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Universities Burn – a View From Europe

There has been much writing on the corporatization of universities and other higher education (HE) institutions in North America. The writing spells out the danger of their conversion into training institutions rather than serving as institutions that take on board the ongoing need to contribute to the generation of a healthy public sphere. Much of what is written, even in these spaces,(1) connects with what is going on in other parts of the world, notably in Europe, not least through the language and guidelines provided by the European Union.

There has been much writing on the corporatization of universities and other higher education (HE) institutions in North America. The writing spells out the danger of their conversion into training institutions rather than serving as institutions that take on board the ongoing need to contribute to the generation of a healthy public sphere. Much of what is written

There has been much writing on the corporatization of universities and other higher education (HE) institutions in North America. The writing spells out the danger of their conversion into training institutions rather than serving as institutions that take on board the ongoing need to contribute to the generation of a healthy public sphere. Much of what is written, even in these spaces,(1) connects with what is going on in other parts of the world, notably in Europe, not least through the language and guidelines provided by the European Union.

And this state of affairs has been and continues to be contested in many parts of the continent with protests, sit-ins and university occupations. It would not be amiss to regard these actions as an integral part of the many actions, occurring in several European countries, regarding “debtocracies,” the limits of traditional representative democracy; political corruption; a politics devoid of morality (“morality in politics is only optional” said one prominent former Italian minister); precarious living; and, in the words of one protester in Vienna, a situation whereby “We will have higher educational degrees than our parents, but we will never attain their standard of living.”(2)

Universities and other HE institutions are by and large being encouraged to undergo a transformation into places for “entrepreneurship” and to prepare people for jobs. Harmonization processes are being established throughout the European Union, as part of what is known as the Bologna process: an agreement among ministers of education in Bologna to render the systems of HE in different European countries compatible, allowing credit transfer from one place to another. These changes bring with them a series of bureaucratic procedures. This has shifted the balance of power between academia and administration in favor of the latter. Measurement becomes a very important aspect of this situation where quality is judged primarily through the transformation of complex processes into quantitative indicators – everything is judged in terms of easily measured outcomes.

Students and other sectors of society at rallies and symbolic presences regarding unibrennt (university burns) in Vienna in 2009. (Photo: Matthias Cremer and Raphael Zwiauer)

Courses once lauded for their length and depth of analysis have been shortened into credits and are competence based. Academics are meant to be made accountable through compliance with time-consuming bureaucratic procedures. Furthermore, funded research by and large takes on the form of R&D (research and development) and is often evaluated in terms of the amount of money it manages to attract. It must appeal to those who play the tune, often corporate enterprises. Community work is frowned upon or is confined to second- or third-class institutions in a proposed diversified system intended to classify higher education institutions into different leagues. A few, so-called world-class universities are meant to play in the major league. Others are to be content with serving as teaching universities.(3) Still others are some kind of cross-breed in serving as regional universities.

In this proposed scenario, one also observes a possible separation between teaching and research. Privatization is encouraged, and the distinction between private and public is blurred as public funds are often siphoned for private needs. The state helps create, sustain and provide the regulatory framework for markets, including the HE market. It, therefore, encourages competition also in the HE sector, hence the term “competition state” being used in accounts of this system.(4)

All this has implications for academics who, in several universities, notably those that will serve as predominantly “teaching universities,” have to cope with large numbers of students in their classes. They would also have a large teaching load in a process of “massification” of HE. A smaller elite is ensconced in “world class” universities, enjoying all the necessary facilities and assistance for research. Overburdening with teaching often results in few research opportunities and less time for contributions to the public sphere. There is less time for involvement in initiatives providing open access to members of the community, to engage in outreach work within communities and to make other contributions such as writing articles in the press and other social media. For those who are evaluated through such exercises as England's RAE (research assessment exercise), the pressure to publish in highly ranked journals, to keep one's program going and not simply for promotions, denies time for non-rewarded but publicly useful commitments. In certain cases, departments become nothing more than appendages to companies and ministries that provide the funding. Elsewhere, public funding is minimal as in the case of England, except for science and technology areas. This does not bode well for such areas as the humanities and social sciences that are vulnerable to alternative funding sources that can apply brakes to the range and uses of research. The corporation could prevent the results of research from being published because they might appear damning to the company itself or possibly incriminating. The corporation representatives could insert, in the contract for research, the statement that it owns the copyright once the researcher is being paid for the services.

