by Nathan Coombs
After occupations and sit-ins at the University of California Santa Cruz, Fresno State and an ongoing tussle between students and administrators at the New School, New York, there is now an equally large student occupation movement underway in the University of Fine Arts and the University of Vienna, in Austria.
As can be seen on this YouTube video from inside the occupation, there are hundreds involved. Against the Europe wide, neo-liberal Bologna Process, the unifying demand is for free education; the battle for education as a common good.
It is all too easy to dismiss this recent wave of occupations as small, idealistic struggles by students who don’t understand the realities of politics or economics today. But it is those defenders of the obscene push towards ever-higher tuition fees who are more out of touch with public sentiment.
Even if they don’t have the public on side in the UK, in order to justify increasing tuition fees a number of under examined claims are pushed by the likes of The Economist magazine, or the Russell Group of Universities, and uncritically endorsed by the major political parties. In order to challenge this race to encumber students with household mortgage levels of debt it is not enough to simply point to its injustice, but to also challenge the supposedly rock solid economic and political logic underpinning their argument. Let’s have a go here.
Firstly, they claim that education is about improving the job prospects for graduates – and, like any professional service, that implies that the customer must pay accordingly. Second, they argue Universities operate (or should operate) as free-market entities, on a global stage. Unless they effectively compete, Universities in other countries will draw all the talent away. And third, it is stated that economic growth depends on a highly educated population receiving the best education.
Yet all of these claims – that dominate and define the terms of debate on the issue within the public sphere – are highly questionable. In light of the crisis in graduate employment and qualification inflation on the job market, the cynical, professional development idea of University education increasingly rings hollow.
The attendant claim about the competition of Universities for talent also needs to be subject to critique. Since global league tables are based on assumptions that presuppose this free market model it is not surprising that they will by and large reflect that in their rankings – the more ‘competitive’ the University the higher it will rank. Furthermore, beyond the scientific disciplines, for instance in the humanities, the journal citation indexes are hegemonised by dull, US based publications (such as the American Journal of Political Science, to take one of the worst offenders) which generally spew out predictable, boring research that simply aims to justify the status quo. Academic talent, as measured by publication in these journals, is a race to the mediocre middle – not based on novel thinking, or the ability to inspire students.
And finally, the claim that a highly educated population is necessary to compete on the global stage – repeated to the point where it now seems a truism – is an unproven idea. Beyond a solid secondary education, no correlation has been found between levels and standards of higher education and economic growth in the developed world. This is pretty obvious really. A rigorous degree in History does not necessarily make one a better advertising sales executive, or whatever future tangential career students will stumble into.
Studying for long periods of time is, we must admit, an economically unproductive use of time – and it is exactly on that basis that we must claim it as a common good. Education is a good in itself; just as are the arts; just are most of the things we really value in life. The attempt by government to justify these things in the jargon of productivity, competition, social cohesion, or whatever, are fallacious and demoralising to the extreme once they become internalised in University culture.
These are the arguments that need to be made. But arguments are not enough. Such has the top down movement towards the free market model taken on a life of its own, politicians and University administrators no longer want to have an argument. For politicians liberalising tuition fees is simply what has to be done; the only problem is sneaking it past the electorate, or tarting it up with enough social democratic window dressing to make it palatable.
This is why we should support student occupations unequivocally demanding the right to free education. Let us hope it will also heralds the start of a real fight here in the UK, when the next government (Tory or Labour) will almost certainly push for caps to be lifted on tuition fees.