Education International
Education International

Address to the 8th EI International Higher Education and Research Conference

published 26 September 2012 updated 2 October 2012

Dear colleagues and distinguished guests,

Let me begin by welcoming you to Buenos Aires for the 8th Education International Higher Education and Research Conference. I know many of you travelled you a great distance to be here and I am delighted to see you. If this is your first conference, I want to offer you a special welcome and encourage you to play an active role over the next two days. Let me also take this opportunity to thank our hosts, CONADU, for their warm hospitality.

Colleagues, when we met in Vancouver, Canada in 2010 we declared somewhat colourfully that the “vandals are at the gates”. By this we meant that the values of public higher education and research, and the rights and conditions of the people who work in our institutions, were under siege from those who want to transform our sector into a privatized, commercialized, casualized and market-driven system.

Today, I wonder if shouldn’t begin this conference by declaring that the vandals are not just at the gates, but have now smashed through the gates?

For the truth is, colleagues, education is under unprecedented attack across large parts of the world. From draconian cuts in public funding, benefits and pay to rising student tuition fees and ideologically driven assaults on collective bargaining and trade union rights, we are in the fight of our lives.

In South Africa last year, the EI Congress passed a comprehensive education policy that asserted that higher education and research is a public service. It can fulfill its role of preserving, transmitting and advancing knowledge only if there is adequate public funding, if institutions are free from outside pressures, and if academics enjoy academic freedom and decent terms and conditions of employment.

Today, these values are increasingly at risk. In many parts of Europe and North America, the financial crisis has led to major cuts in public funding.  Meanwhile, across most of the developing world, funding remains woefully inadequate.

At the same time, private costs in the form of tuition fees are rising. I know you will debate the issue of tuition fees later in the conference but let me say that I do not for a moment believe that a privately financed higher education system that pushes students and their families deeper into debt is sustainable. It is a sub-prime model of education built on the very same house of cards – or more precisely credit cards -- that led to the global financial crisis.

Now, we all know that the academic profession is at the heart of the university. No academic institution, particularly in a world characterized by increased academic mobility and competition for talent, can ever hope to be successful without a capable and committed professoriate.

But the academic profession is under increasing stress. We’ve seen this most notably in terms of the rapid rise in fixed-term and casual employment. In Latin America, excluding Brazil, nearly 80 per cent of academics are so-called “taxi-cab” professors – those employed on a temporary and often per-course basis and who are forced to shuttle between different institutions in an attempt to cobble together a living.  In China, Eastern Europe and sub-Saharan Africa, almost all appointments are limited term or casual, with faculty expected to supplement their income with outside contracts and employment.  Even in the developed world, the casualization of the sector has been striking. In the United States, nearly three-quarters of higher education teachers are now employed in precarious non-tenure or non-tenure track positions.

The implications of the growth of precarious work are profound. Casual and contingent faculty are poorly paid, have few if any benefits, and have little or no support for research or curriculum development. Without security of employment, moreover, they cannot effectively exercise their academic freedom. Fixed-term staff who raise troubling questions or challenge received wisdom – the very essence of academic freedom – are at risk not of overt censorship, but by simply having their contract not renewed. This is particularly worrisome for early-stage teachers and researchers. We need to organize precarious staff and we need to take away the economic incentive that allows for their exploitation.

Finally, let me say something about the importance of the work we do as higher education and research trade unions to protect the integrity and independence of academic research. We all know that governments everywhere are looking at ways to encourage more private funding of research. But we also know the very real dangers of this. Corporate sponsorship can bias research in ways that does not serve the public interest.

There are a number of egregious examples of how food and agriculture companies, for instance, have funded academic research to counter health risk claims with their products. One American study, which found that soda consumption was not linked to obesity, had received support from the National Soft Drink Association.  Another study, sponsored by the Egg Nutrition Center, determined that eating eggs frequently did not increase cholesterol levels.

In the economics field, it has recently come to light that many academics were commissioned by large financial corporations to advocate positions that extolled the virtues of financial deregulation that suited the interests of the industry – and the consequences of that are still being felt.

That is why we must continue to make the case that higher education and research is a public service that should serve the public interest, and not the interest of private donors.

Of course, these attacks on higher education and research and staff have not gone unchallenged. On the contrary, from Santiago to Bogota, and from Montreal to London, we have seen over the past two years students, staff and ordinary citizens take to the streets in unprecedented numbers.

We have consistently said in our interventions with UNESCO, the OECD, the World Bank, the G-20 and the IMF that investment in public education is critical to exiting the crisis.

To this end, we’ve launched a number of initiatives aimed at providing concrete ways governments can tackle the economic and social challenges we face. I’d draw your attention to our study on global corporate taxation released last year that made the case for shutting down tax havens and closing loopholes in order to ensure we can fund the public services we need.

A couple of months ago I was able to present our study to the head of the IMF, Ms. Christine Lagarde, suggesting that IMF help governments close those loopholes rather than force them to pursure austerity measures. Furthermore, we’ve launched an Education in Crisis campaign to provide updates and analysis of how education is under attack and how we can respond.

And next month, we’ll be convening a seminar in Brussels that will bring together the EI leadership, the leaders of our affiliates and academics to help us further develop a program of action.

The participation of the higher education and research affiliates in this work is critical. It is you who are best placed to develop a renewed vision of higher education and research based on the public service values of quality and equality.

Colleagues, I wish you well in your deliberations and debates over the next few days, and I look forward to hearing the outcomes.

Thank you