This scenario is not so different from the one described by Henry Giroux with regard to the United States,(5) identified together with South East Asia as among Europe's main competitors in the development of what is being referred to as a process of “internationalization” – the ability to attract students from outside the EU. These students can pay high fees and, therefore, help raise university revenue. For the bottom line has become a distinguishing feature of universities which, in this age of cutbacks, need to secure the means to survive. The onset of private universities in many countries, including countries such as Turkey, Cyprus, Estonia, Hungary, and other new EU member states, renders the bottom line the key feature of university education provision. The signs all indicate that the university's and other HE institutions' roles in contributing to a democratic public sphere are being severely curtailed. HE institutions continue to take on the roles of “training agencies” in a system which fails to provide jobs (a jobs crisis), but which promotes the view that the fault lies with people lacking the necessary skills (presenting a “jobs crisis” as a “skills crisis').(6)

Areas which do not have an immediate utilitarian purpose suffer, and the relevant departments have to reinvent themselves in “employability” terms. When the bottom line becomes the key factor, especially in private universities, with many of them benefiting from indirect state funding (e.g. scholarships for students, tax deductions and rebates), then much emphasis is placed on teaching to the test rather than on a balance between teaching and research, unless this research is contract research intended to serve the client's purpose. Furthermore, in a number of countries, such as Turkey, private universities rely on part-time staff. This is also a growing occurrence elsewhere (we read, for instance, of the substantial increase of adjunct faculty in the USA). In Turkey, a situation that can well be repeated elsewhere, they seek to supplement their meager earnings at public universities. In this regard, the co-existence of so called private and public universities is a “win-win” situation for state and private sector. The state can pay low wages and the private universities need provide no salary at all since they rely on part-time faculty paid at “piece rate.” This of, course, allows little time for these academics to engage in research. The state is, thus, indirectly supporting the private sector and vice-versa.

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And, yet, many Europeans are not accepting this state of affairs. Much of the higher education discourse coming from the EU and member states is easily perceived by many to be neoliberal in overall tenor. In Central Europe, this has made a mockery of those concepts, albeit elitist and problematic, such as bildung (difficult to translate into English, the nearest being “holistic development of the individual') and the Humboldt conception of the university. If the old university is elitist (a major critique of the Humboldt model with its emphasis on research as the untrammeled pursuit of truth) and not in tune with present-day realities, it requires a transformation which renders it more democratic and expansive in conception. It should not be lean in the same way that the state is said to be “lean” only in so far as social programs are concerned – witness the huge bailouts of banks in moments of crisis, as with the recent credit crunch. Criticality, an ingredient of a truly democratic critical citizenship, becomes a casualty in these circumstances. And students in Austria, Hungary, and other parts of Central Europe have understood this, often joining forces with academics, to mobilize against this state of affairs. The mobilization often becomes international, as with protesting Hungarian students blocking a train of HE experts trying to make it to Vienna for a meeting, as students in both countries coordinated their protest efforts. Proposed reforms of universities in Italy by the right-wing Berlusconi government and communicated by Minister Mariastella Gelmini (one earlier suggestion was that Italian public universities should consider becoming private foundations), led to students occupying the institutions in various parts of the peninsula and islands.

This echoed what happened in Greece on June 8, 2006, when 20,000 students took part in the largest student march for the past two decades, which made its way through downtown Athens. HE becomes a public space for which it is worth fighting. Greece was one of the last countries to resist the reforms being carried out throughout Europe. As a result of resistances to the military dictatorship (1967-1974), Greek HE has been defended by large swathes of Greek society as a public good, a notion enshrined in the Greek constitution, “according to which Higher Education is provided exclusively by public, fully self-governed and state-funded institutions.”(7) This situation is now seriously being jeopardized by government's (the PASOK Socialist Party-led government of George Papandreou) proposals for reform which also has to be seen in light of the austerity measures being introduced because of the “debtocracy.” As indicated in a statement, issued by Greek academics and supported by a number of people worldwide, including the undersigned, the government, using the pretext of enhancing “the “quality of education” and its “harmonization with “international academic standards,” is drastically cutting down on public funding for education to the tune of 50 percent. This is considered amongst the lowest in the EU. New hiring of teaching staff will be carried out at a ratio of 1:10 relative to staff retirement. The bill has just been passed despite the protests from the Greek and international academic communities. The Greek academics who flatly refuse these proposals stated:

… the government proposals seek to bypass the constitutional obligations of the state towards public Universities and abolish their academic character.

