October 30, 2016

The Right to Education vs. Capitalism

Drew Garvie

We students have the “privilege” of going to school in capitalist Canada in 2016 – an imperialist country during an economic crisis. Globally and at home, Capital is trying to rollback the gains of working people, built up over the last century, in order to place the burden of the crisis on the backs of the vast majority.

“Austerity” currently defines the policies used by the capitalist state to restructure itself and the economy. Corporate lobby groups and bankers hired by governments to write reports all say the same thing: “we can’t continue with the welfare state.” The goal is to privatize everything – to commodify and increase direct corporate control over all aspects of our society, in order to extract the maximum amount of profit. “This is the only path to recovery.” A recovery for who is the question! Certainly not for the millions that will be denied access to health and education, to decent paying jobs, to housing, to a life of dignity. Also, as this process takes place domestically, the same class responsible for it expands their wars and environmental destruction. This bigger picture explains a lot of what we’re seeing in the attack on post-secondary education (PSE) today.

The capitalist class, on the offensive globally, has decided that it is no longer willing to pay for public education in Canada. This explains why governments of all stripes have let public funding to PSE in Canada slide from 80% thirty years ago, to under 50% today. Big business, which controls most of government policy, has made it clear that they are not concerned with expanding access to quality education in Canada. In fact, they are lobbying hard to limit access and take direct control over universities and colleges.

This isn’t a conspiracy theory. The voices of corporate Canada articulate their vision pretty frequently. In the corporate press there are very often articles talking about too many students getting degrees and then facing unemployment and underemployment at non-union, temporary, low-paid jobs. This is certainly the case, but the conclusions that the capitalist class reaches are about restricting access to education, or restructuring the nature of our PSE system instead of providing decent, well-paying, unionized work for indebted and unemployed alumni.

Ken Coates, a Senior Fellow at the MacDonald-Laurier Institute (a corporate think-tank), argued this Spring that enrollment should be reduced by 30%. In the National Post he wrote a piece where he said the discussion was important because, “University education is expensive, both for the governments that fund undergraduate and graduate education and student financial aid, and for the individuals and families who cope with ever-rising tuition fees and related costs.” It’s nice of Mr. Coates to feign concern over the cost of education, however he is careful not to suggest that the cost should be lowered. The goal is to cut back government funding even further and privatize the system.

Capital does not see any value in education, apart from how that education can be used to serve its interests. Ken Coates articulates this when he writes:

Much as universities, quite appropriately, see themselves as bastions of free and open inquiry, critical thinking and citizen development, the reality is that the public and the students are focused on careers. To that end, we need far better discussion in this country about matching individuals with educational and training opportunities that suit their needs and interests, and about providing better information about career opportunities for graduates from various institutions and programs. Our students need to consider all options — polytechnics, colleges, apprenticeships and the like — and focus on figuring out what suits their abilities and their career and life aspirations.

This is all well and good, and education under capitalism is necessary for workers to get access to certain jobs and survive. Coates is arguing that government policy should be to restrict access to education when it comes to “inquiry, critical thinking and citizen development” and that education should be restructured to better serve the market. Coates concedes that there are two opposing views of education: education as a social good vs education as a commodified personal investment. What flows from this are two opposing viewpoints about access to education: education as a right vs. education as a privilege.

Governments’ attacks on PSE in recent years have reflected the latter views on education. Tuition fee hikes are justified by saying that it’s still a good “investment” and will lead to higher incomes later (which is less and less true). Corporate control over universities and colleges is being described as “stronger partnerships with the private sector.” When curriculums and research are sold to corporations for them to profit off of, it’s “real-life experience” for students. When universities cut the diversity of programs, (often starting with progressive curriculums such as Women’s, Indigenous or Labour Studies) and starve the arts, social sciences and humanities, it’s because they’re not “career focused.”

But this is not the view of many students. Yes, many attend in order to survive in the job market, but even the current education system is much more than that. Education is a democratic right and a social good. It is part of the creative drive of humankind to seek out and expand knowledge and that is valuable for individuals and society as a whole. Having a healthy functioning democratic society means a highly educated population with an education system built for the public interest, not private interests.

Sometimes even the most well-intentioned activists in the student movement get trapped into arguments that rest on the same assumptions that are used by the class that is attacking education. A social democratic response to the attack is that governments are too stupid to understand what’s good for them and their class: “investment in education is good for the economy”, “student debt is bad for the economy”, etc. These Keynesian and social democratic arguments belong to an era where the capitalist class was forced to make concessions that built the welfare state and a time when the capitalist class needed to increase skilled and white collar workers. A failure to move from this ideological framework, which was always half-baked and is now even more divorced from reality, is one of the subjective reasons why the fightback is being held back. A framework that sees education as a right and a social good goes beyond lecturing governments on what is supposedly in capitalism’s interest and focuses on what is in students’ and society’s interests. This mistake also has strategic implications. If government stupidity is the problem, then it can be solved through an emphasis on lobbying. If the attack on education comes from a broader attack against working people, then the emphasis is placed on mass student action allied with the working class as the way forward.

