I read an article in the Financial Times earlier this week (September 23, 2023) -…
Today’s blog might appear to be something different but in fact is more of the same. There was an article in the New York Times recently (October 10, 2010) – The Crisis of the Humanities Officially Arrives – by US academic Stanley Fish, which discussed the growing demise of the humanities in our universities. While the debate is about the role of the humanities specifically, the points Fish makes about how we appraise the value in education resonates more broadly to a consideration of the role of educational institutions and human activity in general. One of the vehicles the neo-liberals use to promote their anti-intellectual agenda is the false claims that governments are financially constrained. By appealing to this myth lots of questions about motivation are avoided. They promote the myth that some activity is “too expensive” or “not productive enough” and we are thus shoe-horned into that way of thinking. But I feel good knowing there are libraries full of books of poems and plays and stories and I know that sovereign government are not financially constrained. I might not be able to defend the quality of a poem but I can certainly explain how the monetary system works. So you poets and playwrights under threat – come aboard and learn about fiscal policy and the monetary system and spread the word.
The neo-liberal era has successfully imposed a very narrow conception of value in relation to our consideration of human activity and endeavour. We have been bullied into thinking that value equals private profit and that public life has to fit this conception. In doing so we severely diminish the quality of life. The attack on the humanities is a symptom of this trend. So the first line of attack for those wanting to defend the libraries and the activities that lead to them accumulating more poems and plays is to expose the lies about the fiscal constraints.
Allen Ginsberg’s famous poem Howl is now the basis of a movie of the same name that has been showing in cinemas. Here is a nice photo memory from 1966 where Ginsberg was reading his uncensored poetry to lots of beats in Washington Square Park, New York (Source). These were days when an appreciation of the “value” of the humanities was clear.
What that value was is unclear but society considered it important to have such activities within our universities and in our streets. Times have changed.
In the New York Times article mentioned in the introduction, Stanley Fish writes that while some are speculating about the possible demise of humanities, the reality
is that it had already happened …
He cites the closure of programs at a US university in “French, Italian, classics, Russian and theater programs”. He notes that in “1960s and ’70s, French departments were the location of much of the intellectual energy”.
The argument he presents is becoming increasingly familiar to academics such as me who eschew public policy benchmarks based on private “market calculus”.
Fish says that:
… the first thing to go in a regime of bottom-line efficiency are the plays.
And indeed, if your criteria are productivity, efficiency and consumer satisfaction, it makes perfect sense to withdraw funds and material support from the humanities – which do not earn their keep and often draw the ire of a public suspicious of what humanities teachers do in the classroom – and leave standing programs that have a more obvious relationship to a state’s economic prosperity and produce results the man or woman in the street can recognize and appreciate.
These benchmarks – summarised by the obscene managerial talk of KPIs – now rule Australian universities as they do elsewhere. They reflect the rise of neo-liberal constructs and their application to all aspects of human activity.
I read a book many years ago by Harry Braverman – Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century (New York, Monthly Review Press, 1974) – which resonates in this debate.
At one point Braverman says (pages 170-71):
Thus, after a million years of labour, during which humans created not only a complex social culture but in a very real sense created themselves as well, the very cultural-biological trait upon which this entire evolution is founded has been brought, within the last two hundred years, to a crisis, a crisis which Marcuse aptly calls the threat of a “catastrophe of the human essence”. The unity of thought and action, conception and execution, hand and mind which capitalism threatened from its beginnings, is now attacked by a systematic dissolution employing all the resources of science and the various engineering disciplines based upon it. The subjective factor of the labour process is removed to a place among its inanimate objective factors. To the materials and instruments of production are added a “labour force”, another “factor of production”, and the process is henceforth carried on by management as the sole subjective element.
And progressively, these “labour processes” (market-values) subsume our whole lives – sport, leisure, learning, family – the lot. Everything becomes a capitalist surplus-creating process.
If we judge all human endeavour and activity by whether they are of value in a sense that we judge private profit making then we will limit our potential and our happiness.
Imposing a mainstream economics textbook model of the market as the exemplar of how we should value things is deeply flawed. Even within its own logic the model succumbs to “market failure”. The existence of external effects (to the transaction) means that the private market over-allocates resources when social costs exceed social benefits and under-allocates resources to this activity when social costs are less than social benefits.
