Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Neoliberal Education: From Affordable Education to Expensive Training

If uncontested, the coming decades promise a radical transformation of the basic objectives of the university and the potential destruction of one of the last institutions with acute possibilities for social liberation. Dreamed of by reactionaries for over 70 years, the dismantling of the universal public access model of education, which has typified the US postsecondary system since the end of the Second World War, has been made a reality by an ideal political economic conjuncture. Declining state revenues in the wake of recurring rounds of financial crisis, predatory private student loans, the rise of for-profit higher education, pernicious anti-intellectualism and technological fetishism have combined to precipitate deep cuts to higher education funding, and the neo-corporatist vision of the university is on offer in nearly every board of trustees across the US. In this essay, we reflect on some of the key political economic factors affecting higher education in the United States and how these factors are playing out both structurally and personally for us as an online program administrator and an instructor. We work in a regional public institution that has been forced to embrace a ‘new normal’ through the growth of online programs, representing a shift from degrees to professional credentialization.

The public university system of the United States was created during a period of intense social conflict that saw significant gains by labor against capital through the creation of social institutions consciously designed to improve social mobility. Most of those gains, however, have been eroded since the neoliberal counterrevolution of the late 1970s, with the destruction of unions and stagnating wages among the more obvious manifestations (Dumenil and Levy 2005, Peck and Tickell 2002). Until recently, public universities had been insulated from these broader political economic trends, but now universities across the world, and particularly in the US, are under assault. While those assaults take myriad forms and are specific to national, regional, and institutional contexts, we focus below on the growth and fetishization of online higher education. Simply stated, the movement toward online learning, hailed by its proponents as a democratic revolution, is little more than a pragmatic response by universities to a deception perpetrated by political elites, capitalists in the tech sector,[2] and increasingly powerful neoliberal NGOs like the Gates Foundation. Superficial, unengaging, and of questionable outcomes, online educational programs constitute a manifestation of the neoliberlalization of nearly everything for the public, students and educators alike.

It is not lost on the anti-educationalists, including politicians seeking to dismantle what’s left of the welfare state, tech entrepreneurs, and sections of Christian fundamentalists that a good crisis is a terrible thing to waste (c.f. French and Leyshon 2010). This has led to, among other things, the effective privatization of the institutions where we work- in Kentucky, the total state contribution represents less than 30 percent of the cost to educate one student, Students, faced with decreasing levels of state backed financial aid, social pressure to become credentialized for work that previously did not require university education, and sky-rocketing tuition costs, are being funneled into an array of educational profit-seeking ventures of varying levels of quality. Not surprisingly, the students enrolling in these programs come from distinctly different class backgrounds than students who enroll in traditional higher education, particularly at elite private institutions.

The ruling class will still be educated in brick and mortar institutions. You simply cannot train-to-rule -- the rulers must be educated (Mills 1956). As such, the university experience will no longer be classed by the type of university (i.e. R1, regional, or ‘for profit’), but by the very content of the experience and the mode of delivery. The types of experiences accrued by different students will clearly designate who can and cannot work where and how. This is best exemplified by the shift from degree/no degree to ‘work-certified’ versus ‘degree holders.’ The difference between training programs and education is fairly straightforward: training is generally the instrumental presentation of ‘the how,’ whereas education does not follow a simple ends/means equation and is a more expansive interrogation of ‘the whys.’

To be clear, we wholeheartedly support some forms of training-–the role of labor unions in training skilled craftspeople has been invaluable in reproducing workers needed for a functioning industrial, and even post-industrial, society. However, the growth of massively expensive for-profit training centers such as Sullivan University (2012), which offers online associates degrees in such in-demand fields as ‘Beverage Management’ (costing graduates anywhere between $33,516 and $36,252) effectively traps students who are desperate for escape from low wage jobs in a private debt cycle, drains federal tuition subsidies such as Pell Grants, and creates an exceptionally lucrative model that appeals to neoliberal university administrators acting on imperatives to run their institutions like businesses.[1]

Other aspects of this corporate mindset in the contemporary university are manifest; one need only think of the now omnipresent consultant on public university campuses, evaluating everything from infrastructure ‘needs,’ to conducting presidential and provostial searches that were formerly conducted by faculty. The rise of consultants is mirrored by the spectacular growth in previously non-existent administrative roles. These well-paid positions thrive even as universities impose substantial cuts on intellectual and facilities labor and the outsourcing of student jobs that previously provided invaluable opportunities to students seeking to defray the rising cost of education. This administrative bloat coupled with reduced labor opportunities is reminiscent of society at large-wide trends in inequality of opportunity and remuneration.

