by Philip Ferguson

In 2010, the government introduced its new Tertiary Education Strategy, 2010-2015.  The document is jam-packed with politically-correct phrases about student needs, including emphasis on the particular needs of Maori, Pacific and disabled students, and the role of tertiary education in creating well-rounded citizens who are able to think critically and be involved in society.  Leaving aside parts of the questionable politically-correct ethnic approach, much of it actually sounds quite good.  The reality of what is happening in the tertiary education sector, however, is rather different.

Since the introduction of the user-pays principle in public services by the fourth Labour government in the 1980s, students have been hit by a series of problems.  One is the escalation of student fees.  For instance, fees for full-time university study in the 1970s and early 1980s were under $50, which was about what a student could earn in just one week in a factory during the summer holidays.  Today fees are on average around $4,000 and students have to borrow this because it is impossible to earn it working over the whole summer, let alone cover it from a week or two of work.  In addition, thousands of students are not eligible for student allowances because until you’re 25 you’re classified as a child/dependent of your parents if you are at university, and not as an adult.  Thirdly, students face increasingly dumbed-down courses.  For instance, the old twelve-point year-long courses, which gave students some kind of deep subject knowledge and helped develop skills in a systematic way, have largely gone, replaced increasingly by ‘soundbite’ courses initially aimed at getting bums-on-seats and shifting students through on a conveyor belt system.  More recently, the funding model has changed; universities are no longer rewarded for bums-on-seats and the state is more interested in linking courses to practical outcomes for business and hurrying students through those.

At the same time, the workloads of academic staff have increased.  Partly this is because soundbite courses require more administration overall – if you replace 12-point courses with a bunch of soundbite courses, they each require separate administration activities.  In order to cut the costs of this expanded need for administration work – and laying off office staff – chunks of it are being passed to academic staff.  Furthermore, cutbacks in academic staff numbers in many areas and freezes on hiring new staff, along with increased micro-management from a growing array of managers and administrators, have intensified work.

Especially hard hit in recent years have been general staff.  Often universities have laid off cleaning and other general staff, throwing workers into unemployment and poverty, and contracting out the work they did.  The firm that can offer to do the job for the least of amount of money – which means they pay their workers the least – will generally get the contract.  Often workers who were employed by universities then find themselves working for less money and worse conditions for private contractors.

Why has the cost of tertiary education gone up while the quality has gone down?  Why have workers in the tertiary education sector, along with students, faced worsening conditions?

The answer lies in the growing commodification of university education (and, indeed, tertiary education in general).  Commodification means that universities in New Zealand are being turned increasingly into businesses, albeit ones whose profits are still significantly underwritten by the state.  Just like a sausage factory produces and sells on the market commodities called sausages, universities are being transformed into businesses which sell commodities called ‘courses’ and, when you have purchased enough of these, bigger commodities called ‘degrees’.

True in a socialist society, but under capitalism education is very much a commodity

Although market ideology claims that letting the market loose in the education sector improves quality as education providers compete to provide better and better products, this claim holds about as true in education as it does in home-building.  In home-building, the removal of regulations and the greater dependence on the market resulted in builders attempting to maximise profits by building as cheaply as possible and selling as dearly as possible, resulting in leaky house syndrome.  In education, opening up to more market forces and trying to convert universities into businesses means charging students more in fees, crowding more students into classes, dumbing down courses for sale as commodities, increasing and intensifying the working hours of staff, holding down wages and eroding work conditions in general.

The education system in universities is coming to more and more resemble factory-line production and is less and less satisfying and rewarding for students and all of the kinds of staff who work in universities.

Why is this happening?

To understand what is going on and why, you need to understand how the overall economic system – capitalism – works.

In capitalist society, all the goods and services which make the world go round are produced by workers.  The value of the goods and services workers produce is greater than the value that they are paid in wages.  For instance, in a work-week workers may produce goods to the value of $1,500 but only be paid $500.  In addition part of the extra amount is consumed in energy, raw materials and the depreciation of the machinery, say $500.  In other words, the exploitation of workers by bosses results in a surplus-value (the extra $500), the basis of profit.  This surplus-value – the additional value workers produce but don’t get paid for – is then divided in several ways.

Part of it is reinvested by employers to expand their businesses to make more profits.  Part of it is consumed by employers in luxury lifestyles.  Part of it goes to banks and creditors.  A major portion of surplus-value goes to the government – through taxes on wages and salaries, company taxes and so on.  This portion of surplus-value is spent by the government on public services such as health and education and on other areas of the state (the cops, courts, army, etc).

When capitalism enters periods of protracted economic problems, the capitalists attempt to get hold of greater portions of surplus-value, since this is the basis of their profits.  They try to roll back state spending in areas which are under-written by surplus-value, such as public education and health.  They also attempt to privatise parts of the state sector in order to turn them into profit-making enterprises.  Capitalists also seek to parasitise off the state sector by getting the state sector to underwrite the private health and education sectors.

In today’s dollars it probably costs around $20,000 to have each full-time student at university.  During the postwar boom, students themselves used to pay almost none of what it cost to have them at university.  Almost all of it was paid for out of government spending, which was financed out of surplus-value.  In the 1980s, the Labour government began ending free education, forcing universities to raise fees and make students pay for a greater share of the costs of having them at university.  This way less surplus-value would go into funding students and more could be converted directly into profit for the small class of capitalists who call the shots in this country.  (For instance, 151 wealthy individuals and families currently have wealth estimated by the National Business Review in July 2011 at $45.2 billion and three percent of the population have hold of almost 40 percent of the wealth in NZ.)  In the early 1990s, the Todd Taskforce recommended substantial increases in student fees.  While student fees rose massively under the fourth Labour and National governments, however, students probably still don’t pay much more than 20% of their education costs.

