Why Is College in America So Expensive?

Université et argent
Before the automobile, before the Statue of Liberty, before the vast majority of contemporary colleges existed, the rising cost of higher education was shocking the American conscience: “Gentlemen have to pay for their sons in one year more than they spent themselves in the whole four years of their course,” The New York Times lamented in 1875.

Decadence was to blame, the writer argued: fancy student apartments, expensive meals, and “the mania for athletic sports.”

Today, the U.S. spends more on college than almost any other country, according to the 2018 Education at a Glance report released this week by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

All told, including the contributions of individual families and the government (in the form of student loans, grants, and other assistance), Americans spend about $30,000 per student a year — nearly twice as much as the average developed country. “The U.S. is in a class of its own,” says Andreas Schleicher, the director for education and skills at the OECD, and he does not mean this as a compliment. “Spending per student is exorbitant, and it has virtually no relationship to the value that students could possibly get in exchange.”

Only one country spends more per student, and that country is Luxembourg — where tuition is nevertheless free for students, thanks to government outlays. In fact, a third of developed countries offer college free of charge to their citizens. (And another third keep tuition very cheap — less than $2,400 a year.) The farther away you get from the United States, the more baffling it looks.

This back-to-school season, The Atlantic is investigating a classic American mystery: Why does college cost so much? And is it worth it?

At first, like the 19th-century writer of yore, I wanted to blame the curdled indulgences of campus life: fancy dormitories, climbing walls, lazy rivers, dining halls with open-fire-pit grills. And most of all — college sports. Certainly sports deserved blame.

On first glance, the new international data provide some support for this narrative. The U.S. ranks No. 1 in the world for spending on student-welfare services such as housing, meals, health care, and transportation, a category of spending that the OECD lumps together under “ancillary services.” All in all, American taxpayers and families spend about $3,370 on these services per student — more than three times the average for the developed world.

NewImageOne reason for this difference is that American college students are far more likely to live away from home. And living away from home is expensive, with or without a lazy river. Experts say that campuses in Canada and Europe tend to have fewer dormitories and dining halls than campuses in the U.S. “The bundle of services that an American university provides and what a French university provides are very different,” says David Feldman, an economist focused on education at William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. “Reasonable people can argue about whether American universities should have these kind of services, but the fact that we do does not mark American universities as inherently inefficient. It marks them as different.”

But on closer inspection, the data suggest a bigger problem than fancy room and board. Even if we were to zero out all these ancillary services tomorrow, the U.S. would still spend more per college student than any other country (except, again, Luxembourg). It turns out that the vast majority of American college spending goes to routine educational operations — like paying staff and faculty — not to dining halls. These costs add up to about $23,000 per student a year — more than twice what Finland, Sweden, or Germany spends on core services. “Lazy rivers are decadent and unnecessary, but they are not in and of themselves the main culprit,” says Kevin Carey, the author of The End of College and the director of the education-policy program at New America, a nonpartisan think tank.

The business of providing an education is so expensive because college is different from other things that people buy, argue Feldman and his colleague Robert Archibald in their 2011 book, Why Does College Cost So Much? College is a service, for one thing, not a product, which means it doesn’t get cheaper along with changes in manufacturing technology (economists call this affliction “cost disease”). And college is a service delivered mostly by workers with college degrees — whose salaries have risen more dramatically than those of low-skilled service workers over the past several decades.

College is not the only service to have gotten wildly more expensive in recent decades, Feldman and Archibald point out. Since 1950, the real prices of the services of doctors, dentists, and lawyers have risen at similar rates as the price of higher education, according to Feldman and Archibald’s book. “The villain, as much as there is one, is economic growth itself,” they write.

This all makes sense, if we just focus on the U.S. But what about the rest of the world? These broader economic trends exist there, too. So why does college still cost half as much, on average, in other countries?

One oddity of America’s higher-education system is that it is actually three different systems masquerading as one: There is one system of public colleges; another of private, nonprofit institutions; and one made up of for-profit colleges.

The biggest system by far is the public one, which includes two-year community colleges and four-year institutions. Three out of every four American college students attend a school in this public system, which is funded through state and local subsidies, along with students’ tuition dollars and some federal aid.