The bean-counters have no way of knowing what these social costs or benefits are and so the decision-making systems become more crude – how much money will an academic program make relative to how much it costs in dollars? In some cases, this is drilled down to how much money an individual academic makes relative to his/her cost? This is a crude application of the private market calculus.
It is a totally unsuitable way of thinking about education provision. It has little relevance to deeper meaning and the sort of qualities which bind us as humans – to ourselves, into families, into communities, and as nations. I imposes a poverty on all of us by diminishing our concept of knowledge and forcing us to appraise everything as if it should be “profitable”.
The textbook model also presupposes that the consumer is always prescient – “sovereign” in the terminology that our students are forced to digest. This means that the supplier of a good or service has to tailor the offering to the preferences of the consumer who can shift between firms to get the best deal. This is the way in which the stylised (non-existent) textbook model of perfect competition achieves its claims to optimal resource allocation.
However, in the case of education, how can the child know what is best? How can they meaningfully appraise what is a good quality education and what is a poor quality education? The fact that the funding cuts have led to a stream of fly-by-night education providers in Australia who have left thousands of students stranded when they have gone broke is evidence of the failure of a market model.
The reality is that children do not demand programs. The universities are increasingly pressured by politicians (via funding) and corporations (via grants etc) to tailor the programs to the “market” agenda. I discuss this below when I consider the 1976 book Schooling in Capitalist America.
Higher education can only ever be a supply-determined activity and at that point the “market model” breaks down irretrievably.
Please read my blog – Defunct but still dominant and dangerous – where I discuss the Theory of Second Best, which undermines the legitimacy of applying the perfectly competitive textbook model is practical situations.
Stanley Fish goes on to discuss the ways in which we might defend the humanities which include placing restrictive rules (the so-called “core requirements”) on students so that they have to study certain (unpopular) subjects and therefore push resources into these areas which would die under a system of consumer (student) sovereignty.
But keeping something you value alive by artificial, and even coercive, means … is better than allowing them to die, if only because you may now die (get fired) with them, a fate that some visionary faculty members may now be suffering. I have always had trouble believing in the high-minded case for a core curriculum – that it preserves and transmits the best that has been thought and said – but I believe fully in the core curriculum as a device of employment for me and my fellow humanists.
But he acknowledges that the era of such “protection” is over and so he seeks new ways to defend the humanities. In that regard, he eschews the typical claims that “the humanities enhance our culture; the humanities make our society better” because:
… those pieties have a 19th century air about them and are not even believed in by some who rehearse them.
I was talking with someone who knows much more about these matters than me this morning and she pointed out to me the irony of recent trends in the humanities towards promoting post-modern relativist thinking. According to that now popular approach there is no intrinsic value in anything – it is all relative. So it becomes very hard if you work with a post-modern bent to actually defend your “value” to anyone. It is all relative after all. Go away and contemplate your navel somewhere else.
So one of the challenges of the humanities and all of us is to reconsider these questions of value – of worth – and of how we consider what being “productive” is.
I wrote a paper (with some colleagues) in 2003 comparing a Job Guarantee to an income guarantee. You can read the Working Paper version for free and it was not much different from the final published document.
We argued that the future of paid work is clearly an important debate given the declining opportunities that the “market economy” provides. The traditional moral views about the virtues of work – which are exploited by the capitalist class – need to be recast. Clearly, social policy can play a part in engendering this debate and help establish transition dynamics. However, it is likely that a non-capitalist system of work and income generation is needed before the yoke of the work ethic and the stigmatisation of non-work is fully expunged.
The question is how to make this transition in light of the constraints that capital places on the working class and the State. BI advocates think that their approach provides exactly this dynamic.
Clearly, there is a need to embrace a broader concept of work in the first phase of decoupling work and income. However, to impose this new culture of non-work on to society as it currently exists is unlikely to be a constructive approach. The patent resentment of the unemployed will only be transferred to the “surfers on Malibu”!
Social attitudes take time to evolve and are best reinforced by changes in the educational system. The social fabric must be rebuilt over time. The change in mode of production through evolutionary means will not happen overnight, and concepts of community wealth and civic responsibility that have been eroded over time, by the divide and conquer individualism of the neo-liberal era, have to be restored.
