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My piece on Universities, the NUS and 'Nudging'.

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At the Battle of Ideas festival, held last weekend at the Royal College of Art, I attended a session called ‘What are universities for?’ This is a pertinent question given the current cuts, the transformation over the last few years of students into consumers of higher education and, most fundamentally, the replacement of the idea of “knowledge for its own sake” with “skills” deemed beneficial to the economy.
Given such fundamental issues are at stake it is surprising that the National Union of Students (NUS), an organisation charged with defending the interests of students, seems to have as one of its main priorities trying to change freshers’ behaviour in all manner of ways.
This latest initiative that students are being encouraged to sign up to in  Gloucester, Kent, Royal Holloway, Bristol, Leeds, Bradford and Liverpool Guild of Students is the Allotment Society.  Ian Pain, General Manager of the students’ union at Gloucestershire, explained: ‘Ideally we would like to change students’ behaviour and encourage them to eat more healthily and cook using fresh produce they have grown themselves.”
The organization, Slow Food on Campus, which jointly organises this initiative, and who are active at colleges in 50 states across the US, want freshers to be aware of the ethics involved in food production. With the slogan “eating is an agricultural act”, Slow Food on Campus is trying to make a generational change. A spokesman for the DIY chain store Homebase, which is sponsoring the campaign in the UK, explains:
“This initiative is about creating a generation of graduates with healthier, greener and more pocket-friendly eating habits. If students learn at this influential stage in their life to grow healthy, fresh food for themselves and their local communities, we hope they will take those skills and that passion on into later life.”
A cynic might say these students are being trained to be a new class of landless peasantry – perhaps this is the NUS’s assessment of the economy. There are other initiatives being tried that also go beyond the traditional remit of the NUS. It has teamed up with the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills to run a energy efficiency project called Carbon Ambassadors in the Community. The project will train student volunteers in practical energy efficiency auditing skills, then deploy them to community organisations and small businesses to help reduce community carbon.
There is a study to assess the effectiveness of different approaches, aimed at encouraging energy-efficient behavioral change amongst students living in halls of residence. “We will develop an understanding of the drivers of habit formation and persistence” says the NUS website.
The NUS aims to find subtle ways to change student behaviour, and then send them into the community to spread the word. The union appears to be aiming to “nudge” students to take the “right” decisions for society’s future. Personal ethics, it seems, are no longer a private matter, but a source of profound problems in society. The way to create a better society, something I would hope all students are concerned with, is not to develop an alternative view of how to organise society but to have an ‘understanding of the drivers of habit formation’ and find subtle ways to change them.
Changing behaviour by ‘nudge’ tactics is quite the thing in policy-forming circles at present. The Lib-Con coalition even has a ‘Behavioural Insight Team’, concerned with ‘nudging’ or reshaping our behaviour. This is a very different conception of a political campaign than the types of initiatives many of us were involved in at university. Rather than having a political argument with someone and hopefully winning them over to your point of view, these initiatives  deal with individual actions. There is no autonomous individual or ‘agency’ involved in this process. Instead it is ‘bad personal habits’ which are uncritically accepted as the source of all problems that must be ‘nudged’ out of the way.
These highly illiberal initiatives have more in common with the work of Orwell’s Thought Police than with our traditional idea of politics. Rather than being about how we might create the conditions in which individuals can realise their potential and pursue their aspirations, student politics has become about remoulding people. It assumes a preordained view of what a decent person should be – they grow their own veg, and are aware of “food ethics”, they are energy efficient and persuade their community to cut carbon emissions.
I hope students will be sceptical about this non-political brand of politics. Politics is not about changing your or anyone else’s personal behaviour, it is about having a vision of a better future and winning people over to that view. True politics is aspirational because it views everyone as active subjects in the liberal Enlightenment tradition. This means that people’s views are changed firstly by treating everyone as a rational, autonomous individual, and secondly by putting forward a logical argument that is persuasive and appeals to their self interest.
Politics is not about assuming you know best and trying to change behaviour through spurious tactics. This brand of politics has no big inspiring ideas that people might adopt because they are persuaded by argument. Rather it is the ‘nudge’ of low-horizons that views people as a means rather than an end in themselves. Instead of resisting the Department of Business Innovation and Skills and putting forward a positive vision as to what universities should be for, the NUS seems to be completely in bed with it, sharing its contempt for the autonomy of students with its wholehearted adoption of the government’s ‘nudge’ agenda.
Throughout October and November, The Independent Online is partnering with the Battle of Ideas festival to present a series of guest blogs from festival speakers on the key questions of our time.
Jason Smith is convenor of the Birmingham Salon. The session What are universities for? took place at the Battle of Ideas festival on Saturday 30 October. The next Birmingham Salon is taking place on Wednesday 8 December, where author Helene Guldberg will introduce her latest book ‘Just Another Ape?’. For more details, see:


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