Neoliberalism & the restructuring of Education

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In mid-August, Labour Minister for Education Ruairi Quinn announced both further increases to the “registration fee”, which currently stands at €2000, and the return of tuition fees, which will be payable at point-of-entry, for third level education. Coupled with the massive cuts already to the grants system, this will make it prohibitively expensive for many students to enter and complete third level education, and impose a substantial financial burden on those that do. The implications of this will be further falls in the standard of living of ordinary families and increased indebtedness for young people as they begin their adult lives. For many prospective mature students, their hopes of getting back to education will be ruined.

The public debate on education has settled into a familiar pattern over the course of the crisis. The issue, we are told, is that the country is “broke” and the cost of funding third level education is “spiralling”, therefore students must be prepared to pay more, either through the reintroduction of tuition fees in a formal sense, or through continued hikes in the registration fee (backdoor fees). The issue of fees is framed as an apolitical technical one: what is the best mechanism of implementing this policy? The fact that the Labour Party promised the electorate that they would not reintroduce fees, and indeed to reverse the most recent increase in the registration charge, has already been rationalised as naive idealism crushed by economic reality - yes we believe in free education, but we didn’t realise how bad things were - rather than a cynical and shameless lie. Concerns like social justice and the right to education are reduced to nice ideals, luxuries for boom times, which must now take a back seat to pragmatism.
Ignoring the broader political context of the issue serves an ideological function: to obscure the role of class and power. “Harsh economic realities”, which are cited whenever ordinary people object to attacks on their standard of living, their wages and conditions and their public services, disappear whenever wealthy bankers and investors demand that their gambling debts be taken on by the taxpayer, or whenever senior bondholders demand that their bonds must be honoured whatever the human cost. Similarly, “harsh economic realities” are never employed in order to redistribute the enormous wealth of the capitalist class.
Crucially, far from being a reluctant necessity of the economic climate, the dismantling of the right to education is a decades-old process that has been taking place across the West, particularly since the beginning of the ‘Bologna Process’ around the turn of the millenium. The erosion of the right to education and the imposition of a service-provider model of third-level education, in which students are consumers of a product who must enter increasing levels of debt for the privilege, has long been a goal of the neoliberal project. All of the establishment parties of this country subscribe to this aim, and more broadly, the eradication of the ‘public good’ from political discourse, with varying degrees of zeal and varying rhetorical accents. What we’re witnessing is an acceleration of an already-existing process now that the ideological weaponry of an impending economic apocalypse has made itself available to those in power.
A key part of this process is the reshaping of the priorities and goals of education to those of capital. In Ireland, DCU appears to be leading the charge on this project, with it’s recently-announced plans to become a “university of enterprise”, with students building up an electronic portfolio which will monitor their learning activity over their time in college and will be used by employers to pick out graduates with the right kind of skills and attitudes. The premise underlying this, which has increasingly become an unquestioned truism of public discourse, is that the purpose of education is economic rather than social: to build the ‘knowledge economy’ rather than to impart knowledge as a personal and social good. The Department of Education’s plans to remove History and Geography from the core subjects at secondary level should be seen in this light also: both are subjects that provide fewer direct benefits to industry, and can thus be safely sidelined regardless of the impact on learning. Anarchists support a genuinely free education system freed from the demands of capital, whose goal is the intellectual and personal development of the individual and the benefit of society as a whole.

This article is from Issue 124 of Ireland's anarchist paper Workers Solidarity November / December 2011