Attacking Austerity

New book argues for change after decades of policies that authors say are strangling public higher education.

November 2, 2016
Johns Hopkins University Press
A new book tackles austerity in higher education, its effects and potential changes to a decades-long era.

It is taken as an axiom in many administrative circles that public colleges and universities cannot rely on government funding sources to fuel their budgets in the future.

A new book from a pair of City University of New York Graduate Center professors examines how that conclusion came to be and describes in blistering terms what it has meant for public higher education. In their book Austerity Blues (Johns Hopkins University Press), Professor of Social Work Michael Fabricant, who is vice president of CUNY’s Professional Staff Congress, and Professor of Urban Education Stephen Brier, who is coordinator of the CUNY Graduate Center’s Interactive Technology and Pedagogy Program, argue state disinvestment has had a deeply harmful impact on public universities’ ability to educate students as colleges and universities turn to the promises of privatization and technology. The effect, they write, is an era of austerity undercutting public institutions’ ability to serve the poor and working-class students who need them the most -- an effect that has broad ramifications for society as economic and social classes diverge.

Fabricant and Brier trace the history of U.S. public higher education before the start of this era of austerity, describing its rapid expansion in the post-World War II years and continuing through the developments that laid the groundwork for what they identify as austerity policies in the 1970s, 1980s and today. Along the way they closely study growth and policy changes in public systems in California and New York City and how they have been reflected nationally.

“The choice to provide broad access while resisting investment of public funds necessary to assure a quality education continues to define New York City and national higher education policy making to this day,” they write.

Fabricant and Brier close by arguing for a new paradigm for public higher education that includes greater funding.

The authors responded to questions about their book by email. The following exchange has been edited lightly for clarity.

Q: A core idea of your book is that funding for government services, including education, has been hollowed out, the services have been privatized, and then they’ve been sold back to the public by companies seeking a profit. Governments have turned to the private sector for a variety of services, so why make the case for reversing the trend starting in higher education instead of somewhere else, like K-12?

Fabricant: We don’t believe we are making the case that public higher education is the only site where trends of privatization or disinvestment need to be reversed. To the contrary, the impact of these policies is being felt in similar ways by K-12 students and faculty. More to the point, profit making that trumps quality of education, increased reliance on the cheapest form of online learning to offset budget cuts, the mechanization of curriculum and use of metrics to measure “progress” while simultaneously missing critical aspects of academic development are shared experiences of K-12 and public higher education in an era of austerity.

That said, higher education is increasingly a primary target of privatization. Critically, higher education is displacing K-12 as the site of greatest interest to the market. The reasons are varied. To begin with, the market for higher education “products” online is international in scope. Additionally, university administrations hard-pressed to locate revenue sources rely to an ever-greater extent on tuition. Tuition is not a revenue source for K-12. Producing new tuition sites in other parts of the world is an especially appealing proposition for corporate decision makers. At the 2014 Davos conference, an international gathering of market and government decision makers assessing investment trends identified higher education as No. 3 in their list of investments with the potentially greatest short and long yield. No other part of the public sector even made the list.

Q: Skeptics could say you want more public money to flow into higher education simply to raise faculty salaries. Where, specifically, do you want to see additional public investment in higher education go?

Fabricant: We understand that is what skeptics could and likely would say. But that argument is specious. Would we argue that hiring more full-time faculty makes a difference in the quality of education for students, especially academically challenged students? Yes, and that point is supported empirically. Would we also argue that the salaries of faculty and staff of public universities have declined in real dollar value over the last two decades? Yes, and those trends are also supported by data. Finally, are universities, particularly public universities, becoming less and less salary competitive in their recruitment of junior faculty needed to educate students, particularly in urban areas? Again the answer is yes and can be traced directly to years of disinvestment in the students and faculty of those public universities. And so we would certainly support paying fair wages to faculty and staff laboring in public universities.

But investment in faculty salary is not the thrust of the book. Rather, we have indicated throughout that investment needs to be made in enhancing both the quality of a public higher education and its affordability. The emphasis on both affordability and quality is of great significance to students. They are being cheated every day as their tuition increases and the quality of their education is threatened by diminished public funding. Investments need to be made in technology, capital projects to upgrade declining facilities and to build out campuses to accommodate the needs of growing numbers of students, support services to enable students to meet a range of academic and social issues, understaffed libraries unable to purchase needed material, and finally the hiring of more full-time faculty. The latter point is especially important. Over the past 25 years we have witnessed the rapid explosion of wage-exploited and job-insecure part-time faculty. In turn the proportion of full-time faculty in public universities has declined. In many public universities the majority of classes are taught by part-time faculty.

