Throughout 2013 and 2014, students across Australia, Britain and other countries have been protesting against the introduction of full-fees tuition, and opposing the onrush towards the full privatisation of education in their respective countries. Their protests have been raucous, enthusiastic and captured the attention of the corporate media. The students have marched in the streets, venting their opposition to the current Federal government of Australia. They have marched in Britain, occupying the offices of the Conservative party in one town, marching on the parliament in that country.
In October 2013, students targeted the Australian federal treasurer, disrupting his speaking engagement, opposing not just the privatisation of education, but the entire direction of the federal budget that punishes the poor and disadvantaged, while rewarding the wealthy.
In Hong Kong, students have led a poltically diverse protest movement against the reigning politicians in that statelet. A mass movement of civil disobedience and political resistance has brought the Hong Kong authorities to a standstill.
In Mexico, thousands of students have led the way in revitalising a political opposition to the corrupt and decrepit Mexican political system. The immediate catalyst for the current uprising against the Mexican authorities was the premeditated murder of 43 student teachers in the town of Iguala, in southern Mexico. The student teachers were going to protest against the mayor of that town; on his orders, the police arrested them and handed them over to a drug-trafficking cartel which proceeded to kill the student teachers. This was the spark that lit the fuse of constant and organised protests against the endemic corruption and inequality in Mexico. These protests, ranging from peaceful vigils to attacks on government buildings, have created the most serious political crisis for the Mexican regime in recent history.
In the United States, increasing numbers of university students have joined the country-wide protests in solidarity with the African American community of Ferguson. Mike Brown, a student from that suburb, was unarmed when he was shot down by a St Louis police officer. A grand jury decided that no criminal charges would be laid against the officer in question, sparking nation-wide protests against the racist violence of the police and the failure of the legal system to prosecute a white man for the hate crime.
Across the world, we have witnessed the resurgence of student activism, not just against the proposed introduction of full-fee paying tuition at universities, but opposition to the neoliberal direction of privatisation and corporatisation of education that has been ongoing for the last three decades. Education policy has increasingly adopted the mechanisms of the market, the perspective of education as a commodity to be sold to fee-paying customers, the students who are seen as the consumers. Since the economic meltdown of 2008, the advocates of privatisation have continued to push their free-market ideological fanaticism onto the education system, turning the latter into a market.
The marketisation of education could not happen without the active support of the political establishment, in league with the hierarchy of the elite universities, who are pushing this transformation of higher education into a marketplace. In England, the Browne review, a governmental panel of experts commissioned by the UK government, released a report in 2010 detailing recommendations about the future of higher education. The chair of the committee, Lord Browne, is a former CEO of British Petroleum, a long-term corporate functionary best suited to turn education over the tender mercies of the market. The Browne Review, whose recommendations are being adopted by the Cameron government, effectively remove any limits on the amount of fees the universities can charge, and that universities have to compete for customers, much like mega-education-corporations.
Student debt becomes an enormous burden under the proposed changes, and the Browne review engineers a kind of mass indebtedness that will saddle future students for years to come. For instance, the British Medical Association, commenting on the Browne review, stated that medical students would be shackled with a crippling debt, 90 000 pounds being the projected figure, thus making a medical career all but out-of-reach for poorer students. More details about the Browne Review can be found here.
Professor David Graeber, an anthropologist and lecturer at the London School of Economics, wrote a thoughtful article called “Students are right to march against the markets. Why can’t education be free?”. He makes a number of strong points about the ongoing privatisation of education and the legitimate grievances of the students. However, let us focus on a wider and more important point that Professor Graeber makes, a point that is directly relevant to an Australian audience.
The protesting students are routinely and consistently portrayed in the media as a selfish, privileged layer, complaining about the supposed loss of their advantageous status under the proposed changes to education. Upset that their previously comfortable lifestyle will be over, they resort to anti-social and barbaric tactics, like smashing property and street hooliganism. Typical of this type of commentary is a column by Annabel Crabb, writing for the Sydney Morning Herald. Her whole screeching rant can be accessed here. It is not intended to provide a point-by-point rebuttal of her article, because that is a waste of time and energy. However, the general charge that the students are vandals merits a certain response.
As Professor Graeber points out in his article;
But if you think about it, who are the barbarians here? We don’t call Goths and Huns barbarians because they broke things. Romans broke things too. We call them barbarians because they had no interest for the art, science, philosophy, music or poetry of the civilisations they conquered. They didn’t see them as values in themselves. They just cared about wealth and power. What the students were doing in 2010, and what they’re doing today, is defending art, science and philosophy against a regime that believes none of these things are of any value except as a means to wealth and power. They are quite literally defending the values of civilisation from those who have abandoned them.
Education is not simply a conveyor belt to a higher paying job, or a career mechanism to maximise income earning potential. Education is about the way the world works, and our place in it. The current crop of psychopaths that are in charge of the Australian government measure every aspect of a society purely in terms of profitability. The vandals in suits are intent on destroying the value and purpose of public education. The students are concerned not just with income and lifestyle, but with the future of science, art, education and philosophy – in short, those things that make human society a civilisation.
The next generation of students is telling us adults that we need to worry not just about the marketisation of education, but the overwhelming corporatisation of every aspect of human society. We should be listening to the student protesters and taking heed of their demands for a complete overhaul of education.
We should be joining them.