Part of this social transition – to changing the way we value human activity and time use – will require a strong humanities presence in our education system. It is much harder to construct the humanities in a market model and that is why it is under attack. But equally, that is why it has to be a vanguard leading our societies into a new “non-financial” appraisal of worth and value.
In his quest for credible defensive strategies for the humanities, Fish says:
And it won’t do to argue that the humanities contribute to economic health of the state – by producing more well-rounded workers or attracting corporations or delivering some other attenuated benefit – because nobody really buys that argument, not even the university administrators who make it.
While it is clear that well-educated workers are important for firms that should never be the criterion upon which we justify the support of our higher education institutions. Those sort of arguments may be applied to vocational training institutions but not our educational institutions.
Part of the attack on our universities in the neo-liberal era has been to blur the distinction between training and education – and by way of pursuing the lowest common denominator – subjugate the educational elements of our tertiary systems to the training elements. The rise of “business schools” over the last twenty years is the obvious example.
These schools provide little in the way of education. They have systematically attacked and downgraded the traditional educational disciplines of economics for example. In place of these more “difficult” learning tracks, universities have introduced “training” course in business which are nothing short of comical in their intellectual depth. It should be noted that I am making no comment here about the institution where I work. I am talking about sector-wide trends and specific trends within universities can be easily researched and you don’t need me to articulate them for you.
I also have a tension here of-course. The way economics has been taught in the last 30 years is a disgrace – having bowed over to neo-liberalism almost entirely. But the fact remains that the discipline has pretensions to being more than just a vocational pursuit.
So what does Fish propose as the way to defend the humanities? He says:
The only thing that might fly – and I’m hardly optimistic – is politics, by which I mean the political efforts of senior academic administrators to explain and defend the core enterprise to those constituencies – legislatures, boards of trustees, alumni, parents and others – that have either let bad educational things happen or have actively connived in them. And when I say “explain,” I should add aggressively explain – taking the bull by the horns, rejecting the demand (always a loser) to economically justify the liberal arts, refusing to allow myths (about lazy, pampered faculty who work two hours a week and undermine religion and the American way) to go unchallenged, and if necessary flagging the pretensions and hypocrisy of men and women who want to exercise control over higher education in the absence of any real knowledge of the matters on which they so confidently pronounce.
I liked this tack.
The university system has become very defensive as the neo-liberal dominance and values have been imposed on it. At the top, the management class is now a new breed – enjoying very high salaries and seeking to appease the bureaucrats and corporate interests alike. They have imposed what they see as the corporate model onto the institutions although one could argue if they were truly out in the “market” their tenure might be short given the performances of some of their institutions.
Far from resisting the funding cuts imposed upon them by successive neo-liberal governments, which would have made the cuts a political issue, the universities have followed the agenda set by the governments which includes imposing this corporate model onto their activities.
The participative system of management that we used to enjoy in universities has given way to the imposition of professional managers at every level. This has eroded the “sense of ownership” among faculty and reduced morale significantly.
The managers are increasingly supported by “bean-counters” in finance who often seem to lose track of the specific industry they are working in and see their role to reduce costs (except their own bonuses) without regard to effect. They used to support academic activity but now seek to rule over it.
The staff of the universities have also become compliant and stifled as the threat of job loss is now real. You will find very few academics these days who will publicly criticise governments or their own sector. I read somewhere a few weeks ago that many academics are scared to write blogs for fear of coming into conflict with the management of their institutions.
The KPI-driven system has also reduced traditional concepts of respect and loyalty. In the past, a brilliant scholar in the humanities would be lauded and universities would long to maintain their relationship to that person long after they had opted for formal retirement. Resources were made available to these emeritus scholars and respect maintained.
The bean-counter mentality that is seeing the humanities under attack now considers the academic human resources in very narrow terms – how much money will they bring into the institution? – and the idea of valuing a person for life, long after they retire and stop bringing in money is diminishing.
Of-course, the bean-counter mentality is applied all through a person’s career now and is one of the main reasons the humanities is being attacked.
So all of us who care have to come out and fight against the application of private market calculus to our universities.