In this public system, the high cost of college has as much to do with politics as economics. Many state legislatures have been spending less and less per student on higher education for the past three decades. Bewitched by the ideology of small government (and forced by law to balance their budgets during a period of mounting health-care costs), states have been leaving once-world-class public universities begging for money. The cuts were particularly stark after the 2008 recession, and they set off a cascading series of consequences, some of which were never intended.

The easiest way for universities to make up for the cuts was to shift some of the cost to students — and to find richer students. “Once that sustainable public funding was taken out from under these schools, they started acting more like businesses,” says Maggie Thompson, the executive director of Generation Progress, a nonprofit education-advocacy group. State cutbacks did not necessarily make colleges more efficient, which was the hope; they made colleges more entrepreneurial.

Some universities began to enroll more full-paying foreign and out-of-state students to make up the difference. Over the past decade, for example, Purdue University has reduced its in-state student population by 4,300 while adding 5,300 out-of-state and foreign students, who pay triple the tuition. “They moved away from working to educate people in their region to competing for the most elite and wealthy students — in a way that was unprecedented,” Thompson says.

This competition eventually crept beyond climbing walls and dining halls into major, long-term operating expenses. For example, U.S. colleges spend, relative to other countries, a startling amount of money on their nonteaching staff, according to the OECD data. Some of these people are librarians or career or mental-health counselors who directly benefit students, but many others do tangential jobs that may have more to do with attracting students than with learning. Many U.S. colleges employ armies of fund-raisers, athletic staff, lawyers, admissions and financial-aid officers, diversity-and-inclusion managers, building-operations and maintenance staff, security personnel, transportation workers, and food-service workers.

The international data is not detailed enough to reveal exactly which jobs are diverting the most money, but we can say that U.S. colleges spend more on nonteaching staff than on teachers, which is upside down compared with every other country that provided data to the OECD (with the exception of Luxembourg, naturally).

In addition, most global rankings of universities heavily weight the amount of research published by faculty — a metric that has no relationship to whether students are learning. But in a heated race for students, these rankings get the attention of college administrators, who push faculty to focus on research and pay star professors accordingly.

Likewise, the new data show that U.S. colleges currently have a slightly lower ratio of students to teachers than the average for the developed world — another metric favored in college rankings. But that is a very expensive way to compete. And among education researchers, there is no clear consensus about whether smaller classes are worth the money.

In the beginning, university administrators may have started competing for full-freight paying students in order to help subsidize other, less affluent students. But once other colleges got into the racket, it became a spending arms race. More and more universities had to participate, including private colleges unaffected by state cuts, just to keep their application numbers up. “There is such a thing as wasteful competition,” Charles Clotfelter, a Duke University professor and the author of Unequal Colleges in the Age of Disparity, wrote me in an email.

All that said, it’s also true that state budget cuts were uneven across the country. Today, in-state tuition in Wyoming is about a third of the cost of Vermont, for example. In places where higher education has not been gutted and the cost of living is low, an American college degree can still be a bargain — especially for students who don’t mind living at home and are poor enough to qualify for federal aid. Taking into account living expenses, says Alex Usher of the consulting firm Higher Education Strategy Associates, a student at a public university in Mississippi will likely end up with similar out-of-pocket costs as a student in Sweden.

Usher, who is based in Toronto, is one of the few researchers to have looked carefully at the costs of higher education globally. And much of what he finds is surprising. In 2010, he and his colleague Jon Medow created a clever ranking of 15 countries’ higher-education systems — using a variety of ways to assess affordability and access. Reading the report is like peeling an onion. The first layer focuses on the most obvious question: the affordability of college based on the cost of tuition, books, and living expenses divided by the median income in a given country. By this metric, the U.S. does very poorly, ranking third from the bottom. Only Mexico and Japan do worse.

But the U.S. moves up one place when grants and tax credits are included. “Your grants are actually really generous compared to everybody else,” Usher says. Tuition is higher in the U.S., so the grants don’t fully cover the price, but 70 percent of full-time students do receive some kind of grant aid, according to the College Board. From this perspective, sometimes called “net cost,” Australia is more expensive than the U.S.

