Monday, 21 March 2016

Can business ever really benefit the people?


Fenella Porter
I am very pleased to reproduce below an article by my colleague Dr. Fenella Porter, article which appears in today's Morning Star, and which reflects her work on positing the College's strategy around business for social change.

This work arises from the College's Foundation Degree in Business & Social Enterprise (FDBSE) and a need to determine where and how the College positions this work in its relationship with the labour movement, and the many other allies movements and organisations we work.

"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

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

This is education as the practice of freedom


I have used the title of this post before, but am drawing on it again to write up some reflections following a particularly lively, thought-provoking weekend with the 2015 cohort of students of the BA in international labour and trade union studies (ILTUS) at Ruskin.

In order to align the title of the post, and the key outcomes of my teaching session with students last weekend, here is a quote from Teaching to Transgress by bell hooks:

The academy is not paradise. But learning is a place where paradise can be created. The classroom with all its limitations remains a location of possibility. In that field of possibility we have the opportunity to labour for freedom, to demand of ourselves and our comrades, an openness of mind and heart that allows us to face reality even as we collectively imagine ways to move beyond boundaries, to transgress. This is education as the practice of freedom. (hooks 1994: 207)

The session I taught on Sunday 31st Feb looked pretty straight-forward in that it focused on how students tackle the writing of conclusions for assignments. They were approaching this from a task where students needed to pre-read an article by John Hendy and Keith Ewing assessing European-level judgements on industrial action and their impacts on the right to freedom of association in Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (ECHR).

For interest the article abstract is here:

What became fascinating about the teaching session as it progressed - and in reference to the principle of education as having the capacity to discuss and practice freedoms was that:

1. The students, although new to the BA at Ruskin, were already making a correlation between their learning experience on an ability to either develop clearer, constructive argument with employers, co-workers and fellow/sister trade unionists and/or saw the BA as a means to develop this skill further.

2. Allied to the Hendy/Ewing article was a thoughtful, insightful debate on how Ruskin provided an opportunity and space to rival Oxbridge and other elite educational institutes in creating the alternative arguments/dialogue which responded to a neo-liberal trajectory on workers' and human rights. In particular, the orientation of this discussion focused on Ruskin as a distinct working class educational organising which specifically enabled this.

Where the session and discussion ended was that the art of writing a clear, crisp conclusion corresponded with a capacity to think more clearly about political argument and how this can be articulated orally also.

Teaching to Transgress (and similar) is a book that I am constantly reminded of in how we must both shape learning at Ruskin but also develop a community of practice with students in order that their learning meets the needs of movements they are part of. As trade union activists and officials working at the frontline of economic, social and political change in work and employment, I am acutely aware that the needs of students who comprise this community is demanding, changing, and challenging but always something that our educational offer at Ruskin must respond to.

If we get it right, which I like to think we sometimes do (but am never complacent) then our students can not only interpret for themselves the value of the Ruskin experience, but are consistently keen to promote Ruskin to fellow and sister trade unionists.

Below, for example is a pic/quote from a current MA student, Kath Holder (UNISON Shop Steward) who has been very happy to promote the BA and MA at Ruskin. Here is the link the TUC advert that Kath features in:

This kind of student support is vital of course to supporting our recruitment strategy. It is also, arguably, a validation of the student's experience in recognising the value of Ruskin as providing a critically important space and place for trade union, political and social movement activists to reflect on their movement experience and needs, and work with colleagues here to shape an educational experience which enables them to meet those needs.

Hopefully there is some coherence to my notes/thoughts here - feedback is always sought- but I felt the need to get something written-up following another amazing teaching experience with sisters and brothers of the UK's trade union movement.

In Solidarity