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Competition and corruption in education: a lethal combination for academic integrity

By: Dr Tracey Bretag

Higher education is a competitive enterprise at every level – from student admissions processes to university ranking systems and competition for funding. In many contexts, access to education means jobs and wealth. The poisonous mix of competition, corruption and poor resources has the potential to create an environment where misconduct becomes the norm, rather than the exception.

“If you take me back to 1995, when [cheating] was completely and totally pervasive, I’d probably do it again.” (Lance Armstrong, BBC Sport 2015)

It is too simplistic to place all of the blame for cheating on individuals. While individuals do need to take personal responsibility for their actions, their behaviour is often symptomatic of wider and deeply entrenched patterns in society. As this Call for Papers suggests, when the two toxic pressures of competition and corruption intersect, it cannot be surprising that scholars at all levels of the educational spectrum may choose the ‘easy’ path of cheating to gain academic advantage.

Recent findings from the Contract Cheating and Assessment Design Project, support the earlier conceptualisation by Bertram Gallant (2011) that cheating is a systems issue requiring a broad, holistic response, rather than an individual behavioural problem which can be solved using a ‘catch and punish’ approach.

Yes, some scholars cheat. Students plagiarise or outsource their learning, researchers fabricate results and authors submit recycled or redundant publications. So much research is devoted to understanding the individual motivations for cheating (eg academic, social or financial pressure, poor time management, etc), without addressing the broader educational and social context. As I suggested in 2013:

Higher education is a competitive enterprise at every level – from student admissions processes to university ranking systems and competition for funding…This highly competitive and under-resourced environment is situated in an increasingly competitive worldwide economy, as well as a social context that may encourage students to regard higher education primarily as a means to a vocational end. Academic misconduct may also contribute to and be exacerbated by corruption in wider society…media coverage of various ethics scandals may have contributed to the perception that misconduct is common.

Competition and corruption go hand-in-hand

When corruption combines with increasing competition in society, for instance for access to education, jobs and wealth, academic integrity becomes a casualty.

The ‘Corruption Perceptions Index’ scores 180 countries and territories on how corrupt their public sectors are seen to be, using a scale of 0 to 100, where 0 is highly corrupt and 100 is ‘very clean’. The 2017 index found that more than two-thirds of countries score below 50, and many countries (including developed countries such as Australia) are actually declining in their scores.

The Global Corruption Report: Education detailed a vast array of corrupt practices including “illicit payments in recruitment and admissions, nepotism in tenured positions, bribery in on-campus accommodation and grading, political and corporate undue influence in research, plagiarism, ‘ghost authorship’ and editorial misconduct in academic journals” (Executive Summary, p. xx).

The Independent Commission Against Corruption in Australia report, Learning the hard way: Managing Corruption Risks associated with International Students at Universities in NSW, highlighted the specific corrupt practices in international education, including: falsification of entry documents, cheating in English language proficiency tests, online contract cheat sites selling assignments, plagiarism, and cheating and fraud in examinations. I commented at the time that “corruption has seeped into every aspect of the higher education sector, from admissions all the way through to graduation”.

When corruption combines with increasing competition in society (eg for access to education, jobs and wealth), academic integrity becomes a casualty. The poisonous mix of competition and corruption has the potential to create an environment where misconduct becomes the norm, rather than the exception. There is a sense of pessimism and despondency for some in academe that there is simply no other way to get ahead than to fabricate, falsify, plagiarise, misrepresent, outsource, cheat and take unfair advantage. If ‘everyone else is doing it’, scholars may justify their behaviour in the same way that famous sports stars have done by arguing that they are simply responding to external pressures and creating a ‘level playing field’.

It is therefore more important than ever that scholars at every level of the academy make a stand for academic integrity and to insist that all academic work – whether an assignment by an undergraduate student, a PhD thesis by a graduate student, or a publication by a leading researcher – is underpinned by the values and practices of honesty, trust, respect, fairness and responsibility. This journal provides the platform for that stand to be taken. As researchers and practitioners we have a responsibility to undertake the challenging task of exploring how and why competition and corruption is so harmful to academic integrity and to provide empirically based insights and recommendations for action.


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Education program for inmates in South Africa honors Nelson Mandela’s legacy

by Julia Steers  /

South Africa’s new  Pipeline program seeks to address recidivism by providing prisoners with access to public university-level education. 