Next, looking only at our public colleges, the U.S. rises higher still, ranking in the middle of the pack in Usher’s analysis, above Canada and New Zealand. This data is from 2010, and things may look less rosy if he were to redo the study now, Usher cautions. But still, he sounds weirdly hopeful. “The public system in the U.S. is working as well as most systems,” he says. “Parts of the U.S. look like France.”

The problem, of course, is that other parts of the U.S. look more like a Louis Vuitton store. America basically contains 50 different higher-education systems, one per state, each with public, private, and for-profit institutions, making generalizations all but impossible. The U.S. does relatively well on measures of access to college, but the price varies wildly depending on the place and the person. Somehow, students have to find their way through this thicket of competition and choose wisely, or suffer the consequences.

The more I studied America’s baffling higher-education system, the more it reminded me of health care. In both spaces, Americans pay twice as much as people in other developed countries—and get very uneven results. The U.S. spends nearly $10,000 a person on health care each year (25 percent more than Switzerland, the next biggest spender), according to the OECD’s 2017 Health at a Glance report, but our life expectancy is now almost two years below the average for the developed world.

“I used to joke that I could just take all my papers and statistical programs and globally replace hospitals with schools, doctors with teachers and patients with students,” says Dartmouth College’s Douglas Staiger, one of the few U.S. economists who studies both education and health care.

Both systems are more market driven than in just about any other country, which makes them more innovative — but also less coherent and more exploitive. Hospitals and colleges charge different prices to different people, rendering both systems bewilderingly complex, Staiger notes. It is very hard for regular people to make informed decisions about either, and yet few decisions could be more important.

In both cases, the most vulnerable people tend to make less-than-ideal decisions. For example, among high-achieving, low-income students (who have grades and test scores that put them in the top 4 percent of U.S. students and would be eligible for generous financial aid at elite colleges), the vast majority apply to no selective colleges at all, according to research by Caroline Hoxby and Christopher Avery. “Ironically, these students are often paying more to go to a nonselective four-year college or even a community college than they would pay to go to the most selective, most resource-rich institutions in the United States,” as Hoxby told NPR.

Meanwhile, when it comes to health care, low-income Americans tend to be less familiar with the concepts of deductibles, coinsurance rates, and provider networks, according to a variety of studies, which makes it extremely difficult to choose a health-care plan. “These are both sectors where consumers are too poorly informed and societal costs and benefits too great to leave decision-making entirely in the hands of individuals,” as Isabel Sawhill at the Brookings Institution has written.

Ultimately, college is expensive in the U.S. for the same reason MRIs are expensive: There is no central mechanism to control price increases. “Universities extract money from students because they can,” says Schleicher at the OECD. “It’s the inevitable outcome of an unregulated fee structure.” In places like the United Kingdom, the government limits how much universities can extract by capping tuition. The same is true when it comes to health care in most developed countries, where a centralized government authority contains the prices.

The U.S. federal government has historically been unwilling to perform this role. So Americans pay more for pharmaceuticals — and for college classes. Meanwhile, more and more of the risk gets shifted from government onto families, in both sectors.

At the very least, the American government could do a better job sharing information about the quality of colleges in ways everyone can understand, Schleicher says. “You can’t force people to buy good things or bad things, but they should be able to see what the value is.”

Spending a lot of money can be worth it, if you get something awesome in exchange. “America has the best colleges and universities in the world!” President Donald Trump exclaimed at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, earlier this year. Former President Barack Obama said the same thing before him.

But is it actually true? No meaningful data exist on the quality of universities globally. America does have a disproportionate number of elite colleges, which accept fewer than 10 percent of applicants, and these places do employ some brilliant scholars who do groundbreaking research. But fewer than 1 percent of American students attend highly selective colleges like those.

Instead, more than three-quarters of students attend nonselective colleges, which admit at least half of their applicants. No one knows for sure how good these colleges are at their core job of educating students. But in one of the only careful, recent studies on adult skills, the OECD’s Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, Americans under age 35 with a bachelor’s degree performed below their similarly educated peers in 14 other countries on the test of practical math skills. In other words, they did only slightly better than high-school graduates in Finland. America’s college grads did better in reading, performing below just six other countries, but dropped off again in another test, scoring below 13 other countries in their ability to solve problems using digital technology.

