When people think about
globalization, most focus on sweatshop labor and the loss of
manufacturing jobs overseas. It is easy to understand the race to
the bottom that results as factory workers in one place face more
intense competition from lower-cost labor on the other side of the
world. College teachers would do well, however, to include their
own future prospects as they consider the impact of globalization
over the coming years. The university will be a very different
place in another decade or two, and what it will look like depends
to a large degree on what version of globalization wins out.
are often told that education must be made more efficient by being
forced into the market model, moving away from the traditional
concept of education as a publicly provided social good. This
neoliberalism—the belief that today’s problems are best
addressed by the market, and that government regulation and the
public sector should both be as minimal as possible—is not
unique to debates over education: it dominates economics, politics
and ideology in the U.S. and most of the world.
three elements involved in the neoliberal model of education:
making the provision of education more cost-efficient by
commodifying the product; testing performance by standardizing the
experience in a way that allows for multiple-choice testing of
results; and focusing on marketable skills. The three elements are
combined in different policies—cutbacks in the public sector,
closing “inefficient” programs that don’t directly meet
business needs for a trained workforce, and the use of computers
and distance learning, in which courses and degrees are packaged
for delivery over the Internet by for-profit corporations.
Mantra: Cut, Cut, Cut
provision of education will seem increasingly appealing as
traditional schools are deprived of funds. The corporate model
stresses rewarding winners and letting losers adjust. “In the
1990s U.S. companies cut costs, jettisoned marginal efforts,
bolstered internal cooperation and formed strategic alliances.
Hold on to your hats—universities are set to do the same.”
This was how Robert Buderi, writing last year in Technology
Review, began “From the Ivory Tower to the Bottom Line,” one
of many essays on how today’s university doesn’t jibe with
today’s competitive environment, and requires market-oriented
reorganization. Buderi makes clear that the kind of selective
excellence being pitched in the CUNY Board of Trustees’ Master
Plan is part of the corporatization of the university which, like
globalization itself, is being touted as both inevitable and
the rationale for this program of cut, cut, cut? Why has it been
considered necessary for public education to tighten its belt,
year after year? The drive for “market solutions” is not the
result of some force of nature, as its proponents pretend. It is a
policy decision to abandon the needs of the poor and leave them to
shift for themselves. It is the same logic that forces the poorest
countries of the world into the IMF’s structural adjustment
programs, with their drastic cuts in public services. The Third
World may have been hit first and hardest, but the same pattern
can be seen in New York State, in the de-funding of CUNY and the
disinvestments in public education as a whole.
Leland DeGrasse’s landmark ruling of January 2001 in fact
declared that the state has deprived New York City’s children of
the “sound, basic education” guaranteed by the state
constitution. “The majority of the city’s public school
students leave high school unprepared for more than low-paying
work, unprepared for college and unprepared for the duties placed
upon them by a democratic society.” CUNY faculty know this all
too well as we are blamed and penalized for not being able to make
up for the years of deprivation, thanks to these same officials.
This might seem to be a local problem—except that public
education is under attack in many places, as part of a neoliberal
strategy that uses reform as a cover for cutback.
practice, the principal objective of such reforms is to begin a
process of privatizing education by starving public-sector schools
in the name of forcing them to compete.
The Civil Society Network for Public Education in the
Americas, a group that brings together South, Central and North
American workers in education, notes that “in developing
countries that apply austerity measures, this system has generally
led to the reduction of educational resources for the poorest
and other public workers joined FTAA protests in Quebec.
where globalization enters the picture. The proposed Free Trade
Area of the Americas agreement (the recent target of protests by
educators and others in Quebec) would demand equal treatment for
corporate providers of public services. Thus, a company like
Edison, whose bid to take over several public schools in New York
was rejected by a vote of parents, could appeal to an
international tribunal and sue the city for being treated
“unfairly.” Government “subsidies” to CUNY could be
challenged as providing an “unfair” advantage over for-profit
companies that want to offer competitive educational services.
These agreements define educational services as a tradable
commodity and so require it to be treated like any other product.
of wresting academic control from the faculty is at the heart of
such business models. It adds up to educational Taylorism—treating
the art of teaching in the same way that Henry Ford treated the
manufacture of automobiles, breaking skilled labor down into a
series of lower-skilled tasks, assigning some tasks to machines
and imposing strict managerial control over the rest.
important tool for transforming the educational workplace is
distance learning. The idea is to develop learning modules in
which the knowledge of the faculty is extracted and implanted into
on-line programs owned and controlled by management. This requires
the kind of standardization that typifies the commodified model of
education: standardized testing and straight-jacket learning
plans. Already imposed on high school teachers, the
higher-education counterpart can be found in new corporate
providers of college degrees. The plan is to take knowledge from
the heads and hearts of teachers and put it into CDs and online
courses, creating an interchangeable education that can be as
standardized as Starbucks or Wal-Mart.
that such new “brands” such as Phoenix University and other
providers will drive them from the distance-learning market, many
colleges and universities have created their own for-profit
subsidiaries. Such education can be sold globally. Distance is no
longer an obstacle. Education markets merge as distance becomes
irrelevant to this commodified credentialing.
online education to become mainstream is kind of a depressing
thought, because it is such a crappy experience,” Marc
Eisenstadt, a distance learning researcher in the UK recently told
The Wall Street Journal. “The bottom line is that learning
online is a soul-destroying experience. . . . It’s always
second-best” to face-to-face learning. But if governments
won’t pay for first-best, most students will end in
private-company college “equivalent” facilities with
interchangeable adjunct instructors teaching out of
corporate-designed lesson plans, or being “educated” by a
computer screen and a one-size-fits-all course package from some
other for-profit corporation. It is CUNY students who will be
relegated to such second- or third-class choices. The children of
the affluent will attend traditional colleges and universities.
This scenario is not far away if we let current trends continue.
the quality of public-sector education is necessary for the full
marketization of education. There is ample polling evidence that
the politics that pays for tax cuts with service cuts is not
favored by most Americans and other citizens around the world.
What corporate globalization has done is tell us there is no
alternative. But if we think government exists to serve all of the
people, not just the rich and powerful, the neoliberal model must
be resisted. This struggle goes on globally, but it will be
decided in a series of struggles which are local. What is
happening to CUNY is not unique. The bumper sticker that tells us
to “Think Globally – Act Locally” is good advice.
The PSC is
on to something. The union’s new focus on the need to rebuild
CUNY as a great university recognizes that it is inadequate to
oppose marketization without offering an alternative. Our
alternative is a counter-understanding of the goals of education,
as enhancing critical citizenship, personal development and the
participation in culture that is the right of all students in a
democracy. Instead of a race to the bottom and growing inequality,
a healthy public sector can redistribute opportunity so that we
can have a leveling up. This, after all, is the historic mission
of the City University. Our union is leading the way in defending
public education, and with it a democratic vision of the future of
our city and global society. The PSC’s success will depend in
significant measure on our participation.
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