All these factors have contributed to the further neoliberalization of the American university, but perhaps its most visible, and pernicious, effect is rapidly unfolding in the form of massive, open online classes or MOOCs. Much ink was spilled over the course of 2012 exploring various dimensions of MOOCs (Watters 2012). We would briefly note that the rise of MOOCs is predicated on support from the tech sector in return for future profit from software licensing. Ultimately MOOCs shift the labor of education onto the consumer (i.e. student) through innovations like ‘flipped classrooms’ that leave students exploring the predefined, standardized learning objectives. These flipped classrooms are the educational equivalent of scanning your own groceries at the supermarket —shifting aspects of the labor of education from faculty to student. Given that many MOOC initiatives are being pushed by tech entrepreneurs with the backing of venture capital, why should we expect MOOCs to behave any differently than the University of Phoenix’s of the world? Phoenix and other for-profits were recently chastized by a congressional report on for their blatant misappropriation of federal financial aid through high-pressure admissions practices fueled by recruiters working on a commission basis (Lewin 2012b). Any educational model that derives profit from students (or their tax-payer surrogates) will necessarily have to make decisions regarding profits versus product. Thus, such frivolities such as ‘humanities’ and ‘earth sciences’ must be eliminated in certification programs (or reductions in general education requirements in degree programs) to protect shareholder value, reflecting the basic shift in higher education from ‘why’ to ‘how’.

In the state we teach in, regional universities that receive little attention in the best of times are now forced to compete with one another for a finite number of students to justify their continued (paltry) state funding. As the broader educational terrain shifts to glorified training regimes, these regional universities are effectively cannibalizing each other in an educational race to the bottom. It is not the top-tier students who are suffering from this shift––MIT is not struggling to recruit from impoverished rural areas like regional universities that face declining enrollments. The move toward the ‘training-ization’ of the regional university [3] reinforces the classed nature of institutions by reducing economic mobility for students through less effective education coupled with the classed basis of financial aid and the politically intentional withdrawal of funds from state universities. The blame for rising educational costs is then placed on the university itself, rather than political decision makers, a classic “starve the beast” tactic (Blustein 1985).

The decline of the traditional campus in favor of online education has the added bonus of post-Fordist dispersion of dangerous populations and elimination of sites of struggle and resistance. It’s also cheaper. Furthermore, the reassignment of educational costs to students and families through rising tuition mirrors the neoliberal tactic of shifting the cost of workforce training from the private sector to the public, as in decades prior. This has the added bonus of propping up the financial industry that holds more than $150 billion in private student loan debt (CFPB 2012). This debt is different from almost any other form of debt, in that it cannot be discharged in bankruptcy proceedings (Durbin, 2012). It does not require much imagination to speculate as to what private financiers might do with $150 in debt assets, or its potential effects on the broader economy.

Finally, we note that in addition to having hugely negative ramifications for students and society at large, faculty will not emerge unscathed. The shift towards adjuncts and other forms of contingent faculty labor is well documented, as is the move to abolish the tenure system (Purcell 2007). However, these are only precursors of academic labor restructuring which the ‘training-ization’ of education promises. On offer is a three-tiered labor system consisting of a ruling class of content creators who designate what constitutes appropriate learning content and outcomes and who make course modules that can be licensed to individual institutions. The institutions (or individual academic units) would designate a content coordinator to select the modules best suited to their training programs. Finally, the vast majority of faculty would be relegated to the inauspicious position of “content deliverer,” clarifying the message of the content creator, contextualizing the material in the overall training program, and assigning grades to students who are overpaying for such certificates with extortionist private loans.

The shift toward training through the growth of online education is detrimental for students, educators, and society alike. But if this is the case, then why pursue this disruptive path? As in most things political-economic, this is a question best answered by asking ‘who benefits?’ In this case, the answer is fairly transparent: financiers backing for-profit education, private student-loan originators, and venture capitalists supporting online education software developers. As usual, the economic rationality is cloaked in the normatively positive language of ‘democracy’, ‘access’, and ‘efficiency’ (Harvey 2005). In other words, the shift toward training is an explicit class project engineered to more effectively transfer wealth toward to those who already control a lot of it. Consequently, our response must recognize this transition as such and respond in kind.