If American colleges are not adding obvious and consistent academic value, they are adding financial value. Americans with college degrees earn 75 percent more than those who only completed high school. Over a lifetime, people with bachelor’s degrees earn more than half a million dollars more than people with no college degree in the U.S. In fact, no other country rewards a college degree as richly as the United States, and few other countries punish people so relentlessly for not having one. It’s a diabolical cycle: Colleges are very expensive to run, partly because of the high salaries earned by their skilled workers. But those higher salaries make college degrees extremely valuable, which means Americans will pay a lot to get them. And so colleges can charge more. As Carey, the End of College author, summarizes: “Students are over a barrel.”

Still, the return varies wildly depending on the college one attends. One in four college grads earns no more than the average high-school graduate. Associate’s degrees from for-profit universities lead to smaller salary bumps than associate’s degrees from community colleges, which are cheaper. And two-thirds of students at for-profits drop out before earning their degree anyway, meaning many will spend years struggling with debt they cannot afford to pay off — and cannot, under U.S. law, off-load through bankruptcy.

This convoluted, complicated, inconsistent system continues to exist, and continues to be so expensive because college in America is still worth the price. At certain colleges, for certain people. Especially if they finish. But it doesn’t have to be this way, and almost everywhere else, it isn’t.

First published, September 11, 2018

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Météo des Luttes – janvier-février 2019 –

Barometer of struggles – January-February 2019 –

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Barómetro de las luchas – enero-febrero de 2019 –

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Aux quatre coins de la planète, des étudiants, des universitaires, des chercheurs, mais aussi des lycéens ou des enseignants, se mobilisent pour s’opposer aux politiques néolibérales et conquérir de nouveaux droits. Et la plupart du temps, nous n’en savons rien ou si peu…
Nous nous proposons donc de tenir sur ce blog une « météo des luttes », organisée sous la forme de textes courts, de « brèves », suivis de liens à consulter ou de documents à télécharger.
Dans ce bulletin météo, nous vous signalons quelques-uns de ces combats, locaux et universels...

All over the world, students, academics, researchers, as well as high school students and teachers are mobilizing to oppose neoliberal policies and conquer new rights. But most of the time, we hear little or no wind of it...
We therefore propose to keep on this blog a “barometer of struggles” organized in the form of news in brief, followed by links to consult or documents to download.
In this weathercast, we signal to you a few of these recent fights, local and universal…

Überall auf der Welt kämpfen Studierende, Lehrende und Forschende, aber auch SchülerInnen oder gar Eltern, gegen neoliberale Politik und für neue Rechte. Davon erfahren wir in der Regel nur wenig…
Auf dieser Seite verzeichnen wir also einen wissenschaftlichen Streikwetterdienst aus kurzen Texten und Meldungen mit Links und Dokumenten zum Herunterladen.
In diesem Bericht stellen wir Euch einige dieser lokalen und allgemeinen Kämpfe vor.

En todas partes del mundo, estudiantes, académicos, investigadores, pero también estudiantes y profesores de secundaria se movilizan para oponerse a las políticas neoliberales y conquistar nuevos derechos. Pero la mayor parte del tiempo, no sabemos nada o muy poco....
Por lo tanto, proponemos mantener en este blog un "barómetro de las luchas", organizado en forma de resúmenes, seguidos de enlaces para consultar o documentos para descargar.
En este reporte meteorológico, señalamos algunas de estas luchas, locales y universales…

In tutto il mondo, studenti, accademici, ricercatori, ma anche studenti delle scuole superiori e insegnanti si stanno mobilitando per contrastare le politiche neoliberali e conquistare nuovi diritti. E il più delle volte non ne sappiamo nulla, o molto poco...
Proponiamo quindi di tenere su questo blog un "meteo delle lotte", organizzato in forma di brevi testi, seguiti da link da consultare o documenti da scaricare.
In questo bollettino meteorologico, diamo notizia di alcune lotte, locali e universali…

