Capitalism and education


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The most recent federal budget once again places university students in the firing line. Fees will rise by 7.5% over five years, meaning students can expect to pay between $2000 and $3600 more for a four-year course. The income threshold for repaying HECS student loans will be reduced to only $42,000 a year, and universities face a direct funding cut of $380 million over two years. This will result in staff layoffs and further stretching of resources.

These attacks are the latest round in a long series of piecemeal cuts that the Liberals, Labor and the Greens have all made to Australian higher education. The government insists that the proposed new changes are necessary to make university funding “sustainable”. However, the savings to be made are pocket change compared to the outrageous profits of the banking sector and systemic tax evasion by multinational corporations.

While these cuts are not as severe as what was expected, the government has hinted at major restructuring to be included in next year’s budget. A recently announced “Review of the Higher Education Provider Category Standards” is set to hold “public and stakeholder consultation around options to change provider categories, including the possibility of a teaching-only university category”. This jargon is code for slashing funding to university research programs in a big way.

The ultimate goal being pursued by the business and the political establishment in the long term is to implement a fully user-pays system driven by the market. This plan has been slow to roll out because they fear sparking resistance that could set off struggle in other layers of society. Yet students and staff should be under no illusions that big battles over what education should look like are looming. It is crucial that a strategy is worked out, not only to defeat this newest package of cuts, but to fight for a vision of education in the interests of the many, not the rich elite.

The state of education today

Capitalist politicians are happy to pay lip service to the importance of education, but all around the world, it is in a state of crisis. In 2015, only one third of countries achieved all the Education for All goals set in 2000 by the United Nations. Millions of children never begin primary school. Countless more have no choice but to drop out so they can work and supplement the family income.

Those who can afford to receive a secondary or higher education are burdened with high-pressure and time-consuming assessment tasks. On top of this, there is the devastating impact on university students of having to bear staggering levels of student debt. A study released in April by the National Union of Students and mental health organisation Headspace found that one in three higher education students think about self-harm or suicide. This is just one indication of a mental health emergency among young people that is driven by the stress of the capitalist education system.

During the economic boom after the Second World War, education was a reliable road to employment. Today there is no such thing, even after completing tertiary study. In Australia, there is a growing layer of fully qualified graduates who struggle to get hired in their chosen fields. Discussion about this problem in the press rarely goes further than proposals to limit student intake by restricting entrance requirements. This boils down to saying that because there are not enough jobs in advanced fields like engineering, tertiary education should be accessible only to a privileged few! It is characteristic of modern capitalism that it has no solutions to any of these problems, other than further attacks on working class people.

The role of education in capitalist society

Before the emergence of class society, education was a communal activity deeply intertwined with daily life, socialising, storytelling and rituals. Important knowledge such as which foods were safe to eat was passed along orally and through mentoring. The division of society into classes and rise of the slave economy around 10,000 years ago changed education fundamentally. Since then, it has been a battleground between different class interests.

The ruling class has traditionally always sought to keep a well-rounded cultural education inaccessible to most people. One of the ways that the Catholic Church maintained so much power in medieval Europe was by limiting access to the Bible. Only the educated clergy and nobility could read Latin, and this gave them free reign to interpret the Bible’s teachings in ways that reinforced the dominance of the feudal aristocracy over the peasant serfs and poor townsfolk.

The education system in most countries today has not substantially changed in the last 200 years. This is because it emerged out of the development of capitalism and was constructed to serve the needs of the capitalist class in a new industrial era. It was the industrial revolution that initially drove the need for a basic level of expertise in the working population. Administrative growth, particularly in the 20th century, was a major factor behind the push for universal reading and writing standards.

In the 1920 Bolshevik manifesto The ABC of Communism, Marxist theorists Nikolai Bukharin and Yevgeni Preobrazhensky outlined what they considered the three main tasks of schools under capitalism. Many people who had unpleasant experiences at school growing up may recognise these traits.

First and foremost, they “inspire the coming generation of workers with devotion and respect for the capitalist state”. In this sense schools act like both a propaganda machine and a drill sergeant. Students are taught obedience: line up outside the classroom, don’t talk in class, wear correct uniform, complete all assigned homework, follow the teacher’s orders and so on. There is little room in this framework for social interaction or learning life skills.

More subtly, the education system teaches children not to think in a critical way. History lessons brush over events that might make young minds question the status quo, such as the genocide of Aboriginal people during colonisation. Propaganda is hammered in through rituals like singing the national anthem at school assembly, or in the United States, the Pledge of Allegiance.

The second task of education under capitalism is to cultivate a new generation of ruling class managers and controllers of the working population. Wealthy private and exclusive select-entry schools train students from a young age to think of themselves as leaders, deserving of success and better than everyone else. These people are nurtured to study subjects like law and business. Many of them go on to be bosses, judges and reliable politicians who feel the system worked for them.

Thirdly, employers require a labour force with the skills necessary to do the work that creates their profits. This is the main role played by vocational courses, which are increasingly run on a for-profit basis. There is also a need for researchers and scientists who can find profitable outlets to invest in, like new technology, and advancements that can help capitalists cut across their competitors by reducing costs.

From these requirements, the ideal education system for big business looks eerily similar to what exists at present. The masses go to public schools and vocational colleges to be taught to be workers. Wealthy children go to elite private schools where they’re raised to be the next Malcolm Turnbull. In the middle, there’s a layer of technical specialists and researchers who are increasingly squeezed by the demands of business.

