Europe Colleges and Universities
Austerity U: Preparing University and College Students for Precarious Lives
by Alan Sears and James Cairns
Almost everywhere you look around the world, policy-makers are introducing big changes to university systems and pondering deeper transformation. It isn’t surprising that these changes take different forms on campuses in countries as different as Canada, Britain, the United States, Chile, Greece, and India, but there are also important common themes in the change agenda globally. These include rapid increases in tuition fees, new models of university governance, new ways of teaching, a significant shift in subject matter, an attempt to depoliticize campuses, and major alterations in employment relations.
[Photo: Josh Curran/The Ubyssey]
Politicians, bureaucrats and business leaders are clamoring for these changes on the basis of three key claims about colleges and universities. They argue that the post-secondary system: 1) is not preparing students for the contemporary job market; 2) costs too much in public funds; and 3) is horribly out of date, particularly in the age of information technology. The combination of technological change, high levels of unemployment or underemployment among younger people, and the recent wave of cuts to social programs and working conditions (also known as the austerity agenda) seems to present governments a compelling case for moving very quickly to transform post-secondary education.
In the face of these calls for change, we cannot simply defend the system as it is or casually dismiss criticisms of post-secondary education. Many students are desperately anxious about their futures and critical of the education they are currently receiving in massive classrooms that feel more like processing plants than places of learning. The standard curriculum continues to place the knowledge and history of the elite layer of the population of European powers above those of indigenous peoples, people of colour, poor people, and other marginalized groups. We cannot deny the feeling many people share that universities are out of touch institutions run by a privileged layer who do work of limited social value at great cost.
Of course, this does not mean that the austerity agenda on campus is inevitable or that it should be embraced. Students have mobilized impressively against the agenda of governments and employers, ranging from mass struggles in Chile to occupations at the Cooper Union school of the arts in New York and in Britain, to the remarkable of 2012 in Quebec. These movements have expressed bold visions of the future on and off campus in slogans like “No to profit” (in Chile) and “It is a student strike, and a popular struggle” (in Quebec). They have won some important victories, such as the reversal of the planned tuition increases in Quebec.
These movements show us the best way to oppose the austerity agenda in post-secondary education, which is to develop a different strategy for transformation based on accessibility, democracy, decolonization, and a commitment to good jobs and equity-oriented employment. We can’t simply defend the university as it is. Nor can we resign ourselves to a reform agenda that will make the system much worse. We need to show that a better world is possible.