Understanding what we’re fighting against is only part of it. Also, understanding that “education is a right” is another piece, but it doesn’t explain what kind of education is a right. The Young Communist League of Canada puts forward the view that free, accessible, quality, democratic, public education is fundamental right. That’s quite a mouthful, and it’s a little long for an effective slogan, but it does provide a solid basis for what kind of education we’re fighting for. Let’s unpack it:

Free and Accessible Education:

The demand of free education, meaning the abolition of tuition fees and other user fees, is a prerequisite for accessible education. Tuition fees are privatized user-fees and are the biggest hurdle for students seeking post-secondary education in Canada today. Raising the demand for free education as a concrete demand overcomes arguments over which price tag on education is “fair”. However, free education is not necessarily accessible education because there are other barriers in society. For example in some countries with free education, there are private systems of elementary and secondary education, which means working-class people are shut out of post-secondary earlier on. The working-class and oppressed groups, (women, racialized people, LGBTQI* people, Indigneous people and national minorities) face barriers other than simply tuition fees in attending PSE. The demand for free and accessible education also takes this into account.

Quality Education:

High-quality education covers a range of sub-demands depending on the context. Class sizes, quality libraries, textbooks, teaching, living and studying conditions, etc. Governments, university administrators and “admin hacks” (students controlled by the admin) are all fond of the “you get what you pay for” philosophy. In fact, the exact opposite is true. As public funding is eroded and tuition fees skyrocket, class sizes are also increasing, full-time faculty are replaced by precarious part-time teaching staff, and more and more classes are being moved online. The fight for quality education is especially important today, and can be successfully combined with the fight for accessible education, which will take the wind out of the myth that high cost = high quality.

Democratic and Emancipatory Education:

The demand for democratic and emancipatory education also covers a lot of sub-demands. In Canada it takes a special place because of ongoing colonialism and the oppression of nations inside Canada. A truly democratic education system needs to take into account the right to education for all nations, with instruction and study in their own language and self-determination of administration and curriculum. In Quebec, the struggle for the right to education for the Francophone majority played a key part in the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s and 70s. For Indigenous students, a current struggle is for the federal government to honour their treaty rights and lift the racist cap on Indigenous funding instituted in the 1990s, which has meant more and more Indigneous students are left without funding. The fight against the closure of First Nations University, Canada’s only Indigenous PSE institution, was won and the federal government has started funding it again after withholding millions of dollars. Denying the rights of Indigenous peoples to a democratic education system is a part of Canada’s ongoing genocide of Indigenous people. Franco-Ontarians and Acadians also have to struggle for education in their own language in Ontario and the Maritimes.

Democratic education also means a democratic and emancipatory curriculum. The formation of women’s studies programs grew out of the strength of the women’s movement in the 1970s and they are now under attack. Labour studies, with ties to the labour movement, is only offered at a handful of universities and is too often tied to human resources and management programs. As corporate control increases and academic freedom is attacked, Marxist, feminist, anti-racist, and progressive professors become more rare. The struggle for diverse programs and emancipatory curriculum is needed today more than ever.

The right to education and socialism

It should be asked here whether we can ever have a fully accessible and emancipatory education system in a capitalist society. No. It is not possible to eliminate systemic and financial barriers and fully separate academics from capitalist control under capitalism. However that doesn’t mean that these are necessarily revolutionary demands. It is certainly possible to have free education in capitalist countries, (much of Europe and Latin America for example). It is certainly possible to win victories for quality and democratic education under capitalism as well. But it is important to understand that education as a right and a social good will never fully be realized without revolution and socialism.

If you agree that socialism is necessary, you should join the Young Communist League and fight for it! But what about building a militant and united student movement that’s broader than just consciously Communist and pro-socialist forces? After all, the vast majority of students do not have this revolutionary level of class-consciousness. The perspective that education is a right and a social good, and that we need to fight for free, accessible, democratic education to realize this, is much more broadly held. This view and these demands can serve to unite students while keeping us on a militant track with politics that bring us into direct struggle with the big business agenda. This is bound together with the struggle for socialism.
This article is being republished by Rebel Youth online from print Issue 19, which was released in the Fall of 2015.

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