Public education under threat: What kind of university do we need?

The following was delivered as a branch talk in Wellington on June 4th, 2013.

“Tertiary education in New Zealand is undergoing a slow and painful crucifixion – a painful death from a thousand small adjustments in policy, which are fundamentally changing our nation’s approach to tertiary education.” That was the response of Sandra Grey, Vice-President of the Tertiary Education Union, to the education provisions in last month’s Budget.

For all the talk of the ‘knowledge economy,’ the numbers in the Budget tell a sad and revealing story about the government’s attitude to public education. Funding for teaching and learning was cut by $1 million this year and, compared to 2009 levels, funding for tertiary education overall is down by $400 million or 10%. Money for student allowances is projected to fall every year up to 2017, and by then it will be 18% less than 2012 levels.

Add to this the cuts in access to allowances for older students and the message becomes clear: education is good when it’s for business, and a cost to be minimised as much as possible when it’s used for anything else.

Public education is under attack across the advanced capitalist world; swingeing cuts to universities in the United Kingdom, charter school plans in the United States, fee rises in Canada. But these attacks are prompting the emergence of a new generation of student resistance, and that resistance is asking pertinent questions. What are the universities for? What is education, and what should it become?

Welcome to the Degree Factory

A contradiction runs through the experience of tertiary education. Going to university should be a thrilling experience, involving exposure to challenging ideas, intellectual stimulation, the development of critical thinking and scientific experiment. The Education Act describes one of the university’s functions as contributing “to the development of cultural and intellectual life in New Zealand.” But, for many, the reality is far shabbier. For students there is the stress of examinations, limited contact with lecturers and tutors and routinized learning and assessment. For staff increased staff-student ratio and the Performance Based Funding system, obsessed with quantifying and measuring the value of research, transform intellectual exploration into stress and number-counting pressure.

Universities are major institutions – 456 000 students were enrolled in University, Polytechnic and Wānangacourses in 2011 – and, like all major institutions in capitalist society, they are shaped by the needs of capitalism. Advanced capitalism requires a highly skilled, trained workforce; improved productivity, the capitalist class and their theorists’ obsession in any discussion of the economy, comes from getting more out of workers, and that happens better through increased efficiency and technological innovations rather than just through increasing hours and speed-ups. Universities play a role in this – they train up the white-collar workers, administrators and professionals for business and the government bureaucracy. The cost of that education is not to the capitalists themselves.

Tertiary education has changed as the capitalist system has changed. It was only following the Industrial Revolution that universities developed in England beyond the sleepy backwaters of Oxford and Cambridge; “in the 1870s and  1880s,” Stefan Collini writes, “new institutions were established in the great cities which had grown up as a result of industrialisation…these colleges were the result of local initiatives and were aimed at meeting local needs; they were not afraid to teach practical subjects such as ‘commerce.’” Then a century later universities expanded even further, turning into the modern tertiary system.

And, as Stephen Joyce is so keen to stress, universities can provide research and development for business. The extra money for research and development in this year’s Budget went to subsidise private companies’ research; public Crown Research Institutes actually faced cuts. So this is public money going towards private gains, profits. A statement from Joyce sums it up: ‘government boosts investment in commercialising research.’

The contradiction in this experience comes out of the needs of capitalism. Scientific research requires creativity and an open mind – you cannot rote-learn what has not been discovered yet. So, to provide their necessary role for business, universities always need to offer a little more; the chance of critical thinking, the space for ideas to develop, diverse opinions and views. They foster the very gap – between the profit-driven, capitalist drive for a ‘knowledge economy’ and the experience of education as a personal and social good – that generates student dissatisfaction with the corporate model.

Education: a public good or a private investment?

We see education as a public good. That is how teachers see education, and how students experience it. We all benefit (or should all benefit) from advances in knowledge, and the personal benefits an education brings – from literacy and numeracy all the way through to feelings of personal enrichment harder to quantify – add to the world we live in and work within.

But this is not how education is ordered or valued under capitalism. Neoliberal education is not for the public good but for private profit. The National Party, on their website, describe tertiary education as “a passport to higher skills, higher wages, higher productivity and higher growth for our economy.”

A passport to where? In cutting access to student allowances for older students, National makes clear for whom these “higher skills” are organized. The benefit is for the profit of business; individual older workers – in need of re-training, perhaps, following job losses and redundancies – are thrown on the educational best-before pile.

University Ltd

The business model also involves running universities themselves like businesses. There is $40 million in the Budget for ‘marketing’ the ‘international education industry.’ International students are treated as exploitables, an ‘industry’ to be developed as a source of cash for universities run along business lines. When others take up this business model – as in recent media reports about pay-per-essay services – Chinese students can expect to be subject to racist stereotyping and vilification in the media.

The market in scholarly publications and journals shows up the damage of the market to education even more starkly. Even though the technology now exists to make research generated in universities through public funds open source and freely available – and thus part of the life of the community – private companies make profits keeping articles and research behind pay-walls and in prohibitively expensive journals. The way research ‘quality’ is measured in New Zealand pressures academics to publish in these hard-to-reach places.

