The following interview, done by email, originally appeared on EvoLLLution.
1. Would you say higher education is a commodity, or not?
Absolutely not; and not just higher education, but education at any and every level. Education is a process of human interaction, whose efficacy depends on a variety of subjective factors. Why did I choose this subject? Does the teacher stimulate my interest — or imagination? Do I enjoy teaching, or has it become a chore? None of these things can be quantified (except by means of unscientific questionnaires), and if they can’t be quantified, any price that is put on them is quite arbitrary.
That’s not to say there isn’t a real economics to be considered. Education requires both an infrastructure and a labour force. In formal terms, both Adam Smith and Karl Marx considered the teacher to be providing a service, not a commodity, although in both cases, their arguments were largely misunderstood.
However, the cost of maintaining a modern education system is not determined by the market, but by political and socio-cultural factors. The decision as to whether to provide free education or to charge for it at any level has economic and social implications and is the result of political policies and ideological positions. It is not a simple matter of left or right wing. I’m writing these notes from Argentina, where free and universal public education was first introduced as long ago as 1884 in the interests of nation building.
2. What is it about higher education that makes it a unique good that is not substitutable across different institutions and providers?
I believe what Friedrich Schiller wrote in his “Letters upon the Aesthetic Education of Man” remains true. To paraphrase: the artisan (or, in more modern terms, the manufacturer) takes possession of their raw materials and inevitably does violence to them to achieve their ends. The artist does the same, but tries to hide the fact, because otherwise it shows through, and destroys the aesthetic illusion. Schiller believed art is not illusion, but the illusion of illusion — a formula which is even truer with the arrival of photography and film.
The situation of the educator — and the politician — is not at all the same, because here the raw material is not inanimate (or a mechanical representation), but both means and end. In other words, if you do violence to the human being who is the subject of your endeavours, then you act against the human nature of your subject; a fundamental reason why politicians are so widely regarded with enormous suspicion.
This also means the individual character of the educational encounter is of great importance. The adolescent pupil doesn’t usually choose the school they go to, but may opt for one subject rather than another because of the teacher’s reputation or demeanour. At the doctoral level, this may become a predominant factor. In between, the choice of university is often the result of social factors as well as economic considerations.
3. Will higher education become a commodity in the future?
The attack on free universal education began under the sign of neoliberalism before the welfare state was thrown into crisis by the economic crash of 2008. Neoliberalism is entirely instrumental, politically antidemocratic and autarchic in its invasion of every last vestige of spirit and imagination, blindly destructive of the common good and the public commons. This is a recipe for social disaster, in the same way that an economic system that destroys its environment can only end up destroying itself, as people are increasingly recognising.
There seems to be little prospect of reversing these trends in the immediate future, despite the growth of popular protest, because the first people neoliberalism has robbed of imagination are the neoliberals themselves. In other words, the one percent, and the political classes who serve their interests, can see no way out of the economic crisis other than more of the same (which is no solution) and, having lost control of the system, they’re mighty scared and ideologically paralysed as a result. They are nevertheless desperate to hold on to power. The education system is one of the means of doing so, but only on condition that education is increasingly instrumentalized.
The first problem here is that it isn’t possible to apply real controls over the labor process in the lecture room in the same way as a factory production line, or even a telephone call centre, precisely for the reasons I’ve mentioned, so they have to apply formal controls instead, hemming the teacher in by managerial means. This is easier to do at school level by defining the curriculum, but more difficult in higher education, with its traditions of autonomy and the fundamental credo of academic freedom.
Instead, the pseudo-commoditisation of education is undertaken through charging fees, whose level is entirely arbitrary, again for the reasons I’ve already mentioned. The student is entitled to take out a loan to pay these fees, which are supposedly to be recuperated from later earnings, but to make it all seem fair, only when these earnings exceed a certain level. The system is deeply flawed because the real economy cannot absorb such large numbers of graduates, and a significant proportion of these loans will never be repaid. In the UK, an independent report suggests a staggering 85 percent of these loans will never be fully repaid before they’re written off; even the government’s figure of 40 percent is clearly unsustainable.