Education in a Neoliberal Era

The last few decades have seen governments wage war on our universities. They have cut public funding on a per student basis, casualised the workforce and forced our fees up, mounting a sustained offensive against both student and staff organisations. The results have been devastating; compared to the era of free education in the 1970s, our universities are in a sorry state. Obscene prices are charged for courses which become narrower every year (before disappearing altogether), and are taught by staff who are worked into the ground for increasingly lower wages. Universities have become corporatised, and student
life and culture has become, largely, a thing of the past. This is what neoliberalism has meant for higher education.

What is neoliberalism?

Neoliberalism has been economic orthodoxy across the world for the last three decades. In Australia, the doctrine used to be called ‘economic rationalism’ – a cunning phrase that carries the implication that any opposition to it must somehow be ‘irrational’. The ALP introduced the doctrine under Prime Minister Bob Hawke and Treasurer Paul Keating in the 1980s. The agenda was quite simple: union busting, privatisation of state-owned assets, and deregulation of finance and trade. The ultra-wealthy and corrupt – such as now-disgraced and bankrupted businessman Alan Bond – were put on pedestals as people to emulate – they were “great Aussie success stories”.

Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher summed up the philosophy of neoliberalism in a 1987 interview in which she remarked, “there is no such thing as society”. The neoliberal view is that the world is made up of individuals, and that if every individual pursues their own self-interest in economic affairs, then the greatest welfare will accrue to society as a whole. It is a dogmatic ideology that is little more than an attempt at a moral justification for the rich to get richer and for the poor to be left to rot at the margins.

In the decades since Thatcher and Hawke, global market forces, previously mitigated to at least some degree, have been progressively unleashed on the population. No sphere of existence is now untouched by the market; nothing is without a price. The result has been a greater sense of loss of control, unease, uncertainty and displacement, all exacerbated in Europe and the US by levels of unemployment unseen in generations. Social policy and notions of public good are now determined entirely by reference to what they imply for the Treasury. The ethical good under neoliberalism is reducible to the economic imperative of unhindered markets – but only for the working class. So government intervention that might be of some benefit to
us – for example environmental protection controls and minimum wages – is treated under neoliberalism as a form of moral corruption to be eradicated. On the other hand, the neoliberals urge ever tighter government regulation of trade unionism and the right to strike. And while they might praise competition in the ‘labour market’ – getting workers to compete with each other for scraps – they do their best to protect the cossetted position of the banks and media cartels that reap billions of dollars in monopoly profits every year.

Rights that were fought for and won over decades have been under sustained attack. Entitlements have been transformed into ‘benefits’, provisions into ‘services’, departments into ‘providers’ and citizens into ‘customers’. Every aspect of the world is expected to subject itself to a cold ‘cost/benefit’ analysis. That is, unless you’re wealthy, in which case the sky is the limit for tax breaks and government largesse.

Neoliberalism is the logic that sees poor and working class elderly people who have worked their whole lives and contributed to raising the next generation of humanity driven to despair and suicide because of the never ending debate among the economists and politicians about how ‘expensive’ they are to keep alive, how much of a ‘burden’ they now allegedly are on society. But for the rich, the government can’t do enough to shovel still more in their direction.

Neoliberalism and education

It is important to understand these latest cuts in this context. Education has been at the front line of the neoliberal offensive. Our right to an education is being turned into a ‘privilege’, and we are being turned into ‘customers’ rather than students.

What are some of the ways this has happened?

For starters, there are the government cuts to the higher education budget. In the 1970s, the government provided over 90 per cent of university funding. Today, according to the Grattan Institute, it’s well below 50 per cent. Funding has gone up in dollar terms but has lagged dramatically behind the increase in student numbers from around 400,000 in the mid-1980s to over 1 million today, further stretching the meagre resources available to teaching and research.
 It’s not just universities that have been targeted – TAFE colleges have been under the hammer by conservative governments across the Eastern states with dozens sold off and thousands of staff sacked or put on short term contracts. All of these cuts have been justified by employing neoliberal catchphrases about ‘fiscal responsibility’.

The burden of paying for education has now fallen overwhelmingly on individual students. Gone is the idea of free education provided by a society that values learning, replaced by the cold, inhumane logic of ‘user-pays’. So the corporations that benefit from the labour provided by trained graduates also benefit from the fact that the graduates themselves have had to pay for the training – as opposed to higher corporate tax rates to cover the education.

The cost of an undergraduate degree in Australia is anywhere between $14,000 and $35,000 per year. Most students leave university weighed down by a crippling debt of between $25,000 and $30,000, which plagues them for years after they enter the workforce. It’s a system that openly favours students from rich families, deterring
the poor with ominous fees. And with each funding cut from the government, the Vice-Chancellors (who are paid handsomely) get the excuse they need to jack up the prices even further.

Neoliberal restructuring of the university sector also provides a pretext to ‘reform’ a whole range of aspects of university life – cutting courses deemed unprofitable, making class sizes bigger and library hours shorter and shutting down whole departments. Things like on- campus child care entitlements for students who are single mothers are turned into services that have to be paid for. All of this undermines our education – it means more distance between students and their teachers, less feedback, less access to resources and less assistance.

The huge debt and the high expenses associated with studying at university have also helped contribute to a much broader problem of student poverty, which has reached epidemic levels in Australia. In 2005, more that 60 percent of Australian students lived below the poverty line. And yet the Gillard government has no qualms in using the latest cuts to further cut student scholarships, which provide an essential livelihood for some of the poorest students in the country.

It’s not just the students who have suffered. Neoliberalism has shafted university workers as well. The corporatisation of universities has seen thousands of workers providing an essential service thrown on the scrap heap. At Sydney University earlier this year the equivalent of 7.5 percent of all academic staff were sacked. And this at a university which last year posted the third largest profit in Australia and invests tens of millions in useless advertising and capital projects yearly.

University workers whose jobs survive are faced with the spectre of casualisation. Casualisation makes it easier for Vice-Chancellors and university boards to force up their staff’s hours while paying them less, sacking those who fall foul of the intensified tempo of the work. It means that stressed academic staff rush from class to class, trying
to keep up with relentless demands from management. Some analysts estimate that last year roughly 50 percent of all undergraduate courses in Australia were taught by casual academic staff. It goes without saying that this undermines education – how are educators supposed to help their students learn when their own time on campus is incredibly limited and their own livelihoods are constantly at risk?

A vital part of the neoliberal offensive against higher education
has been the weakening of student and staff collective organisations. Governments have always recognised that student unions and the NTEU stand in the way of attempts to trample over our rights. That’s why a key priority for both government and university administrations has been to undermine these organisations.

Another way…

Neoliberalism is sold to us as ‘common sense’. But it is premised on lies – that the market is efficient, that individuals are all that matters, that we are all little more than consumers, and that ideas of collective strength resulting in social good are morally and economically barren.

Yet neoliberalism has failed in practice. Leaving rich capitalists
to pursue their own self-interests has seen global inequality increase dramatically. Rather than the greatest welfare accruing to society as a whole, we witnessed a global financial meltdown in 2008 that workers and the poor have had to pay for, while the rich who caused the crisis got off scot free – and with government bailouts!

We need a different path – one in which education is a right and where learning is valued as a social good.


Declan Murphy

The author Declan Murphy

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