Uniwersytet 12/2012

cerelia athanassiou & jamie melrose: Challenging the Status Quo in the Modern University: Participation, Democracy, Counter-Hegemony


The winter of 2010 saw a wave of student rebellions and occupations in the UK (Ismail, 2011: 123-131). These were in response to the Government’s proposed restructuring of Higher Education (HE) and to its flagship policy: the ability of universities to treble their tuition fees. The unpopularity of these reforms, the state of austerity imposed after the well-documented international financial crash of 2008 (Comiskey and Madhogarhia, 2009: 271-275; Gowan, 2009: 5-29; Harvey, 2010; Tett, 2010) and the resurgence of a student movement issued in „a significant revival of dissent, protest and anger against the system” (Solomon and Palmieri, 2011: 4). In academia, too, there were profound disagreements with the vision and direction of travel of HE reform (Collini, 2010: 23-25) as laid out in the Browne Report, the flagship document spelling out the „significant change” (Browne, 2010: 3) in direction for the sector.

 In the very same winter, in line with this conjuncture, a group of students occupied the University of Bristol’s (UoB) Senate Room, the meeting place of the University’s principal academic decision-making body. The same group of occupiers had previously occupied their Students’ Union; part of a successful campaign to call an emergency general meeting by a thus far unsupportive Union officer team. At the emergency general meeting, by an overwhelming majority, resolutions were passed to the effect that the Union had to offer its total backing to efforts to resist austerity measures and the rise in fees. The Senate Room occupation was the next step.

Notably, the occupation received a letter of support for those students who were occupying Senate Room: from academic staff at the School for Sociology, Politics and International Studies (SPAIS), the institutional home of the authors of this article. The letter, signed by a majority of active academics in SPAIS, contained statements that corresponded with the Occupation’s’ aims and motives:

…a large number of us in Arts and Social Sciences share many of the concerns of the students who now occupy the Senate Room. This widespread current of thought holds that the government proposals, based on the tendentious Browne Report, significantly undermine the idea of the public good university to which we are committed…they [the students] are just asking for dialogue and debate. Where they will probably disagree, so too do many academic staff, and the issue then becomes one of ensuring mutual respect and putting into place a process which will make this whole episode reflect well on the University’s different constituencies, and the institution as a whole. (McLennan et al, 2010)

Here we saw the possible outlines of a common front on campus, forming hitherto underdeveloped alliances between staff and students; in a nutshell, a common counter-hegemonic cause against the „repugnant philosophy underlying the Browne Report” (Thomas, 2011: 10), against government policy and against the constant target so beloved of contemporary critical scholarship, neoliberal hegemony (Weldes, 2009: xii). Dared one dream of „a development of will and of collective thought,” probably beset by „polemics and splits” from an external viewpoint, but nevertheless a „group ethic…a form of social coexistence” (Gramsci, 1999[1930-32]: 382-383)?

The Wills Memorial Buildling, the flagship building of the University of Bristol
The Wills Memorial Buildling, the flagship building of the University of Bristol

The occupation of Senate House is now historical, if not history. However, its effect still lingers. The questions that it raises as regards a common front are still raw. Two years after the Occupation, and two years after the possibility of more, we find ourselves at an impasse wherein the majority of staff, so-called critical scholars, align themselves with anti-neoliberal sentiments, as demonstrated by this letter, and yet since its signing, we have seen no credible staff effort to build any form of a front, to create any dialogue fitting of this current juncture in Higher Education, to work with any fellow university actors in an open forum; in fact, at times actively the very opposite. To make sense of this incongruity, based on our parochial experience over the past two years, but one that we feel is not limited to the UoB frame of reference, we explain our experiences of the UK HE anti-cuts and anti-fees protests/(in)actions through certain concepts associated with hegemony and radical democracy: dialogue, discourse, critique and democratic participation.

These are all too familiar tools to our ‘critical’ milieu, but which are rarely, if at all, used in any sense other than as commodities in the academic marketplace. Against this, we utilise them to open up space for addressing the problem of praxis in academia and to what extent it is/should/can be an indispensable part of critical scholarship. As will be clear from this introduction, we argue that there is a role for radical scholarship within the University, but not as we observe it now.

