The Effects of Neoliberalism on Universities: Part II

Fellow Big Think blogger Zachary Shtogren questions the influence of neoliberal economic frameworks on higher education asking, “What kind of prosperity do big thinkers see when education becomes a commodity to be bought and sold like any other?" The answer is none. 

The overwhelming reliance of public universities on private funding has been disastrous. The neoliberal educational model shortchanges students, faculty, and staff equally and provides no defense for a liberal education's integrity from private interests.


Take for example the University of Wisconsin-Madison, long considered a “public ivy” and the flagship school of the Wisconsin state system. Over the past five years, this university has suffered the type of losses Stanley Fish mentions as the inevitable outcome of the neoliberal model—tuition hikes, reliance on industry funding, and the hiring of short-term, adjunct staff to replace long-term faculty positions. In short, the university is imploding. 

Tuition hikes have led to fewer freshmen applications as prospective students opt to attend less expensive two-year colleges closer to home. Living at home while attending college means less money spent on room and board. After record incoming undergraduate classes between 2006-2008, UW-Madison projects that enrollment will deflate and then flat line until at least 2013

The dearth of funding from both the state and private sources means programs will inevitably shrink or be cut altogether. The first wave of cuts occurred with a wide-scale faculty flight, with high numbers of faculty leaving the UW-Madison between 2004-2006. By 2008, the UW's College of Letters and Science had lost 66 faculty members. Among those departments hardest hit was Political Science which lost a whopping eight professors, or nearly half the department. As top faculty continue to leave for better funding and support at other institutions, the university discounts the future as it becomes a less attractive destination for funding and grants. Fewer top faculty and graduate students will be attracted to programs with meager funding while less overall staffing leads to engorged class sizes and the forced corporatization of teaching.

With the UW-Madison’s endowment and state funding at all time lows, Chancellor Carolyn “Biddy” Martin warns of a further contraction of the university by leaving vacant faculty positions unfilled and placing admissions caps on more high volume programs in Colleges of Nursing and Engineering. Considering the ongoing nursing shortage in the national health care system, such cutbacks have far-reaching effects for the American public.

The University of Wiscosnin represents just one example of the high cost of neoliberalism in education, but in this economy even elite, private institutions like Harvard face the prospect of downsizing as the education bubble bursts. When education becomes a commodity to be bought and sold, the overall quality of the education becomes as unstable as the market system on which it relies. The resulting losses in faculty and funding have been and continue to be devastating.  While public universities worry about how to make education more profitable, they devalue the very commodity they seek to sustain.

What will it take to set higher education back on the right track? Does President Obama's plan to expand the tax credit for college tuition and increase financial aid represent a viable long-term fix for reinvesting in higher education? Should bailout funds be used to prop up ailing public universities and student loan providers?

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