I recently returned from the Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor meeting in Quebec City where I heard representatives from Canada, Mexico, and the United States discuss the current challenges facing higher education. It turns out that things are bad all over, and even the seemingly progressive Canadian system is being undermined by tax cuts and right-wing ideology. Not only are Canadians being asked to pay more tuition for an education that was once free, but part-time teachers are losing their rights to unionize and strike, while university budgets are being slashed. In fact, the current conservative government in Canada appears to being taking its marching orders from America’s backlash against public education, public employees, and public pensions.
Three growing shared trends that many speakers mentioned were the casualization of the labor force, the defunding of the public sector, and the privatization of public institutions. All across the globe, it appears that there is a growing desire for higher education, but the increased demand is being met by a decrease in supply, and the result of this mismatch is that public institutions are being stratified, while private corporations step in to take advantage of desperate, low-income students. Moreover, many of the private, for-profit organizations throughout the world are using the same business model to cut costs and increase profits, and this system relies on eliminating job security (tenure), increasing managerial control, and relying on the Web to deliver course content to students/consumers.
In the developed world, the same story is being repeated: due to a growing divide between the super-wealthy and everyone else, there is an increased demand by the elites to cut taxes and reduce the funding for public education. Since these public schools are losing their state funding, they feel that the only thing they can do is to copy the practices of private institutions, and a favored model is to look to corporations to fund research, while tuition is raised so schools can cater to the rich. Furthermore, while the high tuition/high aid model looks like it protects some semblance of fairness, the result of this system is the decimation of the middle class. In fact, all of the global trends point to elimination of the middle and the rise of a two-tiered hierarchy that pits the wealthy against everyone else.
The solution to this global stratification should be clear; we need to defend the middle class, and a central way to do this is to fight for public funding and to rollback tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations. However, conservatives across the world have convinced the non-elites that we can no longer afford things like public higher education, and the real enemy is the public employees with their unions, pensions, and job security. In this context, the conservative solution is to get rid of all job protections and benefits so that everyone can be put in the same situation. In this type of race to the bottom, all that public employees can do is to fight givebacks and hold onto what they have.
Yet, what would it mean if all public employees started to fight back, and instead of running the race to the bottom, they reversed course and tried to push more people to the top. This strategy would entail fighting for tax increases for the wealthy and increased state funding for public institutions. It would also mean defending pensions, healthcare benefits, and job security as essential basic rights. Perhaps this campaign for the Race to the Top will be led from below, but it needs the support from all of our major organizations. Also, we need to put pressure on our political leaders to follow a more progressive agenda and stop being afraid of the conservative backlash.