Patrick Bigger and Victor E. Kappeler

[1] The University of Phoenix is the United State’s largest recipient of federal student aid, totaling nearly $2.5 billion in 2008. Phoenix reported profits over $1.14 billion in 2010. Further, Phoenix does not offer tenure to its faculty—a faculty comprised of 1,500 full-time faculty and a whopping 20,000 adjuncts—95% of faculty is part-time, reflecting both broader neoliberal trends to ‘flexible labor’ regimes and specific trends toward reduced full-time faculty across educational institutions in the US (AAUP 2009). Fortunately, Phoenix, along with other online universities, have faced rapidly declining enrollments over the past two years (Lewin 2012a).

[2] It bears noting that many in the tech industry, particularly in California where MOOCs are becoming more prevalent at pioneering institutions like Stanford, are unabashed Ayn Rand-style libertarians (Curtis 2012), and further provide substantial fodder for the anti-formal education movement that has been encouraging potential high-tech entrepreneurs to either drop out or forego university education all together (Williams 2012).

[3] And in many economically marginal states, flagship/landgrant universities as well.

Works Cited

AAUP 2009. Trends in Instrucutional Staff Employment Status, 1975-2009. Available at http://www.aaup.org/NR/rdonlyres/7C3039DD-EF79-4E75-A20D-6F75BA01BE84/0/Trends.pdf. Last accessed 3 January 2013.

Blustein P 1985 "Reagan's Record," The Wall Street Journal, October 21, 1985. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau 2012. Annual Report of CFPB Student Loan Ombudsman. Available at http://files.consumerfinance.gov/f/201210_cfpb_Student-Loan-Ombudsman-Annual-Report.pdf. Last accessed 5 January 2013.

Curtis A 2011. All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace. Dir Adam Curtis. British Broadcasting Corporation 2011. Television.

Duménil G and D Lévy 2005, Capital Resurgent, Roots of the Neoliberal Revolution, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

French S and A Leyshon, 2010. 'These f@#king guys': the terrible waste of a good crisis. Envioronment and Planning A 42(11): 2549-2559.

Harvey D 2005. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. London: Oxford University Press. Lewin 2012a University of Phoenix to Shutter 115 Locations. New York Times. bhttp://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/18/education/university-of-phoenix-to-close-115-locations.html. Last acesses 4 January 2013.

Lewin 2012b. Senate Committee Report on For-Profit Colleges Condems Costs and Practices. New York Times. Available at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/30/education/harkin-report-condemns-for-profit-colleges.html. Last accessed 4 January 2013. Mills C.W. 1956 (2000). The Power Elite. London: Oxford University Press.

Peck J and A Tickell 2002. Neoliberalizing Space. Antipode 34(3): 380-404. Purcell, M. 2007. Skilled, cheap, and desperate: Non-tenure-track faculty and the delusion of meritocracy. Antipode 39(1): 121-143.

Sullivan University 2012. Beverage Management. http://sullivan.edu/beverage-mgt.asp. Last accessed 5 January 2013.

Watters A 2012. Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2012: MOOCs. Inside Higher Ed. Avialable at http://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/hack-higher-education/top-ed-tech-trends-2012-moocs. Last access 2 January 2013.

Williams 2012. Saying No to College. New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/02/fashion/saying-no-to-college.html?pagewanted=all. Last accessed 4 January 2013.


Sophie Tyler Neil said...

I beg to disagree to the shift to expensive training. How could Financial Solutions for Schools and Parents like smart tuition reviews help students that don't have the financial capabilities to finish college. A lot of students are gonna be wasted when you apply expensive training cause let's accept the fact that not all students that are above average when it comes to academics are able to go college without the help of others.

Jenna Bradford said...

Yeah, not everyone can afford expensive training. Students have paid enough with years of education so I don't think this will do them justice. It's a good thing those software training that are done in our office are free, or else nobody would attend them.

Leslie B. said...

This article is not that easy to find and should be an NYT op-ed.