Free education was a product of class struggle

Education has been a key concern for the working class since its birth as a political force. One of the first mass workers’ struggles in history was the Chartist movement in England in the 1840s, which fought among other things for better working conditions and the right to vote. The Chartists also demanded a free universal public education system, and an end to the harsh disciplinary ethos of the existing schools. Working class communities rightly sought to be enlightened in areas of science and culture that had previously been kept out of reach.

Free tertiary education was won in Australia by the tandem militancy of the students’ and workers’ movements. The late 1960s and early 1970s were a period of mighty uprisings of working class people across the world. Millions marched against the Vietnam War, for women’s liberation and an end to racism. Independence movements challenged imperial rule by the western powers in Asia, South America and Africa. In Czechoslovakia, workers stood up against the tyranny of the Stalinist dictatorship. At the height of this period of rebellion, France, Chile and Portugal were shaken by revolutions that came within a breath of ending capitalism.

These incredible mass movements fuelled the confidence of ordinary people in Australia to fight for serious reforms. Unions today are a shadow of the strength they had forty years ago, when the power of working people to shut down production was clearly displayed. In the universities, occupations and student strikes were at times a weekly occurrence. It was the pressure of public opinion and a strong student movement that prompted the Whitlam Labor government to introduce free education in 1974. This was part of a raft of reforms aimed at halting the growing radical mood.

The end of the post-war economic boom and onset of economic crisis in the mid-1970s was a turning point. The mass movements of the preceding years made some important gains but failed to overturn the capitalist system itself. The business elite were determined to push back and reverse policies they felt ate too deeply into their capacity to profit. The Hawke Labor government carried out this agenda in the 1980s, introducing the HECS scheme that again made students pay to attend university. The subsequent decades have seen federal and state governments gradually hack away at every level of public education, with job losses, school closures and mergers, and course discontinuation.

Today, all of the major parties agree that education is both a potential vehicle for business to profit from, and a legitimate target for cuts to patch up the federal budget. These concerns have driven the bulk of alterations made to the education system since the 1980s.

Nevertheless, there is enormous scope to organise resistance. In an inspiring international example, the Spanish Students’ Union led two million students on strike last year against a series of counter-reforms pushed by the conservative government in Spain. This historic strike was backed by parents, teachers and the general public. The government was forced to retreat in the face of such a resolute demonstration of student anger. Events like this prove that when we fight, we can win.

The current federal government is extremely fragile and holds power by only one seat in the lower house of parliament, and a minority in the Senate. A return to the combative tactics of the 1960s and 1970s can place tremendous pressure on the government to abandon its changes and build public support for measures like free tertiary education. However, unlike in the 1970s, stagnant present-day capitalism can no longer sustain serious reforms without coming into conflict with the profit interests of the capitalist class. To really secure free education for the long term requires going further: ending the parasitic rule of the rich and transforming society along socialist lines.

A socialist approach to education

Marxists have written extensively on what education might look like in a socialist society. Karl Marx himself outlined the importance of connecting what is taught in schools to the practicalities of daily life and work. Marx was in favour of a system he termed “polytechnical education”. Far from the barbarism of capitalist child labour, he saw this as a way of making lessons concrete by involving young people in the process of production.

For instance, a unit on chemistry might be supplemented by visits to real-world laboratories or factories. This would better allow students to understand the worth of what is being taught, break up the monotony of the classroom with interactive tasks, and introduce important concepts like workplace safety at a young age.

In the period following the Russian Revolution, the Bolshevik Party attempted to put these ideas into practice. Several days after taking power in 1917, with mass support from ordinary people, the Bolsheviks declared sweeping changes to the education system. Free, compulsory education was immediately introduced. Hundreds of new schools were opened across Russia in the following years.

This process of total overhaul was extended with the 1918 ‘Principles for School Work’ decree. This decree aimed to transform the school culture, putting an end to mandatory homework, examinations and uniforms, and placing the development of the curriculum in the hands of the community. A mass campaign was conducted to encourage women to break out of domestic labour in the home and undertake further study.

Tragically, the Russian Revolution was left isolated when revolutionary movements elsewhere in Europe failed. Ravaged by war and famine, working people struggled for the bare essentials to survive, let alone participate in the radical system of workers’ democracy that had been established. These dire conditions supported the growth of an anti-democratic bureaucracy represented by Stalin. After taking power, Stalin’s dictatorship consolidated its rule in part by reintroducing all of the archaic, draconian teaching methods of capitalism.

One hundred years later, the early period of the revolution still serves as a remarkable model for what a socialist education system could look like. The measures taken by the Bolshevik Party, if implemented in an economically advanced country like Australia, would allow students to fully blossom.

The Socialist Party stands for:

-A fighting approach to defeat the attacks on education, through mass rallies, occupations, and joint strikes of staff and students.
-Universal free education from kindergarten through to the tertiary level, with free public childcare to relieve the burden on parents.
-Abolition of mandatory testing and examinations, with assessments made on the basis of in-class interactions. For open universities with courses accessible to all who wish to study.
-Elected boards of staff, students and parents to democratically plan the curriculum, and funding as needed for all course and research requirements. End all cuts and reverse all job losses!
-Major public investment in infrastructure, housing, research and the arts to create quality jobs for all with paid training where necessary.

By Jeremy Trott

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