ESSAY: GLOBALIZATION AND EDUCATION AS A COMMODITY

by William Tabb, Queens College and the Grad Center

CLARION

SUMMER 2001

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"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."

 

"The idea 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."

 

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.

Today we 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.

There are 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.

Market Mantra: Cut, Cut, Cut

Corporate 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 desirable.

What is 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.

Justice 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.

In 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 regions.”


Serge Jonque

Educators and other public workers joined FTAA protests in Quebec.

Here is 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.

Taking Away Control

The idea 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.

One 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.

Fearful 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.

“For 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.

Destroying 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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