Guy Standing – Higher education and the precariat class

Educationists must fight the groundswell that was converting higher education into a commodity, force ethics, morals and philosophy courses back into the limelight to forge more principled leaders, and reduce systematic class discrimination to promote a teaching culture – not one fussing about short-term contracts.

Delivering a keynote address during the 7th Annual Learning and Teaching Higher Education Conference, held in Durban, economist Professor Guy Standing from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London blamed the higher education system for the growing lack of morals in society and for creating disparities in labour markets.

His analysis had a broader substance based on the impact that global liberalisation has had on labour.

A new class structure

In opening economies, the world had injected another two billion people into employment who were typically used to earning wages 30 to 50 times less than the amounts paid in first world economies, said Standing, author of The Precariat: The new dangerous class.

Consequently labour prices had dropped, creating a tiered system with multibillionaires at the peak, a small group of elite earners underneath, a myriad consultants earning massive income and "burning out at 31.5 years”, a shrinking proletariat and a disillusioned ‘precariat’ – an emerging lower class precariously distanced from full-time employment and without stable labour or earning potential.

At the lowest level, people were constantly retraining, networking and relearning skills to find outlets for their labour – but in a scenario where global liberalisation had removed ethics from the learning process.

They typically did not have access to social benefits like medical aid, pensions and paid holidays and, in always "being on the edge", did not develop a career path or gain personal fulfilment and were rapidly losing their social, political, health and welfare rights.

"They have also lost consciousness, creating a dangerous class divided into wholly uneducated people; politically detached immigrants lacking the education to participate in public life, but who lash out when issues affect them personally; and those who have completed the education process, but have no sense of a career," Standing said.

The latter wanted a return to moral citizenship and the ability to employ their own labour

He said the reality was that globally the uneducated sector was falling out of certain occupations, but in lacking education, were attracted to populism and turning to neo-fascist concepts. Recent events in Egypt, Spain and South Africa highlighted the phenomenon.

The role of higher education

Standing questioned the role higher education could and should play against this background, calling the situation "dire but universal".

Over the past 30 years, streamlined systems had enabled a tiny, privileged minority to buy enlightened education at top universities, while people in the precariat were forced to emphasise the human capital that gave them a competitive advantage over the next person.

The result was emerging commodities in higher education, the first of which was degrees, diplomas and certificates. An "epidemic of certificates" had created a lottery system where recipients paid increasingly high costs to obtain qualifications that held diminishing values.

"Society is losing the deep critical thinking that was the backbone to university education through these commodities. It is an issue that needs fighting," Standing said.

The next element was graduates – and a system in which professors were discouraged from failing students because it gave the institution a bad name and discouraged other students from enrolling. Students were given "deferred success" that Standing said effectively "dumbed down education" to maximise the numbers.

"Educationists must take some responsibility for dumbing down education and acknowledge that the youth are not stupid to what we have done to them," he said.

Higher education was also mass-producing academics, propagating the tiered system and creating a growing number of people in auxiliary roles without job security. This translated into society grading universities, which in turn forced the institutions to "prove they were making a difference".

Universities were peddling their products globally via online and teacherless courses and institutions "monopolised by corporate" that dismissed the relevance of philosophy, morals and ethics questioning, as they did not fit with the demands of the working environment.

Fighting commodification

"Key to resolving these issues and recreating an educational community is fighting the commodification of education.

“One area is returning moral education and the ethics of living, currently being crowded out by the commodification process, to higher education – that means preventing philosophy departments from being closed down because their return on investment is too low," he said.

He called on academics nearing retirement to lead the fight in this regard, given they had the strength and clout to do so. It required ensuring arts and social science heads sat on university boards alongside their commerce colleagues.

University of KwaZulu-Natal’s head of social science education, Dr Murthee Maistry, echoed Standing's comments, reflecting that neoliberal common sense was displacing critical thinking.

"This silent colonisation has become entrenched where there has been a shift from traditional university concepts to a market agenda. Where previously university provided the space for debate around morals and ethics, this platform is disappearing to market agendas and academic capitalism," Maistry said.

The consequence was a merging of commerce and research as industry funded studies. Universities reacted to external pressures, initiated corporate models and academic thinking "took on a life of its own" as a handful of people drove the agendas.

"The system is perpetuated by creating hard-working docile individuals, rewarded for not rocking the boat," he said.

* Guy Standing’s lecture was titled “The Precariat: Educational commodification and status frustration in higher education”.