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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Statement to the U.S. Commission on the Future of Higher Education

Good afternoon. My name is Jason Pramas, and I am senior in the Community Media and Technology program at the University of Massachusetts Boston. I am also chair of the Committee on Higher Education of our Undergraduate Student Senate.

I’m here today to tell you what students at my predominantly working-class multiracial commuter college need from the federal government. And what we don’t need.

We don’t need huge cuts to the federal higher education budget of the type that the Bush administration is currently prosecuting.

We don’t need a higher education system that shifts its funding burden from a collective cost shared by our entire society to an individual cost born heavily by students and their families.

We don’t need a higher education system that dumps public money on relatively small private colleges while giant public university systems starve for funds–as is certainly the case in Massachusetts, where the bulk of federal funds goes to private colleges despite the fact that the bulk of students here go to public colleges.

We don’t need an expansion of the already out-of-control national standardized testing regime that saps resources from public education at all levels in the service of the questionable goal of proving students ability to take standardized tests.

We don’t need a continuation of the structural transformation of higher education to an increasingly corporate model where students are viewed as “units” to be moved, (“products” to be produced); faculty and staff are subjected to endless attempts to destabilize their job security and their control over curriculum and governance; and administrators believe themselves to be “managers” and “CEOs” who rule the roost like feudal autocrats.

What we do need is simple. We need a fully tax-payer funded public higher education system. Extending our existing K-12 public school system to become at least a K-16 system. Pretty much every other industrialized nation in the world has this kind of system, and reaps the benefits therefrom.

Protestations that we, the richest nation in the world, couldn’t possibly afford such a system are ludicrous–especially given that studies show that it could be done for well under $100 billion a year–at a time when our nation is spending over $100 billion a year on the occupation of Iraq.

Beyond such a public K-16 educational system, we need a solid education that does not narrow itself to meet the needs of fashionable industries of the moment–for example, the biotech industry–and we need good jobs when we graduate.

It’s worth mentioning that members of this Commission speak at length about the dire need for more education and training for Americans–particularly in the sciences–at precisely the moment when the contingentization of our labor markets for the past 30 years has destroyed the very idea of a good job in this country. Job security, decent wages, and benefits are things of the past for most Americans. A problem which is perhaps outside the purview of this body to deal with. More’s the pity.

Higher education itself is dependent on a subsidy from the hidden majority of its teachers: namely contingent or part-time or non-tenured faculty who have poor pay, little job security, few or no healthcare benefits, and yet are charged with the most important aspect of higher education service delivery: teaching. At the same time, the Commission’s make up does not represent this core constituency of higher education.

In this vein, needless to say, we’re skeptical about the Commission. It seems stacked with corporate representatives, conservative think-tanks, Bush appointees, and a light sprinkling of academics, but has no representation of the vast majority of participants in our higher education system. The giant membership organizations and unions of faculty, students and staff–the AAUP, NEA, AFT, and USSA–are nowhere to be found in your ranks–which seems a rather startling omission, given the gravity of the Commission’s mandate.

And holding a bare handful of meetings and small public hearings like this one seems a rather poor way of taking the pulse of American higher education.

In any case, the needs of the students of the University of Massachusetts, and indeed the needs of students across the United States, can only be properly fulfilled by a fully taxpayer-funded public higher education system. And that will only happen if the need for higher education is once again seen as a public good.

To the extent to which this Commission sees that the need of American students is a public need, and that the interest of American students is the public interest, it can be a useful endeavor. However, if this Commission is bound and determined to continue to push American higher education further down the path of continued privatization, then what is happening in France right now where large numbers of students are fighting for decent jobs and education. . .will be happening here in the years to come.

Because American students, and Americans in general can only be pushed so far, before we react in the defense of our basic rights. So constructive public solutions are needed now. Or our higher education system will face years of decay and turmoil. This is the basic choice before you. Thank you.