By Salim Vally
In recent times mass protests involving millions have broken out in places as diverse as Puerto Rico, Ecuador, Lebanon, Chile, Haiti, Iraq, West Papua, Sudan and Algeria. In these countries and others, although the triggers for the protests, the methods and the goals are different, they share common themes – inequality, anger at the corruption of the elites, political unfreedoms and the consequences of climate change. In almost all cases, students and teachers were and remain on the frontlines of the massive demonstrations.
Most dramatically, protests in Chile although heavily repressed, did not stop two million people from flooding the streets. Their collective proclamation is best captured by the words on a popular placard – ‘Neoliberalism was born in Chile and will die in Chile’. The placard alludes to the fact that Chile after the military coup against Allende became the experimental grounds for Milton Friedman and the University of Chicago-trained economists including the privatisation of social sectors such as education and health care. Although the spark for the protests in Chile was an increase in the metro fare and the student-led movement of fare dodging, the protests rapidly expanded to other demands and embraced other social sectors. Chileans were clear: their demands transcended the 30 pesos of the transit increase but quickly included fundamental societal change and an end to 30 years of neoliberalism. Today Chile is one of the most unequal countries in Latin America with low pensions, unequal education rights, the privatisation of water, a dire and inadequate health care system, a rise in electricity prices and a rigged constitution.
The Chilean protest movement took to the streets just days after the partial victory in Ecuador, led by indigenous communities against an IMF imposed structural adjustment programme. Impressively, the protest movements in Chile and Ecuador consist of social forces dissatisfied with traditional political parties, comprising students, teachers, the unemployed, indigenous communities, trade unionists, feminists, environmentalists and those with precarious jobs. Moving away from a narrow identity politics they propose inclusive ‘transversal’ or non-sectoral demands incompatible with neoliberalism.
The worldwide protests have prompted some supporters of an ‘enlightened’ capitalism, as they define it, to concede that neoliberalism is on life support.
Education generally, including universities, is certainly not immune from the impact of neoliberalism. Universities are confronted by renewed privatisation, intensive marketisation and a challenge to the very notion of the university as a mechanism for addressing social inequality and facilitating the circulation of knowledge.
The warnings of colleagues about ‘academic capitalism’ more than two decades ago (whereby academic staff are channeled into entrepreneurial ventures as part of the university’s income-generating ethic and the embedding of universities within the logic of capitalism) has become the norm globally.
It is true that struggles within higher education continue and sporadically flare up across different campuses and in different countries. These struggles include the demands for rethinking the purpose of formal education, universal access to free quality education, demands for institutional change, and calls to decolonise institutions, programmes of study and curricula. As labour precarity bites deeply across sectors and societies, in many countries, university workers – academic and non-academic – and students have organised to resist further cuts to education and social spending, the imposition of neoliberal governance models, reorientation of education along market lines and the suppression of dissent. Yet, many of these struggles are short lived and often ineffective because of the inability to connect with struggles in broader society.
Undoubtedly, progressive spaces, while constrained, do exist and individuals in many universities are able to connect with community organisations and social movements and accomplish valuable counter-hegemonic work. Often these spaces have been won through struggles and by pressure from organisations outside. They must be expanded through a vigorous defence of higher education as a public good and a sphere of critical democratic citizenry, and resistance against commercial and corporate values that shape the form, purpose and mission of our institutions. Proactively, initiatives should include linking programmes, projects and resources to community needs and struggles.
Sangeeta Kamat during a recent panel discussion on social movements and education articulated a challenge for those working in universities to build and sustain a ‘school to movement pipeline’. Rebecca Tarlau’s recent book on the MST (Landless Workers Movement) in Brazil also offers invaluable lessons on how education and education institutions can link to activism. Colleagues in Turkey although persecuted and expelled from universities by the autocratic Erdogan regime have shown their resilience by continuing to teach off campus.
In this period marked by an assault on education and reason, increasing inequality, devastating unemployment and the rise of obscurantist, xenophobic and misogynistic discourse, militarism, as well as the unprecedented ecological crisis, meaningful educational activism that engages with movements and communities is decisive. The recent examples of resistance in many countries offer hope, lessons and inspiration.
Salim Vally is a professor at the University of Johannesburg and South African Chair in Community, Adult and Workers’ Education. His co-edited book with Aziz Choudry, The University and Social Justice: Struggles Across the Globe will be published by Pluto Press early next year.