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The Price of Higher Education

Georgia Tech's 2011 graduation ceremony. (Will Folsom / CC 2.0)

I have been in academia since the mid 1980s—first as a student, then as a university professor. I have seen higher education shift radically over the past three decades: from being a place of learning where intellectual debate, particularly in the humanities, was based on a direct engagement with texts and cultural artifacts, to today, where it is the site of emotional and moral exorcisms and where many humanities departments now discourage reading.

Not only have curricula and course syllabi been sterilized by this move to banish unpopular ideas from university halls, but much academic rigor has been lost, in part because the focus of higher education is dictated by an increasingly reactive and conservative student body, one which demands safe spaces and which “no-platforms” unpopular speakers and ideas.

And in part, higher education is failing simply because the university has been turned into a job training center. So the insularity of “safe spaces” and “taboo subjects” works quite seamlessly within the larger ethos of training students to enter the employment sector. Likewise, they are not trained to question structures of power, inequality, ethics and so forth. The university system is becoming corporatized even without the tacit consent of its contributors, faculty or students.

As a scholar, I am concerned by what is a fundamentally capitalist approach to higher education today that seeks to sell students an entry pass into the job market while depriving them of the critical skills that a university degree has historically represented. The issues of increasing rates of tuition and the ethics of student loans are in need of independent scrutiny. But we also need to understand the inextricable links between student loan debt, the decline in learning and the neoliberalism of learning, all of which is producing this decline as well as being a residual factor of the university’s drive to re-create class inequality within its walls.

What lies at the crossroads of student loan debt and the neoliberalism of the university is that the ethos of learning is hitched to the assumption of market capitalism. In this way, the structures of higher education are tainted by this quid pro quo establishment: Young adults need to gain future employment while being saddled with decades of debt in the quest of this “promise.” The current market economy of universities across the United States—and beyond—is selling the illusion of education where students are “empowered” to find their “authentic selves.” In this artificial climate, class and other real-world issues cease to materialize. Is it any wonder that the focus on identity politics has, in recent years, resulted in students being fed limited narratives with which to interpret history without much historical or factual content to back up the theory?

For instance, last year, with the publication of “The Rise of Identity Politics—An Audit of History Teaching in Australian Universities in 2017” by Dr. Bella d’Abrera, it came to light that identity politics has dominated the curricula in Australian universities.

According to Dr. d’Abrera, the director of the foundations of Western civilisation program at Australia’s Institute of Public Affairs:

There are just two Western Civilisation subjects available to undergraduate students from amongst the 746 subjects offered by 35 Australian universities and these are offered by Federation University and the University of Notre Dame. … It’s a big problem that means when people finish their history degrees they don’t necessarily know what happened in the past. Or they have this idea that everything that happened was due to a struggle between the oppressor and the oppressed.”

As someone who has specialized in postcolonial studies, I am painfully aware of the necessity to analyze history in terms of who held the power, and who was victim to it. However, this cannot happen within an ideological bubble where facts of history and the present fall into a machinery to reproduce one specific discourse over and over. The rhetoric of oppressor/oppressed becomes meaningless when universities today are churning out humanities graduates whose only response to feminists on Twitter is to call them “Islamophobes” or “ableists” (when nothing about either subject is even mentioned). And this is the pattern I have seen emerging over the past 15 years: A tiny bit of knowledge is spread over three or four years of education, rinsed and repeated over and over to create meaningless politics, which pay lip service to injustice, always in name only.

The irony is that our classrooms are filled with students who are in debt, many feeling lied to, as they were sold the promise of employment (even well-paid employment) in exchange for the high price tag of a progressive, humanities education. This left them feeling momentarily empowered, but, in the long run, entirely wiped out. After all, when your job offers with a university degree are primarily barista or fast-food worker, understanding how the price of education is worth the dire economic reality is difficult. Such is the life of humanities university graduates who are saddled with mounting student loan debt. They likely will be unable to purchase a home, much less even rent one. They will remain dependent upon store discounts and food stamps. And with some U.S. universities handing out degrees with employment guarantees, the ethos of university education is undercut by the lie that a university education is about jobs, not learning.

Considerable evidence shows that having a university education is economically beneficial. In 2016, Georgetown University produced a report, “America’s Divided Recovery,” demonstrating that a university education increased an individual’s ability to access a middle-class lifestyle. Of the 11.6 million jobs added to the U.S. between 2010 and 2016, those with postsecondary education received a lion’s portion of the jobs (11.5 million). Yet, is the debt worth the tradeoff of a decline in the quality of education plus the debt?

In the United Kingdom, the poorest students will finish their education with $79,534 (£57,000) of student debt. In the U.S., the number of senior citizens with student loan debt has quadrupled over the past decade. As it stands, the average student loan debt in the U.S. is $32,731 with many companies offering debt consolidation as a means to help manage the impending financial hardship. While there has been a booming business in the U.S. to refinance loans from home mortgages to higher education, the default rate of student loans is expected to reach an all-time high.

The promise of jobs for debt has existed within academia for well over 20 years. The notable decline of learning due to the ascendancy of the idea that knowledge can be purchased feeds into the ethos that it should be purchased. The current crisis in higher education begs the question: Why have we moved far away from learning for the sake of learning with a censorious list of what is and what is not considered “critical thinking“?

We also need to attack the structures of education. They have falsely empowered students into believing that knowledge can be acquired by no-platforming speakers and putting increased pressure onto professors to entertain and not teach. It’s not.

We need to call for vast reforms in how education is presented, funded and structured. We can begin with the end of neoliberal values that posit the student as client and job trainee.

Julian Vigo
Julian Vigo is an independent scholar, filmmaker and activist who specializes in ethnography, cultural studies, political philosophy and postcolonial theory...
Julian Vigo

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