02 August 2010

Harry Targ : Higher Education Headed in Wrong Direction

Editorial cartoon by Mark Weber / iHaveNet.

21st Century higher education:
An institution in crisis

By Harry Targ / The Rag Blog / August 1, 2010

The modern university

At my home university, only Coca-Cola products can be distributed on campus as a result of contractual agreements. Agriculture specialists train military personnel to teach agribusiness to farmers in Afghanistan. Students struggle against university contractors who have purchase agreements with companies such as Nike, which produce t-shirts and hats with university logos made with sweatshop labor. Research and teaching programs are established to highlight the significance of unregulated markets, electoral democracy, religions, and other ideas celebrated in the United States.

The president of the university, the director of athletic programs, and some athletic coaches earn 10 times more than experienced clerical staff and seven or eight times more than new assistant professors. In addition to corporate style salary differentials, members of the administrative staff, like those in corporations, work on logos, “branding,” and lobbying state and national legislators. Human relations bureaucracies, again like those in corporations, make personnel decisions that bear on substantive policy; in this case relating to education.

Shifting finances, academic workers,

And access to higher education

The enduring economic crisis has begun to open up debate on the direction of modern higher education. For example, The Delta Project supported by the Lumina Foundation for Education has recently issued a report, "Trends in College Spending: 1998-2008: Where does the money come from? Where does it go? What does it buy?" that deserves study and reflection. Inside Higher Education (July 9, 2010) summarized some of the project’s major findings:
  • Between 1998 and 2008 public research universities (such as Big Ten institutions) increased rates of expenditure on top administrators, lawyers, and accountants twice that of spending on faculty and instructional materials.
  • Students at what the Project calls, “Public Research Universities” are now subsidized over three times as much per student as those attending community colleges.
  • Resources channeled to instructional purposes have modestly declined while slight increases in moneys find their way to computers, libraries, and administrative expenses.
The 51 page Delta Project report concluded that if the trends identified between 1998 and 2008 (with data that does not include the 2008-2010 recession) continue significant aspects of higher education in the United States will decline, particularly in comparison with other developed countries. The trends increasingly affect access to higher education, job security among educators, and the quality of education. In the project’s words:
Revenue shortfalls in both public and private institutions have become the occasion, once again, for steep increases in student tuition, cutbacks in enrollments, and reductions in course offerings. Employee furloughs are becoming common, along with layoffs and program closures.
Higher education administrators and government officials, the report asserts, have adopted “the dominant model to manage revenue shortfalls,” including tuition increases, expanding class size, and reducing staff and faculty wages and benefits.

And changes in institutions of higher education, as in virtually all institutions, involve questions of class and inequality.
Turning this trajectory around will require huge attention to the deep issues of educational inequality, and the leaky pipeline that persistently disadvantages first-generation and low-income students.

Some proposals for change

In a recent essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus make a series of proposals to address some of the crises of higher education today. They begin by noting that tuition for public and private colleges has doubled compared with a generation ago. Rising educational costs require parents to commit large financial outlays, second only to house mortgages, to their children’s education. Alternatively students have to take out loans that will burden them for their entire lives.

Among the proposals these authors make are the following:
  • Institute free higher education for all who seek it.
  • Maintain course requirements that lead to knowledge in history, the arts, sciences, and reasoned discourse.
  • Provide secure full-time teaching jobs for every classroom. Eliminate the system of staffing classrooms with graduate students and temporary adjuncts who receive one-sixth the pay of the regular faculty.
  • Pay presidents and other administrators salaries commensurate with public employees, not CEOs of Wall Street banks and corporations.
I would add that the connections between systems of higher education and sports, the military, and the corporate sector must be examined as well.

While our wealthiest and most powerful institutions -- corporations and banks, the military, and the health care system -- have come under some scrutiny in the new century, until recently higher education has remained hidden behind a wall of mystery even though everyone pays lip service to it as the hope for the future.

With enduring economic stagnation coupled with rising gaps in the distribution of income and wealth, education is offered as an escape route from poverty. We need to broaden public discussion about our assumptions concerning higher education, assessing its costs, accessibility, educational quality, and workplace security.

[Harry Tarq is a professor in American Studies who lives in West Lafayette, Indiana. He blogs at Diary of a Heartland Radical.]

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