Our Experience

The Occupation’s press release stated that occupiers had occupied „University of Bristol Senate House to protest the government-proposed education cuts and changes to the University fee structure.” They were „acting in solidarity with student occupations across the country, including at the University of the West of England, and other forms of protest against policies which aim to cut public spending on education and research.” Their demands included an emergency general meeting open to all members of the University community, a formal UoB statement calling for a public inquiry into HE restructuring and for a concerted effort by UoB to resist the increase in tuition fees.

To return to the letter of support from SPAIS staff, it read „…we share those general principles with the occupying group” (McLennan et al, 2010) those principles being assumedly the same as those espoused by Keith Thomas, positioning themselves against:

the discontinuance of free university education; the withdrawal  of direct public funding for the teaching of the humanities and the social sciences…the requirement that all academic research have an “ impact” on the economy; and supportive of the transformation of self-governing communities of scholars into mega-businesses, staffed by a highly-paid executive class…the rejection of the idea that higher education might have a non-monetary value….the abolition of the REF [Research Education Framework] altogether (2011: 9-10).

This position on the part of staff signalled a shift away from what some have called the ‘“craven”’ attitude of academia, ‘“jumping through hoops”’ (Ladyman quoted in Gill, 26.04.2012: 5) to government policy and the thinking that underpinned it. This was, then, a challenge to the essentializing austerity arguments justifying HE reform: „the big contribution to public spending saving” and „the savings necessary to reduce the deficit.” Other staff statements of support demonstrated this, too.

A picture of the occupation of the Senate Room at the University of Bristol.
A picture of the occupation of the Senate Room at the University of Bristol.

In short, in the winter of 2010/2011, UoB students, academics and administrative/support staff came together in voicing dissent at an unpopular government, and, by default, the replication of its ethos and policy platform by university management and a HE elite in the UK. Students were becoming sensitised to phenomena that their teaching staff have been struggling against for years, as demonstrated in a campus wide newsletter Bristol Perspectives and an emergent student movement. Staff were energised by the spontaneity and potency offered by a vibrant broad student movement, and the values that movement spoke up for, in light of the language of academic reform.

Seen from a highly parochial UoB context, it seemed that there was a possibility for what could be broadly described as an HE counter-hegemonic project (Laclau and Mouffe, 2001: 178-181; 192-193). A common identity was a real possibility, using the resources available to it, such as the heritage of student opposition movements and staff dissent, in direct but not dichotomous opposition to the current neoliberal governing consensus: a „collective political consciousness” (Gramsci, 1999[1933-1934]: 205). This electrically tangible feeling of something in the air is not the unique factor in developing such a consciousness (Gramsci, 1999[1932-1932]: 208). No counter-hegemonic act of „direct mechanical causes” was expected as a result of the politico-economic shift. Rather, this shift created „a terrain more favourable to the dissemination of certain modes of thought, and certain ways of posing…a process which has as its actors men [sic.] and their will and capability” to be „taken advantage of” (Gramsci, 1999[1932-1934]: 208-209). In other words, the backlashes against HE restructuring would „acquire significance only if they serve to justify a particularly practical activity, an initiative of will” (Gramsci, 1999[1932-1934]: 209). Simply put, reaction to the austerity agenda has to be perceived as action first and foremost, and as being put into life by a conscious decision to align oneself with a cause. It could be conceived of as a task, forming, developing and rendering (Gramsci, 1999[1932-1934]: 209) the relations and gross disquiet with the ruling hegemonic managerialist complex (Vostal, Silvaggi, and Vasilaki, 2011: 62-82), to be found in the University as well as communities at large.

Criticality, Counter-hegemony, Dialogue and Participatory Democracy

However, in our experience here at UoB, it has turned out that there is little interest in how we think of and treat education in terms of praxis. We have seen a large degree of passivity and hostility to breaking down identity barriers, to challenging hierarchies and, crucially, organising; that is, making positive, consequential assertions to support and to effect. Indeed, we have seen a disconcertingly comfortable implementation and imposition of the continually neoliberalising University’s ruthlessness while blaming its operations on far-away forces, whether by pointing to the higher echelons of University management or government officials.