The student ‘experience’

It’s no wonder that students find university life alienating.

The grind of essays, labs, exams and assessment  – much of which, with its fussing over presentation styles and deadlines, has more to do with training student for the arbitrary rules of working life than it does with academic study – wears away at the pleasure of learning. A culture of competitiveness is encouraged amongst students, via limited entry courses, scarce resources, the elusive A+, while real research and thought is always in fact collaborative.

The pressures of student life – to say nothing of part-time work alongside this and child-care responsibilities – can lead to anti-social explosions and self-harm. Mental illness, depression and anxiety amongst students are rife.

And what about life after graduation? Studies in the United States talk of ‘dim prospects’ for graduates coming out of university following the Global Financial Crisis. It can be personally crushing for people to work hard for a degree, and to train in their chosen field, only to find themselves jobless, and with few training-related prospects, at the end of it all.

Universities market themselves on the student ‘experience,’ and yet the core elements of student control and organization – the student associations – are under assault, victims of the anti-union Voluntary Student Membership legislation.

Universities are not democratic spaces – university councils are packed with figures from business, while students experience little control over their own institutions.

Cutbacks in funding and increasing staff-student ratios mean that encounters with over-worked, and often casualised, staff, can be frustrating.

Staff – casualisation’s revolving doors

Permanent academics on full-time contracts are, compared to most workers, of course, very well paid, and have enviable conditions and flexibility when considered against other white-collar professionals. But the reality of employment in tertiary education is different to images of the ‘Ivory Tower.’

For starters, there is the issue of casualisation. National Tertiary Education Union studies in Australia suggest up to 60% of those teaching in universities there may be on casual or per-hour contracts. Casual, temporary and fixed-contract employment is rife in New Zealand too.

Tutors in particular face a difficult life. Many are paid at rates below what is considered a living wage, and yet they struggle to make a living and contribute to students’ learning. Long hours, long periods without pay between semesters and job insecurity, in addition to demanding and stressful work marking student assignments and responding to students, often by email at all times of the day and night, make tutoring a stressful, difficult job.

General staff, and contracted cleaners and others, have similar battles over conditions, job security, and recognition.

Permanent staff face ever-increasing workloads, as the Performance Based Research Funding (PBRF) funding model ties university income to staff ‘output.’ Publish or perish, the old cliché went; nowadays it might be something like publish and perish. The Tertiary Education Union reports staff being pressured into retiring early, or getting pushed out of roles, for not fitting their university’s goals with PBRF. Other kinds of academic engagement – in community work, say, or public comment and engagement – are now actively discouraged by a system that values one kind of productivity over a wider scholarly connection. And the time spent documenting research or applying for funding can come to crowd out doing the research itself!

And who measures the value of research? The neoliberal, managerial university of recent times has led to some truly bizarre situations. In 2010 the Dean of Arts and Humanities at Middlesex University in England claimed Philosophy, a department he was determined to abolish, made “no measurable contribution” to the university.  Some of Britain’s most prominent philosophers and thinkers – including Peter Hallward – worked there, but no matter. A university without Philosophy; something must be wrong with the measurements, not the contribution.

As the ‘valuable’ becomes the ‘measurable’ according to existing standards, innovative, critical and oppositional work gets pushed to the margins. This has not stopped principled intellectuals like Jane Kelsey and Susan St John from continuing to speak out as public intellectuals, but the chilling effects on academic culture are obvious.


This might seem like a depressing picture, but shifting staff employment patterns at universities point to one possibility for resistance.

The last great wave of student revolt, in the 1960s, chafed against the old-fashioned and out-of-date nature of university life. This was the era when James K Baxter could write his ‘Small Ode on Mixed Flatting,’ protesting the University of Otago’s decision to ban men and women sharing accommodation. Academia – male, pale, stale – felt like part of the problem. “Among the principal drivers of the first global cycle of student revolts,” Alberto Toscano argues, “was the contradiction between the sociological ‘democratisation’ of universities – the selective integration into higher education of strata hitherto shut out of the sector, in keeping with the mutations of the labour market and national economic policies – and the ‘feudal’ character of power and privilege within these institutions.”

The last decade of student protests at cuts have revealed a different relationship to staff. Toscano continues,

very significantly, and in marked contrast with earlier cycles of university struggles that responded to the authoritarian divide between lecturers and students, the combination of the drastic attack on universities and a shared experience of labour precariousness has permitted a rather unprecedented commonality of struggle.

A generation ago, talk of union action on campuses would have seemed far-fetched. But the experience of casualisation, and the increasingly corporatized nature of university employment, makes those connections easier to grasp; earlier this year there were staff strikes and hard picket lines at the University of Sydney over cutbacks, and they won significant sympathy from students. In the United States a number of high-profile union drives and battles by casual and adjunct faculty have made campus organising a live question.

Staff union and student union solidarity and collaboration have been common features of the new student revolt. It was a joint trade union and student demonstration in London in November 2010 that signalled the rebirth of the movement, as students laid siege to the Tory headquarters at Millbank.