Em todo o mundo, estudantes, acadêmicos, pesquisadores, mas também estudantes do ensino médio e professores estão se mobilizando para se opor às políticas neoliberais e conquistar novos direitos. E, na maioria das vezes, não sabemos nada ou tão pouco acerca disso...
Propomos portanto manter neste blog um "clima das lutas", composto por textos curtos, "resumos", seguidos de links para consulta ou documentos para download.
Neste boletim meteorológico, relatamos algumas dessas batalhas, locais e universais…

  1. En Afrique
    • Guinée
      Après plus de trois mois de grève liés à des revendications salariales, les enseignants ont repris les cours car un accord a enfin été trouvé avec le gouvernement.
    • Niger
      NewImageLes enseignants-chercheurs ont lancé une grève de 72 heures à partir du 18 février. Leurs revendications portent sur de meilleures conditions de vie et de salaire ainsi que sur la poursuite des élections des recteurs des universités du pays par toute la communauté universitaire et non par nomination du ministère de l’Enseignement supérieur.
    • République démocratique du Congo
      Après trois jours de coupure d’eau et d’électricité sur le campus de l’Université de Lubumbashi suite à des pluies diluviennes, une manifestation des étudiants a mal tourné le 27 janvier.
    • Sénégal
      Les étudiants de l’Université Gaston Berger (UGB) de Saint-Louis continuent de réclamer leurs bourses en ce début d’année 2019 et ont décrété un mot d’ordre de grève de 48 heures. Ils sont aussi en colère contre les ruptures d’approvisionnement de l’eau potable au sein du campus et la non-disponibilité du WIFI.

      Au printemps 2018, comme en 1968, c’est pour réclamer des bourses d’un niveau suffisant que les étudiants sont descendus dans la rue et que des heurts importants ont eu lieu avec les forces de l’ordre tuant un étudiant de l’UGB par balle le 15 mai.

    • Tunisie
      NewImageAlors que le Fonds monétaire international presse le gouvernement tunisien de geler les salaires du secteur public afin de réduire le déficit budgétaire, un mouvement de grève a été massivement suivi dans la fonction publique depuis novembre dernier. Un accord sur les augmentations salariales a finalement été signé le 7 février par le gouvernement et l’UGTT (Union générale des travailleurs tunisiens), annulant par là-même la grève générale qui était prévue les 20 et 21 février. Toutefois, selon le secrétaire général de l’UGTT, la mobilisation du personnel du secondaire doit se poursuivre tant que le dossier des retenues sur les salaires du personnel gréviste n’est pas réglé.
  2. En Amérique Latine
    • Colombia
      NewImageEntre octubre y diciembre de 2018, los estudiantes han convocado acciones de lucha en todo el país no sólo para exigir más presupuesto para las universidades públicas sino también para denunciar los crímenes de líderes sociales y la represión durante las marchas. Los estudiantes, los profesores y el Gobierno Nacional de Ivan Duque llegaron a un acuerdo el 14 de diciembre de 2018. A ver cómo va a suceder con la mesa de diálogo entre los diferentes actores para seguir e implementar concretemente los acuerdos…
  3. En Amérique du Nord
    • United States
      More than 30 000 teachers on the streets of Los Angeles on January 14. Something we have not seen since 1989 ! These teachers of public schools are fighting to get higher salaries and better learning environment for children who are often more than 40 in a class. The strike could snowball in the United States and help to strengthen the fight against privatization of education.

      Following Los Angeles, labour actions took place in half a dozen states. In Denver, after a three-day strike, a first in 25 years, teachers won on February 14. Denver School District will allow an average 11.7 percent pay raise and annual cost of living increases. This « historic deal », as described by the Denver Teachers School Association (DTSA), addresses the teachers’ biggest concern about the unfair and non-transparent merit-pay system.

      In West Virginia, teachers walked off the job for a second time in the year on tuesday 19 February. But this time, they are not fighting for pay raises. They’re protesting Republican efforts to privatize public education.

