Tuition battles, debt and union-busting: The many faces of neoliberalism

The eleven students who barricaded themselves inside Cooper Union’s tower have ended their occupation, but their struggle resonates well beyond the New York City university. Inextricably bound up in the movement to save Cooper Union’s tradition of free tuition and enable meaningful student and faculty participation in the affairs of the university is a struggle against neoliberalism.

The victorious students who endured police violence and heavy-handed legal tactics during the months of the Québec student strike earlier this year; the unsustainable student debt burying students across the United States; the union-busting offensives in Wisconsin; and the latest anti-union effort in Michigan — to name only some of the struggles from 2012 alone — should not be looked at in isolation but rather are part of a continuum of which Cooper Union is one manifestation.

Workers’ struggles and students’ struggles are linked, and not simply because today’s students are tomorrow’s workers. Education is now treated as a commodity — professors are increasingly part-time adjuncts and students are expected to hand over ever larger sums of money for tuition, and students are encouraged to think of higher education in mercenary terms, as nothing more than technical training for a job rather than (or in addition to) an opportunity to improve oneself through study. Being an employee in a capitalist enterprise is indistinguishable from oneself being reduced to a commodity — we have no choice but to sell our labor if we intend to eat and keep a roof over our heads.

All this requires atomization of society: set off at each other’s throats, fiercely competing over scraps. It is solidarity that breaks this pattern. Thus it was not surprising when a Cooper Union spokesman, presumably speaking for the president, Jamshed Bharucha, issued a statement claiming that the occupiers “do not reflect the views of a student population of approximately 1,000 architects, artists and engineers.” Did they do a survey? One suspects not.

The suggestion here seems to be that the strikers are unreasonably “spoiled,” an intimation made during recent student occupations at nearby New York University and the New School. Note that the student strikers in Québec were similarly denounced when they took to the streets in massive numbers to block an increase in tuition although Québec already had the lowest tuition of any Canadian province.

This is a favorite neoliberal tactic — attempt to engender jealousy that somebody has something you don’t have, and loudly proclaim that something should be taken away from them. This tactic was on ample display during Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s unilateral attempt to eliminate collective bargaining for Wisconsin state-government employees and impose draconian cuts to education and social programs. Government workers and unions were the designated scapegoats, making their pensions easy targets; Republican Party operatives went to rural counties and made sure to play up the fact that most people no longer have pensions, while government workers do.

Although a similar effort was defeated in Ohio, by forcing a referendum that was won, Michigan legislators this week approved legislation banning automatic payroll deductions of union dues. In states with such laws, unions are required to represent all workers despite receiving dues from only a portion of them, leaving unions with less resources and therefore weaker, and fueling the neoliberal ideology of hyper-individualism because “free riders” gain the benefits of collective bargaining by the union, funded by members, while not contributing dues.

Using the force of the state to break unions on behalf of capitalists to force reductions in wages is simply neoliberal austerity in legislative clothing.

Continued free tuition would be a victory for all students

Similar to higher union wages setting a higher bar for everybody’s wages, continued free tuition at Cooper Union should be defended as a gain for all students. Once lost, it is unlikely to be regained. The public City University of New York system had free tuition until 1975; tuition has risen fivefold since it was first instituted, well above the rate of inflation and a pattern replicated by public and private universities.

With that in mind, the demands of the Cooper Union student occupiers and their supporters, which have not been rescinded, are straightforward:

  • The administration must publicly affirm the university’s commitment to free education.
  • The Board of Trustees must immediately implement structural changes to create open flows of information and democratic decision-making, including making board minutes publicly available and the appointment of a student and faculty members.
  • President Bharucha steps down.

The students say Cooper Union’s weakened finances are a result of mismanagement. The university has been on a building spree of late, leveling two of its three main buildings and replacing them with expensive new buildings. In ending their occupation but vowing to continue to struggle, the students said:

“The problems at Cooper Union strike a nerve with millions of others struggling with student debt, administrative bloat, and expansionist agendas. We live in a world where massive student debt and the rising costs of higher education remain unchecked, where students are treated as customers and faculty as contracts. Cooper Union’s mission of free education affords equality and excellence and offers an alternative for a better future of higher education.