This manifests itself in wilful apathy towards colleagues being made redundant (as was the case in our immediate vicinity too recently); further imposition and reification of the contingent categories of ‘staff’, ‘student’, ‘manager’, ‘academic’; implementation of unpopular and unrealistic performance-based policies and job descriptions while purposefully denying space for their discussion and possible rejection or rewriting; demonstrating interest in research that is only relevant in market (and thus REF) terms. From our various attempts to not only challenge this structure, but to also work with it to achieve some form of consensus, we quickly found out that our department, however critically-oriented its members seemed to be, was not much different from others at UoB. Linear management structures were to be imposed at all times, and a cover story of complete subjective denial – the University referred to in the abstract –  was to be consistently maintained, we were, and still are, being told. This provided a telling incongruity: how can you be critical but not?

In order to rationalise the now non-existent resistance movement in HE and the possible solution to the current impasse, we turn to the concepts of dialogue, discourse, criticality and democratic participation. To introduce a key term, we thought that ‘a chain of equivalence’ (Laclau and Mouffe, 2001: xviii) was slowly building up between staff and student concerns, a forging of a new or at least different University as a discursive workplace and place of study, in contrast to ‘a frontier’ (Laclau and Mouffe, 2001: xix) in the form of government and its willing executors in the HE managerial elite. Moreover, horizontal and participatory in spirit, this student-animated movement was well versed in non-hierarchical and institutional admonitions: ‘[p]refer what is positive and multiple, difference over uniformity, flows over unities, mobile arrangements over systems’ and ‘develop action, thought, and desires by proliferation, juxtaposition, and disjunction, and not by subdivision and pyramidal hierarchization’ (Foucault, 1983[1972]: xiil). Indeed, it is this engagement with horizontality, in direct opposition to the top-down bulldozing of HE restructuring brought about by the coalition government that was arguably one of the most impressive and defining characteristics of this chain: the tactic of occupation and its foregrounding of consensus, participatory and deliberative decision-making.

So, the fledgling formation of a chain of equivalence between the interests and concerns of academic staff and those of students was on the table. It was not a done deal, but neither was it impossible. Following Ernesto Laclau’s and Chantal Mouffe’s theorisation of hegemony and discourse, this was a moment which proffered the formation of an articulation whereby identities and meanings find themselves in alignment through activity. An articulation in a chain of equivalence is not the expression of social or political attitudes writ large, the naming of something that is pre-existent; but rather, ‘articulation is a practice and not the name of a given relational complex, it must imply some form of separate presence of the elements which that practice articulates or recomposes’ (Laclau and Mouffe, 2001: 93). The active constitutive effect of discourse is crucial here, since the discursive ‘ensemble’ that is reproduced is ‘not the expression of any underlying principle external to itself…it constitutes a configuration, which in certain contexts of exteriority can be signified as a totality’ (Laclau and Mouffe, 2001: 106). Thus, the ‘central problem’ of this politico-neopragmatist turn ‘is to identify the discursive conditions for the emergence of a collective action, directed towards struggling against inequalities and challenging relations of subordination’ (Laclau and Mouffe, 2001: 153). This understanding of identity-formation, hegemony, and ultimately politics as constitutive brings to light the continued possibility of change.

The hegemonic understanding of ‘there is no alternative to cuts and fees’ was confronted by a forceful counter-hegemonic articulation of ‘No to cuts! No to fees!’ The importance of this negative articulation and the chain of equivalence that it constructed between a previously underdeveloped alliance of staff and student constituencies was significant: ‘[t]he presence of the [counter-hegemonic, radical] imaginary as a set of symbolic meanings which totalize as negativity a certain social order is absolutely essential for the constitution of all left-wing thought’ (Laclau and Mouffe, 2001: 190). As students found out during the occupations of 2010/2011, the ability to negate the status quo of ‘austerity’ through articulations of ‘No to cuts and fees!’ enabled them to create a space, which not only constituted opposition to the status quo agenda, but also the ability to explore and articulate new ideas about education. Rather than new or reformed policy platforms within the University hierarchy, the figuring of an alternative was the collective symbolic action.