Brier: Increased full-time faculty salaries are a critical part of any effort to inject new public funding into public higher education institutions and systems. But that is by no means the only thing that needs additional funding. Contingent faculty salaries, which are currently pitifully inadequate, need to be raised as well. As much as we believe that it is crucial that the number of full-time faculty positions be significantly expanded and that those positions be better funded, we are aware that it is going to take some time before we can significantly cut back on public universities’ heavy reliance on contingent and nontenured faculty.

As such, we applaud our full-time faculty colleagues at the University Illinois Chicago, who undertook a successful two-day strike, with strong student support, in spring 2014, successfully demanding that the university raise the minimum salary of the university’s nontenured faculty by 50 percent, to $7,500 per course (three times what adjuncts usually receive). In addition to increased salaries for full- and part-time faculty, there is a vital need for increased funding for infrastructure repairs and investments as well as new building programs at many public universities, where critical maintenance has been delayed or eliminated for years if not decades, and existing physical structures are inadequate. It is also important that public funds be allocated to allow full- and part-time faculty members access to professional development opportunities to improve and update the quality of their classroom instruction, including the proper use of new digital affordances to improve the quality of teaching and learning.

Q: You’re critical of the growing reliance on adjuncts at colleges and universities, arguing adjuncts who are paid low amounts per class take on multiple classes, ending up with too much work and too little time for students. Is there a place for adjuncts in a well-funded public college or university?

Fabricant: Yes, of course there are many places for part-time faculty in the public university. To begin with, 25 years ago part-time faculty filled niche roles within departments. Areas of expertise not available through the cohort of full-time faculty were filled through part-time faculty. In addition to these specialized skills, certain kinds of advisement and mentoring roles, especially in professional schools, were provided by adjuncts. In the latter role, part-time faculty drawn from specific sectors of the labor market helped students make the transition from school to employment. Those roles and many others would continue to be met by part-time faculty.

At the same time, as full-time faculty have been replaced by part-time instructors to reduce classroom costs and promote greater flexibility of employment, both part-time and full-time faculty have been hurt. The depressed wages of full-time faculty and intensifying efforts to break tenure through the use of “clinical” lines can be directly traced to the greater use of ever-cheaper and job-insecure part-time faculty. Doctoral students and others assuming very heavy course loads at very low wages simply to survive are part of the increasingly disposable workforce of the university. Consequently, the effort to increase the number of full-time lines is an issue for these two cohorts of workers. We would add that a substantial part of the new lines must be dedicated to part-time faculty. This practice would represent but a modest reparation for the many years of exploited labor part-time faculty have had to endure.

Q: Is there a place for an emphasis on efficiency -- either in the classroom or across university systems?

Fabricant: Yes, of course. We believe that the greatest efficiencies given the mission of a public university are to be made in the areas of instruction. Greater investment made by programs such as Accelerated Study in Associate Programs at CUNY, a program providing support services and targeting community college students, has resulted in a three times greater graduation rate for students enrolled in the program as contrasted with similar students who are not. Such programs require greater investment while simultaneously yielding efficiencies. Equally important, classrooms with lower student-to-faculty ratios have yielded efficiencies in terms of academic development and graduation rates.

Alternatively, the recent hiring spree of administrators has to be reversed. This trend represents an especially unfortunate development at a moment when full-time instructors and support services for students are in decline. We need to reassess the priorities of public higher education. More of the public dollars invested in higher education must be directly tracked back and invested in the classroom or students. The salary gaps between many administrators and full-time workers must also be narrowed. Consolidation of some aspects of the public university bureaucracy are also likely to yield efficiencies.

Q: You’re also very critical of private companies selling technology to institutions for operations like online classes -- but you’re more optimistic about technology developed by faculty members. Can technology developed by a faculty member in one institution spread reliably enough to others and other institutions without a company pushing it?

Brier: Technological innovations in classrooms and research that are developed on one public campus or system can and should spread to other campuses and public systems. One way to assure that such ideas and innovations spread is for faculty to have the option and technical support to employ open-source software solutions to educational problems that they can develop on their own initiative or adapt from other outside programs and projects. Most public institutions are saddled, instead, with expensive, locked-down proprietary software platforms, like course management systems, typically favored by university administrators. These systems leave little room for faculty or student innovation and are designed to meet the administrative needs and demands of college leadership.

