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Sisli Vocational High School in Istanbul, Turkey. Photo: Simone D. McCourtie / World Bank
Sisli Vocational High School in Istanbul, Turkey. Photo: Simone D. McCourtie / World Bank

“For the integrity and status of Higher Education and Technical and Vocational Education and Training”, by Fred van Leeuwen.

published 13 August 2019 updated 13 August 2019
written by:

Higher education is indispensable if we are to maintain a foundation of facts, knowledge and free discussion in society. TVET reaches very many young people and adults and has a key education function in addition to providing skills training. Both are under attack as many, public and private, innocently or by design, corral education and educators within strict limits and cripple the capacity of people to seek social justice and transform their lives.

The Board of the public university of the northern Dutch city of Groningen in The Netherlands, eager to follow the example of many of its sister universities, decided to extend its borders to the big, outside world. Fifty years ago, everybody would have understood such ambition as the university’s determination to distinguish itself through excellent education and ground-breaking research. Too often, that is no longer the case. Today, many universities measure their standing and status in the world by the number of campuses they have been able to establish across borders and the quantity of private funds that they have been able to gather.

The big, outside world that the university of Groningen discovered was China. They set up a branch campus in the city of Yantai. China is the second largest funder of scientific research in the world, and the rationale of the university must have been that it would be foolish not to try to get a piece of that pie.

Academic freedom? Well, we will deal with that once we have set foot on Chinese soil. Let’s first hit the jackpot.

But, the “luck” ran out for our friends from Groningen. A couple of months ago, a newspaper found out that they had illegally used taxpayer money for their investment. So, their Chinese adventure had to be aborted before take-off.

This story captures many of the challenges that have troubled us in recent years. In fact, to some degree, they have been a major focus for as long as I can remember. The story is about the mandate of public universities to serve the common good. The story is about the struggle for public funds. The story is about the ever-increasing pressure by market forces and actors on research and education. The story is about the effects on the related issues of Academic Freedom, “Open Access”, collegial governance, and employment conditions.

These are all issues that have been raised at national and regional levels and that EI has been raising internationally - with mixed results. while we are quite successful in the international debate in getting our views across and even supported. However, such breakthroughs do not always “trickle down”. Too often, the harsh reality on the ground is different. We are still far away from accomplishing the 1997 UNESCO Recommendation Concerning the Status of Higher Education Teaching Personnel, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of 1966 and other international standards.

A good recent example of a statement squarely in the tradition of those historic and universal standards isthe Paris Communiqué adopted last year by the Ministers of Education of the European Higher Education Area (EHEA).They called for higher education to play a decisive role in “addressing important societal challenges – ranging from unemployment and social inequality to migration-related issues and a rise in political polarisation, radicalisation and violent extremism”.

They also said that education and educators must play a key role “in establishing the facts on the basis of which public debates are conducted (…) and stimulate students to be active citizens in democratic societies.”

Well, that is great, of course. Who would disagree with that vision? It is similar to the statement adopted by EIs 11th International Conference in Taipei last year.  But the reality is that these same ministers perpetrate something very different.

That does not mean that consensus aspirations are not of value. They are, in fact, very important. But those aspirations come with obligations to examine, in that light, what is happening on the ground.

In a report that EI submitted to UNESCO, also last year, on the status of higher education teaching personnel based on the 1997 UNESCO Recommendation, concerns were expressed as to whether, in Europe and elsewhere, the shrinking role of professors and other teaching personnel in governance in some countries would undermine academic freedom and the autonomy of higher education institutions in general.

This concern is linked with the alarming growth of precarious work in education in much of the world, particularly in higher education. Being assertive on academic freedom issues may not facilitate getting contracts renewed nor will being outspoken in governance fora. In other words, security of employment with decent conditions, collegiality and good governance, and academic freedom are all part of the same package. When they are all respected, they make a virtual circle, but when they are violated, that circle becomes a very vicious one.

Some governments have little respect for academic freedom and the independence of higher education. In Italy, local leaders of the party of Matteo Salvini, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior, seek to ban a university textbook in political science that labels the Lega North Party, “Extreme Right”. Another, even more far-reaching, attack on higher education was the closure of the Central European University in Budapest by Victor Orban. This is part of a larger effort of the Prime Minister to defend “Christian culture”. This is a term that, before WWII, was used by home-grown fascists to attack and isolate Jews. It has been “refreshed” in our times by adding Moslem targets as well.  The funder of the university, George Soros, has been a privileged target of anti-Semitism and was featured in campaign posters by Orban’s party prior to their resounding election victory last year.  There is also sabre-rattling against professors and universities in the Philippines, in Brazil, in Turkey and elsewhere.

University independence cannot exist without core financial independence. One way to try to cope with the impact of austerity programs on university budgets has been to seek funding, like our friends from Groningen did, in other countries such as China, or to establish partnerships with private companies.

Even if there is strict respect for academic freedom, which is not always the case, independent research also means determining what is to be studied. The closure of faculties considered to have no economic relevance, like we see happening in many places, says it all.  Determining the scope of research through funding, especially private funding, is also a clear danger to academic freedom.

In other words, academic freedom is, on the one hand, under attack by the new authoritarians and, on the other hand, by pressure from private interests.  Clearly, this undermines the role of universities as bastions of critical thinking and independent judgement. Market-oriented and inspired “reforms”, including policies such as the increased use of performance-based funding, the shift towards corporate forms of institutional governance, and, as mentioned earlier, the reliance on fixed-term contracts for academic staff, are weakening the right to teach without interference, the freedom to research and to disseminate the results.

Many of these challenges are also relevant to Technical and Vocational Education. TVET is education and its educators embrace its goals and aspirations. It should not be isolated, rootless training that is unrelated to the mission of education. It should, like all other education sectors, help develop students as people and as citizens as well as workers. Respect for the full value of TVET, also demands full respect for its educators. That is another common thread that connects all teaching.

EI recently produced a study, “ Technical and Vocational Education as a Framework for Social Justice”. It contests “human capital theory” according to which education is to develop skills which add economic value.  Such an approach is wasting much of the potential of students.  The study argues that the role of technical and vocational education is to contribute to the development of the richness of human beings and of all facets of  their personalities

Another thing that higher education and TVET have in common, unfortunately, is that those working in those sectors are our “expert witnesses” on commercialization, privatisation and the impact of globalization on education.

Last year, participants in the Higher education and TVET Conference in Taipei, emphasised in discussions and documents the vital place of further and higher education and research institutions in serving democracy and the common good.

EI President Susan Hopgood and I have written a book, recently launched by EI, “ On Education and Democracy: 25 Lessons from the Teaching Profession”. Even with all the other issues and challenges faced by educators and their trade unions, democracy has emerged as a threshold question for our ability to function as educators and as members of trade unions; institutions and enablers of democracy.

It is an unusual book for our times. It focuses on a long-term process, education, and requires a long attention span. It is free, and we live in an era where price and value are often confused. And, it is a book based on listening, also somewhat out of fashion,  to stories of the struggle of education trade unionists to defend and extend democracy.

The historic struggle for freedom and democracy of the women and men in our sector inspires us and makes us proud. But, that struggle is far from over. “On Education and Democracy” is for all professions and occupations in education. It is a tool to be used in this latest chapter of our collective work to facilitate discussions on democracy in and beyond our ranks and to stimulate action.

It is by defying fear to do our jobs and fully exercise our profession, forthrightly and frankly, that we can secure our trade unions and freedom and democracy. As George Orwell said, “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

This article is adapted from the opening remarks of Fred van Leeuwen on 20 July 2019 to the Higher Education and TVET Caucus in Bangkok.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.