The Digital Revolution and the Transformation of Public Higher Education
As America’s students study to pass their classes, the system of higher education is failing. Skyrocketing tuition forces millions of youth to forego college or go forward as debt slaves. Costs exclude more than a million students each year, while another five million graduate with crushing debt, now totaling $1.3 trillion. Our “public” colleges and universities have faced such deep budget cuts they now get most of their funding from non-public sources.
Working class students pay by getting bank-financed student loans at double the interest rate those banks pay the Federal Reserve, depleting the meager savings that working families accumulate from their labor. Austerity in public colleges pushes 2 million working class students toward the predatory for-profit industry, with injurious effects, such as Corinthian Colleges, Inc.’s abrupt closure that left 40,000 students with defaulted student loans.
A post-secondary degree reduces the likelihood of unemployment and may provide enough income to cover one’s debts. Yet, more than half of college graduates cannot land a job in their field. There are simply not enough good jobs for the millions of college graduates, even those with STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) degrees. Academic departments not favored by corporations – such as the humanities, ethnic studies, and liberal arts – are downsized.
The current higher education system is not only failing millions of students – but for 40 years it has also been failing the educators. College teaching has become a new poster child for the cheap, “just-in-time” economy: 90% of all faculty positions created since 1990 have been part-time or temporary; 80% of all college educators are now part-time or temporary; and 30% need some form of government assistance in order to pay their bills.
Tenured professors are experiencing a decline in job security, salary and shared governance, but low wages, precarious work, and lack of health and retirement benefits are impoverishing the lives of the contingent army of one million “professors”. Their working conditions are preventing the high-quality and widely accessible education they thought they were being trained to provide – the education that our students need and that their communities demand.
These least-supported “contingent” faculties are the ones most likely to teach the neediest students: those first in their families to go to college, least prepared due to unsatisfactory underfunded K-12 education, and with the least economic resources for staying in school. Many colleges are now places where these teachers process undereducated students, so that millions of those students will be only semi-prepared for their own precarious jobs.
This downward spiral in teachers’ working conditions and students’ learning conditions is rapidly accelerating as colleges chase the digital dream of online learning. As presently structured, this has been an experimental failure as large as the Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) through which it is sold. If organized to maximize student learning rather than profits, they might succeed. Instead, MOOCs have dismal completion and pass rates.
Why Defunding and Privatization?
A central role of public education in the United States economy has been to educate and train new employees to take their place in the economy. The “digital revolution” is changing the nature and amount of human work needed and is therefore transforming higher education. Far fewer workers are needed in an economy based on electronic, automated production as demonstrated in the first decade of the 21st century when there was a net decline of 10 million jobs for the labor force. Digital, electronic technology makes possible the almost immediate and low-cost production and duplication of everything needed to satisfy material human needs, including new ways to educate more people. Yet, in private hands, it excludes the majority of humanity.
The “underhauling” of public higher education results from an increasingly laborless economy under a system of private ownership. Today, the overwhelming majority of jobs in the U.S. economy do not require post-secondary education. If corporations need fewer workers, they won’t pay the taxes necessary to maintain human services and high quality mass education. On the 150th anniversary of the founding of public land grant universities, Bill Gates urged public university administrators to abandon efforts to increase public funding and instead to slash costs by implementing incentives for speedy student completion and the increased use of MOOCS and e-advising systems. The growth of MOOCS, online degrees and other educational technology has the potential to eliminate many faculty jobs and decrease educational quality for students. Already, many for-profit colleges use standardized online courses created by a single faculty member and administered by contingent, low-paid education workers.
Capitalism, an economic system based on the buying, selling and exploitation of labor, is objectively coming to an end because digital technology is labor-replacing. We cannot go back, but the way forward is up for grabs. The owning class is attempting to restructure society to maintain private control of socially necessary means of production. Though less dramatic than the National Security Administration’s unwarranted surveillance program or police murders of unarmed youth, we see elements of police state tactics on our campuses as well – in the surveillance of faculty, staff and students through hidden cameras and email monitoring, and the arming of campus police with semi-automatic weapons and drones. These are tactics for controlling freedom of speech and assembly. Democracy is sacrificed when a corporate ruling class must resort to brutal force to control a new class of workers, who are made antagonistic to a system that can no longer deliver what it needs to survive.
