EDUCATIONAL institutions for working-class students now face a future full of tension. A growing privatisation agenda is increasing the power and influence of big business in our daily lives and work.
Not only is the government undermining workers’ rights through the Trade Union Bill, but there is an increasingly hostile world of work awaiting those entering the job market. The jobseeking young, migrants and older workers laid off through redundancy all find themselves in a precarious position. The “flexible” (read “insecure”) new jobs market creates increasingly exploitative conditions.
All areas of life are subject to the whims and wishes of big business; from healthcare to education and prisons, from the food we buy to environmental protections.
Trade agreements such as TTIP form part of this agenda, and the role of educational institutions must be to question and challenge this relentless power of big business.
Working-class education needs to support the labour movement to meet the challenges of privatisation, fight for public services and public-sector jobs, mitigate the effects of privatisation and the privatisation agenda itself.
We have to face this situation, and respond in a way that understands the role of education that is rooted in working-class heritage, and radical traditions of education.
In the Business and Social Enterprise foundation degree at Ruskin College, we have been exploring how to do this, emphasising social enterprise — when business strategies are used to advance the good of all — and the role of charity and volunteering in reimagining “the market.” We’ve also looked at how business can respond to a social change agenda.
Businesses aren’t just profit-driven machines. They are also social and political spaces, and increasingly workers and employers are aware of how their company fits within the broader landscape of capitalism.
In teaching business to students who are concerned about these questions, it’s crucial that we embed a critique of capitalism into their understanding. We should equip students with the critical skills necessary to separate business from the capitalistic models. This requires re-imagining “value,” learning how to calculate social and political impact as well as financial gain, and how to reflect that in balance sheets.
There is a rich history in Britain of challenging traditional capitalism through business. The co-operative movement is an example of alternative engagement with the capitalist economy, and examples such as worker-run and community-based co-operatives show that these can be successful and productive enterprises that maintain equality and social justice.
At Ruskin College, our students are shown how co-operative working can provide an alternative to big business and the relentless pursuit of profit.
Trade unions must also play a central role. In charity and not-for-profit organisations, the relationship between unions and employers can be different and more productive. If we are not talking about the owners of capital making profit from the labour of workers, then there is perhaps less inherent exploitation in the relationship. In this case, unions must fight to ensure that the values of social justice and equality are embedded in the employment relationship. At Ruskin College the trade union is a central part of the management of the college, ensuring that there is always participation from staff in all policy processes and decision-making.
With increasing privatisation of services and regional devolution, charities, social enterprises and community groups must try to ensure that essential services (such as community transport) are maintained for those who need them. However it’s also crucial to remain true to our principles of challenging and opposing all cuts to local public services. It is a difficult (perhaps impossible) balance.
Is it better that services are maintained by organisations that promote the principles of equality and social justice, rather than profit-seeking businesses that have no interest in the social impact of their work? Local social enterprises such as co-operatives can be and have been real alternatives to the profit-seeking behaviour of big businesses and corporations.
Business must be fundamentally re-imagined to put equality before profit, change notions of “ownership” and put trade unions and the interests of workers at the centre of all working practices.
• Ruskin College is hosting Business for Social Change on Wednesday March 23 2016. Free and all welcome. Contact email@example.com.