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Chomsky: Public Education Under Massive Corporate Assault — What's Next?

Converting schools and universities into facilities that produce commodities for the job market, privatizing them, slashing their budgets — do we really want this future?

The following is a partial transcript of a recent  speech delivered by Noam Chomsky at the University of Toronto at Scarborough on the rapid privatization process of public higher education in the United States.

A couple of months ago, I went to Mexico to give talks at the National University in Mexico, UNAM. It's quite an impressive university — hundreds of thousands of students, high-quality and engaged students, excellent faculty. It's free. And the city — Mexico City — actually, the government ten years ago did try to add a little tuition, but there was a national student strike, and the government backed off. And, in fact, there's still an administrative building on campus that is still occupied by students and used as a center for activism throughout the city. There's also, in the city itself, another university, which is not only free but has open admissions. It has compensatory options for those who need them. I was there, too; it's also quite an impressive level, students, faculty, and so on. That's Mexico, a poor country.

Right after that I happened to go to California, maybe the richest place in the world. I was giving talks at the universities there. In California, the main universities — Berkeley and UCLA — they're essentially Ivy League private universities — colossal tuition, tens of thousands of dollars, huge endowment. General assumption is they are pretty soon going to be privatized, and the rest of the system will be, which was a very good system — best public system in the world — that's probably going to be reduced to technical training or something like that. The privatization, of course, means privatization for the rich [and a] lower level of mostly technical training for the rest. And that is happening across the country. Next year, for the first time ever, the California system, which was a really great system, best anywhere, is getting more funding from tuition than from the state of California. And that is happening across the country. In most states, tuition covers more than half of the college budget. It's also most of the public research universities. Pretty soon only the community colleges — you know, the lowest level of the system — will be state-financed in any serious sense. And even they're under attack. And analysts generally agree, I'm quoting, "The era of affordable four-year public universities heavily subsidized by the state may be over."

Now that's one important way to implement the policy of indoctrination of the young. People who are in a debt trap have very few options. Now that is true of social control generally; that is also a regular feature of international policy — those of you who study the IMF and the World Bank and others are well aware. As the Mexico-California example illustrates, the reasons for conscious destruction of the greatest public education system in the world are not economic. Economist Doug Henwood points out that it would be quite easy to make higher education completely free. In the U.S., it accounts for less than 2 percent of gross domestic product. The personal share of about 1 percent of gross domestic product is a third of the income of the richest 10,000 households. That's the same as three months of Pentagon spending. It's less than four months of wasted administrative costs of the privatized healthcare system, which is an international scandal.

It's about twice the per capita cost of comparable countries, has some of the worst outcomes, and in fact it's the basis for the famous deficit. If the U.S. had the same kind of healthcare system as other industrial countries, not only would there be no deficit, but there would be a surplus. However, to introduce these facts into an electoral campaign would be suicidally insane, Henwood points out. Now he's correct. In a democracy where elections are essentially bought by concentrations of private capital, it doesn't matter what the public wants. The public has actually been in favor of that for a long of time, but they are irrelevant in a properly run democracy.