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Issue #1678      March 25, 2015

Culture & Life

Higher education denied

One of the most popular acts of the Whitlam Labor government in the 1970s was the abolition of university fees. It met one of the most general (if often least recognised) demands: that education should be free, secular and universal.

As capitalism developed during the Industrial Revolution, it quickly became clear that modern production methods required at the very least a literate workforce. Equally clear were the profits that could be made by exploiting the discoveries and achievements of scientists and inventors. Education (including higher education) was thus good for business!

Governments took on the responsibility of providing that educated workforce and research community that capitalism needed. And although the ruling class used their wealth to provide themselves with the “best” schools and access to the best universities, working class people increasingly saw education as their ticket to a better future, as the key to escaping from poverty.

In the decades after WW2, capitalism in the industrialised countries boomed. But it was a boom based on exploiting the resources and – to a limited extent – the market provided by the developed countries’ colonial possessions. However first the Russian Revolution and then the anti-fascist coalition of WW2 led to an upsurge in the national liberation struggle and former undeveloped countries began to develop.

With development came economic competition and complexity. Industrialised countries lost their monopoly on industrialisation. Capitalists began to seek out production centres with lower wages (and fewer safety regulations, etc). The educated population in the former industrialised countries was now largely redundant. Their governments lost interest in mass education, viewing it as a drain on government finance. Education would still be provided, but for a price. Education would once again become a privilege to be enjoyed by the wealthy.

Almost from its inception, capitalism had relied on the state to provide necessary infrastructure and services (including education), and even to provide actual businesses that facilitated other businesses, such as banks, oil refineries, cement production, to name only a few. However, for the last hundred years the general crisis of capitalism has left fewer opportunities to locate sources of profit. In response, capitalists both large and small (but especially large) have pressured governments to reduce corporations’ costs, to make the system ever more profitable. The way to do this, they said, was to cut corporate tax and privatise public enterprises. Capitalist governments were eager to comply.

Reducing corporate tax and disposing of government-owned enterprises means, inevitably, reducing government income. But that didn’t matter any more. So what, if governments could no longer afford to provide education or health services, or public transport or even sporting or cultural facilities? Private enterprise, desperate to find those elusive new sources of profit, would satisfy the community’s needs – for a price, of course.

Capitalism today has more workers available to it than it knows what to do with. It certainly does not have work for them all. Neither does it need all their scientific or technical expertise. This does not mean that the world’s problems have diminished. Far from it! It simply means that capitalism cannot profitably find a way to tackle these problems and hence sees no point in “wasting” money on educating the masses.

Accordingly, the free tertiary education offered by the Whitlam government has been progressively curtailed over the years since, by the introduction of various fees and charges, until today a university education burdens every graduate with a hideous debt. The political advisers to capitalist governments are not disturbed, however. The ruling class can afford to pay for their children’s education and the children of the poor are simply no longer considered relevant.

But if capitalism has no use for people with a university education, humanity definitely does. The world is facing very significant crises to do with sustainable energy, pollution and environmental degradation, climate change, food security – not to mention recurring wars and civil violence. The human race needs the collective wisdom of its best brains to solve these problems while we still have time. But capitalism is crying poor and limiting the intake into universities, denying higher education to large sections of the working class.

At the same time, government research facilities are being starved of funds, scientific staff laid off (except in defence industries) and research increasingly narrowed down to business-linked topics. Knowledge for its own sake no longer has currency: profit is the only arbiter now.

In Australia, the Liberal Party government of Tony Abbott and his collection of philistines and religious cranks, education is a privilege that is not to be squandered on the undeserving. If that sounds like something from another age, that’s because their attitude is just that: a hangover from an earlier period of social development, when the “lower classes” were expected not only to know their place but to keep to it.

The Australian people may view this country as egalitarian, but its leaders do not. Nor do the leaders of any capitalist country. Capitalism is a system based on inequality and the private appropriation of the product of the collective labour of the mass of the people. To expect such a system to support equality and progress is surely fanciful.

Meanwhile, under the leadership of these troglodytes the children of the working class are being systematically denied the opportunity to learn and develop at the highest intellectual level. We are being forced back to a level of social development not seen since the middle of the 19th century, when the rule of privilege was so outrageous it had to be challenged by enlightened people fired with enthusiasm for the “rights of man”. In Europe and America, progressive ideas were being fought for, in civil wars and revolutions and working people were demanding more rights all the time.

The Abbott government’s attempts to “deregulate” university fees is simply an attempt to make higher education subject to market forces, to place it at the mercy of the same drive for profit as any other capitalist enterprise. Those are not the forces that should be allowed to determine the nature and availability of higher education to the Australian people.

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