Students, staff, and faculty are responding to the changing economy and these attacks by organizing to secure learning conditions and working conditions that have rapidly eroded. Graduate employees and professors have led a wave of unionizing in the few states where this is still possible. The displacement of college teachers is also the reason that the marginalized army of one million part-time and temporary college professors built a national organization – The New Faculty Majority – and a national movement to expose the onslaught of the last 40 years.
Students are the largest segment of the growing displaced, under-employed, college educated labor. They are increasingly acting in unison, sometimes with college faculty and staff, to demand debt relief and free high quality college education. In 2010, tens of thousands of students, education workers, and community members took to the streets and other protest sites for a National Day of Action, the first time that all sectors of public education, pre-kindergarten through Ph.D. came together to call on our government to fully fund education and other human services.
Students whose families fled to the US from poorer countries entered the fight for their right to an education, despite being undocumented. Thousands risked arrest by holding protests against both Republican and Democrat politicians, who have not supported a “Dream Act” to provide them the same tuition and financial aid as other students. They won victories, including Obama’s 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) order allowing many undocumented youth to hold jobs. But thousands of young people are not eligible for DACA or state benefits and thousands more, or their parents, have been deported.
Possibilities for a 21st Century Education
Electronic, digital technology offers the possibility of providing free high quality education to all. It could be a vibrant and flexible education that prioritizes the individual interests and needs of learners, organized to solve the problems of society, and to train all people to make meaningful contributions. This is possible right now.
The obstacle today is not electronic technology. Used in the interests of society, the productivity of digital technology can provide abundance. The problem is that the people do not have the political power to ensure that the technology is used in the interests of humanity and the earth.
The corporate control over the resources of society is leading to the decimation of our public rights and services, including public higher education. A new class is forming from the people whose labor is not needed and therefore have no way to sustain themselves and their families. This new class, including contingent faculty and underemployed and unemployed college graduates, is the proletariat of the 21st century, the class that is objectively revolutionary, because its very survival depends on the creation of a new cooperative society. This kind of society would organize the wealth and resources of society to provide for the needs and healthy development of all people and the earth.
A cooperative society is the practical solution to the problems facing students, faculty, and parents, millions of whom want broad, diverse and high quality higher education accessible to all. This can be brought about if the new class recognizes it is a class and builds the political power to restructure society.
The Role of Revolutionaries
It is the role of revolutionaries in education – be they faculty, students, staff or community members – to not only fight against the cuts, poor working conditions and rising tuition, but more importantly to raise the political understanding of those fighting to defend the public’s right to an education. Revolutionaries teach fighters how the new technology is the objective basis for both the devastation of public higher education as we know it and for the creation of a better system. Revolutionaries are all of us who are committed to playing a role in securing a future where the abundance made possible by today’s technology is used in the interest of all of humanity and the earth.
Revolutionaries recognize that to win, our class must move from the defensive – hoping to get back what they once had under the capitalist system – to the offensive – fighting for a new cooperative society that frees technology to serve the people’s needs. Public ownership of the socially necessary means of production and the distribution of the social product according to need is communism. Today, revolutionaries help lay the basis for the working class to seek the political power to bring this practical solution into being.
The digital, electronic, automated revolution is destroying the capitalist system and creating the foundation for a world of shared abundance. Through study, collectivity, and planning, revolutionaries can help insure that this world comes to be.
This article originated in Rally, Comrades!
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The age-old vision of a world without scarcity, without exploitation, class domination, organized violence, and stultifying labor has been the dream of millenia. The new completely socialized labor-eliminating means of production ... sets the basis for its realization. Now human history can begin, the light of the individual shining in the full brightness of liberated life, that can only be realized within true equality and cooperation: communism, a cooperative society.'Without Vision, the People Perish'
Rally, Comrades ! May/June 2011