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Pandemic Drives More Privatization of Higher Education

Police murdered Rayshard Brooks right after murdering George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor and so many others. These atrocities have ignited a powerful global protest movement, with African Americans at the core of hundreds of thousands of fighters of all colors, communities, and ages. College and university students, faculty, and staff have been highly visible in this struggle. Their economic displacement, combined with their study of societal problems, has driven and informed their actions. Their next challenge will be fighting massive cuts to public higher education funding by state governments, as the pandemic lockdowns reduce tax revenues. The political battle over these cuts will include a new conflict over campus police’s role and funding.

Corporations and their government are using the budget and coronavirus crises to leap ahead in their privatization of public higher education. This fall, most higher education campuses will continue to be locked down and shifted to online instruction because of the coronavirus. That gives high-tech corporations access to education funds like never before. In May, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo invited ex-Google CEO Eric Schmidt and hi-tech billionaire Bill Gates to help “reimagine” that state’s k-12 public schools, increasing the use of online instruction and reducing the use of physical classrooms.

“Zombie” Universities

Higher ed faces the same danger. “Big-tech companies are about to enter education and health care in a big way” investor and business professor Scott Galloway recently told the press. The biggest tech companies will partner with the wealthiest universities to use online technology to grab students who now enroll elsewhere. For campuses losing this market, “Everyone will recognize they’re going out of business, but it will take longer than people think. There will be a lot of zombie universities. They’ll cut costs to figure out how to stay alive, but they’ll effectively be the walking dead”.

“Zombie universities” will undoubtedly cut costs by reducing wages for faculty and staff, terminating others, and cutting services to students. The resulting pool of displaced educators can be used by managers everywhere to threaten their employees’ job security and unions, and increase workloads. That will dilute educational quality at all but the wealthiest universities, which mainly serve the wealthiest families. Quality education would maintain staffing levels and class workloads, and use technology to help in-class educators, not replace them or overwork them. But poorly-funded public colleges and universities can’t afford that.

Corporations will never do digital education “right” for those institutions because campus managers hire them to cut costs, not increase quality education. Yet, many of their working class students come from the wrong side of the “digital divide,” making writing papers and taking entire classes on cell phones with bare-bones Internet access ineffective for them. These conditions increase dropouts, especially displacing low income students. Meanwhile, faculty struggle to convert to online courses without sufficient training or technical assistance. Many have suffered from vision and back problems and carpal tunnel because there was no plan to ensure they had appropriate workstations for full-time work. But despite all these problems, more higher education/corporate partnerships are on the way for places like Laney Community College in Oakland, whose students and employees fought off a plan to build a privately owned stadium on campus.

Other “partnerships” would bring law enforcement agencies into higher education, like the Forensic Science building at Cal State L.A., whose control is shared between the campus, the L.A. Sheriff’s Department and the LAPD. But the growing movement against police abuses has proposed a way to prevent more of that. Across America, groups fighting police murder are demanding that funds be taken from police and used for people’s needs. “The mayor has proposed spending 54 percent of the city’s general fund on LAPD,” said Melina Abdullah, co-founder of Black Lives Matter LA, and a professor of Pan African Studies at Cal State L.A. “And we know that that is not what keeps communities safe. What keeps communities safe is good jobs, mental health resources, housing, parks, after-school programs.” The coalition’s mobilization resulted in mayor Garcetti promising to shift at least $100 million from LAPD’s $1.3 billion budget into vital human services.

In June, Oakland-area Peralta Community College District ended funding for the county Sheriff’s policing of its campuses. As New York sociologist Alex Vitale explains, “No one’s talking about a situation where tomorrow, there’s some magical switch, and there are no police… We’re talking about looking at our gross over-reliance on policing and searching in every possible way to replace that with alternatives designed to build up people, to build up communities rather than criminalizing them.”

This way of thinking points a way around the funding disaster facing public higher education. Instead of turning public education over to corporations or police, people are holding government accountable to give campuses funding from the enormous state and local budgets for police repression, including the budgets for campus police. It is infuriating that leaders of America’s public colleges and universities failed to act in the public’s interest by mobilizing thousands to do this, as the grassroots budget coalitions have. These “leaders” delivered dramatic, hand wringing speeches about brutal policing and lack of education funding yet delivered nothing to the effort to deal with both problems. Research shows that 46 percent of college students suffer from “housing insecurity,” 17 percent are among America’s huge homeless population. Thousands of part-time faculty and staff face similarly deteriorating conditions.

A Dying System

Colleges and universities face death, along with the dreams of students, faculty, and staff, because the capitalist system is dying. When robotics and other technologies push masses of workers out of the economy, capitalists lose future profits from their labor time. Public services lose tax revenues for benefits like health care. The ruling class responds by cutting government services for the poor, which even more people need than before. Another way is by slashing public education. The ruling class intends to hold on to their huge concentrations of corporate wealth and other forms of private property, even if the capitalist system that produced that private property no longer functions.

Technology can now produce everything people need, which would free them to learn new skills and make more satisfying contributions to society. But the class that controls the economy as its private property prevents that. Like the “zombie” universities, capitalists will cut costs to figure out how to stay alive, but they’ll effectively be the walking dead, surviving only by killing others through poverty and vicious policing. The struggle to fund public higher education by disarming the murderers is one step towards burying their dying system and building a new system of collective public ownership in its place.

September/October 2020 Vol30.Ed5
This article originated in Rally, Comrades!
P.O. Box 477113 Chicago, IL 60647 rally@lrna.org
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Photo of Protest

30,000 March in Support of
Chicago Teachers Union Strike
Photo by Ryan L Williams
used with permission

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

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Rally, Comrades! is the political paper of the League of Revolutionaries for a New America. If you are one of the thousands of revolutionaries around the country looking for a perspective on the problems we face today, and for a political strategy to achieve the goal of a world free from exploitation and poverty, then Rally, Comrades! is for you.

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