Monday, March 1, 2010

Education Station

Well, despite oversleeping today we managed to cram in some good stuff. We went to a free flea market on the Upper West Side, and had a good walk getting there from 33rd St to 76th. There was lots of cool brik-a-brak, clothes and thrift jewellery that if I buy any I'll one day be able to say should anyone ask 'oh, I just picked it up for $10 in a flea market in Manhattan' and feel all excited to be able to say something like that, rather than my usual - oh I got it in Primark!

Then we hopped on the subway to the Lower East Side and went to Bluestockings feminist/activist bookshop for a talk. The talk was entitled 'Towards a Global Autonomous University' and described thus: Where once the factory was a paradigmatic site of struggle between workers and capitalists, so now the university is a key space of conflict, where the ownership of knowledge and the reproduction of labor are coined. Join George Caffentzis, Silvia Federici and other contributors to the book “Toward a Global Autonomous University” for a discussion about intellectual resistance and militant student movements.

We weren't sure what to expect and thought it may contain mostly discussion about American education, but it was really interesting and although there was a fair amount that was difficult to follow because US policy is different to that in the UK, a lot rang true, especially since we both became undergraduates after grants were abolished and tuition fees and student loans were instigated. I'm now a full fee paying postgraduate student and also have experience teaching in a university so it pretty much all applied!

Issues discussed were:-

*The exportation of knowledge as a commodity.

*The rise of student debt and the fact that to be in the running for decent paying jobs you are expected to have degree level qualifications. One of the panelists described this as a tax on workers. The student who wants to get a decent job in our capitalist society, where their labour will then be exploited for capitalist gain, must pay for that privilege. And the icing on top of this is that when beginning to search for work as a graduate it becomes only too apparent that one is required to have 'industry experience' sometimes two to five year's worth to be considered a worthy applicant. Who then get the plum jobs despite the supposedly more egalitarian education system with 50% of school leavers at Uni regardless of class? Yes, the graduates whose parents or personal wealth can allow them to work for free and gain the experience. So with this in mind, many graduates can end up in jobs they may have had, had they not attended university but with a heavy debt.
*The idea that the tax payer shouldn't bear the brunt of education that is essentially for personal gain by incrementally upping a person's salary as opposed to furthering knowledge for society at large.
*Students as a guarantee of revenue for universities. Since any amount that a student pays in tuition is not the full amount that the university will receive, the state is still subsidising the student's tuition.
*Life-long learning initiative as a new commodity for sale, the idea that we can only continue to gather new skills as an adult at a price and that rather than having been taught critical and inventive skills at a young age which can then be applied with experience and therefore gain new wisdom, it suggests our knowledge faculties go stale and need to be boosted by sanctioned courses at a price. That in our culture, the only knowledge worth having is institutionalised and expensive.
*Constant testing and the monetary value of grades.
*The lack of permanent positions for faculty staff and the increasing reliance on untenured or associate lecturers who have fewer benefits and who usually need to take other work to support such a choice of career, often studying at their own expense to PhD level whilst watching the chances of gaining permanent employment in a university drying up. This is interesting because one can suppose that students are paying more than ever to be taught by people, who from no fault of their own, may not be able to give the job their full attention. It also reinforces the fact that someone from a working class background, that however brilliant they may be do in their first degree, if they cannot secure funding for post-graduate study then they may never be able to qualify to teach in tertiary education and so a pool of talent, that might be an inspiration to those students from a working class background, goes to waste.

Three things that occurred to me whilst mulling all of this over...

One, the way that students are derided. 'Bloody students' isn't an uncommon phrase especially in the UK. In lots of cases it may not seem surprising, after all, the student life is represented and encouraged as a rite of passage for hedonistic laziness and, now that there are more people going, the less a degree is generally considered to be worth. The mocking of "Mickey Mouse" courses (Media Studies in particular has this levvied against it, despite its usefulness in understanding and deconstructing the culture that feeds us our world view...hmmm) only go to furthering the notion that students deserve the derision. I've met drunk lazy students, and students hell-bent on getting away with doing as little as possible (I've met lots of lazy full-time workers being paid for their efforts who like to do the same, if only they could get away with it) but there are a great deal of extremely ambitious, hard-working students who do not deserve the label and should spend their spare time as they see fit. Also these people were encouraged to be there by the government who may have used this tactic to alter the number of unemployed school leavers. So, when this is the accepted view of a group, sympathy for any well-founded protests about the price of tuition and diminished contact time is scarce. So does this mean that those who benefit the least from these initiatives actually end up paying for making the powers-that-be look better, when all they've done is sidestep the issue of the lack of jobs or training schemes for the young?

Two, these 'lazy' students who rely on their loans to pay their living expenses. When I did my degree the loan came to just over £3,000 per year and in Brighton barely covered rent for those of my friends who lived in student housing, so, everyone with limited funds had to work part-time to afford food, clothing, books and god-forbid a social life. Now I see that as a major disadvantage since it's more difficult to concentrate whole-heartedly on a full-time course when working part-time is a necessity. So guess which demographic ends up with a compromised future regardless of effort and ambition?

& Three, that if someone who is very talented creatively but low on funding wants to follow a career path in the arts which would most suit their skills and fulfill them as a person (something that I don't think should be considered a luxury) is lured by the compromise of using those skills once they've graduated (and sometimes before!) in the field of advertising or the marketing of products and publications in order to be able to pay back their debt and earn a living. Work which can be said to further bolster the social model that could have contributed to their limited choices.

I'm interested in this subject and welcome any comments, my ideas are a response to the talk and based on my own experience and frustrations.

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