  4. En Europe
    • Albanie
      En réaction à la hausse annoncée des droits d’inscription, des milliers d’étudiants albanais étaient dans la rue le 11 décembre 2018. Cette révolte étudiante, qui bouscule le pouvoir, remet en cause non seulement la démocratie mais aussi les politiques néolibérales appliquées par les principaux partis, analysent Jean-Arnault Dérens et Laurent Geslin dans un article de Mediapart.
    • Belgique
      Des dizaines de milliers d’étudiants soutenus par l’association Youth for climate, « brossent » les cours….
    • France
      Carre rouge soutien 600Le 19 novembre 2018, le Premier Ministre Édouard Philippe a annoncé l’augmentation des frais d’inscription des étudiants étrangers non-européens. La mesure, présentée comme un vecteur de ressources nouvelles dans une stratégie d’attractivité internationale des universités françaises, prévoit une hausse de près de 1600% de ces frais ! Pour s’y opposer, de nombreuses mobilisations se poursuivent dans tout le pays, organisées par les principaux syndicats (FAGE, Solidaires, UNEF), ainsi que des collectifs d’étudiants et d’enseignants-chercheurs.

      Au cours des semaines, les mobilisations s’intensifient et se diversifient. Pour suivre en direct l’évolution du conflit, le site du collectif université ouverte recense les actions en cours et prévues dans toute la France, dans l’attente de la parution d’un décret.

      Les étudiants appellent par ailleurs à une convergence des luttes avec les lycéens, les syndicats, le mouvement des gilets jaunes et la lutte pour le climat.

      De leur côté, des enseignants en colère du primaire, du secondaire ou de l’enseignement agricole réclament une revalorisation de leurs salaires, une meilleure reconnaissance de leur métier et moins de précarité. Organisés sur les réseaux sociaux, ces « stylos rouges » regroupent 60 000 internautes sur Facebook, se mobilisent un peu partout en France et ont publié un manifeste téléchargeable ici.

    • Germany
      In Berlin, thousands of students held a strike against the coal Commission on Friday January 25th demanding an end to fossil fuels. Germany's deal sets a 2038 end date for coal, but it's not ambitious enough
    • Netherlands
      An estimated 10,000 students marching through The Hague to protest climate change on February 7th.
    • Suisse
      Une mobilisation de la jeunesse d’ampleur nationale en faveur du climat s’est déroulée, le 18 janvier, dans 15 villes helvétiques dont Neuchâtel, Zurich et Genève.
    • United Kingdom
      NewImageAfter the strikes against pension cuts in 2018 voted in 61 universities through the University and College Union (UCU) action, new strikes dates are announced at 16 English colleges in pay row, starting on Tuesday 29 January.
  5. En Océanie
    • Australia
      Thousands of school students protest and walk out of class on Fridays and will be ready to follow the global strike4 on climate on March 15.

À l’origine de notre Internationale


L’idée de l’Internationale des Savoirs pour Tous est née le 25 mai 2018, au cours d’une journée de débats sur l’Enseignement supérieur et la Recherche (ESR), organisée à l’Assemblée Nationale par « La France Insoumise ». 

Alors que se déroulait, au même moment, une énième messe néolibérale liée au processus de Bologne, cette rencontre, intitulée « Pour une Université européenne insoumise » et dont on trouvera ici le programme complet, visait plusieurs objectifs :
- passer au crible de la critique les fondements, la mise en œuvre et les conséquences des politiques libérales de l’ESR en France, en Europe et dans le monde,
- dresser un état des lieux des luttes des étudiants et des personnels de l’ESR, que celles-ci soient passées ou en cours et au niveau local, national ou à l’échelle internationale,
- démontrer qu’il existe désormais, dans quasiment tous les pays, des revendications, des propositions de réforme, des programmes alternatifs aux politiques néolibérales de l’ESR.

Cette journée, qui donna lieu à plusieurs tables-rondes et ateliers dont on peut voir ici la restitution filmée, fut couronnée de succès. D’une part, elle rassembla un large public (étudiants, universitaires, chercheurs, militants associatifs, syndicaux et politiques) en provenance de nombreux pays (Allemagne, Argentine, Colombie, Espagne, France, Grèce, Italie, Royaume-Uni, Suède…). D’autre part, la qualité des interventions, la richesse des débats, furent l’occasion pour les participants d’identifier de multiples points de convergence et donnèrent à chacun l’envie de continuer, de se fédérer.