Four months ago Morgan Makaluza, 37, walked out of Brandvlei Correctional Center after serving 13 years for armed robbery. It was his second time in prison. On Wednesday, Makaluza was back at Brandvlei — but this time he served as a motivation to the prisoners, not as an inmate.

Makaluza was at Brandvlei trading notes on coursework and sharing his story with inmates taking part in the launch of South Africa’s Prison to College Pipeline program (P2CP), a collaboration between American professor Dr. Baz Dreisinger, South Africa’s Stellenbosch University, and the South Africa Department of Correctional Services. The program seeks to address recidivism by providing prisoners with access to public university-level education.

Makaluza is the program’s first student in South Africa and credits civil rights icon Nelson Mandela with opening his eyes.

Correctional Services staff listen to speeches during the launch of the Prison to Pipeline program offering in person college courses in prison to facilitate re-entry, on the centennial of Nelson Mandela's Birthday at Brandvlei Correction Centre in Worce
Correctional Services staff listen to speeches during the launch of the Prison to Pipeline program on July 18.Sydelle Willow Smith / for NBC News

While in prison, Makaluza read Mandela’s book “Long Walk to Freedom,” which inspired him to enroll in a correspondence course to finish high school. Mandela, known affectionately as “Madiba,” spent 27 years in prison for trying to overthrow an apartheid government. Deeply familiar with the confines of a jailhouse, the human rights icon famouslypursued further education through UNISA while serving his sentence.

On Wednesday, people around the world celebrated Mandela Day, marking what would have been his 100th birthday. Famous figures including former President Barack Obama delivered speeches and called for global action to end poverty.

In the Cape Province of South Africa, Mandela’s home country, the day took on new meaning in an unexpectedly celebratory venue — behind bars. Prison guards and inmates, in civilian clothes for the day, took part in musical performances and motivational speeches.

“I grew up hearing about Mandela but there was one thing that stood out from the whole book,” Makaluza said. “He said, ‘Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.’ I decided to do whatever I had to do to get educated.”
Correctional Services staff listen to performances by inmates celebrating Mandela Day during the launch of the Prison to Pipeline at Brandvlei Correction Centre on July 18.Sydelle Willow Smith / for NBC News

Mandela’s ethos motivated the organizers behind the Mandela Day launch of South Africa’s Prison to College Pipeline program. The program aims to highlight Mandela’s “legacy of education behind bars in South Africa,” Dreisinger said. It also facilitate inmates’ reentry into society and helps build better relationships with communities suffering from high crime rates.

Dreisinger, who launched a pilot prison-to-college program in the U.S. in collaboration with the New York State Department of Corrections and The City University of New York, said they had near immediate buy-in from university partners but faced obstacles in broader support for the program in South Africa.

“Given crime is a real crisis here, there isn’t an empathy to the incarcerated population as a whole … so you’re battling against that climate,” she said.

The celebratory tone of Mandela’s centennial belies a grave reality: South Africa has one of the world’s highest rates of violent crime. The cape region, home to Brandvlei prison, has the highest murder rate in South Africa. Communities here are ravaged by intergenerational cycles of gang violence.

Correctional Services staff listen to speeches during the launch of the Prison to Pipeline program offering in person college courses in prison to facilitate re-entry, on the centennial of Nelson Mandela's Birthday at Brandvlei Correction Centre in Worce
Correctional Services staff stand outside the Brandvlei Correction Centre.Sydelle Willow Smith / for NBC News

Dreisinger insists that giving inmates a second chance at freedom and what is often a first chance to become educated helps break this cycle for entire communities.

Makaluza — who grew up in an informal settlement or “township,” and lost his father at age 6 — said young people facing his circumstances have “zero options.” Without a high school education, he had turned to crime before the age of 13 to support his family, kicking off what felt like a hopeless cycle of jail time.

“I saw the same faces released … and then back in prison with me,” he said.

Dreisinger works with community-based partners to raise awareness of that reality. “It’s not just about sympathy or empathy,” she said, “it’s about giving people opportunity, which … creates public safety.”

Her work in South Africa has striking parallels to her work in the American prison system.