One factor, above, seems to be ignored by the staff mentalite that we have identified in this article: the openness of social relations. Thus, the counter-hegemonic and the hegemonic constructs are articulated within the medium of contestability, the terrain of discourse – signs in motion and often put into motion. This is where we find the tools to challenge or to build our prevailing, non-essential status quo. This exposes the radicalism present in discourse and in the process of discursive exchange or dialogue: it is in, for example, dialogue that alternatives can be sought on the current strictures of HE. Conceived from a counter-hegemonic perspective, dialogue, though, is itself contestable, and what we see here as dialogue is in keeping with the participatory politics embedded in Laclau and Mouffe’s definition of discourse. It is not to be located as a reified set of verbal interactions, often constrained and limited to meetings and hierarchised spaces, and used as simply evidence of productive discussion.

(Bristol high school students joining forces with University students for a national walkout, 24 Nov 2010, guardian.co.uk
(Bristol high school students joining forces with University students for a national walkout, 24 Nov 2010, guardian.co.uk

This participation links with the notion of criticality, in radical democratic terms: an act is a prerequisite of a ‘radical democratic’ and ‘active citizen’, ‘who conceives of herself as a participant in a collective undertaking’ (Mouffe, 1995: 4). Such a criticality would thus inevitably be tied to a notion of the necessity of praxis, a politicisation which requires an active participation in the making or unmaking of the processes which make and support the idea of the University as a space of critical thought. This would define a critical scholarship that would take the student protests of 2010 to their radical end and institute a status quo of counter-hegemony within departments, common rooms and collegial relationships.

Counter-hegemonic critical scholarship?

Such praxis is rooted in the intensification of political practice. It does not demand hitherto submerged rights denied in the University as instituted, nor does it suggest that existing actors ought to be better represented (Foucault, 2004[1972]: xiiil), but intervenes in ‘the historic conditions and specific rules of a practice’ (Foucault, 1991[1968]: 70). ‘[W]hereas others’ politics recognize only ideal necessities, one-way determinations or the free-play of individual initiatives’ (Foucault, 1991[1968]: 70), the practico-critical activist, one who adopts a non-automatic respect for the sedimented articulation of what the University is, defines the University practice as imminently and positively contestable. Namely, one does not suspend judgement, relocate politics to another sphere and suggest the workplace is a practical, domesticated and non-confrontational realm, beyond critique and biases; but rather, acts out an interventionist and endemic politics of accepting alternatives presently.

As we see the status quo now, radicalism is reified, or rather, relegated to the sphere of the ancient notion of the academy. On paper (well, only specific types of papers, preferably those which will earn us higher scores on the REF), we are allowed to exercise and let loose our wildest fantasies about how the social and political system around us should work, albeit limited to a HE industrial quality standard. In continually focusing our research and theorising efforts on the ‘outside’ (e.g. on big bad governments) and not reflexively bringing back aspects from that into our daily lived experience as teachers and researchers, we are totally complicit in reproducing this very system. In fact, in the new age of the explicitly commodified university, we are almost incentivised into reproducing inequality so that we can keep pointing to it ‘critically’, so as to keep earning our status as cutting-edge critical researchers.


Significantly, we consider ourselves hosted and sustained by a critical scholarly community. This assumption is based on the symbolism and rhetoric of our institutional network. In SPAIS, most academics would identify to some degree as being critical. We are talking here about third wave critical thinking. This is neither overtly liberal nor binary critico-emancipatory; rather it is both overtly and tacitly situated on the horizons between immanent critique and the micro-endemic nature of power relations. There is an emphasis on the problematic associated with the constraints and agency associated with subjectification (Higate, 2012: 1-42), as opposed to on the Cartesian free agent versus the socially situated actor, and on the positive, activist (Herring, 2008: 197-2011) construction (rather than false consciousness and emancipation) model associated with counter-hegemonic work. The SPAIS research vision states that:

We aim to advance theory, knowledge and methods at the interface between the disciplines of sociology, politics and international relations. The questions addressed recognise that political structures are related in complex ways to the social conditions that underlie them, and equally, that social conditions are affected in complex ways by political structures. Our aim is not just to monitor the global condition but to contribute to advancing ways that might improve it.