Au cours de l’été, un appel commun à la création d’un réseau alternatif mondial de l’ESR fut donc rédigé. Intitulé dans sa version française « La science pour le plus grand nombre, pas pour l’argent », il fut traduit en plusieurs langues (anglais, espagnol, italien, portugais) et adressé pour signature aux participants de la journée du 25 mai, ainsi qu’à certains de leurs contacts. Bien que diffusé avec très peu de moyens, cet appel connut un écho certain. Fin 2018, plus de 100 signataires, individus ou collectifs, représentant 22 pays, avaient rejoint le réseau.

Le temps était donc venu de lui donner un nom et de le rendre plus visible, plus actif. Ainsi naquirent « L’Internationale des Savoirs pour Tous » et ce blog pour contribuer à sa vitalité.

La mercantilización a hombros de gigantes: la universidad pública española, de casa de citas a cueva de plagiarios


La mercantilización a hombros de gigantes: la universidad pública española, de casa de citas a cueva de plagiarios


Las universidades públicas, parafraseando a Newton, pueden producir conocimiento porque sus docentes han sido capaces de subirse a hombros de gigantes, que abrieron en el pasado, o abren en el presente, sus campos de conocimiento e investigación. Las abundantes citas bibliográficas que los académicos utilizan en sus libros y artículos son el registro de su recorrido y muestran la huella de los hombros donde se encaramaron. En este sentido, la universidad siempre será una casa de citas. Cuando, animada por su mercantilización neoliberal, ha comenzado a caminar en la dirección contraria, en la de, por ejemplo, Fernando Suárez –ex-rector de la Universidad Rector de la Rey Juan Carlos–, se convierte en una cueva de plagiarios. Universitarios corruptos que, viviendo en Lilliput, pero agraciados por los beneficios del mercado, se transforman en ciudadanos de Brobdingnag. Y universidades corruptas que lo permiten, o bien mirando hacia otro lado o, directamente, promocionando dichas prácticas. La creciente mercantilización de la universidad pública española ha propiciado ambos tipos de corrupción de la cual hoy somos testigos.

Un poco de historia para situarnos. La modernización de la universidad franquista durante últimas décadas del siglo pasado no supuso una ruptura con sus principios jerárquicos y sus formas de gestión autoritarias. Fue, como ocurrió en el resto de las instituciones españolas, una reforma que los actualizó y los legitimó en un contexto político formalmente democrático. Aunque se amplió el acceso a la formación superior y se incorporaron nuevos alumnos y, sobre todo, alumnas procedentes de sectores sociales históricamente excluidos, la universidad pública de la transición/transacción se diseñó como una ‘empresa económica’ y no como una empresa social. Los gestores universitarios de entonces ya comenzaron a organizar sus planes de estudio, su administración interna y las líneas de investigación  escuchando voces que les transmitían las ‘demandas del mercado’. El resultado de aquel proceso configuró una universidad pública, poco pública, e insuficientemente autónoma y democrática. Dicho de otro modo, el mestizaje entre los ‘muertos vivientes’ del academicismo franquista y los ‘vivientes muertos’ de la incipiente mercantilización neoliberal impidieron la plena consolidación de una universidad realmente pública autónoma y democrática. La universidad como un ´bien común’ ciudadano, con unos usos sociales en la docencia e investigación dirigidos a impulsar la igualdad de oportunidades y la democratización de los usos sociales del conocimiento, quedaron relegados a un segundo plano. Una universidad que no fue.