For over a century, the Cooper Union has sustained the mission of providing free education to all admitted students. After decades of financial mismanagement, the administration now seeks to implement tuition-based programs. Rather than dedicating themselves to the difficult task of maintaining the promise of free education — Jamshed Bharucha’s administration and the Board of Trustees have chosen to pass the consequences of financial and institutional mismanagement on to the shoulders of the college’s students, faculty, staff, alumni, and future generations. They’ve taken the easy way out.”

Not dissimilar to how working people are expected to bear the burden of an economic crisis caused by financiers while the financiers’ institutions are bailed out. Those same financiers are hungrily circling Social Security, falsely blaming one of the few remaining strands of the social safety net so that they can get their hands on it and plunder it for their personal profit.

Solidarity achieves tuition freeze in Québec

The struggle for a sane higher-education system is one that must be fought everywhere. The struggle to maintain free tuition at Cooper Union is not separable from the struggle to rein in out-of-control tuition increases elsewhere. The successful student strike in Québec, although centered on Francophone students in Montréal, nonetheless was a province-wide struggle that drew enormous support from working people. It was so successful, in fact, that it caused the provincial government to fall.

It also helped that students were already organized in three student province-wide associations. The Québec government, then controlled by the Liberal Party, intended to raise tuition by 75 percent over three years. Protests and strikes quickly blossomed, shutting down universities and leading to street battles as police repeatedly attacked near daily demonstrations that sometimes numbered more than 100,000. The Liberal government dug in its heels, not only refusing to negotiate seriously but passing a law making the demonstrations illegal.

That move backfired, as the demonstrations over what become known as the “Maple Spring” in a nod to last year’s “Arab Spring” only grew bigger. After months of struggle, the government called an early election, which it lost, ushering in a Parti Québecois government that promptly rescinded the tuition increases, canceled the anti-demonstration laws and, in an environmental gesture, reversed the Liberal support for fracking. That victory did not come easily (the process is called “struggle” for a reason). A supporter of the strike who is long past being a student himself wrote on the Waging Nonviolence web site:

“The revolting students paid a heavy price. They put their academic year in jeopardy and many were beat up by the cops. Over 200,000 students maintained a strike for five months, 3,387 were arrested and hundreds injured — some seriously by plastic bullets and batons.”

Moreover, students estimate that the provincial government spent C$200 million, citing police and related costs, the value of canceled classes, the costs of personnel maintaining empty buildings and the cost of making up a lost semester. Martine Desjardins, president of the Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec, the largest of the province’s student associations with 125,000 members, said to The Montreal Gazette that those costs exceeded what would have been collected from the tuition increases:

“The tuition for seven years was supposed to bring in about $170 million. So you can see it’s not about economics, but about ideology. It just doesn’t make sense.”

Explosion of student debt

College tuition in the United States is far higher than it is in Canada and has risen to the point that student debt is estimated to be more than US$1 trillion. A Center for American Progress report said U.S. tuition has increased more than 1,000 percent during the past three decades. (That is more than three times the official rate of inflation.) The report notes:

“One of the major self-inflicted causes is the consistent decline in state funding for higher education, which had helped colleges keep tuition affordable. The steadily and rapidly increasing cost of college nationwide prompted a dramatic rise in student borrowing—a natural result as families could no longer rely on scholarships, grants, and personal savings, which cannot keep up with the rapidly increasing tuition costs.”

Similar to governments running deficits because they borrow from the wealthy rather than tax them, financiers profit from the explosion of student debt. A major contributor to this mounting debt are for-profit private colleges, many of which enroll huge numbers of students, many unprepared for college, by virtue of government-guaranteed loans given with no oversight.

Just as corporate initiatives attempt to replace public primary and secondary school systems with “charter schools” run by corporations for the profit of executives, the neoliberal model of higher education is to saddle students with heavy debt. Not only is this profitable in the short term, but it also makes the students, once they enter the workforce, more pliable employees due to the massive loans hanging over their heads.

Corporate executives want students drilled for business needs, but refuse to pay taxes needed to support education. And they want students to shoulder the burden of tuition although they, and society as a whole, benefit from an educated workforce.

The idea that anyone achieves success all on their own is preposterous — all of us rely on institutions (including schools) and build on those who came before us. Least of all can capitalists who accumulate fortunes on the backs of students, employees and freelancers, and benefit from government-funded infrastructure, claim to be free of society. The neoliberal cult of individualism is a means to foster jealousy and atomization — and to keep the 99 percent subordinate.