Wednesday, June 22, 2011

In Some Important Ways I Have Not Left Home

John N. Gardner

Since 1986 every summer I have looked forward to travelling to an international location to participate in a conference series I founded in 1986: the University of South Carolina’s International Conferences on The First-Year Experience (IFYE). This post is written on the eve of the opening of the 24 annual IFYE Conference in Manchester, UK. I would be less than honest if I didn’t acknowledge that one of the things I look forward to most is the opportunity to return to the United Kingdom, a country I am comfortable in, knowledgeable and respectful of, and where our IFYE series began.This  year I have returned and have been having this nagging and disappointing realization that in some ways I have not left home.

Here are some similarities between our two cultures that tell me we have “converged” and are not nearly as distinct as we were when I started this series in 1986:

1. The Brits have emulated the US in funding student participation in higher education through personal debt acquisition on the part of students. What was essentially “free” higher education to the student in Britain in 1986 my first year of offering a conference for this higher education culture, now averages 9000 pounds or more than $14,000 of out-of-pocket cost to the student and his/her family.

2. British students have come to regard higher education as a consumer commodity not a privilege and hence have become very critical of what they are paying for. The government has been tracking the increase in reported unresolved complaints filed by students against their universities. In the week I arrived in the UK the government “named and shamed” the two universities with the highest rates of failing to resolve student complaints.

3. Both countries are dealing with huge national government deficits exacerbated and essentially caused by financial deregulation and mismanagement of the investment and speculative real estate sectors.

4. Both countries are pursuing a conservative ideology, not based on any facts or proven track record, that reduction of taxes and governmental operating costs will promote economic growth

5. Both countries are punishing the working middle class and the poor, blaming them for the economic ills by attacking national health systems, and government funded pension systems for government employees.

6. In effect, both countries have shifted the blame for the economic meltdown from the affluent financial ruling class to the working and non working middle and lower classes. In both countries this represents a spectacular rewriting of recent history.

7. Both countries have massively cut national subsidies to local/regional governments, leading to widespread public service cutbacks at the local level.

8. Both countries are cutting back the social safety net for the least powerful, the poor, the sick, the infirmed.

9. In Britain the evolution of the modern welfare state, developed after World War II has been brought to a screeching halt. In the US, which never had a real “modern welfare state”, the effort to create a “kindler, gentler nation” through such popular initiatives as Social Security and Medicare, has been under massive attack from right wing ideologues. The outcome for both is very uncertain.

10. In Britain, an effort by the Conservative coalition government to “privatize” the extremely popular NHS, National Health System, has had to be compromised and called back, just as one party in the US has had to backtrack after a proposal to privatize Medicare bombed with the overwhelming majority of the American public.

11. Unlike Britain, though, only the US is firing its public school teachers in huge numbers and truly rolling back the clock on “public” support of education.
In summary, I am finding it is harder for me to get away even for a few days from the things that trouble me back home. For better or worse,  the US driven system of global capitalism is wreaking similar havoc all over the world and is trumping all other value systems. This suggests to me that more than ever we need in US higher education to be challenging our students who will lead our next generation to examine the fundamental values systems on which we are making our most important political choices.

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