The neoliberal assault on university education

  • September 1, 2011

Education & Emancipation

While global elites continue their cynical assault on higher education unabated, the global student movement shows us that another world is possible.

It is often said that we live in a post-industrial society, where knowledge and innovation are the motors of production and information is the currency. We are also told, in the midst of a deepening systemic crisis, that the drastic measures taken by our governments, painful as they may be, are necessary steps towards renovating our economies for the post-industrial 21st century. Yet those measures, more often than not, undermine precisely those social institutions that are most conducive to developing our capacities in these areas, not only by violently reducing the quality of their output but also by restricting our access to them.

It would be naïve to think that the people responsible for these decisions are unaware of this point, especially when we consider how little their short-term fixes have yielded in terms of positive results for those of us who experience the effects of the crisis firsthand, and how much these fixes have yielded in short-term, publicly funded profits for kleptocratic banks, corporations and governments. Nowhere is this cynical dynamic more evident than in the approach currently being taken by governments towards reforming university education, for it is as if elites are taking the post-industrial slogan that “knowledge is power” to heart and making a concerted effort to minimize access to that power and sabotage its quality.

Take the recent cuts announced by the Catalan government and the dirty tricks used to implement what they call “the new university model”. These cuts, which amount to over 20% reductions in annual funding in some cases, specifically target university services and administration workers, as well as faculty with temporary contracts (teachers who make, on average, just 450 euro a month and often bear the largest teaching burden). Those who are not laid off, or simply not re-hired, will see the duration of their contracts cut to three or four months, their wages slashed by up to 44% and will no longer qualify for social security and other social programs.

Their work and teaching loads, on the other hand, will increase dramatically, which will undoubtedly have negative consequences for the quality of their courses. Meanwhile, student fees are set to increase by 7.6%, the maximum legal limit, thus further prohibiting access to students whose families have seen their earnings decrease in recent years. Disclosure and implementation of all of these measures were left to the individual universities (who were varyingly discrete and transparent in this task) and took place during final exams, when students and teachers were too busy working to notice a small message hidden in their virtual campus homepages.

The barrage of anti-democratic practices does not end there, nor do they limit themselves to Catalonia or even Spain. Current austerity measures are being imposed within the context of the implementation of the European Higher Education Area, commonly known as the Bologna Process. Billed as a project of European integration and academic modernization, this massive program actually represents the anti-democratic imposition of what is known as the Anglo-Saxon model of university accreditation across 47 highly heterogeneous countries, as well as a re-orientation of academic curricula towards a more specialized, technocratic training regime.

As Slavoj Žižek has put it before, “underlying these reforms is the urge to subordinate higher education to the task of solving society’s concrete problems through the production of expert opinions.” And of course, one needs only to look at the current crisis for evidence of the quality of the expert opinions produced through this inherently myopic methodology. What’s more, the Bologna process further deepens the downward spiral of the university-as-business model, where our aforementioned experts produce research at the behest of banks, multinational corporations and governments acting together through public-private partnerships in order to produce profits (a recipe which hardly guarantees the researcher’s independence, a necessary ingredient in producing reliable knowledge).

“Perhaps more than an anti-democratic imposition,” Raimundo Viejo tells me in an e-mail interview, “we should refer to the measures themselves as de-democratizing.” An activist, researcher and professor at Barcelona’s Universitat Pompeu Fabra specializing in social movements, Viejo explains, “In his book Democracy, Charles Tilly treats democracy not as an unchanging state of existence, but as an unstable balance between two antagonistic forces: democratization and de-democratization. The latter, in its most advanced state, prepares the failure of democratic regimes to open the door to dictatorships. The measures currently being applied are openly de-democratizing. They don’t seek to destroy democracy so much as to appropriate its legitimacy and use it for anti-democratic ends, such as neo-liberalism.”

No matter what one thinks of the content of the reform itself, what has sparked the most outrage and ignited years of protest is Bologna’s brutal implementation, which, in the years prior to the deepening of the crisis and its consequent austerity measures, paralleled the violent repression we can see today in Greece, Spain, England and elsewhere. In 2009, students from the University of Barcelona came together to peacefully occupy the halls of their campus in order to denounce the lack of transparency and democracy with which they saw their degrees and curricula changing. On the morning of March 18th, they were removed from campus through the indiscriminate use of clearly excessive force which, once images began to circulate online within hours, was met with a massive, peaceful protest against police violence.

What was most shocking about these incidents was not just the even more violent police response to students, teachers and citizens gathering together near city hall and shouting, “We use books! You use batons!” Most outrageous of all was the fact that the brutality that started set everything in motion, the bloody removal of the protesters sitting peacefully on university property, was ordered by the president of the University of Barcelona, Dídac Ramírez. For, according to Spanish law, the police are prohibited from entering any university, and full responsibility for the decision to allow them in lies exclusively in the hands of the university president.

The tragedy of the current state of affairs for European universities is not just the renewed, violent imposition of a neo-liberal model of university education and the restriction of access to a more fortunate class whose membership is shrinking by the day. The sad punch-line is that university workers, teachers and students (both former and future) now find themselves in the awkward position of fighting to maintain the already excessively precarious situation they are in.

Yet a glimmer of hope exists. From Italy to England and Greece to Spain, the Bologna reform has been met by combative student protests that, while varying in the strength of their coordination, have demonstrated significant tactical creativity and enjoyed their fair share of small victories. And currently, in Catalonia, despite the underhanded tactics mentioned earlier in this article, extreme austerity measures were met with an unexpectedly strong resistance that drew its strength from the context of mass mobilization throughout the Mediterranean region. What’s more, Catalan universities used the opportunity to come together to form the Unitary Platform for the Defense of Public Universities (PUDUP), which unites students, faculty and university workers from all of Catalonia’s public universities in a concerted effort to ensure that the academic year begins with a very hot autumn.

The torch lit by the Chilean university protesters, whose burning light has spread to the rest of civil society in their country, is a major source of inspiration. They want a high-quality, free education and they are willing to fight for it. By demanding it all when they are told they deserve little more than scraps, the Chilean students show their neighbors that another world is possible and worth the struggle. And it is precisely because of how difficult it must be to tell the family of Manuel Gutiérrez Reinoso, the 16-year old boy murdered by the Chilean carabineros on August 26th, that it is up to all of us to make sure that his memory is honored with a better future for all.

Carlos Delclós

Carlos Delclós is a sociologist, researcher and editor for ROAR Magazine. His research interests include international migration, social stratification, fertility, urban sociology, social movements and cultural theory.

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