Members of the community listen to speeches during the launch of the Prison to Pipeline program offering in person college courses in prison to facilitate re-entry, on the centennial of Nelson Mandela's Birthday at Brandvlei Correction Centre in Worcester
Members of the community listen to speeches during the launch of the Prison to Pipeline program.Sydelle Willow Smith / for NBC News

“All of these students [enrolled in the Prison-to-College Pipeline program] are direct products of years of apartheid and rampant inequality in terms of class and race. Cape Town is still a vastly segregated, unequal place,” Dreisinger said. “The ‘colored’ population is among the most incarcerated population in the world per capita.”

More than 97 percent of the prison population in South Africa at the end of 2016 was listed as black or colored,according to Africa Check, anonprofit fact-checking organization.

“In my 13 years [in prison], I noticed the prison population is mostly black people, and what we have in common is that we’re uneducated,” he said. “Those with education were out there living their lives and uneducated people from disadvantaged backgrounds were busy filling up prisons.”

Data supports the link between education and staying out of prison: According to one study, incarcerated people who enroll in education programs are 43 percent less likely to go back to prison than those who do not have access to education.

Few know that connection better than the Prison-to-College Pipeline program’s global ambassador for higher education, Devon Simmons.

Professor Baz Dreisenger with her first graduate Devon Simmons of the Prison to Pipeline Program in America (to her left), and a South African recent graduate and ex-offender Morgan (to her left) during the launch of the first P2P program in South Africa,
Professor Baz Dreisenger with her first graduate Devon Simmons, left, and South African recent graduate and ex-offender Morgan Makaluza, right.Sydelle Willow Smith / for NBC News

Simmons began working toward his associate degree as part of the Prison-to-College Pipeline program, while serving a 15-year sentence in a New York State prison. In the years after his release, he graduated with honors from Hostos Community College in the Bronx, and, last May, he graduated summa cum laude from John Jay College.

As an ambassador for the program, he has traveled to work with incarcerated populations in the U.K., Jamaica, and South Africa. On Wednesday, he shared his story in a speech to the inmates at Brandvlei.

Dreisinger said Simmons’ dedication is an example of Mandela’s values.

“Being able to be that committed and focused and not wavering. Staying the course. We always talk about that. That’s Mandela. That’s what he’s about,” she said.

Now, Makaluza is in the precarious post-prison phase. He said he’s finding it difficult to get a job but is intent on finishing his college coursework. Makaluza is also focused on working with the Prison-to-College Pipeline program.

Mandela “just never lost hope. He was behind bars but he didn’t let his circumstances define who he was,” said Makaluza.

“I know I’ve done wrong in my past,” he said. “Those are things I’ve done, not me. I’m not letting my circumstance define who I am.”


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EEUU: Utah leaders hope education measure helps keep teachers

EEUU/April 17, 2018/JULIAN HATTEM. The Associated Press/Source:

Political leaders in Utah said Monday they hope a new ballot measure that would nearly triple education funding in five years will help the state entice and hold on to its best teachers.

The ballot initiative will give voters the opportunity to support an increase in the gas tax, currently 29.4 cents a gallon, by 10 cents to gradually increase education funding over the next five years. The proposal was crafted as part of a compromise between lawmakers and an education group that wanted voters to approve a plan that would have sent $715 million to the schools immediately through a hike in state sales and income taxes.

Combined with other funds and a freeze on state property tax rates, which would otherwise drop as property values rise, the initiative would increase education funding yearly starting at $141 million in 2019 and reaching $386 million in 2023.

That would raise overall state education funding to $585 million — nearly three times the funding schools would otherwise receive that year.

If voters approve the measure in November, lawmakers would decide how to allocate the new educational spending, including how much will go to teachers.

The initiative comes as other states grapple with standoffs over teacher salaries that have led to mass protests from West Virginia to Arizona. Last week, thousands of teachers in Kentucky protested at the state Capitol and cheered as lawmakers overruled a veto of a budget that would increase public education spending.

“We need to make sure we can pay our teachers and attract the best and brightest and retain them in the schoolrooms,” Republican Gov. Gary Herbert said at a ceremonial signing for the bill at an elementary school in suburban Salt Lake City on Monday.

Heidi Matthews, the president of the Utah Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, said the money could be used for classroom assistants to give students “more one-on-one learning and alleviate the impact of Utah’s exceptionally large class sizes.”

Additional funding will ensure teachers “have the resources they need to reach, teach and inspire every student and deliver the high quality education that they deserve,” she said.

