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Recent austerity measures place the future of North American and European higher education in jeopardy.

Many would agree that higher education is essential to economic success; however, despite the current global economic recession, cuts to the sector are gaining momentum in countries across the globe. Since 2008 the reduction of funding for higher education already resulted in the removal or merger of entire programmes, layoffs of and wage freezes for academic staff and the introduction of or exorbitant hikes in student tuition fees across higher education institutions in Europe and North America.


Specific cuts proposed or already implemented:

In the United States:

President Obama’s US$77,4 billion proposal contains two provisions intended for nation-wide higher education budgets that will reduce Government funding by US$89 billion by 2020:

  1. the student annual Pell Grant programme, a programme which awards students of low income families no more than US$5,550/year to cover education costs, will be trimmed back significantly for those who are eligible, and the previous availability for a second Grant for summer enrolment will be revoked;
  2. and Government subsidized loans for students pursuing Master’s or Doctoral programmes will be cut entirely.

The proposed cuts will be redistributed into other programmes that aid only the primary and secondary levels. A portion of the funding will also go to newly developed competitive academic programmes, such as: “First in the World,” a programme which seeks to reward universities for developing programs that “increase access and improve educational quality,” or “Race to the Top” which asks states for specific reforms to be made in certain areas of their education systems.


Effects of mounting debt on U.S. student graduates

These new provisions will be detrimental for the current public higher education institutions in the U.S., as tuition rates continue to escalate in the wake of the 2008 economic crisis. More and more students are forced to enter society with piles of accumulated debt upon undergraduate completion, unable to find employment and unable to afford the pursuit of graduate level education. Most undergraduates have no other option but to pursue graduate education, and thus accumulate more debt. Degree requirements for employment have also increased as job opportunities have grown more scarce; the Bachelor's degree has become the new GED.


An organisation active in voicing the concerns of American youth, so named the “Young Invincibles” recently collected and published concerns about the current situation of U.S. student loan debt:

“'LeAnne from Newark, New Jersey, is uncertain about her ability to afford bringing up a family, since she will struggle to pay more than US$300,000 in student loans while she works to become a doctor. She is fearful of the fact that she and others in our generation will be left behind as reductions in funding to public universities result in higher tuition and more student loans.

Reggie from Fairview, North Carolina is also concerned. He is unsure about what is available for his generation and unsure that jobs will be there to pay off the loans he will incur as a result of rising tuition. Reggie is most concerned with the doubling of interest rates on new federal loans that took place on 1 July from 3,4 per cent to 6,8 per cent, which he sees as a major hurdle to his future and that of his generation.'”


A student-led rally was organised on June 28th to hand over 1 million signatures asking the Government to forgive student loan debt.The petition’s creator, Robert Applebaum, believes that forgiving US$1 trillion in student loan debt will provide a serious stimulus for the U.S. economy:

“Forgiving student loan debt would have an immediate stimulating effect on the economy. Responsible people who did nothing other than pursue a higher education would have hundreds, if not thousands of extra dollars per month to spend, fuelling the economy now.”


In Canada:

The National Government has released a budget proposal that will not cut current allocations for higher education to the provinces and territories, but the current amount isn’t sufficient for covering the costs of rising inflation that the country is facing. This unfortunately leaves the provinces and territories with the heavy burden of implementing austerity measures to reduce growing deficits; and higher education has taken the worst beating. This has of course provoked civil unrest among the youth and employed of the Canadian education-sector.


Some of the effects as a result of the lack of increase in funding from the National Government include:

  • Alberta’s education budget will be trimmed by 80 million by 2013—with the largest percentage being taken from higher education;
  • British Columbia’s higher education budget will be cut by 70 million over the next three years;
  • and in Quebec, a province that previously provided the lowest-cost for quality higher education attainment, has promised that tuition fees would rise by 75 per cent over the next 5 years.

Information concerning facts and sources can be found on EI’s Canada country profile page here.


Student voices in Canada have been louder than ever

Student-led rallies have taken place all across Canada to protest what they believe to be unjust amendments to the current provincial education systems. The province that’s seen the most action has been Quebec, where some of the largest ever assemblies of students have gathered in protest of the 5-year tuition hike. Students are vehemently protesting the implement of a 75 per cent increase in several universities’ tuition rates, as many will be unable to afford the new costs and will therefore have to abandon their studies. Canadian students are fighting to keep the Canadian education systems from transitioning to the for-profit U.S. model; they believe that education is a fundamental right and a necessary expense to stimulate a nation’s economy. Canadian students also want to implement a more democratic approach in negotiating school policies; the highly controversial Bill 78 was an emergency law that was introduced in an effort to undermine collective-bargaining rights for all Canadian students.


