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The highs and lows of higher education analysed at EI Congress

Participants at the higher education caucus learnt from academics from all over the world on topics ranging from the lack of funds, privatisation and commercialisation of higher education to precarious employment conditions and attacks on academic freedom.

The caucus that brings together employees from higher and further education was opened today 20 July by former Education International (EI) General Secretary Fred van Leeuwen. He illustrated the situation of higher education through the case of the University of Groningen, which opened a campus in China illegally using taxpayers’ money, and had to pull back when this came out in public. Van Leeuwen used the Groningen example as an illustration of what he called “the story of the role of universities as public institutions serving the common good, the story of their struggle for public funds, the story of an ever increasing pressure by market forces, of its effects on academic freedom and on employment conditions.” He went on to criticise the devastating impact of the human capital theory on academia, which is "wasting much of our student's potential. Students are not just workers, they are citizens," he said.
 
Van Leeuwen underscored the role of education, research and of the education profession as pillars that protect democracies, and regretted that not only privatisation and market forces were threatening universities, but the far right and authoritarian forces who are also attacking academics and institutions worldwide in countries such as Italy, Hungary, Philippines and Brazil.
 
The effect of market thinking and academic freedom From Sharn Riggs (NTEU New Zealand), participants learned about the situation in the Asia-pacific region. She described how neoliberal policies were being rolled back at the national level but highlighted that within institutions, market thinking was still dominant. This trend is also noticeable among education personnel – a reaction that according to Riggs derives from the fact that they “have been working under a neoliberal way of thinking for so long.” She regretted that in both higher education as well as in technical and further education (TAFE) education personnel suffers from precarious working conditions and put forward her union’s demand that ​public money should go to the provision of public education. Without this the situation was likely to deepen the work insecurity and overwork of teachers, both of which take a big toll on their lives. Other problems that were highlighted were the lack of ​a​cademic freedom in many places, and the m​arketisation and privatisation of education, which are common threats in the region.   

Europe’s universities caught between lack of funding and low teacher status Rob Copeland from UCU UK focused on the European region and highlighted some issues that were affecting the higher education institutions of the continent: 

1. Inadequate levels of funding and financing and inappropriate forms thereof.

2. Political authoritarianism, which is undermining academic freedom especially in the case of subjects such as gender studies.

3. The low status of teachers and the little recognition of their role in the shaping of their students’ success. 3. A strong focus on performance-based funding.

4. The casualisation of employment and 

5. A decline in collective bargaining and social dialogue at the national level and within institutions, pushed for by employer organisations that aim to narrow the scope of  workers’ voice.

 
He explained how collective bargaining and social dialogue systems in Europe were suffering and quite narrow in the education field, and identified worrying trends such as the continuous erosion of salaries, the attacks on pension rights and the failure to address the issue of fixed-term employment.   Copeland invited participants to reflect on two big future questions: how unions can represent an increasingly diverse workforce in education and how they can respond to the growth of technology and social media in schools.   
 
Precarious academics in Latin America Pedro Hernández Castillo from the National University of Colombia (APSU Colombia) addressed the challenges faced by his country and his region. He explained that the most salient problem for higher education were the precarious working conditions of academics. According toHernández, teachers “are treated as commodities, which has a negative impact on quality education.”   
 
Hernández further explained how flexibilisation and what he coined as “proletarisation” of the teaching force in higher education were being underpinned by the increasing use of technology in academia, with teachers asked to videotape their lessons and wave copyright on them. Then after their contracts expire, they are not hired again but the material  continues to be used to build on-line courses that are provided to hundreds of participants. 

 
The numbers presented did not leave room for  doubt: precarious teachers in higher education make up 79% n Colombia, 60% in Mexico, and 80% in Brazil.