Recent contributions from SPAIS include such hostages to fortune statements as ‘[t]heorising is both a form of practice and an inescapable component of practice. As scholars, we therefore need to stop talking about, and very occasionally at (a very small, elite proportion of) the world and start listening to its inhabitants’ (Rowley and Weldes, 2012: 29) and ‘sociology has, in my view, a particular contribution to make to setting out these possible futures of the not-yet’ (Levitas, 2005:http://www.bris.ac.uk/spais/files/inaugural.pdf). Importantly, the distinction between knowing and doing is seen as central to theorisations of present conjunctures: ‘the sense of “mediation” is meant here to draw attention to the fact that ideas are of no premium unless they are capable of being “mediatized” – not just run out in the mass media but in the sense of being performative, capable of arousing attention and making a communicative difference’ (Osborne 2004: 440). Critically, there seems to be more than a tacit acceptance in SPAIS that ‘[p]olitics…ceases to be conceived as a separate specialist activity and becomes a dimension which is present in all fields of human activity’ (Mouffe, 1979: 201).

How do we make sense of the discontinuity between the arguable ideal of critical scholarship outlined here and that we see around us? We argue that the critical participation we outlined above and that we envision as necessary to the formation of a robust counter-hegemonic moment that would go some way towards instituting the change promised by the protests of 2010 would recognise the importance of appreciating contestability in all its forms. This contestability could manifest itself in the ‘minutiae’ of anti-hierarchical organising within the workplace, honesty and transparency about new policies and staff hiring, and dedicating extensive thought and discussion to the purpose of critical thought in its current form. One thing that might come out of this could be the acknowledgment that the University is not the place for critical action to develop. Or that critical thought should not be expected to result in critical action. But it would seem that clarity about the role of the University, and of the critical scholar within it, would be achieved.


We are at a moment of inactivity at UoB and HE. Words that were articulated by various alliances in our University – of different student groups, academic staff with students, junior academics with senior academics, academics with support staff – to communicate common causes and solidarity of efforts now seem uselessly empty and static. These words communicated an anti-austerity agenda that positioned itself against the privatisation of education, against policies continuing to institute worker precarity as their modus operandi, against the commodification of education where students are treated more as customers than partners in education, against bullish attacks by senior management on the rights and working conditions of workers down the ‘food chain’. They have failed to result in any concrete action; in fact, they are dismissed and denounced each day through our continual failure to consider these words literally and do something with them.

We are talking here of wilful dismissal of these concepts that we know too well equip us against the imposition of regimes of ‘there is no alternative’. As a result, we are close to disillusionment with the power of words to challenge the status quo. Yet, our day job – as ‘critical scholars’ (interpret this how you will) – instructs us to use our disillusionment productively, and critically, to think through how a counter-hegemony to the present status quo of privatised, commodified, precarious universities can be brought about. Or at least to clarify how we stand in the context of a wider problematic and struggle. To quote Judith Butler, ‘[t]his critical task presumes, of course, that to operate within the matrix of power is not the same as to replicate uncritically relations of domination’ (Butler 1990: 42). We start with something, our chains, our unfortunate domesticated professional relationships, but these are not the unquestioned end-point of our vision. By recognising it is a starting point we immediately sense its fragility and its temporality. This distinction between end-point and starting point could be said to identify a critical division in critical scholarship: between scholars that accept the end-point, those that replicate the status quo; and scholars who act, who question and promote the unknown. ‘All action is based on some form of pre-existing knowledge’ notes Radha D’Souza, ‘Production of knowledge requires the acknowledgement of and distinguishing between the subject and the object. Activism, to the contrary, is about transcendence’ (D’Souza 2009: 35)


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Cerelia Athanassiou is a PhD candidate at the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies (SPAIS) at the University of Bristol. Her research is on conceptualisations of security post-9/11, focusing specifically on the discursive strategies used by the Obama administration to disempower the Global War on Terror. She has a strong interest in post-structural and feminist approaches to political theory and intersections of security, popular culture and politics.

Jamie Melrose is a PhD Candidate at the University of Bristol. His research is on the fin de siècle revisionist debate and the methodology of intellectual history.


  1. Thanks for opening up the discussion around this topic.
    The US schools have been declining for years now. Naveen Jain just authored an article on this same topic.
    It was a good explanation of what the challenges are and what needs to
    happen to fix it. Poorly paid and over worked teachers and failure to round out the
    education experience to start! http://www.forbes.com/sites/naveenjain/ is where I found
    Mr. Jain’s thoughts on it. Clever man.

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