*The self-government of Universities will be circumvented, with the current elected governing bodies replaced by appointed “Councils” who will not be accountable to the academic community.

*The future of Universities located on the periphery, as well as of University departments dedicated to “non-commercial” scientific fields, looks gloomy.

*Academic staff will no longer be regarded as public functionaries. The existing national pay scale is to be abolished and replaced by individualized, “productivity” related pay scales, while insecure employment is to become the norm for lower rank employees.

Higher Education will be transformed into “training” and, along with research, gradually submitted to market forces.(8)

These type of scenarios, which are now writ large in the “debtocracy countries” (Spanish academics employed in public universities have taken pay cuts as public employees) provide the context for students and academics to stand out as a social movement that forges alliances with other movements, as was the case in Vienna with kindergarten teachers joining university students and academics (the two ends of the education spectrum) in the “Unibrennt” (University Burns) actions. Outside Europe, this brings to mind the recent protests in Chile where students together with a host of other sectors of society, social organizations and trade unions, such as the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores de Chile (CUT), came together to clamor for the right to a free education in a country where one must pay for public education and where university fees are quite steep, leading families into huge debts, legacies of the Neoliberal restructuring occurring since the time of the Pinochet dictatorship.(9)

The coming together of various forces was presumably also the case with the “debtocracy” protests of the indignados where higher education is included among many other issues, such as corruption, unemployment, general impoverishment of several sectors of the population, as a source of indignation. It also provides the contexts for students and academics to stand out as public intellectuals.

One should not underestimate the students' role here. Students have played a significant role in furnishing countries with a stream of public intellectuals as was the case with Carlo Alberto Libanio Cristo (later known as Frei Betto) in Brazil during the military rule (he was imprisoned twice) or Mario Capanna, later a key figure in the Democrazia Proletaria (Proletarian Democracy) Party in Italy, in the Italian student movement of the '60s. The neoliberal reform of universities offers a splendid opportunity for academics and students to continue to join forces as “public intellectuals” and not only denounce university neoliberal reform, but also turn what is already a public issue (education as a public good) into a broader all-encompassing public concern. This entails that we connect critiques of this reform to the broader critiques of the neoliberal reforms, reforms that have been sweeping across countries and continents, and which have turned society into one large marketplace. These reforms and developments often lead to public spaces being turned into commodities, to be bought and sold – spaces that are encroached by corporate forces. And these are the very same forces which have ushered in one of the deepest economic and social crises in the history of humankind.

Academics, students and the population at large need to engage in a struggle for a rethink and renewal of HE as a vital public space within a democracy. Education is important not for simply employability, which, once again, does not necessarily mean employment, but also for the development of a genuinely democratic public environment. The humanities and social sciences need to be defended at all costs; they play a crucial role in this context, despite the famous sound bite from Italy's Minister for Economic Affairs, Giulio Tremonti, “La cultura non si mangia” (literal translation “We do not eat culture.”)(10) This struggle must also be complemented by action on the part of social movements and workers' institutions to create alternative forms of provision in these areas. Some of the students protesting in Vienna and other students elsewhere have been exploring paths to pursue. Witness the joint response by two protesting students, one male and one female, from Vienna, in an interview for a forthcoming book I co-author(11):

Sit ins/squattings were concentrated in Austrian and German Universities, but there have been some in Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, France, the UK … as well. Social movement? It very much depends on the definition of social movement you want to apply. To us two factors should be present: First of all a plurality of themes/demands that have broader implications for society. And second the involvement of several/different social groups. In Austria we tend to give protests the name “social movement” quite quickly … because Austria lacks a long tradition of social movements. Considering our definition, there are certain characteristics of movements to be found in the protest of 2009. By Austrian standards, many people participated. It spread quickly from town to town and even crossing national borders [protesting students in Budapest stopped a train carrying ministers to a meeting in Austria]. There were not just students involved, also university teachers, kindergarten teachers, homeless people and people showing solidarity. But the majority were students. Attempts to work together with unions failed … so the social basis remained quite homogeneous. The topics addressed by the movement were not reduced to issues of higher education politics. This would indicate a social movement … The short period of existence of “uni brennt” is hard to evaluate. In Austria, most of the movements which had existed did have an explosive start, followed by a sudden breakdown. The last movement which could mobilize over some time was the beginning of the green movement, which led to the foundation of the green party in the 80s. The squatting in Austria lasted for a couple of months and was followed by attempts of transnational networking as well as a big conference in March 2009 that again mobilized people. Since then the mobilization declined but still several groups (some of them founded as a result of unibrennt) are politically engaged and active.

