Higher education is still under attack, now more than ever. Across the U.S., tuition and student debt are rising dramatically while the quality of education, graduate job prospects, and working conditions for academic laborers are rapidly declining.
Between 1980 and 2010, average annual tuition at all four-year institutions (public and private) rose from $8,672 to $20,986 — 142 percent! — in inflation-adjusted dollars. For public institutions alone, the hike was hardly less at 135 percent: from $6,320 in 1980 to $14,870 in 2010 (U.S. Department of Education). College grads in 2010 owed an average of $25,250 to the banks and government loan institutions for the ”privilege” of their education — five percent more than just one year before (NY Times, 11/2/2011).
At the same time, jobs are drying up! As of 2009, 22.4 percent of college grads were not working at all, while another 22 percent worked in jobs such as food service and retail that don’t require a degree and pay next to nothing. Even those lucky enough to work in a job for which they trained earned a meager median income of $26,756 before taxes (NY Times, 5/11/2011). Have fun paying off $25,250 in debt on that!
Youth have begun to rebel against these conditions on a grand scale through the Occupy movement. Now there is a call for March 1 to see a national day of action of mass protests throughout the country against tuition hikes, education cuts, and a future of joblessness, alienation, and corporate domination. Mobilize in your school and community to make March 1 the biggest protest possible!
If we don’t take action, then the situation will only get worse. As state governments become ever stingier, ostensibly public institutions are forced more and more to seek private funding — all strings attached. The City University of New York (CUNY) system, once completely free and practicing open admissions, is a case in point. In 2000, its “23 colleges and professional schools…were raising $50 million a year collectively.” By 2010, “that figure is $200 million, and officials have set a goal of $3 billion by 2015.” (NY Times, 1/15/2011) Recently, the State University of New York at Stony Brook also received a record $150 million donation from rich financier James H. Simons, most of which was earmarked by him for medical and business programs (Chronicle of Philanthropy, 12/14/2011).
The 1% Is Transforming Education
These same universities continue to demand ever-higher tuition from working-class students while exploiting an ever-expanding pool of underpaid, “contingent” academic laborers, otherwise known as adjuncts. In the CUNY system, they teach 60 percent of the courses but receive only a third of the pay (on a per-course basis) of tenure-track professors; they can also be dismissed at any time without due process.
Why is all this happening? Why are universities being transformed like this at the expense of students, teachers, and other academic laborers?
Historically, colleges and universities have served as pathways of social mobility for working people. They allowed a certain number of working-class youth the opportunity to obtain credentials needed for a shot at the salaried middle class, especially in the decades following World War II. But more than that, the expansion of affordable higher education during this brief window in the mid-20th Century gave first-generation college students the freedom and the space to grow intellectually, to contemplate the power structures of capitalist society, and indeed, through the student movements of the 1960s and ‘70s, to challenge those structures. In turn, this window of access to higher education — as with the expansion of public education in general — was itself a direct result of militant workers’ struggles in the first half of the 20th Century. Taken in historical perspective, we can say that the availability of high-quality public education under capitalism is indeed a function and a measure of the power of the working class.
Since the 1970s, however, ruling classes across the world have launched a wholesale attack on all previous achievements of the labor movement, higher education included. They are trying to return college to the elitist system that existed in the early 20th Century. Why? Because they know their declining capitalist system can’t provide enough meaningful jobs for so many graduates. If they can’t turn us into bankers or technicians, then they’ll relegate us to low-wage service jobs, and they don’t want millions of educated impoverished people conscious of their history and confident they can fight back.
This doesn’t have to happen. As the massive resistance of California, Chile, and U.K. students last year shows, the fight-back has already begun. With the wind in our sails and hundreds of new activists from the Occupy movement, we’ll need to get serious about discussing a strategy that can build an ongoing movement to win victories. Letters to Congress, jumping through the hoops of administrators, polite petitioning, and playing nice with politicians won’t be enough to defeat this offensive by the 1%. We need determined action to win!
Tactics like occupations and strikes are far more effective than institutionalized begging, but they have to be well-planned, well-organized, and have clear goals to win. Otherwise, the participating activists risk being isolated and victimized by administrators. For working and immigrant students especially, the question of occupations cannot be taken lightly, since the risks for them are potentially even greater. “Occupy everything! Demand nothing!” will lead to defeats, not victories.
In order for occupations to be successful, they need the widest possible support among the student body, the teaching faculty, and non-faculty staff, as well as from the surrounding community. They also need democratic decision-making structures for rapid response to the sudden challenges that will inevitably face such a movement. These elements, combined with a national and international linking of student struggles, provide a mass-action strategy of occupations, demonstrations, and other forms of direct struggle that are planned democratically within the student movement and link up with exploited part-time faculty, university clerical staff, and the broader movements for workers’ rights and social equality.
Concretely, this means organizing around clear demands with wide appeal — to start, a reversal of all tuition increases, cancelation of student debt, and continuation of programs such as black, women’s, and queer studies that are constantly threatened with elimination. But beyond this, transformative demands for free universities run by democratic councils of students, teachers, and staff should also be raised. We need to aim for more than maintaining the status quo or recreating the systems of decades past. We want a higher education system that is open, engaging, and accessible to all, that serves our needs as human beings to grow intellectually and socially, not just to give us “credentials” for a particular slot in the declining capitalist labor market!
A next step in this struggle is the March 1 National Day of Action to Defend Education. Across the country, students, activists, and their allies should use this day as a rallying point to build local actions and galvanize the student movement in the spring. Planning for such actions — be they teach-ins, speak-outs, demonstrations, or occupations — will provide forums for discussing the questions of goals, strategy, and organization raised here and for building links with non-student allies, both within and outside of the university. For a united movement of students and workers to challenge the onslaught of the 1%!