An overwhelming shift in public education has been occurring for thirty years, going back to the birth of neo-liberalism.
A huge power shift has taken place where the private sector has an ever-growing influence on public education. Public education at the university level has historically been state funded, a burden shared by both individual states and the federal government.
Each different state raises internal funds differently, and the federal government has supplies federal funding as well. State law in every state except Vermont forbids states from passing a budget that runs at a deficit, so they are reliant on federal intervention in tough economic times. Of course, states could change these laws, but have no desire to do so as the majority of them receive money from the private sector and subsequently serve private-sector interests.
Public education has been underfunded at the state and federal level for decades. Students and contingent workers as well have been forced to cover the difference with increasing tuition and fees. At my alma mater, tuition increased 50% from when I enrolled until I graduated (when taken cumulatively). This is commonplace throughout the country.
The disappearance of public funds has been subsidized by private interests who invest in certain programs or provide financing via grant programs. These companies often use this financing to create a wedge into the public institution and gain more influence. So, for instance, at UC Berkeley, BP has financed and runs an entire lab committed to climate science that is completely secret.
Students often have several different fees to pay. Each university or system determines their own fees structure. This is often decided by a Board of Trustees (BoT).
BoTs are becoming more composed of private sector actors, business owners, former CEOs, and the like. They don’t fight for students or workers and promote the same neo-liberal strategy carries by the larger private sector. When cuts come down they accept them as inevitable (like the well trained bureaucrats they are) and refuse to shake the cages of their bosses to fight for more funding. They then implement more “inevitable” cuts and fee hikes.
Student aid in the forms of grants and loans are legislated and regulated by the government. Recently, we have seen more grants and loans go to those attending private schools than those attending public [state] schools — according to a source of mine in the AAUP (university professor union). You lose student aid if you are convicted of a misdemeanour drug charge (as simple as carrying a joint), and there are many other ways they try to make sure they don’t pay out aid.
There are also private loans, which are almost all unsubsidised. This means interest accrues while you are at school. Many federal loans are subsidized and do not accrue interest.
Either way, student debt is way up over the past 20 years, and the roads out of debt are paved with a decade of wage slavery. Though the government recently passed a law that erases student debt after 10 years, in order to not be forced to pay, you have to earn well below the poverty line. This is becoming more of a possibility for many youth, especially as jobs continue to disappear and prospects are even slimmer (unless you want to go back for a higher degree and take on more debt). The future looks pretty bleak for youth, whether you go to college/university or not.
Given the much larger geographical landscape, and the fact that the cuts have yet to hit the US in they ways they have in Europe (at least in immediate and drastic terms, aside from a few places) the national struggle around public education is still very much in development.
There is no single national student formation that can or does claim lead on the issue. There are several groups involved in various ways and levels; the formation I have been working with is a loose coalition of members of various different organizations who operates on an ad hoc basis and runs the following website: defendpubliceducation.org.
As socialists, we must continue to play the role that we always have, being the best organisers — and also make sure that people understand that we aren’t just out here because we think we have the best political line or because we want to sell our papers, but because we genuinely and sincerely care about the individual lives of each person we talk too.
Here in the states, the left often ignores this core concept to organising and ends up alienating people who would otherwise struggle with us because we don’t listen to them and try to tell them how things should be. We can’t rely on the infallibility of our expert political lines (though I know we have the most developed political discussion) and must be willing to let movements make mistakes while maintaining our commitment to the struggle.
• This article is extracted from a longer interview, which can be read in full on www.workersliberty.org