Utah’s spending per pupil in school is the lowest in the nation. The state spent an average of $6,575 per student in 2015, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, compared to $11,392 nationally.

The state also has some of the nation’s fullest classrooms, according to Department of Education data.


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United States: No Advisory to Close Schools Today – Education Ministry

United States / March 17, 2018 /

Resumen: El Ministerio de Educación, Juventud e Información reitera que las escuelas NO deben cerrarse sin la aprobación previa del Ministerio.

The Ministry of Education, Youth and Information is reiterating that schools should NOT be closed without prior approval from the Ministry.

Information reaching the Ministry is that some teachers who turned up for work and in some cases principals had told students that there would be no school tomorrow. This is in contravention of the Ministry’s instructions.

Seventy-five of the 466 schools checked today had classes in the earlier part of the day up to just before mid-day. Others had classes up to the end of the normal school day.

In the meantime, the Ministry will be deploying additional personnel tomorrow, March 13, to support the schools.

This support includes Regional Response Teams (RRTs) comprising officers from the Ministry of Education, Youth and Information, selected tertiary institutions, Secondary Schools Student bodies and the National Parent Teachers Association of Jamaica.

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Pakistan: Is Punjab Education Foundation a better solution?

Pakistan/November 14, 2017/Source:

  • Failure of public education system

How much development and progress has been made can be seen from recent statistics about Literacy Rate in Pakistan. As it dropped by 2pc in the year 2015-16 to 58pc and that under the criteria, “a person is literate who can read and write a paragraph (3 lines) in a national/regional language with comprehension”

On the one hand our government is hiring hundreds and thousands of new teachers while on the other it is privatising thousands of public schools through PEF


“Education is a matter of life and death for Pakistan. The world is progressing so rapidly that without requisite advances in education, not only shall we be left behind others but may be wiped out altogether.” Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah.

Recently, Pakistan celebrated its 70th Independence Day. How much development and progress has been made can be seen from recent statistics about Literacy Rate in Pakistan. As it dropped by 2pc in the year 2015-16 to 58pc and that under the criteria, “a person is literate who can read and write a paragraph (3 lines) in a national/regional language with comprehension”.

Reasons behind the downfall of education system?

Let’s talk about the reasons of downfall of education in Pakistan, especially Punjab, which was once considered the hub of educational institutes and province with highest literacy rate. There is no special reason but an amalgam of corruption, overspending education budgets in salaries given to teachers, lack of motivation towards education among students and parents alike, lack of schools in rural areas, lack of counselling, and missing infrastructure in schools.

Punjab Education Foundation (PEF)

Punjab Education Foundation (PEF) was established by the Punjab Assembly’s PEF Act of 1991. At that time its purpose was to help private investors (by funding or granting loans to) build new schools so there may be more schools accessible to the public. The ultimate authority of PEF was under the government from 1991 until Act of 2004 as between this period the chief minister of Punjab was its chair, but after 2004 it started working as an autonomous body under a board of directors. Initially, its basic aim was to provide better education to the nation with the help of private schools by providing teacher training, professional development for private schools, interest-free loans for building construction and by providing special vouchers to households of the students to incentivise them for taking education seriously. But today, a significant chunk of PEF’s budget goes to it Foundation Assisted Schools (FAS) programmes through which, Punjab Education Foundation (PEF) pays for every child’s fee enrolled in a Foundation Assisted Private School.

Punjab Education Foundation (PEF) claims that its programmes are cost effective that is why these programmes are the best solution for equity and quality of education. In a wave of privatisation of already existing public schools, Punjab Education Foundation (PEF) has privatised thousands of public schools. PEF gave management of these thousands of public schools to private investors. Now, I would concede to the fact that, yes, PEF is efficient in what it is doing so far, but the real question is whether the approach being followed by PEF is the right approach for long-term greater good?

Punjab needs to spend more on education?

In the fiscal year 2016 Punjab’s Education budget was $2.99b out of which only $0.602b was allocated for development projects and the rest was to cater the current needs of the education department. During the fiscal year 2014, 87pc of the education budget was spent on salaries given to teachers. The major problem lies in the overspending of the education budget on salaries to 343,458 teachers and when after evaluations a schools’ progress is represented by numbers they just decide to outsource these schools or encourage students of these schools to go to private schools which are already compensated by Punjab Education Foundation (PEF) other programmes; eventually wasting tax payer’s money in the process. It may serve its purpose in the short term but then what is the purpose of having a public school system if eventually all that government is going to do is to outsource these public schools.

