The Big Picture- and a book to help us understand it

By Ferd Wulkan

Every day we read about new attacks on the public sector, about Congress’ shredding of the social safety net, and about the privatization of everything from prisons to human services to the military. These are driven by a corporate elite with an ambitious agenda and a gleam in their eyes as they see this as an opportune time to push hard to extend their wealth, their control and their reach even further. They have declared class war, and higher education is a key battleground in this class war.

As we fight our day-to-day, year-to-year battles in higher education, it helps to look around us and see how those battles fit in this bigger context. Higher education is a big business and three quarters of college students nationally attend public colleges (closer to half in Massachusetts), so the corporate elite wants greater control of those colleges. This is true for a few major reasons.

First, who can afford to go to college, who is encouraged to go, and what gets taught—these matter to the elite because these factors select, shape and mold the technocrats, the managers, the politicians, the policy makers and opinion leaders for years to come. This is the context for the attack on tenure (and therefore academic freedom), the increased use of contingent labor (adjuncts and graduate students), the increasing sense of college as “job training” rather than broad education, and the fact that the entire increase in college graduates in the past 40 years has come from the upper half of the income distribution.

Second, there is tremendous untapped potential for profit in higher education. Most clearly, we are seeing the rapid increase in the market share of for-profit colleges. Public colleges compete with the private sector, so increasing access and affordability at public colleges is hardly a priority to the profiteers! See for example Bristol Community College where students who can afford to pay more can jump to the front of the line and take some of their classes via Princeton Review. The privateers also want to take over more of the operations of our public colleges—construction, renovation, food services, book stores, child care, etc.—and pay less in wages and much less in benefits.

Finally, the privateers know that to the extent that the public treasury is bled dry, there will be more impetus to parcel services out to the private sector. The elite wants to shrink the size of government so as to open up new areas to the market. There is profit to be made in running prisons, hospitals and, yes, colleges and universities. The easiest way to shrink the size of government is to reduce its budget… and then say “there’s no money”.

So in their twisted logic, taxes are bad and budget cuts are good.

Intrigued by these ideas? They are fully fleshed out in a new, easy-to-read, short book, The Future of Higher Education by PHENOM members Dan Clawson and Max Page, both faculty members at UMass Amherst. Published by Routledge Press, the chapter titles succinctly sum up what supporters of public higher education need to know: “Who Governs the University?” “Who Pays?” “Who Goes?” “Who Works?” Most interesting is the last chapter, “Choosing a Future.” It suggests how things could realistically be different if the “University is not for sale” and public higher education is to live up to its promise of educating and inspiring masses of people in this country.

Chapters end with discussion questions so the book is perfect for instructors to use in class. ۩

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