A good illustration of the progressive use and spread of digital technology in a public system is the CUNY Academic Commons, which was developed in 2009 by a consortium of CUNY faculty, staff and students, and which now serves as a teaching, learning and research platform and social network for nearly 10,000 CUNY users. With additional grant support provided by the Sloan Foundation, the CUNY Academic Commons system has been made available for free open-source download as the Commons in a Box initiative across the country and even internationally. To date thousands of users and institutions have used Commons in a Box to set up and run an Academic Commons system in their own institutions.

Q: The book notes that for-profit colleges poured resources into recruiting minority students and those from low-income backgrounds -- but that they also posted low levels of degree attainment. Do you see any practices revealed from the for-profit sector -- or any other parts of the austerity movement -- that could be useful for public institutions in a nonausterity environment?

Brier: The aims and purposes of public higher education can’t be squared with the unrelenting demands for profit that for-profit colleges must, of necessity, always be responsive to. As we argue in the book, just like their correspondence course predecessors in the early 20th century, private, for-profit colleges are compelled to constantly expand their student enrollment by deceptive and false advertising about the outsize occupational successes of their graduates and through high-pressure recruiting practices that especially target minority and working-class students. In both cases, the institutions spend far more money on advertising and recruitment than on student instruction. The one key difference between past and present is that there is now an enormous amount of federally backed student loan money that for-profit recruiters openly encourage, often deceptively, their student recruits to borrow. It is not surprising, given this situation, that fully 40 percent of all federal student loan money is borrowed by students enrolled in private, for-profit institutions and that the highest student loan default rates are in private, for-profit institutions. This is not a record that can or should be mimicked in any way, shape or form by public institutions.

Q: Early in the book, you trace some of austerity’s roots back to reaction against student activism at the time when Ronald Reagan was governor of California in the late 1960s. You end the book with a call for building a political movement inside and outside the academy that backs increased investment in public education. Why would activism have a different result today than it did 50 years ago?

Brier: This is an important question. To be sure, many of the same deep issues and conflicts that motivated ’60s student activism and the negative right-wing response to it are still very much in play. Endemic problems of racial discrimination, police brutality and foreign war remain the same. What has decidedly changed in the intervening half century is that the post-World War II strength of the U.S. economy, which allowed the nation to undertake both foreign adventures like Vietnam as well as launch broad social programs like the War on Poverty, has ebbed, in large measure because of political gridlock and the dramatic growth of levels of social and economic inequality in the decades after the ’60s. The radical right was able then to turn the (white) “silent majority” against radical students and militant activists in the black, Latino and Native American movements and, at the same time, launch a strong antitaxation/antigovernment agenda. The rise of neoliberal attacks on public institutions, largely unchecked for 30-plus years, are now being questioned if not actually openly attacked. While many of those social and political forces are still in motion today, the citizenry’s increasing discontent with the outsize political and economic power of the 1 percent opens up possibilities for political movement on critical social and economic issues, including the need to respond to the crisis of public higher education and student indebtedness.

Q: What you’re proposing would be a major change in the way this country talks and thinks about public spending. Does this election cycle, with Bernie Sanders and then Hillary Clinton backing free public college, give you new hope that austerity is closer to ending for public higher education?

Brier: This effort on the part of both Sanders and Clinton does give us hope that the issue of austerity and its profound impact on ordinary citizens is back on the table. But we don’t believe that free tuition, even if it could be implemented in a Clinton presidency, augurs the end of all of the problems facing public higher education. Free public university tuition for working- and middle-class students, along with debt relief, are important prerequisites (and ones that we both enjoyed as 18-year-old sons of working-class families in the 1960s) to democratizing access of higher education. But it is only a first step.

Also needed is a concerted effort to assure improved quality of the public higher education that students deserve. That will require significant public investment, just as the nation embraced in the immediate aftermath of World War II, to expand the numbers and quality of full-time faculty as well as significantly increased spending to repair and build anew university facilities to handle the growing numbers of undergraduates who have poured into public colleges and universities (which currently educate fully 80 percent of the 20 million students enrolled in U.S. colleges this year, a 25 percent increase since 2000 alone). Free tuition, if it should be implemented, would only expand the already-huge demand for access to public higher education.


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