind of post-compulsory schoolinhg, nearly 20 points below the European average. No more than a fifth of 20-year-olds enter higher education, and three-fifths of those drop out.’ (Anderson 2009: 8)]] That the university was organized on a class basis was beyond doubt, wrote Benedetto Vecchi, in Il Manifesto, but the movement of 1968 had introduced a factor which was a ‘living contradiction’ of this principle: the concept of access to knowledge as a universal social right. (Vecchi 2008). Likewise, the political scientist Nadia Urbinati could speak simultaneously both of the corruption of the Italian state, including the university, and of that same university as a collective good ‘built with the collective funding of the Italian people’. [[Urbinati, interviewed in Pullano (2008)]] From this latter point of view, Berlusconi’s project was plain – the ‘transformation of the social identity of the country’, so that private values triumphed over public ones. (Pullano 2008) [[Domenico Pantaleo, General Secretary of the Flc-Cgil, quoted in Muratore (2008)]]

It was this wider, historical view of the stakes of the conflict that animated many protestors – but the movement was not only built on backward glances. For many, the protests ‘had placed at the centre of the debate the great question of the future’ (Anon 2008a). Here, two issues were linked. The first was that of the ‘governing class’, seen as incompetent and amoral, and bent upon the pillaging of the public sector by means of privatization (Mattei 2008). The second was generational: the people whose interests the political class had particularly damaged were the young, for whom the years ahead would be an ordeal of precarity: ‘they have wasted the past and now they are asking us to give up our future. They think that because they have passed a law, we will come to a stop. They don’t understand that we are going forward, that we have nothing to lose.’ [[‘A student from Bologna’ demonstrating in the Piazza Navona, Rome. Quoted in Maltese (2008)]](Maltese 2008) From this self-perception of youth, as a generation at risk, came the slogan which served to unify the early states of the movement: ‘non pagheremo noi la vostra crisi’ – we won’t pay for your crisis.

It would be a mistake, however, to think that the only responses to the Gelmini débacle were those of the wave and the unions. Van der Pijl’s point that global pressures activate national responses in new combinations has an application that runs wider than an analysis of the components of resistance. It applies also to the dominant policy, and the terms in which it is debated. For some, the reforms were an Italian instance of a global trend (Vecchi 2008); the form it took was nationally specific, but not exceptional; if the situation in the universities was ‘feudal’ then this was ‘the peculiarly Italian interpretation’ of the tendency for the university to turn itself into a commercial entity so as to compete in the ‘education and knowledge market’. (Do and Roggero 2009) A different position, well represented among journalists and academic commentators, was that the crisis offered an opportunity for the kinds of reform that might make Italy a ‘normal’ country, like all the others of the west. In this sense, the protests were interpreted as a kind of lens turned less upon the crisis of neo-liberalism than upon the structural defects, especially at higher level, of Italy’s education system; and the protest movement was potentially the vehicle for modernising change, a movement of ‘reformism from below’, a project for another kind of university (Maltese 2008). Singled out, here, was the need to break down the power of the professoriat, the ‘barons’. The Italian university, according to Rossi, has been deformed by the workings of a ‘historically hierarchical’ mode of functioning ‘which empowers primarily full professors in recruitment procedures and in all university administrative matters while keeping the other parts of the teaching and research staff in a rigidly subaltern condition in terms of career autonomy and decision-making power’ (Rossi 2006: 278-9). Out of this baronial power grows a web of clientilism.

It is difficult to underestimate the disgust and despair with which the protest movement regarded this aspect of the university system, which presented not just a sectoral problem but a window on to the totality of Italian life. For Vecchi, the baroni were ‘a caste like many others in Italy’, for Urbinati, a reminder that ‘we’re among the most corrupt states in the world’ (Vecchi 2008, Pullano 2008), while other critiques denounced Italy even more comprehensively, as a ‘land where nothing changes; where all attempts at change are blocked … with no space for imagination, creativity, innovation.’ (Veltri 2008). The art historian Salvatore Settis drew from his experiences of global academia to compare the Italian university – ‘we are outside Europe, we have been third-worldised’ – and those of the anglo-saxon world, where competition for jobs was regulated by transparent procedures, and research funding was merit-based (Miliani 2008). Maltese, likewise, praised the course taken by university reform in France, which had concluded with a decision that ‘funds should be allocated on a rigorously meritocratic basis’ (Maltese 2008). Urbinati, too, made comparisons overseas: England had ‘developed a means of evaluating research that distributes resources on the basis of merit’ (Pullano 2008).