The Coalition large de l'association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiant, CLASSE, represents about 170.000 student groups from Quebec CÉGEP colleges and universities. They say that what started three months ago as a widespread attempt to fight planned tuition hikes has now ballooned into an anti-government movement. CLASSE has vowed to continue in their opposition to the proposed tuition hikes as well as the anti-democratic Bill 78, even if they will face legal consequences. They conducted a 19-day summer tour that was meant to rally more students in support of the cause before classes resume on Aug. 16.

“This tour is about returning to the ideas, to the values that Quebec’s youth expressed quite loudly this spring,” said CLASSE’s main spokesperson, Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois.


In Europe:

Hundreds of millions will be cut from higher education budgets across Europe, as almost every country has resorted to reducing funding for academia as a result of austerity measures. Funding for European higher education has been on the slow decline ever since the onset of the economic crisis, with cuts significantly increasing over the last couple of years—with cuts up to 10 per cent in some countries since 2008. These cuts are especially detrimental to some countries in Eastern Europe, which have only established self-run governments within the last 20 or so years and are not financially equipped to burden a regional economic deficit. In some cases, citizens who were previously entitled to the right to a free, quality education now find themselves unable to participate in the education system completely due to rising tuition and student fees.


Cuts for European higher education have generally resulted in (but are not limited to):

Specific examples might include that of Latvian universities, which suffered cuts of 57 per cent between 2008 and 2010; universities in Portugal saw spending decrease by 22 per cent between 2011 and 2012. In 2012 alone Italy suffered a €1 billion cut in higher education budgets. Unemployment in Spain is the highest in Europe at 23 per cent, particularly for university graduates or drop-outs between 16-24 years old where the number is above 50 per cent; 62,5 per cent of the total €2,2 billion 2012 budget cut was taken from higher education in Spain. In Greece, as of 2012, over half university graduates between the ages of 15 and 24 are unable to find work in the country. Since 2009 budgets for Greek higher education have been cut by 23 per cent, meaning no funding for basic needs such as heating of educational facilities. 


How students in Europe are handling the dissolve of higher academia

European students across the region have reacted to a slew of different austerity measures directed at higher education mainly in the form of organized protests, some of which have took a turn for the increasingly violent. The demonstrations that occurred in Spain and Portugal were just a couple of the examples wherein European students are refusing to stand down in the face of extreme spending cuts to their universities.


A statement released by the European Students’ Union concerning student unrest in an era of economic crisis:

“'Funding of education is hardly a cause of structural debt and there is plenty of proof around to back arguments for more investment. But higher education is rarely a fiscal priority, especially when the solution seems to be 'the student' or 'the graduate' and where public investment can easily be turned into a private one…

There is still no answer to the problem of how to balance the public budget in relation to the mass-ification of higher education. Past decades have seen a rapid rise in the number of students while public investment has struggled to keep pace in many countries. Arguably, we have been witness to a fall in the quality of higher education…

Our role is to convince governments of the evidence showing the benefits of higher education, but also to make the moral case for investment. Students have been outspoken about these issues and I am certain that student protest and unrest will continue throughout 2012.'”


Effects overall

The long term effects that many of these cuts will have on societies still remain to be seen, although some signs of future detriment are already clear:

  • Higher education is becoming less and less affordable, and consequently countries around the world are seeing significantly lower enrolment rates; this will inevitably lead to a decline in the knowledge of the countries’ labour force.
  • Job markets are on the decline, hiring less workers—often unqualified (with substantially less pay) or over qualified—as a means to cut spending.
  • Some governments have relieved themselves of responsibility entirely, leaving private for-profit or skill-based educational facilities to dominate education systems completely.
  • Suicide rates have dramatically increased since 2008 among the ages 20-35, as many people find it more difficult to navigate their debt-laden lives.
  • Inequality in access to higher education as students are unable to afford high tuition fees


Taking action

EI is hosting its 8th International Conference on Higher Education on 25-27 September 2012. It will be a unique opportunity for representatives of higher education and research unions to discuss key trends in the sector and develop strategies to defend their professions and to counter the pressures of austerity, commercialisation and privatisation.


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