Punjab Education Foundation (PEF) started paying fees of the students to the private management of the schools. Fee varies according to the grade level of a student;

Rs550 per student up till primary classes

Rs600 per student for elementary classes

Rs900 per student for secondary arts classes

Rs1100 per student for secondary science students

Punjab Education Foundation is aiming to privatise the management of all schools up till grade five across Punjab and also plans to keep management of some of the school from grade six onwards.

It is worth noting how this system can collapse in seconds as it did with the change of government after 2008 national elections when PEF’s progress stalled for nearly a year. This concludes that the progress will show its numbers as long as you keep paying these private investors and this is not going to help raise the quality of education in public schools at all. On the other hand, if public schools get operated appropriately by introducing a better attendance system for teachers and students, they may even need lesser funds than what they are already spending paying these investors and overpaying their own teachers.

What needs to be done?

Pakistan as a whole has more than 600,000 teachers appointed as government employees, these teachers may have degrees, but most of them lack motivation and discipline for doing their job with honesty as most of them do not even bother showing up in schools and gather huge sums of money in salaries. This problem needs to be addressed on an emergency basis by introducing appropriate measures.

The government needs to stop paying private investors fees for students and needs to raise the standard of the public education system which is more useful in the longer run. This policy is going to help the government build a precedence of good management within its public schools otherwise its already failing public schools because of lack of good management are going to lose their remaining symbolic as well as figurative value.

Failure of charter schools in America

Pakistan is not the first country whose government has taken this step as in America this policy was implemented in the form Charter Schools. There are two types of Charter Schools in America; for-profit and non-profit. Our policy is almost similar to the US in its structure. According to National Charter School Study (NCSS), done by the Centre for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), 75pc of the charter schools in America were either worse or not better performing than public schools. That is because with the Charter Schools Programme, the US government focused more on their public education system to ensure that faults remain no more.

Importance of public schools

Finland has a literacy rate of 100pc. There are no private schools in Finland. The reason for that is if there are no private schools then rich people are going to care about public schools as much as they care about private schools because now they do not have any choice but to help make those public schools better. It is not easy to comprehend that a country where private schools are non-existent can have a literacy rate of 100pc. Finland had the same old rusty education system similar to the entire world till 1970, and then they changed everything once and for all for the sake of the greater good.

Only those people are hired as teachers who fall among the top 10pc of the graduating students. Teaching profession is considered as good as doctors and engineers. Teachers in Finland get paid more than teachers in the United States of America (USA). There is no standardised testing system for students and Finish students do not take any test until they are 16 years of age. There is no ranking among schools because they work under the policy “whatever it takes” and try to keep everyone at the same level. According to Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) scores released in 2009 Finish Students came 2nd in science, 3rd in reading, and 6th in math among nearly half a million students worldwide. These plans may seem very hard at the first look but once implemented they are way easier. All the schools are publicly funded, and if it seems so hard then why not shut down, all these high-end schools and ask the wealthy to fund public schools. There is no corporal punishment as widely practiced in Pakistan and no competition among students or schools which leads to hundreds of students falling in the pit of anxiety, depression, and eventually committing suicide. There is a rigorous check, and balance for teachers and that is the key to quality education which needs to be implemented in public schools in Punjab and Pakistan as a whole.


From the above discussion it is obvious that privatisation of education never helps. It is necessary to support and raise the public education system on the top. On the one hand our government is hiring hundreds and thousands of new teachers while on the other it is privatising thousands of public schools through PEF. If the government has accepted its failure and is not ready to run the public education system at all, why hiring new people for an already failed system? And if the mission is to make the government schools stronger, why are we wasting funds on paying to the private schools for free education. These two contradictions cannot run side by side for long.

Can we stop experimentation on education and follow the common successful practices only and seriously?

The question remains.


Is Punjab Education Foundation a better solution?

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Pakistan: Empowerment of provinces vital for promotion of higher education

Pakistan/November 11, 2017/Source:

Senate Chairman Raza Rabbani on Friday emphasised the importance of empowering the provinces and taking effective steps for the promotion of higher education in Pakistan in light of the 18th Amendment of the constitution.