The passion of this critique is striking, but so are its ambivalences: its terms supply popular understanding, but they are also the chosen ideological instruments of elites. ‘Baronialism’ is a target both of the movement’s anger, and of the polemic of neo-liberalism, which has long been eager to counterpose the evils of ‘producer control’ to the disciplines of the market (Economist 2008). That the university is ‘rigged’ is the bitter contention of unemployed researchers, but also of those who want to remodel it on business lines (Vecchi 2008, Perotti 2008). The particular figure in which reform is linked to a market-inflected notion of fairness is ‘merit’. As Rosalind Innes has pointed out, ‘merit’ provides the framework in which a great number of reforms, whose effects are likely to contribute to processes of marketisation, can be legitimized: fair and open competition for university places, effective evaluation of the work of schools, a more equitable system of research funding, again based on competition and audit (Innes 2008). For reformers of this disposition, the Gelmini laws were not a serious project. The cuts they proposed were not linked to any discernible educational purpose. They failed to address the biggest problem, which was the incapacity of the state to control key processes of governance: it could plan neither the distribution of teachers across the national territory nor the creation of academic posts; it had no means of preventing the ‘cancellation’ of its policies by local and regional authorities that refused put them into practice on the ground. From this point of view, modernization had failed, again (Bordignon and Checchi 2008) – but the problems thus highlighted stemmed less from a neo-liberal world order, than from an historic, national predicament. In the attempt to realize in local circumstances what it took to be a global orthodoxy, the Italian state had only revealed its familiar weaknesses.

By December 2008, the movement had arrived at a pause – perhaps a halt – with many ambiguities intact. Berlusconi, explained La Repubblica, had no intention of ‘setting the piazza alight’, especially when it seemed that educational protests were linking up with wider concerns about the economic crisis. Change to the teaching hours in the liceo and the technical college would be delayed; others changes would be diluted – only if parents wanted it, would the maestro unico idea be introduced in a school. More money would be found for the university. (La Repubblica 2008, Martini 2008). These concessions, of course, left the stakes of the conflict unclaimed. The movement had demonstrated its capacity temporarily to block reform, to mobilize in great numbers, and to create a counter-culture of opposition that seethed with critique, discontent and the desire for alternatives. For autonomists, this was the main point: whether or not the Gelmini reforms succeeded, the vital thing remained the struggle to develop and embody a counter-power, able to construct a different kind of knowledge, a different kind of university. Strengthened by L’Onda, that struggle would go on. For others, it was problems of the movement that were most pressing. As in France, it had scorched the snake, not killed it; the blows it could inflict were not decisive. It lacked a credible political alternative to the government, and more widely to a governing class which was in agreement with the need for reform, albeit divided on the means of attaining it: ‘no cuts and let’s talk’ was the offer that Berlusconi received from Walter Veltroni, leader of the centre-left PD. (La Repubblica 2008a). The offer suggested that the Gelmini reforms, suitably repackaged, might in some ways live on.

England, and some general reflections

In ‘The Education Debate’ (2008), Stephen Ball summarises ‘the outcome of the debate [among researchers] about globalization’ and education policy. Following Lingard and Rizvi (2000), he concludes that globalization ‘does not impinge on all nation states and at all times in exactly the same way’. Some states are ‘more able and more likely to deflect or mediate global policy trends, while others … are required to accept and respond to external reform imperatives’. (2008: 29) National policies need therefore to be understood as ‘the product of a nexus of influences and interdependencies’, the intermingling of global and local logics.

It is certainly possible to understand in these terms the recent, halting course of policy-making in France and Italy. But the experiences reviewed in this paper suggest that we can usefully reformulate Ball’s argument, so as to arrive at a different object of analysis. To focus on ‘policy’ as the object of study seems overly to privilege the actions and projects of government and of organizations that contribute supportively to its programmes – and thus a priori to decentre other social actors. (In most current work, even where ‘resistance and countermovements’ are acknowledged [Taylor et al 1997], there is in practice a tendency to note their influence rather than fully to explore its terms, strategies and effects.) Yet the impact of globalization, of which Lingard and Rizvi write, reaches the educational space of France and Italy as much through the responses of social movements, as through the policies of government. And for this reason, if we wish fully to understand this space, we need to work with a broader concept than that of ‘policy’ or ‘policy-making’. A better alternative might be ‘educational contestation’, a concept that would enable analysts to focus on a range of social actors, and to explore fully the intellectual and political resources with which they work. The concept might also lead to a stronger understanding of the politics of policy-making, that is of the ways in which key decisions, strategies, projects and achievements bear the marks of contestation, and express an orientation – perhaps accommodating, perhaps uncompromising – towards other actors and projects.

As well as illuminating the course of policy-making, a perspective which emphasizes contestation can also help us understand state formation and reformation, that is to say, changes in the nature and function of apparatuses of the state and their relationship to political and social conflict. In this context, much work in the Marxist tradition of writing about the state remains useful, especially, it seems to me, that of theorists such as Gramsci and Poulantzas who have attempted to understand the ways in which states, always in unstable conditions of class contestation, and of changes in the relations of production, have adapted their forms.

Gramsci’s contributions here are well-known (Gramsci 1971: 59, 105). Analysing the dynamics of Italian state formation under Fascism, he wrote of passive revolution, or ‘revolution-restoration’, as a process in which the ruling social groups, through state intervention rather than popular mobilisation, sought to promote sweeping institutional change and national renewal; and in which reform was linked not to the extension of democracy, but to the preservation of existing power structures in the face of a radical challenge which had been defeated but not eradicated (Jones 2004). As Johnson and Steinberg put it, with a particularly insightful stress on what state power does in such periods, ‘passive revolution is the demobilization or disorganization of forms of popular agency’ (2004: 12).