A good starting point would be as Fish says to challenge the “pretensions and hypocrisy of men and women who want to exercise control over higher education”. Fish notes that the guy who is pushing the cuts to humanities at the US university he examines “is without a doctoral degree and who has little if any experience teaching or researching”. There are many examples of these “new managers” who have not acquired PhDs and the maturity that this brings.
The crisis in our higher education institutions has been a long-time coming and reflects part of the fall-out of the neo-liberal dishonesty about the financial capacity of national (sovereign) governments.
This was the opening paragraph in the submission by Universities Australia (the peak body representing universities) to the 2008 Bradley Review into higher education in Australia:
Universities in Australia are at a ‘tipping-point’. The sector continues to have many strengths, including expanded enrolments, development of a major international education industry, excellent student evaluations and research performance well ahead of our size. Nevertheless a dozen plus years of neglect have seen the student-staff ratios blow out, serious degradation of infrastructure and unsustainable stresses on staff. The academic workforce is ageing as academic life becomes less attractive to graduates. We are not educating all the highly skilled workers we need to be a competitive country in the knowledge economy of the 21st century. Our universities are dangerously dependent on the income from international students, a market which is fragile and unpredictable in the medium term.
I see my role in defending the humanities in terms of advancing the principles of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) which clearly demonstrate that all the financial arguments used by the government and their management class are false.
There is no financial argument for attacking the humanities. There is no financial constraint on government fully funding higher education. Whether the government should be funding higher education should be debated on different grounds and is a legitimate debate – as I note below.
But there is no legitimacy in the argument that it cannot afford to fund universities and so tough decisions need to be taken. That is a false agenda and unfortunately it dominates public policy and leads to these aberrant dynamics where market-based calculus is introduced to aid resource allocation.
The parallels resonate across the public policy domain. For example, we are told continuously that there are unsustainable pressures on the government’s budget coming as the population ages and the dependency ratios rise.
From a MMT perspective, the fiscal component of the debate is irrelevant. While we are told that these future needs will impose “heavy costs” on the national budget the reality is that we cannot meaningfully define costs in terms of budget outlays. Concepts such as heavy costs or soaring deficits are irrelevant concepts devoid of meaning.
There is no sense to the notion that public education or public health should “make profits”.
The only way that these sorts of debates will progress, however, is to take them out of the fiscal policy realm where they are largely inapplicable and start talking about rights and higher human values and what different interpretations of these rights and value concepts have for real resources allocations and redistributions.
For example, whether a nation can afford first-class health care depends only on the real resources that are available. Most nations can clearly afford that level of care for all of its citizens. There is never a financial constraint on the national government (where it is sovereign) from providing that level of health care. Subject to real resource availability, the only issue then is political.
The idea that the public fiscal position has to “seek savings” to make fund future spending (on health care and other programs) is a fundamental misconception that is often rehearsed in the financial and popular media.
This misconception has been driving the so-called intergenerational debate where governments are being pressured to run surpluses to pay for the retirement of baby boomers and the growing healthcare costs for them as they age further.
MMT demonstrated categorically that public surpluses do not create a cache of money that can be spent later. Currency-issuing governments spend by crediting bank accounts. There is no revenue constraint on this act. Government cheques don’t bounce!
Additionally, taxation consists of debiting a bank account. The funds debited are ‘accounted for’ but don’t actually ‘go anywhere’ nor ‘accumulate anywhere’.
In fact, the pursuit of budget surpluses by a sovereign government as a means of accumulating ‘future public spending capacity’ is not only without standing but also likely to undermine the capacity of the economy to provide the resources that may be necessary in the future to provide real goods and services of a particular composition desirable to an ageing or sick population.
By achieving and maintaining full employment via appropriate levels of net spending (deficits) the Government would be providing the best basis for growth in real goods and services in the future. In a fully employed economy, the intergenerational spending decisions on pensions and health come down to political choices sometimes constrained by real resource availability, but in no case constrained by monetary issues, either now or in the future.
All governments should aim to maintain an efficient and effective medical health system. Clearly the real health care system matters by which we mean the resources that are employed to deliver the health care services and the research that is done by universities and elsewhere to improve our future health prospects. So real facilities and real know how define the essence of an effective health care system.
Clearly maximising employment and output in each period is a necessary condition for long-term growth. It is important then to encourage high labour force participation rates and maintain job opportunities for older workers. There is a strong correlation between unemployment and health problems.