He said this while addressing a delegation of Federation of All Pakistan Universities Academic Staff Association (FAPUASA) led by its central president Professor Dr Kaleemullah Barech, which met him at the Parliament House. Senator Muhammad Usman Kakar and Senator Muhammad Dawood Achakzai were also present on the occasion.

During the meeting, the delegation thoroughly briefed the Senate chairman about the problems being faced by university faculty in higher education sector universities due to unilateral policies and improper attitude of the Higher Education Commission (HEC), especially after the passage of the 18th Amendment.

The delegation unanimously decided that the All Pakistan University Teachers Convention would work towards implementing the 18th Amendment in higher education sector in true letter and spirit.

They said that the goal could be achieved through taking certain measures, including confining the role of HEC only to formulation of standards, enhancing role of provincial governments in funding and implementation of higher education policies, respecting and ensuring academic freedom at varsities, granting autonomy to universities as guaranteed by the Constitution of Pakistan, ensure representation of faculty members, students and citizens concerned in all the statutory bodies of the universities, immediate election of  student unions and their representation in all statutory bodies of public sector universities along with elected representatives of faculty, extending retirement age for university teachers from 60 to 65, and restoration of tax rebate up to 75 per cent for faculty members and researchers at varsities.

Raza Rabbani showed concern over the unnecessary delay in transfer of financial resources and administrative powers to the provincial governments regarding the higher education sector. He said that the Implementation Commission on 18th Amendment, after thorough deliberation, decided that a separate account would be operated by each provincial government for transfer of funds to the universities. He stressed that appointments in higher education sector should be made on the basis of transparency and merit, especially while making appointments of vice chancellors.

Raza Rabbani appreciated the contribution of FAPUASA for the promotion of higher education in the country and greeted them over holding a successful convention with the help of faculty members from different universities.

He assured the delegation of his support and cooperation in resolving the issues being faced by teachers in the higher education sector.


‘Empowerment of provinces vital for promotion of higher education’

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Interview 3: Noam Chomsky and Robert Pollin: Breaking Through the Political Barriers to Free Education

Interview/ By C.J. Polychroniou, Truthout

In an increasingly unequal country, the stakes are high for debates over student debt and the prospect of free higher education. Driven by neoliberal politics, our current educational system is both a product of and a driver of deep social inequities. In this interview, world-renowned public intellectuals Noam Chomsky and Robert Pollin take on the question of who should pay for education — and how a radical reshaping of our educational system could be undertaken in the US.

This is the third part of a wide-ranging interview series with world-renowned public intellectuals Noam Chomsky and Robert Pollin. Read part one here and part two here.

C.J. Polychroniou: Noam, higher education in the US is a terribly expensive affair, and hundreds of billions are owed in student loans. First, do you think that a system of free higher education can coexist alongside tuition-charging universities? Secondly, what could and should be done about student debt?

Noam Chomsky: The educational system was a highly predictable victim of the neoliberal reaction, guided by the maxim of «private affluence and public squalor.» Funding for public education has sharply declined. Tuition has exploded, leading to a plague of unpayable student debt. As higher education is driven to a business model in accord with neoliberal doctrine, administrative bureaucracy has sharply increased at the expense of faculty and students, developments reviewed well by sociologist Benjamin Ginsburg. Cost-cutting dictated by the revered market principles naturally leads to hyper-exploitation of the more vulnerable, creating a new precariat of graduate students and adjuncts surviving on a bare pittance, replacing tenured faculty. All of this happens to be a good disciplinary technique, for obvious reasons.

For those with eyes open, much of what has happened was anticipated by the early ’70s, at the point of transition from regulated capitalism to incipient neoliberalism. At the time, there was mounting elite concern about the dangers posed by the democratizing and civilizing effects of 1960s activism, and particularly the role of young people during «the time of troubles.» The concerns were forcefully expressed at both ends of the political spectrum.

At the right end of the spectrum, the «Powell memorandum» sent by corporate lobbyist (later Supreme Court Justice) Lewis Powell to the Chamber of Commerce called upon the business community to rise up to defend itself against the assault on freedom led by Ralph Nader, Herbert Marcuse and other miscreants who had taken over the universities, the media and the government. The picture was, of course, ludicrous but it did reflect the perceptions of Powell’s audience, desperate about the slight diminution in their overwhelming power. The rhetoric is as interesting as the message, reminiscent of a spoiled three-year-old who has a piece of candy taken away. The memorandum was influential in circles that matter for policy formation.

