Austerity is a powerful buzzword these days, with few signs that its potency or impact will lessen any time soon. It is touted as a strategy for dealing with structural economic crises. Yet it is frequently also used in a much more promiscuous way, in attacks on public services of all sorts — including education. In this mode it reveals that it is not just an economic concept; it is a political weapon.
Austerity discourse at its root is entirely ideological. Its wielders start from a basic premise that “taxes are bad” (because individual profit-taking is deemed inherently good, even sacrosanct); and so public services must be bad by association. Applying a harsh calculus, everything thus becomes measurable solely in terms of its bottom line. If and when services are deemed necessary, their managers’ prime directive is to ensure they are run on as lean a basis as possible. The stated goal is to draw as little as possible on the ever-diminishing public purse, rather than simply provide services effectively. Efficiency trumps educational effectiveness in this scenario, along with other considerations such as quality, or equity.
We see this every day in our universities and colleges. Some of us are told that we can’t afford to have competitive salaries anymore (at least, not for everyone). Or that funding must be concentrated solely in profitable “priority” areas, letting others wither and die with no regard for social importance or intellectual merit. Austerity logic is used to argue that we simply can’t survive without faculty casualization, two-tiered workforces, or other schemes for squeezing out “productivity” at an ever-decreasing cost.
Then there are the mass-delivery schemes, MOOCs and pre-packaged courses, sold as further ways of keeping costs down and revenues up — for the sake of austerity. We hear all the above even as we stare open-mouthed at the salaries of our “austerity-minded” presidents, and watch revenue dollars flow into non-academic streams: new buildings, administrative bloat, endless form-filling, and consultancy or legal fees.
Something strange is clearly going on here. There was money in the past, and there does seem to be money in the present. And everything is supposedly being geared to generate more money in the future, but somehow not for everyone, and certainly not for academic workers. So what is really going on when everyone is so eager to demand ‘austerity’?
A clue can be found when we examine what austerity really is, and who it benefits; what work it actually does. The word itself (from Greek αὐστηρότης, austērótis), interestingly, does not mean “cheap” or “frugal,” and has no etymological connection to concepts of responsible management or living within one’s means. Rather it means “harsh, stern; stringently moral, strict, severely simple,” according to the Concise Oxford Dictionary.
These are not economic terms; they are aesthetic, ideological and value-laden. The idea that life should be harsh, bitter, severe and strictly disciplined is, I think, key to what we are up against. Even when there is plenty of money in objective terms, the austerity agenda values punitive and repressive policies because it is based on an inherent, if sometimes unconscious, antipathy to the very services it purports to be managing.
Academic management motivated by austerity frankly dislikes, and therefore aims to diminish, the democratic, emancipatory and transformative essence of our universities and colleges. It does this by seeking to turn them into something else entirely — reducing them over time into little more than efficient and well-disciplined periods of workforce training, perhaps with sugar-coated meal plans and shiny dorm rooms, but devoid of any real edificatory function.
So the goal is not just to save money, and we need to expose this fact. Money may indeed be short in some cases, due to mismanagement and declining enrolments or government cutbacks, but these are all too often manufactured crises that result from political choices. In other cases there clearly is plenty of money — for anti-faculty spin-doctors, for anti-union legal challenges and for astronomical administrators’ salaries at least. At Saskatchewan this year, after months of insisting on the urgent need for cuts through program prioritization, the university suddenly found itself able to simply give $20 million back to the government because it “wasn’t needed.” Evidently, the motivation behind most cutback demands is discipline and control, not an urgent need for savings.
Austerity is a mask for cutting or fundamentally altering services that are ideologically inconvenient. It is a tool for attack-ing employees’ rights to democratically order their workplace and bargain their compensation. It is a means of eroding and withering away our hard-won social services. When we stand up against it in defense of our profession, our workplace, our colleagues, and the integrity of public post-secondary education as a whole, we are also standing up for our students and our communities. Cheating the education sector is a false economy, and society ultimately pays the cost when faculty get short-changed. It’s time to end the austerity lie once and for all.
Robin Vose is the president of the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) and a professor of history at St. Thomas University.