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John Passant

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June 2011
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Universities and neoliberalism

The role of the university has changed since the second world war, from an education system for the children of the bourgeoisie to one integral to the productive process. Capital has a need for a more highly educated workforce and so has opened the doors of its universities to more students.

Working class kids and others become students on the way to their working class and sometimes middle management or higher jobs and careers. But it is not only students who go through this neoliberal process.  This is true too of staff whose jobs are moving or have moved from middle class enquiry and freedom of research to routinisation, repetition and form filling, coupled with a level of job uncertainty – what Callinicos in this context calls precarity – that means there is a proletarianisation of the university workplace proceeding apace as part of the wider neoliberal agenda for society and education. 

Part of this ahs to do with the withdrawal or decline of state support for research funding and the consequent marriage of  research to the needs of business and the productive process. Put simply that is where the money now is and University research has become, as a generalisation, an adjunct to the needs of capital for short term and long term profit.

Most people don’t study at University. In its Transforming Australia’s Higher Education System report the Gillard Government set out its aim to increase the number of people aged between 25 and 34 with University degrees to 40 percent from its current 32 percent by 2025.

One of the drivers for this is the global competition for skilled so-called professional workers. The 40 percent goal is part of Labor’s plan for the rejuvenation of Australian capitalism and specifically of productivity.

Yet at the moment, fueled by the mining boom and the two tier economy that has created,  the demand for skilled workers is in the trades, not the professions.

It is the trades of course which create real value in the productive process, not University educated junk bond jockeys.  And I might add, not academics in the main either.

The adaption of neoliberalism as the dominant ideology of capitalist production in the 70s and the consequent commodification of education saw Labor in 1988 introduce a deferred payment system for students called the Higher Education Contribution Scheme or HECS.

One consequence of this is that there has been an ongoing fall in state and overall funding per higher education student over time.

We spend more on war and its machines and men and women than we do on education.

Universities have become dependent on the market, especially the overseas student market, for funding. They have become degree factories. A recent study appears to show for example a correlation between increasing University dependence on fee paying students and higher marks. 

That market dependence is set to increase as the Gillard Labor Government in 2012 will remove the cap on HECS funded places so that Universities will compete among themselves for students.

There is another trend in global capitalism that is also worth discussing in the educational context. The new authoritarianism, under the guise of the war on terror, has been slowly tightening control over citizens and restricting rights.

This is true in Australia of course, most obviously in the authoritarianism of the treatment of refugees which has now reached such a stage that the Gillard government is going to outsource the torture of refugees to Malaysia.

It is also true of the Northern Territory invasion, using aboriginal people to roll back the meagre land rights they currently have and as the forerunner and test case for attacks on all of those on Government payments.

The Australian Building and Construction Commission with its draconian powers is designed specifically to  tame the one group of unions who could possibly challenge the ongoing shift of wealth from workers to bosses.

The workplace, never a bastion of democracy, has become more authoritarian.

Universities are uniquely positioned to be part of this shift to authoritarianism. Their governance arrangements appear feudal, with the Dean lords paying homage to the Vice-Chancellor king and ruling if needs be over their peasant academics with almost untrammeled powers in practice. 

The problem of course that their workplace is well educated and often used to thinking critically. Certainly that is one of the attributes many academics try to encourage in their students.

I don’t usually quote war criminal Henry Kissinger approvingly. Yet there was an element of truth in his comment about academic infighting when he said that the fighting is so vicious because the stakes are so low.

The stakes are so low in part because of massive government underfunding but also in part as a consequence of the combination of the incubation of often intelligent people paid to think and their sense of powerlessness faced with top down decision making driven by a neoliberal agenda.

These feudal power structures can eat the fine sentiments about academic freedom. Neoliberalism brooks no dissent. 

The battle against the new authoritarianism is as much a workplace battle as it is a political one. It is as much an educational battle as it is an organisational one.

The consequences for capitalism of universities as sausage factories may be too early to judge. But the creation of a skilled and intelligent workforce able to make critical judgements within capitalism must be undermined by a neoliberal agenda which treats students and staff as production factors on a factory line.



Comment from billie
Time June 27, 2011 at 5:15 pm

As a dyed in the wool pacificist it pains me to say it, I think that young people who can stomach military discipline and survive bullying might learn trades better in the military than they can at TAFE.

3 reasons
– Military pay their teachers, TAFE teachers are sessional – paid $60 per hour. If they get a better paid job they leave
– Military students are paid to learn and many TAFE students work at part time jobs to live.
– Military supply their students with the teaching materials or consumables

Our esteemed university professors like Prof Wooten, Melbourne University wander around spouting that Australians like casual work arrangements. To say anything else would be against his universities policy of hiring casuals to bear the brunt of the teaching load. It doesn’t matter as much at Melbourne where the students are bright, motivated, well taught and determined but it isn’t very efficient. In universities lower down the food chain the lack of experienced teachers is another element in student failure to complete their studies.

Call me old fashioned but I studied in a technical area so that I would have a job. Increasingly technical people have found their degrees plus industry experience qualifies them for a contract or casual position. As it’s the end of the financial year you see all these people on trams wandering around like stunned mullets wondering how they will pay the school fees because their project was axed and their department was retrenched. They were fired over the signature of someone who didn’t even know they existed or what work they did – not that that will help their self esteem.