At the other end of the spectrum, at about the same time, the liberal internationalists of the Trilateral Commission published their lament over «The Crisis of Democracy» that arose in the «terrible» ’60s, when previously apathetic and marginalized parts of the population — the great majority — began to try to enter the political arena to pursue their interests. That posed an intolerable burden on the state. Accordingly, the Trilateral scholars called for more «moderation in democracy,» a return to passivity and obedience. The American rapporteur, Harvard professor Samuel Huntington, reminisced nostalgically about the time when «Truman had been able to govern the country with the cooperation of a relatively small number of Wall Street lawyers and bankers,» so that true democracy flourished.

A particular concern of the Trilateral scholars was the failure of the institutions responsible for «the indoctrination of the young,» including the schools and universities. These had to be brought under control, along with the irresponsible media that were (occasionally) departing from subordination to «proper authority» — a precursor of concerns of the far-right Republican Party today.

There is no economic reason why free education cannot flourish from schools through colleges and university.

The right-liberal spectrum of concerns provided a good indication of what was to come.

The underfunding of public education, from K-12 through colleges and universities, has no plausible economic rationale, and in fact is harmful to the economy because of the losses that ensue. In other countries, rich and poor, education remains substantially free, with educational standards that rank high in global comparisons. Even in the US, higher education was almost free during the economically successful years before the neoliberal reaction — and it was, of course, a much poorer country then. The GI bill provided free education to huge numbers of people — white men overwhelmingly — who would probably never have gone to college, a great benefit to them personally and to the whole society. Tuition at private colleges was far below today’s exorbitant costs.

Student debt is structured to be a burden for life. The indebted cannot declare bankruptcy, unlike Trump. Current student debt is estimated to be over $1.45 trillion, [more than] $600 billion more than total credit card debt. Most is unpayable, and should be rescinded. There are ample resources for that simply from waste, including the bloated military and the enormous concentrated private wealth that has accumulated in the financial and general corporate sector under neoliberal policies.

There is no economic reason why free education cannot flourish from schools through colleges and university. The barriers are not economic but rather political decisions, skewed in the predictable direction under conditions of highly unequal wealth and power. Barriers that can be overcome, as often in the past.

Bob, what’s your own response to the question I posed above?

Robert Pollin: Student debt in the US has exploded in the past decade. In 2007, total student debt was $112 billion, equal to 0.8 percent of GDP. As of 2016, total student debt was [more than] $1 trillion, equal to 5.6 percent of GDP. Thus, as a share of GDP, student debt has risen approximately seven-fold. As of 2012, nearly 70 percent of students left college carrying student loans, and these loans averaged $26,300.

The rise in student debt reflects a combination of factors. The first is that the private costs of attending college have risen sharply, with public higher education funding having been cut sharply. Average public funding per student was 15 percent lower in 2015 than in 2008, and 20 percent lower than in 1990. The burden of the public funding cuts [has] been worsened by the stagnation of average family incomes. Thus, in 1990, average tuition, fees, room and board amounted to about 18 percent of the median household income. By 2014, this figure had nearly doubled, to 35 percent of median household income.

Despite these sharply rising costs, college enrollments have continued to rise. There are many good reasons for young people to go off to college, open their minds, develop their skills and enjoy themselves. But probably the major attraction is the fact that income disparities have increased sharply between those who go to college versus those who do not. This pattern corresponds with the stagnation of average wages since the early 1970s that we discussed [previously]. The reality under neoliberalism has been that, if you want to have a decent shot at a good-paying job with a chance for promotions and raises over time, the most important first step is to get a college education. The pressures to go to college would be much less intense if working-class jobs provided good pay and opportunities to advance, as was the pattern prior to the onset of neoliberalism.

Virtually all student debt in the US is now held by the federal government. It would therefore be a relatively simple matter to forgive some, if not all of it. This would enable young people to transition much more easily into creating their own households and families. At the same time, if the government is going to enact a major program of student debt forgiveness, it should be at least equally committed to relieving the heavy mortgage debt burdens still carried by tens of millions of non-affluent households in the aftermath of the 2007-09 financial crash and Great Recession. Similarly, the government should also be at least equally committed to both lowering the costs of college education in the first place, and [supporting] better wages and work opportunities for people who do not attend college.