Anything that has a positive impact on the dependency ratio is desirable and the best thing for that is ensuring that there is a job available for all those who desire to work.
But this is about political choices rather than government finances.
The ability of government to provide necessary goods and services to the non-government sector, in particular, those goods that the private sector may under-provide is independent of government finance. Any attempt to link the two via erroneous concepts of fiscal policy ‘discipline’, will not increase per capita GDP growth in the longer term.
The reality is that fiscal drag that accompanies such ‘discipline’ reduces growth in aggregate demand and private disposable incomes, which can be measured by the foregone output that results. Fiscal austerity does help low inflation because it acts as a deflationary force relying on sustained excess capacity and unemployment to keep prices under control. Fiscal discipline is also claimed to increase national savings but this equals reduced non-government savings, which arguably is the relevant measure to focus upon.
These argument also apply to our higher education system.
In general, the neo-liberal era has led to a loss of value of the capacities of people and the broad qualities that people of diverse interests and talents bring to the rest of us.
Case for university fees
In the final report of the Bradley Committee we read:
Total revenue to the sector has grown dramatically in the last 10 years from $10.2 billion in 1996 to $16.8 billion in 2007 (in real terms). The last major reforms of the funding arrangements for the sector were introduced in 2003 and provided an increase in investment in the sector by Government of $11 billion over 10 years. In spite of this injection of funds in the last four years, Commonwealth funding per subsidised student in 2008 was about 10 per cent lower in real terms than it was in 1996 … This was the result of a combination of direct cuts, constrained indexation and shifting of the balance towards higher student contributions.
So the sector has been squeezed by government cutbacks and the increased user-pays nature of higher education.
While a sovereign government is not financially constrained and therefore the provision of “free” tertiary education is not a financial question there still remains a case where students should pay fees for access.
This has been a long-standing debate in the Australian context where fees were abandoned in the early 1970s by a “Labor” government as an alleged equity measure. As the neo-liberal era unfolded (from the 1980s onwards) various fees have been increasingly imposed.
As of now, it is clear that Australian fees are now among the highest in the world (see Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) 2008b, Education at a Glance 2008: OECD Indicators, OECD, Paris).
The Bradley Committee report said:
There has also been a major policy shift towards increasing the contribution students make to the costs of their tuition. This approach recognises the private as well as public benefits of higher education and the advantaged position of higher education graduates.
I agree with this statement. It is often argued that the progressive left position is that university fees stop poor students from participating in higher education. The reality is somewhat different.
It is clear that the returns to higher education are predominantly private – with graduates enjoying superior access to employment opportunities and higher lifetime earnings. There are social returns but these are dominated by the gains that are “privatised” by the individuals. So the question that progressives have to ask is whether they want the government sector subsidising the rich!
By abandoning fees, a fully public-funded higher education system leads to a massive redistribution of resources from poor to rich. This arises because the participation of lower-income families in higher education in Australia (and elsewhere) is still very restricted. So in a free system, the rich are denied the choice between a family ski holiday in Aspen and a year’s tuition fees for their child – they can have both. Whereas the poor kid doesn’t even get to make that choice – they can have neither.
In a free system, the higher-income parents can pump a lot of resources into private secondary schooling which has higher success rates (but probably less overall educational value – another debate!) and then enjoy the public subsidy for higher education.
I read a book when I was a post-graduate student by Dutch economist Jan Pen (Income Distribution, 1971, Penguin) where he wrote that:
Parents are advanced secret agents of the class society.
This conditioned my thinking on higher education significantly and I realised that it was crucial that the public effort was better placed targetting merit in low-income neighbourhoods at an early age. The message from Pen was that the damage was done by the time the child reached their teenage years.
So the progressive claim that the imposition of fees at the university entry point discouraged disadvantaged children from participation and that abandoning those fees was an equity measure was based on a poor understanding of the constraints. The poor children rarely get to the point where such a choice was to be made.
They are long gone from the education system and increasingly in this neo-liberal era where we waste the potential of our youth and allow them to be idle in unemployment or underemployment (poorly paid, unstable casual jobs) they are not even gaining access to job-specific skill development and workplace experience.