The issues unions need to organize around on universities today – casualisation and precarious employment, hours and conditions, tutors’ rights – are issues students will experience in their part-time jobs and working life. There are rich opportunities to make common ground.

Student activism

Students are in an in-between situation. Gone are the days when they were a tiny, elite minority; now, according to the Ministry of Education, there are more people with a tertiary education than without. So students are connected with the life of the wider working class. But they do not have the power workers have at the point of production. So their activity is more volatile. Students have more flexibility than workers – it is easier to skip a class than to skip work – and can rush into action more easily. They can act as a spark for rebellions across society more generally. A ‘generation’ on campus is little more than three years; this means that, if past victories get forgotten, so too do the legacies of past defeats. Carlos Sevilla puts it like this:

“students do not constitute a class, rather they find themselves situated in a temporal condition: they are apprentice intellectual workers who the moment they gain self-consciousness as a community are dispersed and find themselves neutralized. But in the brief interlude of their preparation they constitute a compact group which has demonstrated an enormous political impulse in country after country.”

The best and most democratic way for students to exercise their power, history suggests, is by getting in the way: demonstrations, occupations and sit-ins have forced attention onto student demands, and have often inspired solidarity from workers.

Student protests show up the lies of right-wing commentators that see ordinary people as motivated only by self-interest. In protesting over reforms to come – as with the Gonski cuts in Australia now – students are resisting attacks that will not affect their own degrees, considering how short their time at university will be; they are, instead, fighting for education itself. So they offer a model to others。Their struggles cannot change the nature of the university itself under capitalism, student struggles point to why this change needs to happen. The Belgian academic and revolutionary Ernest Mandel put this well in 1970:

In the long run the university as an institution remains bound with golden chains to the power of the ruling class. Without a radical transformation of society itself the university cannot undergo any lasting radical transformation. But what is impossible for the university as an institution is possible for students as individuals and in groups. And what is possible for students as individuals and groups can, on the collective level, temporarily emerge as a possibility for the university as a whole.

Reclaiming the Future

We are seeing this ‘radical transformation’ across the globe. Prolonged student strikes in Quebec last year. A fighting student movement leading mass, militant protests and occupations across England. Successful student strikes and marches just last month in Australia. A quarter of a million taking to the streets in Chile, staff, students and parents united. And, here in Aotearoa, the last few years have seen ‘We Are the University’ groups at Auckland and Victoria leading protests of a size not seen in many years.

For a while, in the early 2000s, it looked like the student movement might be dead. Some on the left argued the slogan of free education was utopian, given how naturalised fees had become. But the fact Labour was forced to abolish interest on loans – a real reform – in order to try and regain support in Clark’s later years and that National is too scared to repeal this change, much as they would like to, shows the issue remains live, and real.

Fighting to protect what we have is a way of starting a debate about what we want. Public education as it exists now is under threat; in the course of defending public education, student protests will throw up question about what a democratic, inclusive, invigorated public education could and should look like.

I work as a university teacher, and I love my job. Teaching is a fantastic way of learning – ako, the term in Te Reo Maori for both teaching and learning, shows the two cannot be separated – and the thrill of being challenged and extended by students makes university a wonderful place to study myself. The pleasures of research are as close to unalienated labour as I can imagine. I believe in the value of education. That’s why I am a trade unionist, and proud to be in the Tertiary Education Union. Union struggles are, in a concrete form, struggles for the university itself.

“Universities across the world,” Stefan Collini suggests, “find themselves in a paradoxical position. Never before in human history have they been so numerous or so important, yet never before have they suffered from such a disabling lack of confidence and loss of identity. They receive more public money than they ever have done and yet they are more defensive about their public standing than they ever have been. At a moment when the number of students currently enrolled in these institutions across the globe is several times larger than was the case only a generation ago, there is unprecedented scepticism about the benefits (both intellectual and material) of a university education.”

There is some truth to this suggestion. But it is not helpful to talk about universities as if they are singular entities. There are, in reality, two universities, two world-views.

On the one hand, the Vice Chancellors, the Councils, the managements and the government are full of confidence about their identity. Theirs is a corporate university, with knowledge a “key resource,” in the words of Auckland’s Vice Chancellor Stuart McCutcheon.

Students, and staff, on the other hand, stand for a different kind of university altogether – the university as part of public education, offering teaching and research for the public good.

We need to fight for that other university, for the glimmers of it we can see now, and for the university we would like to create.

The next step is to join the “Opportunity Marches” the TEU is organising on 14th August, standing for quality, accessible, debt-free education. If we can build these rallies to be as big and as lively as possible, we will have contributed to the next phase in staff-student unity and struggle.

Further Reading 

The best place to learn more about issues in tertiary education is the Tertiary Education Union website. It is packed with useful statistics, analysis and commentary. Most of the quotes in this article are from the UK collection The Assault on Universities: A Manifesto for Resistance (Pluto, 2011). Read the Higher Education Manifesto here. Stefan Collini’s quotes I have taken from his book What are Universities for? (Penguin, 2012). Some parts of that book first appeared in articles that are available online.