The blueprint for a progressive US that the two of you have sketched out requires that a certain course of political action is carried out … which includes educating the masses in getting from here to there. How is this to be done, especially given not only the peculiarities of American political culture, but also the balkanization of progressive and left forces in the country?

Chomsky: The answer is both easy and hard. Easy to formulate (and familiar), and hard to execute (also familiar). The answer is education, organization [and] activism as appropriate to circumstances. Not easy, but often successful, and there’s no reason why it cannot be now. Popular engagement, though scattered, is at quite a high level, as is enthusiasm and concern. There are also important elements of unity, like the Left Forum, novel and promising. And the movements we’ve already mentioned. Significant efforts are underway, such as those alluded to briefly [before], and there’s no reason why they cannot be extended. While the left is famous for constant splits and internal disputes, I don’t think that’s more so now than in the past. And the general mood, particularly among young people, seems to me conducive to quite positive changes.

It is not idle romanticism to recognize the potential that can be awakened, or arise independently, in communities that free themselves from indoctrination and passive subordination.

I don’t feel that there is anything deep in the political culture that prevents «educating the masses.» I’m old enough to recall vividly the high level of culture, general and political, among first-generation working people during the Great Depression. Workers’ education was lively and effective, union-based — mostly the vigorous rising labor movement, reviving from the ashes of the 1920s. I’ve often seen independent and quite impressive initiatives in working-class and poor and deprived communities today. And there’s a long earlier history of lively working-class culture, from the early days of the industrial revolution. The most important radical democratic movement in American history, the populist movement (not today’s «populism»), was initiated and led by farmers in Texas and the Midwest, who may have had little formal education but understood very well the nature of their plight at the hands of the powerful banking and commercial sectors, and devised effective means to counter it….

I’ve been fortunate enough to have seen remarkable examples elsewhere. I recall vividly a visit to an extremely poor, almost inaccessible rural village in southern Colombia, in an area under attack from all sides, where I attended a village meeting that was concerned with protecting their resources, including irreplaceable water supplies, from predatory international mining corporations. And in particular. a young man, with very little formal education, who led a thoughtful and very informed discussion of sophisticated development plans that they intended to implement. I’ve seen the same in poor villages in West Bengal, with a handful of books in the tiny schoolroom, areas liberated from landlord rule by Communist party militancy. The opportunities and, of course, resources are vastly greater in rich societies like ours.

I don’t think it is idle romanticism to recognize the potential that can be awakened, or arise independently, in communities that free themselves from indoctrination and passive subordination. The opportunities I think are there, to be grasped and carried forward.

Pollin: I think it is inevitable that leftist forces in the US would be divided, if not balkanized, to some extent. Among the full range of people who are committed to social and economic equality and ecological [justice] — i.e. to some variant of a leftist vision of a decent society — it will always be the case that some will be more focused on egalitarian economic issues, others around the environment and climate change, others on US imperialism, militarism and foreign policy, others on race and gender equality, and still others on sexual identity.

I certainly do not have the formula for how to most effectively knit all these groups together. But I do think we can learn a lot from the major successes out there. The 2016 Bernie Sanders presidential campaign is a first obvious example. Another is the California Nurses Association/National Nurses United (CNA/NNU) that I mentioned [before]. This is a union, fighting first for the well-being of its members, who are overwhelmingly women, with a high proportion being women of color. At the same time, CNA/NNU has been in the forefront of campaigns for single-payer health care and even the Robin Hood Tax on speculative Wall Street trading.

There are other progressive organizations that have proven track records of success. One is the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE), which has long been active around both living wage and other worker rights issues, as well as community economic development and environmental justice. A more recently formed coalition is NY Renews, which is comprised of 126 organizations in New York State who have come together to advance a serious program in the state to both dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions and expand good job opportunities. The Washington State Labor Council — part of the AFL-CIO — has also been committed and innovative in bringing together coalitions of labor and environmental groups.

The US left needs to learn and build from the achievements and ongoing work of these and similar groups. In fact, as Margaret Thatcher used to say, «there is no alternative» — if we are serious about successfully advancing a left alternative to the disasters caused by 40 years of neoliberal hegemony.


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