In that book, Pen also introduced his famous Parade of the Dwarfs. There was an interesting article in the Atlantic Magazine in 2006 about this – The Height of Inequality – which traced how the productivity gains in the US had been siphoned off by the few at the top-end of the income distribution.
The Atlantic Magazine article described Pen’s Parade as follows (and provided this graphical depiction:
Suppose that every person in the economy walks by, as if in a parade. Imagine that the parade takes exactly an hour to pass, and that the marchers are arranged in order of income, with the lowest incomes at the front and the highest at the back. Also imagine that the heights of the people in the parade are proportional to what they make: those earning the average income will be of average height, those earning twice the average income will be twice the average height, and so on. We spectators, let us imagine, are also of average height …
As the parade begins … the marchers cannot be seen at all. They are walking upside down, with their heads underground-owners of loss-making businesses, most likely. Very soon, upright marchers begin to pass by, but they are tiny. For five minutes or so, the observers are peering down at people just inches high-old people and youngsters, mainly; people without regular work, who make a little from odd jobs. Ten minutes in, the full-time labor force has arrived: to begin with, mainly unskilled manual and clerical workers, burger flippers, shop assistants, and the like, standing about waist-high to the observers. And at this point things start to get dull, because there are so very many of these very small people. The minutes pass, and pass, and they keep on coming.
By about halfway through the parade … the observers might expect to be looking people in the eye-people of average height ought to be in the middle. But no, the marchers are still quite small, these experienced tradespeople, skilled industrial workers, trained office staff, and so on-not yet five feet tall, many of them. On and on they come.
It takes about forty-five minutes-the parade is drawing to a close-before the marchers are as tall as the observers. Heights are visibly rising by this point, but even now not very fast. In the final six minutes, however, when people with earnings in the top 10 percent begin to arrive, things get weird again. Heights begin to surge upward at a madly accelerating rate. Doctors, lawyers, and senior civil servants twenty feet tall speed by. Moments later, successful corporate executives, bankers, stockbrokers-peering down from fifty feet, 100 feet, 500 feet. In the last few seconds you glimpse pop stars, movie stars, the most successful entrepreneurs. You can see only up to their knees … And if you blink, you’ll miss them altogether. At the very end of the parade … the sole of … [the last person] … is hundreds of feet thick.
A free higher education system just reinforces this inequality. Public intervention has to come early in a child’s life to imbue them with the value of education and to overcome (if present) the negative attitudes that the lower-income parents may instil in their children. Resources have to be continually made available in poor neighbourhoods to ensure the children maintain contact with the educational system and gain a thirst for learning.
As the child progresses through primary and secondary education, public schooling should be of the highest quality possible. Well resourced, liberal in value and motivational. It should not be based on “market-values”. The pursuit of music, poetry, literature are all aspects of a high quality education.
Public support from families at this stage (means-tested) is essential – to ensure children remain at school. The goal is to ensure that the participation in higher education goes to the brightest students irrespective of family income.
The provision of a Job Guarantee for parents struggling with their own labour market viability in a hostile capitalist system would also help reduce the intergenerational disadvantage that persistent unemployment and underemployment clearly brings.
I was also influenced as a post-graduate by the 1976 Bowles and Gintis book – Schooling in Capitalist America.
In that book, several propositions were advanced including:
… that schools prepare people for adult work rules, by socializing people to function well, and without complaint, in the hierarchical structure of the modern corporation …
that parental economic status is passed on to children in part by means of unequal educational opportunity, but that the economic advantages of the offspring of higher social status families go considerably beyond the superior education they receive …
the evolution of the modern school system is not accounted for by the gradual perfection of a democratic or pedagogical ideal. Rather, it was the product of a series of conflicts arising through the transformation of the social organization of work and the distribution of its rewards. In this process, the interests of the owners of the leading businesses tended to predominate but were rarely uncontested.
You might also be interested in this 2001 reflection by the authors – Schooling in Capitalist America Revisited – where they summarise their earlier work and consider their current position.
The relevance of their work – which I think holds up pretty well in the subsequent developments since it was published – is that if we want a truly progressive, human-enriching education system then we have to eschew the imposition of “market-based” values and influences. To some extent the promotion of the “unproductive” (-: humanities helps to advance such an agenda.
It is harder to shoe-horn poetry into the private calculus of profit and much easier to promote it as an incendiary, provocative, challenging pursuit of time.
