In straitened circumstances: A review of Austerity Blues

In straitened circumstances: A review of Austerity Blues

The Left are busy looking back instead of devising laws to address inequalities.

Four decades ago The City University of New York charged no tuition fees, and all its students were taught by full-time staff. Today, fees cover half of all teaching costs and half of professors are part-timers. At Arizona State University, Michael Crow, the president, who is ridiculed throughout this angry, sometimes despondent and frequently eye-opening book, has proclaimed himself a “knowledge enterprise architect” – a sure sign that we are entering the end times.

Like bank robbers of old, investors turn to students “because that is where the money is”. The banks no longer have money in their vaults. The vaults are empty; the money has already been lent many times over. Today, if you want to make money, you prey on the hopes and dreams of the young. Lend them their tuition fees, pay them as little as possible as they work part time while studying, and fail more black and poor students than you used to, so that they have to try, and pay, again and again. Be sure to exploit your own children less.

The Left and Right have swapped roles. Now the Right describes itself, however mendaciously, as progressive, and on the side of working people. The Left harks back to earlier days, aiming to conserve what was previously achieved as it laments the passing of time. In the US, the Right complains of low completion rates and soaring tuition costs. It blames a lack of corporate entrepreneurship in the management of public universities, arguing that it would ensure competition, drive down costs and drive out inefficient professionals.

The UK and USA tax too lowly and spend too little on the public good, but to reverse that takes planning:

Public Spending in proportion to GDP in twelve rich countries

Public Spending in proportion to GDP in twelve rich countries

Source: Figure 2 from “A Better Politics”

Those on the Left have to stop complaining and start planning. Planning for when the bankruptcies begin and the debt is not repaid, and for when Ohio State’s parking lots are needed for a better purpose than parking cars. What should we be dreaming for now? It cannot simply be a return to conserving the past. What laws need to be rewritten to take back control?

We can wait until the system breaks, until the credit ratings of entire countries (such as the US and UK) are downgraded as it is realised that their student debt cannot be repaid, or can only be repaid by increasing other debts, such as in housing. Or we can point out now to “investors” that the risk they are taking is higher than they think and watch them pull out. This book describes the problems, but if we are to save the soul of higher education, we need to offer more solutions.

Austerity Blues: Fighting for the Soul of Public Higher Education
By Michael Fabricant and Stephen Brier
Johns Hopkins University Press, 320pp, £22.00
ISBN 9781421420677
Published 29 November 2016

PDF version of review and further links to the Times Higher where review was published on December 15th 2016