Over the past 20 years, Higher Education has changed beyond recognition. It started with New Labour’s introduction of student fees in 1998 with the Teaching and Higher Education Act, when students were, for the first time, asked to fund their university education. Next was the increase in fees to £3,000 in 2003, before The Browne Report advised that the cap on fees should be removed altogether.

This year’s White Paper proposed the most radical changes yet. By making universities fund themselves entirely by tuition fees, and with the lifting of student quota controls, our Higher Education institutions are being left more and more open to what looks like ‘the market’. Throw into the mix the fact that the paper explicitly marks out students as consumers, and the transition from an education to a service-based relationship is complete. Many are appalled at these changes but feel powerless to prevent them, as any attempts to stem this tide of privatisation have failed.

That is where the Social Science Centre in Manchester comes in. I spoke with Dr Steve Hanson of the Centre about what they are doing to resist these changes and how they want to offer an alternative model.

What is the Social Science Centre?

Social Science Centre (SSC) Manchester provides free, co-operative Social Science Higher Education (HE) in the centre of Manchester. SSC has gained members and scholars, alongside funds to get off the ground. Run as a co-operative and owned by its members, the hope is that SSC Manchester will eventually be self-sustaining.

How did the Social Science Centre come into being?

The first Social Science Centre in Lincoln has successfully offered free, co-operative higher education since 2011, and granted approval for the new Manchester branch at its 2016 AGM in May. SSC Manchester began with exactly the same model and constitution as SSC Lincoln. Basically, I wanted to start a branch here and I asked them if it would be OK. Everything else was put into place after that inaugural AGM in Lincoln.

Why was Manchester the choice of the second location?

It was about right place and right time. I co-founded Manchester Left Writers here with Dr David Wilkinson in 2014 and thought about creating an SSC branch back then. I had thought about starting one when I was teaching in Hereford and living in Wales in 2011, but the place wasn’t right. SSC needed a big, bold city to move up a gear and Manchester is it. The conditions weren’t quite right in 2014, but now, after the 2015 general election, Brexit and now the new Higher Education bill, it is clear that mainstream Higher Education needs alternatives.

 

Why is the work you do important?

Mainstream universities are being marketised even further now. The fees model is not going to go away and so it was time to do something positive and proactive, rather than just attend demonstrations and complain, although we still do that. We need to try to make the Higher Education we want. The marketisation is not just about money and access. The very fabric of what mainstream universities are is being warped significantly by their changing structures. I’d go as far as saying we have to consider a different name to ‘university’ in many cases.

Who teaches at the Social Science Centre?

Myself, Dr Joe Darlington and Dr James Duggan, who just finished a great short course on Brexit. We have many others. These are just the people currently or recently running courses.

A key aspect to point out is that the sessions are co-produced. We build knowledge through discussion of texts rather than an academic coming in and telling you things, although there are academics who know a lot of things and you have access to them. There are members and scholars. Members run things to whatever extent they wish to and scholars come in and engage with what we do for free. There isn’t much of a barrier between the two though. It is genuinely member-owned and run. There is no Vice Chancellor or Dean at SSC.

What courses can we expect at the SSC?

‘The Sociological Imagination’ is currently the only course running. We’ve only been active since June, but we have plans for others. For instance, on Global Crisis and Female Academics.

How can readers get involved with the SSC?

Contact us!

What is the ultimate aim of the SSC?

It is hoped that the new Manchester branch will be the first of many more new SSC branches and that the two existing branches will turn into a network. It has gone from an anomaly to a phenomenon. It needs to become a movement. Leeds, Bradford, Birmingham, Wales, Scotland: contact us and start one. We can help with that.

It was very important to me to start another branch of SSC, rather than create my own idiosyncratic or egotistical project. SSC is also about movement building, long term.

sscmanchester.wordpress.com

David Ewing