Some notes on austerity, higher education and the crisis of *human capital*

NOTE: Joss Winn reminds me that “Human capital is a flagrantly despicable term to reduce people to”. He is, of course, correct. Joss adds: “people = abstract labour = value = capital, the automatic Subject.” See for example Bowles and Gintis, and Marx on The Emancipation Question.

In a post on the University and the secular crisis I noted that:

It is the secular crisis outlined by Elliott and Atkinson, the IFS and the IMF, and revealed inside-and-against the political economy of austerity, that is reshaping the very idea of the University. If we are to develop a meaningful, socially-constructed and democratic set of alternatives, they need to be placed against-and-beyond the secular crisis that is restricting and re-inscribing the very idea of the University.

This morning I read this from Andy Westwood on Austerity, the Spending Review and a crisis in human capital:

We thought the last Spending Review in 2010 was bad enough. But this one – covering 2015-16 and then 2016-2018 is beginning to look a whole lot worse. Departments across Whitehall are now deep into negotiations with the Treasury. And it’s looked pretty bloody for some time. The Budget confirmed the worst – it showed that it was highly likely that BIS as a non ring-fenced department would be looking at a cut of approximately £1bn (possibly as high as £1.6b) in 2015-16 and more in the years that immediately follow. Science and research may just get a reprieve but that will only magnify the cuts elsewhere in BIS spending.

The potential cuts to come are eye watering. As the FT showed in their data [], the total reductions between 2010 and 2018 are staggering. Local Government, Culture, Defence – even Health and Education are going to have to make really tough decisions and looking at each in turn it is also easy to see why they might look at universities and see them ‘awash with cash’…

If we think adult and part time demand is in crisis now, just wait until these changes start to take effect.

All in all we might describe this as a major human capital crisis – and so much for winning the global race. But perhaps as worrying in the short and longer term is a different aspect of this crisis that is gathering pace amongst academics, media and voters – the belief that investment in human capital, skills, FE and HE may not be worth it after all.

Little wonder that Willetts among others is pressing the technology agenda, stating that:

The UK must be at the forefront of developments in education technology. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCS) present an opportunity for us to widen access to, and meet the global demand for, higher education. This is growing rapidly in emerging economies like Brazil, India and China.

Futurelearn has the potential to put the UK at the heart of the technology for learning agenda by revolutionising conventional models of formal education. New online delivery tools will also create incredible opportunities for UK entrepreneurs to reach world markets by harnessing technology and innovation in the field of education.”

However, we might also wish to bear in-mind this report on youth unemployment in Europe from Zerohedge:

Overall, Europe’s youth unemployment rate continues to march higher (to 24.4%) having not fallen for 24 months, but it is Spain that is the ‘winner’ with 41 consecutive months without a drop in youth unemployment. With welfare benefits running dry, and Sweden and Switzerland already running hot, we fear this summer may bring the much-feared unrest so many have been concerned about.

Check out the charts in the original link and then consider what value or price your higher education, in particular in light of statements from across Europe like this one from Italian Labour Minister Enrico Giovannini that:

We have to rescue an entire generation of young people who are scared. We have the best-educated generation and we are putting them on hold. This is not acceptable.

We already have protests across the Eurozone including bloccupy Frankfurt.

Then we have to consider the role that credit and the financialisation of a University experience plays in that mix:

what most analysts either miss or dare not mention because it threatens their own privileged spot at the feeding trough is financialization, the process of financially commoditizing every asset to the benefit of the financial sector and the state (government), which also benefits from skyrocketing financial profits, bubbles and rising asset values.

Then we have the attrition in real wages, the increasing tendency towards stock market bubbles fuelled by QE and a rentier economy, increasing worries about the Chinese economy as the motor of growth, and weak demand in the US economy.

So I am left wondering about the range of increasingly disenfranchised social forces and the impact of an increasingly commodified higher education on the hopes and expectations of our young people. Andy Westwood notes:

If we are going to emerge from this current spending round and future spending reviews in the shape we’d all like, then we need to confront both the difficult spending numbers of 2015-16 and also the rather more difficult crisis in human capital that sits uneasily and rather threateningly, alongside it.

Perhaps the key is in refusing to see those social forces as human capital or means of production. Perhaps what is needed is a critique of the forms of political economy/political debate/politics of austerity that force us to view human lives and society as restricted by the idea of economic value. What is certainly needed is a recognition that the forces of production across capitalist society, which are increasingly restructuring higher education as means of production, are also increasingly ranged asymmetrically against the everyday experiences of young people. The question for academics is how to support both critique and the development/nurturing of alternative forms of society that in-turn push-back against the neoliberal agenda that commodifies humanity.