by Michaël Veremans
Anyone that’s been put through the public education system since Reagan and especially those of us at post-secondary institutions have seen an increasing pressure to dismantle it while funneling students into a series of for profit institutions, if they can afford it. I remember in elementary school some kids talking about how if a certain law passed they will be sent to a private school. This comment alarmed me—it was perhaps my first moment of political consciousness. And even at that age I knew that offering equal education to all people was a civic imperative along with health care and free and open elections.
Of course, since my childhood many things have changed, but one thing neither my fellow students or I (my generation) would have expected in this destructive march toward privatization is the amount of violent state repression that has accompanied this shift. With the corporatization of our schools comes inevitable militarization employed at repressing any dissent expressed by the people benefitting from the current social system. I will show that as public education become more expensive and its facilities become privatized, campus police departments have received more funding and will be emboldened to regard students as debtor-criminals and thus use violence against them. The infamous pepper spraying outrage at UC Davis is an alarmingly clear example of this type of violence. Sadly, it is not the only one.
I have been a student at various public colleges and universities in California and one in Germany since about 2002. According to the Cal State website, from 2002 to now, annual tuition has gone from $1,428 to $4,440. Another 9%-12% tuition increase is expected in Fall of this year. Like the majority of students in the CSU system I have received financial aid and am currently in debt to a few different banks. My job opportunities and potential to earn have not kept up with the inflation that the cost of my education is subject to, but that comes part and parcel with the introduction of what Paolo Freire termed the “Banking Model of Education.”
The changes have come rapidly. Our schools are modeled like corporations with faculty as low level customer-service employees vending knowledge and the students as the clients. Andrew Hannon explains that this corporatization process has occurred at the behest of and in order to benefit a new administrative class: “As tuition has expanded so too has the academic managerial class, transitioning from a system in which administrative responsibilities were filled by faculty members to one modeled on corporations, featuring managers paid more like their industry equivalents than their faculty coworkers” (“The Banking Model of Education”).
Along with the transition to the Banking Model students have seen the introduction of campus austerity measures such as the “furlough” where professors are forced to cut their syllabi and “volunteer” days off without pay. Then there’s the school textbook racket that has been behind inflated prices and outdated/redundant technology students are forced to buy. The general sentiment among conscious students is that we refuse to be simply customers in the education store.
The creation of a administrational hierarchy external to the more communistic world of academic ethics has fundamentally changed the nature of education to a system of debt and exchange, “Student debt encourages us to think about education the wrong way, as an individual experience rather than a collective endeavor. Thinking about it in terms of individuals also blinds us to the systemic implications of funding Higher Education through personal debt.” Individualization and the exchange of money for knowledge naturally leads to increased privatization of educational services. It is easy to imagine that students trained in critical thinking would not long stand for a university system that provides less while costing more and more every year. Many students have fought back. In fact, most contemporary student struggles have centered around exposing and attempting to thwart or slow the implementation of the Banking Model.
Student, faculty and even staff have led demonstrations against the recent changes in the educational system that are visible on all public university campuses. For instance, seventeen students and custodial workers were arrested at UC Irvine at a sit-in at the Chancellor’s office during the 2011 March 4th day of action for education. I was arrested at a similar action at UC Berkeley on March 3-4. Many campuses now host their own “Occupy” movements.
This problem is not isolated to California: the year I studied abroad in Germany was the first year that German universities introduced a student fee—up until that point ALL higher education was publicly subsidized and, in principle, open to all. Universität Tübingen began charging each student €500 a semester, the first time they had ever been asked to pay out of pocket to learn. Students, faculty, and the general public were outraged at this move towards a Banking Model of Education. The city was wracked with protests week after week. Graffiti on the walls everywhere read, “Wir Bezahlen Nicht.” We Won’t Pay.
As soon as students graduate from university into towering monthly payments, they find themselves asking the same questions “Why should the intellectual debt of learning become a literal debt? Are student loans actually an advance by students to their future employers? Is this a new way of owing one’s soul to the company store? Do federal loans fuel escalating tuition rates? … Who should pay for this crisis? What lesson do tens of thousands of dollars in debt teach our students?”
What students want most—and I know this not only because I’m a student who wants the same thing, but because it’s written on banners everywhere—is to have a role in the decision making process of the university, to defend democracy. This is an institution founded to serve students, those who want to learn, and what better way to learn than participating. We don’t want to just have student government elections, we want to have real power in choosing the character and direction of our educational institutions. This is our future after all, we can’t let administrators high jack it for a few extra bucks in their wallet. The episode of the students being “nudged” violently by riot cops at Berkeley on November 10th 2011 has shown us that the administration is not interested in listening to student concerns or challenging the privatization of our public schools.
As I mentioned in the beginning of the article, when a university begins its trip down the road to privatization, campus police departments also receive more funding. My current university, San Francisco State University, is the most militarized campus in the CSU system with a total of 39 sworn officers, while my sister university UC San Francisco has almost 200 “peace” officers. UC Berkeley comes in second place. I remember in 2008 when CSU Long Beach bought a mobile command center (nothing more than a trailer painted black and white) for it’s Police Department. Is it any surprise that an geographical area once host to relatively effective student protests is experiencing some of the most visible increases in institutional repression?
An increase in campus police budgets tends to create a shift in how student disciplinary matters are handled on campus when students do raise their voices. Whereas students used to be called before a judicial council for violations of student code of conduct, we are now handed over to the police and the state for criminal prosecution. The student protestor is no longer simply challenging the honor of the university institution, they are cutting into the bottom line of the university store. Protestors, under the Banking Model, are in the best case scenario nothing but thieves. In the worst case, we are yet another terrorist class.
Once the means of dissent within the universities are quelled, the task of liberalizing public higher education becomes merely procedural, inevitable. Twenty years after recovering from the effects of pepper spray and the frustration of being silenced at our own schools, students will still live like servants, indentured to the federal government and banks by a punitive monthly loan payment. This is how dreams are killed.
It is not certain what the future has in store for public education both in California and across the globe, however we can make some guesses based on the course that has been plotted by administrators and federal governments. We will continue to see services related to the university lose funding and either disappear or be outsourced to private companies. In order to avoid massive student loans, students will be increasingly forced to compete for and depend on corporate scholarships and grants. These corporations will then have the power to directly dictate the parameters of our educations.
Student demonstrations will become effectively illegal on campus—regulated in content, requiring permits, relegated to police supervised “Free Speech Zones.” When any of these precedents are violated, students should expect not only to get arrested and taken to court off campus but to face disciplinary action on campus—being suspended, expelled, or otherwise punished by the administration like in grade school. Demonstrations will eventually move completely off campus for bogus public safety reasons or fizzle out for fear of repression, especially if fascist policies continue to prevail. Let’s hope that what happened to the brave Scholl Siblings never happens to a student protestor again.
Although the situation described in this article may seem isolated to the public higher educational system, traces of the shift in power relations described above resonate in many other facets of our society in these historical times.
David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years
Andrew Hannon, “The Banking Model of Education.” http://www.socialtextjournal.org/periscope/2011/09/the-banking-model-of-education.php