One of the factors in this is the particularly important role universities play in research and development, areas that NZ capitalists are reluctant to heavily invest in.  Instead, the private sector parasitises off R&D done in the state sector (or the ostensibly state sector, to be more precise).


From: Ministry of Research, Science and Technology, Research and Development in New Zealand: a decade in review, 1994-2004

Student fees have partly been kept down because students provide free, or certainly very cheap, labour in a range of disciplines doing research, innovation and development work that can be turned to a profit for universities and the private sector.  Not surprisingly, then, in between all the ‘feelgood’ pc phrases in the Tertiary Education Strategy, 2010-2015 are little references to the need for universities to work more closely with business.  The report specifically links tertiary education to six key drivers for increasing productivity – an idea which they seem to have inherited from Labour and the top trade union bureaucrats who, in the early 2000s, developed a seven key drivers approach to raising productivity.  In the “Strategic Direction” section of the report, we read the nice opening, “The Government’s vision is for a world-leading education system that equips all New Zealanders with the knowledge, skills and values to be successful citizens in the twenty-first century” and how tertiary education “enriches people’s lives”.  Tucked away at the end of a paragraph with more warm, fuzzy stuff, however, we read, “Tertiary institutions need to work more closely with business to ensure that research meets the needs of the economy”.

Even this, of course, is not quite the truth.  No-one believes that all research should be entirely detached from the economy, but two questions do arise.  Should all research be about meeting the needs of the economy?  What does the phrase “needs of the economy” mean, in the context of a capitalist society?  Which raises a further question: is “needs of the economy” simply an obfuscating way of saying “needs of the capitalist class”?

Dumbed-down ‘knowledge’, low horizons and a compliant workforce

Increasingly knowledge is not looked upon as a useful end in itself.  Instead, the priority in terms of knowledge becomes driven by and for profit for the capitalist class.  Rather than fostering deep levels of knowledge acquisition and critical thinking, let alone fostering ideas of human emancipation and the improvement of society, the production of knowledge becomes centred on principles such as “Can the university make money from this?”, “Is this immediately transferable into profit for an employer?” and “Can the state save money from doing this?”

The university becomes more and more subordinated by the authoritarian demands of capitalist conformity and the authority of the market – to the detriment of students and staff.  The university becomes completely complicit with the status quo, dishing up to students the dumbed-down knowledge, low horizons and forms of subjectivity appropriate to slump capitalism and a compliant ‘flexible’ labour force.

Since the system can no longer guarantee secure employment, university administrations have increasingly abandoned the provision of the classic liberal arts courses in particular.  Instead, students are tending more and more to get little bits of knowledge here and there, a form of superficial education which is suited to an unstable labour market in which continuous ‘restructuring’ and redundancies are the norm.  More intense levels of knowledge are increasingly isolated off in departments where they can be useful in developing new, profitable products for business, including the university which is more and more becoming both a business in itself, albeit one still mainly funded by the public purse (ie out of wealth created by workers), and an extension of the wider business sector.

This process, which we mean call the technocratisation of universities, was already underway some decades ago – in the 1950s and 1960s, for instance.  The student revolt of the 1960s, and its reflection among even academics, slowed down that process considerably.  But it eventually got going again, as the needs of capital reasserted themselves and new generations of students proved to be much more apathetic and much less socially and politically analytical than the student generation of the sixties and early seventies.  In New Zealand, the commodification and technocratisation of universities has really speeded up under the last Labour government and the National-led government which followed it.  In fact, the process is rather more advanced than a reading of the Tertiary Education Strategy would suggest because the needs and imperatives of capital work rather faster than the minds of government ministers, bureaucrats and researchers grasp those needs.

Time to rebel

This whole process can be resisted, but only if we think critically about the overall system, how it operates and how capable we are of establishing a new and better system.  Just think about it.  The ideologists of the market are arguing that a mere thing, the market, which is created by the spontaneous and untheorised actions of all of us, is better able to organise the economy and society than all of us consciously getting together and planning an economy to work for all of us.  They’re arguing that our unconscious life is more capable than our conscious life.  It’s a nonsense!  But it’s a nonsense which is used to browbeat students, academics and general staff workers into accepting the deterioration of the quality of tertiary education and the tertiary education experience, along with worse working conditions for the vast bulk of the employees of universities.

Students and staff need to be organised to fight against layoffs, cutbacks in any area of the university, privatisation of university services, the dumbing-down of parts of tertiary education and the conversion of other parts into commodities to make profits for private capital.  Students can only fight effectively for quality, free education by making common cause with workers outside the university – the people whose exploitation is still what pays for most of the costs of education.  Moreover, these days, many students are also working in low-paid, casualised, non-unionised workplaces, being exploited.  So it makes even more sense for students and staff to link up with workers right across society, support their struggles and gain their support for struggles on campus.

Basically, we need to take possession of the university and run it along lines that serve the education and improvement of both ourselves and society in general.

That can only be done in the context of the great mass of people taking possession of the wealth of society and using it for the betterment of society.  Given the clapped-out state of contemporary capitalism, which can’t even provide free education anymore, we may just need a revolution and the building of a new society of, by and for the mass of the people.

Future articles will look at the student revolt of the 1960s and the history and transformations of the university as an institution.

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