Poulantzas’ work, notably State, Power, Socialism (1978) addresses a different conjuncture, one in which the state was attempting both to contain the social energies unleashed in the 1960s and 1970s, and to manage the transition from the long boom of the period 1945-1975 to the restructured capitalism that followed the slump of the mid-seventies. This complex experience sensitised Poulantzas to the relationship between state forms and social conflicts. If state power was always provisional, fragile and limited, this was because both class and non-class struggles to some extent escaped state control, with the state’s effectiveness ‘always being shaped by capacities and forces that lie beyond it’ (Jessop 2008: 126). The extent of this shaping varied between different sectors of the state, some being more heavily ‘screened’ from the influence of the ‘popular masses’ than others.

The stress on the ‘masses’ is a distinctive feature of Poulantzas’ state theory, but it is counterbalanced by other emphases. Currents of influence do not move only in one direction, from the masses to the state; they also flow the other way. Poulantzas shares Gramsci’s fascination with the innovative capacities of the state, its ability to devise new forms in which hegemony can be secured, populations controlled and antagonists disorganised. He was one of the first to theorise, prophetically, the emergence of an ‘authoritarian statism’ that involved intensified control over ‘every sphere of socio-economic life, combined with the radical decline of the institutions of political democracy’ (1978: 204).This insight, into the reciprocal relationship between a resurgent state power and a crisis of popular politics, provided a basis for concrete analyses. Thus, for instance, Poulantzas was able to identify the significance in terms of class contestation of developments that were later described as the ‘network state’ – policy communities that ‘cement dominant interests outside the state apparatus with forces inside, at the expense of popular forces’ (Jessop 2008: 132).

The state theory of Gramsci and Poulantzas illuminates the recent course of education policy in England, enabling us to understand the ‘modernisation’ programme of Blair’s government as an instance of passive revolution, in which the relationship between social forces has been reconfigured in new institutional arrangements. This was not solely a Blairite achievement. Much of the under-labouring for New Labour’s programme of the New Labour government had already been completed by Conservative administrations. The level of contestation that Blair faced in 1997 was therefore unusually low – labour movement traditions of equal opportunity had been weakened, the influence of elected local authorities had been reduced, and teachers defeated, both in trade union terms, and in relation to their capacity to shape classroom processes. New Labour was able to populate this ‘emptied’ space of education with new institutions and social actors – a shift that I have elsewhere called ‘re-agenting’. In re-agenting, the development of policy through an explicitly political process of encounter between different social interests becomes less important than its elaboration through networks of agencies, local and national (for instance Ofsted, the Teacher Development agency, the Specialist Schools Trust), whose origins and points of reference lie in the priorities of national government (Jones 2004: 43-4). The complex of networks, organizations, and auditing regimes established under Blair has constituted a new state apparatus of education, concerned not only with the administration of an established system, but with an ongoing and unending effort to create, motivate, resource, support and guide the forces that can make policy happen. It has enabled the organisation of the world of education around the project of raising levels of performance, measured in terms of examination success. The other side of this process is, as Johnson and Steinberg noted, the demobilisation of oppositional agency. New Labour has worked consistently to ensure that the conditions in which contestation might be revived cannot be recreated: its much-noted micro-management of targets and procedures leaves no space for any agency that might seek to modify or contradict its programme.

The limits of these achievements need delineating. They have not resolved historic weaknesses of English education. Levels of educational inequality remain high, and levels of educational performance uneven (Brook 2008). Recession will bring further problems. In the period of financial boom, New Labour did not face the discontents of a volatile, precarious sector of unemployed youth. That may change, especially as the relatively high levels of state spending that the boom enabled will not be maintained. Nevertheless, politically and institutionally, Blair’s (and Thatcher’s) legacy marks out England as distinct from France and Italy.

In these latter countries, a new educational state, based on a qualitatively different relationship of social forces, has not yet been created. One might say, that in contrast to England, where reform essentially began with a Conservative victory in a decisive war of manoeuvre, successive Italian and French governments have fought a long war of position against their opponents – an attritional process stretching from the 1990s to the present day. This process has not yet reached a decisive outcome. New norms
reflecting global policy orthodoxy, have not credibly be established. Nor have these governments been able to weaken opposition to the point at which the state can yet enforce new policies, institutions and social relations. Valentina Aprea, introducing her proposed law, praised the shift accomplished by Blair from a producer to a commissioner state, and sought to emulate that change in Italy (De Anna 2009). Likewise, “on veut faire tout comme vous,” Sarkozy told Blair’s successor, Gordon Brown, on his presidential visit to London in 2008.14.

Such ambitions may not be realized; the conditions that gave rise to the English version of education reform – a decisive political victory of the right, a brief window of economic opportunity – are unlikely to be repeated. Indeed, the attempt to achieve an ‘English’ system, in conditions where opposition remains mobilized, may give rise to new forms of educational contestation. England, therefore, may represent not so much the terminus of a route along which all European societies must travel, as a specific and limited phenomenon. ‘We want to do everything like you’ – but that isn’t possible – not now, and, perhaps, not ever.


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