What is the use of it? Answer: in relation to what?
But all of this creates a tension in me about whether education is a “product” or not. I don’t think it is and should not be conceived in those terms. But it remains true that participation in higher education is highly skewed towards children from better-off families and that the results of that participation perpetuate the inequality across generations.
The tension is clear. The imposition of user-pays with means-tested support for children from disadvantaged backgrounds is an equity argument – to stop the poor subsidising the rich. It is not related to any notion of a financial constraint on government. A sovereign government could afford to fund the participation of all.
Without fees and without significant funding of pre-school, primary and secondary education in disadvantage areas, the growth in higher education involves increasingly going out into the “tails” of the merit distribution applicable to the middle-classes and higher.
In this context, I invoke a meritocratic criterion. While I advocate that governments support the maximisation of human potential for all and introduce policies that ensure all citizens and their children have access to education and learning, the reality is that higher education is not suitable for all talents. Some children are better suited to vocational training.
Moreover, I do not support extensive public subsidies of essentially private activities and in that sense the user-pays system at the higher education level is applicable.
So I separate the need to keep our universities fully funded and supportive of the humanities from the equity arguments about user-pays. It is a complex argument but once you separate the funding argument (there is no argument!) from the equity-driven user-pays argument you can appreciate the intent.
Conceiving education as a product then leads to the textbook claim that “consumers are sovereign” meaning that the supplier has to provide what the consumer wants or they will lose their business to competitors. This conception has in practice been very damaging to our higher education system.
It has led to increasingly legalistic demands by students on the system for superior results. It has led to the demolition of certain courses etc which are deemed not of “interest” to students.
As export education expanded in the face of cutbacks in government funding it became clear that the cultural norms of the “markets” that we were supplying into were different. The concept of open debate was not necessarily present. More “functional” (read: market-oriented) values were demanded. Lowest common denominator became the direction of the system.
It has also led institutions themselves prostituting their programs to the market.
By challenging the erroneous arguments about fiscal constraints it becomes easier to appraise these deviant trends for what they are – an attack on our broader values and quality of education. There is no need for the higher education to “export” its services. It certainly may want to do this for development purposes (to aid poorer nations etc) with due respect for cultural differences etc but it should never have to do this for financial reasons.
While this blog was broader than usual the message is the same – the neo-liberals have persuaded us that national governments have financial constraints and that every activity has to be evaluated within the framework of private calculus that a corporate entity aiming to pursue value for their private owners would use.
This framework is already flawed by the existence of external effects (to the transaction) which means that the private market over-allocates resources when social costs > social benefits and under-allocates resources to this activity when social costs < social benefits.
But beyond that is a sense that the framework has little relevance to deeper meaning and the sort of qualities which bind us as humans – to ourselves, into families, into communities, and as nations.
The residual damage of the neo-liberal approach extends well beyond the huge economic losses it imposes on us in the form of persistently high unemployment and underemployment. The material poverty that it has inflicted on cohorts in our societies is one thing – abhorrent nonetheless. But it is also imposing a poverty on all of us by diminishing our concept of knowledge and forcing us to appraise everything as if it should be “profitable”.
Ultimately, sometime after it is too late, some memories will recall the days when this wasn’t so and when the bean counters were strait-laced accountants with bow-ties and those metal expanding arm things that held shirt-sleeves in check.
And to put us into a good frame for the weekend coming (maybe to make the Saturday Quiz appear meaningful) here is the first 10 or so lines of Ginsberg’s 1955 epic – Howl:
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by
madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn
looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly
connection to the starry dynamo in the machin-
ery of night,
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat
up smoking in the supernatural darkness of
cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities
who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and
saw Mohammedan angels staggering on tene-
ment roofs illuminated,
who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes
hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy
among the scholars of war,
who were expelled from the academies for crazy &
publishing obscene odes on the windows of the
The – Full Text.
Sure it is not Tennyson but it still is worth keeping alive and having students exposed to it.
Send it to some bean-counters at your university.
PS: despite the title of this blog I also love my Kindle now – it reduces the number of books I have to carry when I travel to “one”! But I still need authors and poets to create the content!
The Saturday Quiz will be back sometime tomorrow – even harder than last week!
That is enough for today!