The male interviewee went on to shed more light on the educational activities that were organized during the protest activities that attest to the emergence of albeit short-lived capillary forms of power within the context of grassroots democracies, the sort of situation being witnessed in other parts of the world, possibly also in Wall Street at this very moment:

“There was some kind of collective learning/consciousness development … there have been a lot of activities: Founding of a student self-organized university, a counter-meeting of activists from all over Europe when EU-ministers met in Vienna…. Reading circles, students published several texts and books on topics of the movement and on the movement itself.”

The paths indicated lead us to contemplate pursuing several routes. This would include taking back many of the humanities and social sciences, as well as interdisciplinary studies (e.g. cultural studies), to their places of origin – adult education. This should, however, be a struggle on two fronts, the university campus and the community. One should not preclude the other. The community provision outside the university should not serve as an alternative to university provision, except in the way learning settings are created and learning takes place – more dialogical and participative than your conventional HE classroom setting. On the contrary, in this age of draconic cutbacks in these areas, community provision would keep indicating the importance of the humanities and social sciences in the ongoing process of social development. Academics committed to a democratic HE should play their part in this struggle and type of alternative provision, just like scholars such as Raymond Williams and E. P Thompson in Britain, Aldo Capitini in Italy, and countless others have done in the past with their contributions to university extension in the humanities targeting ordinary workers in different parts of their respective countries. It is this provision which would serve as one possible antidote to the current neoliberal discourse concerning university education.


1. See “Higher Education Under Attack: An Interview With Henry A. Giroux,” C. Cryn Johannsen; “Margins of Everyday Life,” Truthout; “Beyond the Swindle of the Corporate University: Higher Education in the Service of Democracy,” Henry A. Giroux, Truthout; “The Fight to Make Education a Guaranteed Right: Chilean Students vs. the Nation's President,” PoLin So, Truthout; “What I Wish Jill Biden Would Talk About With Respect to America's Community Colleges,” Keith Kroll, Truthout.

2. Interview with student protester against neoliberal reforms of the university in Vienna, carried out electronically, August 2011.

3. See former EU Commissioner for Education, Jan Figel: Figel, J. (2006). The modernisation agenda for European universities. Public talk on the occasion of the 22nd Anniversary of the Open University of the Netherlands. See also CEC. (2006a). Communication from the Commission to the Council of the European Parliament. Delivering on the Modernisation Agenda for Universities. Education, Research, Innovation. Brussels: European Commission on Education and Communication.

4. See Philip G. Cerny (2007), “Paradoxes of the Competition State: The Dynamics of Political Globalization, in Government and Opposition,” Volume 32, Issue 2, pages 251-274. The term is also used by Bob Jessop: Jessop, B. (2002), “The Future of the Capitalist State,” Oxford: Polity Press. It was used in relation to educational policy by Stephen J Ball: Ball, S.J. (2007). Education plc private sector participation in public sector education. London: Routledge.

5. See Henry Giroux and Susan Searls Giroux (2004), “Take Back Higher Education” (Routledge), and Henry Giroux (2007), “The University in Chains. Confronting the Military-Industrial-Academic Complex,” (Paradigm) as examples of his many writings in the area.

6. Judith Marshall: Marshall, J (1997) “Globalisation from Below. The Trade Union Connections” in S. Walters (Ed.) Globalisation, Adult Education & Training. Impact and Issues, London: Zed Books; Leicester: NIACE.

7. Initiative of Greek academics I am indebted to Prof. Maria Nikolakaki, University of Peloponnese, Greece, for this source.

8. Initiative of Greek academics.

9. See PoLin So, “The Fight to Make Education a Guaranteed Right: Chilean Students vs. the Nation's President,” in Truthout. Retrieved on 14/10/2011.

10. Moni Ovadia, Ministri senza vergogna (Unashamed Ministers), in L'Unità, 27 November 2010.

11. Leona English and Peter Mayo (2011), “Learning with Adults. A Critical Pedagogical Introduction,” Rotterdam and Taipei: Sense.

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