Ya en los inicios del siglo XXI, las políticas educativas del PP, así como la reforma del espacio europeo de la educación superior y su concreción en el Plan Bolonia consolidaron dicho proceso en el contexto de la globalización neoliberal. Por primera vez, con el gobierno de Aznar, se puso en marcha una Agencia Nacional de Evaluación de la Calidad y Acreditación (ANECA) que permitía, o no, los títulos universitarios y acreditaba, o no, a los docentes y su investigación en función de su productividad y competitividad. Una agencia de acreditación al estilo de las empresas americanas de calificación de riesgos que no fueron capaces de ver los riesgos de Lehman Brothers. La opacidad de este modelo, sumada al papanatismo y la ceguera con que buena parte de la comunidad universitaria de esos años aceptó estas reformas, ha acabado convirtiéndose en el orden vigente, inamovible e impenetrable. Algunos de sus productos más tóxicos son los sexenios de investigación, el programa Docentia o el sistema de acreditación del profesorado, entendido como una espiral de méritos inacabables y a veces inalcanzables. Este engranaje mantiene al profesorado encerrado en sus despachos, produciendo los méritos que se les demandan, cada vez más lejos de la realidad de las aulas.

La burbuja y la retórica de la excelencia, con todo un nuevo campo semántico: ‘satisfacción’, ’innovación’ ‘calidad’, emprendedor’, ‘motivación’, ‘objetivos estratégicos’, ‘buenas prácticas’... ha servido para impulsar e impregnar las prácticas investigadoras y docentes del nuevo espíritu del neoliberalismo universitario. Un espíritu que concibe a estudiantes y profesores como empresarios de sí mismos. Las nuevas regulaciones normativas han impuesto al personal docente e investigador una evaluación permanente con objetivos cada vez más difíciles de alcanzar. Por añadidura, la responsabilidad de no alcanzarlos recae, única y exclusivamente, sobre ellos. La culpa recae sobre la víctima. En última instancia, la praxis de la excelencia ha bloqueado de hecho la posibilidad de un trabajo docente digno al subordinarlo a la productividad investigadora. Aquellos que no han producido el tipo de investigación exigido por los criterios productivistas y bibliométricos han sido penalizados con más docencia. El incremento de la precariedad laboral y la creciente e imparable presencia del estrés y la presión mental sobre los docentes son hoy la auténtica cara de la excelencia.

Por las puertas laterales de este edificio o por las principales, como la del Instituto de Investigación de Álvarez Conde en la Universidad Rey Juan Carlos se han ido colando, colocando y titulando en estos últimos años todos aquellos personajes que, como Cifuentes, Casado o Montón, han tenido pocos reparos en intercambiar prestigio político o económico por credenciales académicas. Su responsabilidad, como ya hemos señalado, no es única. No es un gesto corrupto aislado. En una universidad crecientemente burocratizada, individualizada, tan marcada por la competitividad, la carrera y las promociones, el sentido de lo público en la docencia y en la investigación ha acabado debilitándose. Lo importante es conseguir el título, la acreditación, el índice de impacto, el certificado adecuado que puede permitir obtener los puntos para posicionarte bien en los baremos. En esta guerra sin cuartel por posicionarse y acaparar méritos, comienza a valer todo. Este es el mensaje que la elite promocionista del profesorado universitario ha dirigido a todo el resto de profesores. Una elite que muchas veces ha ocupado los espacios de gestión y el gobierno de las universidades. En estos espacios, se ha especializado en diseñar los sistemas de control para gobernar el acceso del profesorado, pero, evidentemente, no se ha ocupado de poner en marcha sistemas de control a su propia actuación en los institutos universitarios, departamentos, cátedras de empresa, fundaciones y otras instituciones que campan a sus anchas. Nos ofrecen una fachada de excelencia tras la que reina una corrupción institucionalizada. Como ocurrió en Lehman Brothers. El evaluador no es evaluado.

El resultado ha acabado siendo esta universidad tóxica, zombie, mercantilizada y otros elocuentes adjetivos propuestos por profesores ingleses y americanos que han investigado sobre los efectos de este modelo neoliberal en sus propias universidades, golpeadas durante las últimas décadas por todo un catálogo de horrores que da forma a una universidad sin sentido, desorientada, enfermiza. Nuestra universidad responde también a este retrato. Sí queremos evitar su desaparición es urgente trabajar por construir otra universidad que como ‘bien común’ sea realmente pública, autónoma y democrática.

José Manuel Rodríguez Victoriano y Antonio Santos Ortega son profesores de la Facultad de Ciencias Sociales y representantes de CGT en la Junta de PDI de la Universidad de Valencia

Primera publicación en infoLibre el 26/09/2018