Michael Burawoy: “rethinking the meaning of the public university”

Burawoy argues that, at the global level, the university seems to have “ceased to be a public good to becoming a private good that should be financed to himself,” so that it loses legitimacy. Valued as “unique in the world” to the public system in argentina.

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Interview with Michael Burawoy, President, ISA (International Sociological Association), performed by Agustín Saavedra in Page/12

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Michael Burawoy: “repensar el significado de la universidad pública”

“We have to rethink the meaning of the public university. The issue is not just who has access to the university, or how much it costs, but rather what a responsibility it assumes in the society, what dialogue can build with the different public actors.” The phrase is from the president of the International Sociological Association (ISA), Michael Burawoy, who visited Buenos Aires to participate in the International Forum of Sociology. British and marxist, resident in the united States and professor of the University of california, Berkeley, Burawoy maintains a blog entitled “Universities in crisis”, as named to the conference he gave at a seminar of the Untref before engaging in dialogue with página/12.

–What do you mean when you talk of crisis in the university?

–The first thing to say is that I don’t think that argentine universities are in crisis. I was recently in Chile, and could vouch for it there, but not necessarily in Argentina. There are four distinctive aspects, at least from a point of view outside the university of argentina. In principle, the public system dominates completely; second, the income is opened; third, it is basically free; fourth, there are democratic elections for its administration. I understand that these points are never so finish, but at least at first sight is a unique set in the world and a good point of reference to assess and understand other higher education systems.

–Other systems that, apparently, yes they are in a crisis. What do you mean with this?

–There are four crisis affecting the universities in the world, but they do it in different degrees according to the places. The first is a fiscal crisis. In almost all the world, the university seems to have ceased to be a public good to becoming a private good that should be financed to himself. Looking to get more money out of students. In England they pay around 10 thousand pounds each year. In Chile, obviously, the protests have to do with this. Also in the united States, at the university where I work, have increased the fees to three times in the last ten years. Another way to get money is through donations of rich people, and certainly many universities are successful in this. But the other great source, in fact, is the research: is sold knowledge. Beyond who gets the money, the struggle for the patenting and intellectual property rights… what is certain is that the sale of knowledge has been transformed into a source of income growing. This affects to the extent that only the disciplines that generate money become important, such as medicine, biology, engineering, etc, while the social and human sciences have great difficulties to survive.

–What are the three other crisis that you see?

–We have also a crisis of government in the universities. The question here is whether we are going to build universities as corporations, that work as a multinational, or if we’re going to continue with the old system, a college where the faculties are part of the administration. It is a dispute between two visions, and for now, the corporate model is the one that wins. That’s why we have increasingly administrators selling the university to students and the market. The third crisis, that model is what I call the crisis of legitimacy. Not good the university becomes a private good, for which we have to pay to enter, not well lose its autonomy, selling out to corporations, public support decreases, drops its legitimacy. Then we have the fourth crisis, of identity. Teachers, students, administrators, they begin to wonder what it means to the university, and generally tend to confuse what is, in fact, the true role that it occupies in the society. These four crises, of course, are interrelated.

–What expressions of this process is found in Latin america?

–In Chile, for example, grow the private universities, as well as the fees and the student protests. The university system in chile tends to be quite elitist, and has the peculiarity that almost any student working while studying. Families saddled with the loans, that the student protests are so interesting and unusual. They are supported by the parents, the grandparents, the whole family, something unusual for Europe. In the united States, students take out loans to pay their fees to university, but they work, and assume responsibility to meet his or her debts. The logic is individualistic, it is the student who pays the loan, and not the family. Is more, when we have an economic crisis, and the students are going to be protests, people tell them “you of what they are protesting, they are richer than us”. So, in reality, the general public is not usually in favor of the student protests. It is the opposite of what happens in Chile. And here in Argentina the amazing thing is they still maintain the public education. It’s a miracle, I mean, it has its problems, but it doesn’t stop being amazing. It seems an extreme form of the old model of public education.

–What can you do at the university to counteract this process of crisis you described?

–There are two sets of outside pressures that the universities should counteract. The first is the commodification, and the pressure to obtain money in exchange for the production of knowledge. The second thing is the growing importance of the rankings overall. Began in China. Shanghai University wanted to evaluate the chinese universities compared with the american, because they assumed that they were the best in the world. And with time the majority of the countries began to evaluate their own institutions under the same system. The cost of this process is that researchers are encouraged to produce knowledge in western magazines, in English, while the local and national become less important, and until the approach of the issues begins to be distorted, because the researcher must be placed in the way in which the united States or Europe to understand the problems. Thus, capitalism today has a ranking system, and you know, on that basis, in which schools invest. That is why all countries want to have one or two universities in the top positions.

[pullquote align=”left|center|right” textalign=”left|center|right” width=”30%”][…] capitalism today has a ranking system, and you know, on that basis, in which schools invest. That is why all countries want to have one or two universities in the top positions.[/pullquote]

–Here is not paid too much attention to the world rankings of universities…

–Do you think that there, seriously? The teachers are incentivised and earn more points if published in a journal in English, even in Argentina, I’m sure. There are rankings in Latin america also, and I think that the rectors of the universities are looking for where to appear. Where appears the UBA?, ask the rector, where it appears The Silver?, and compete between them to the interior of the country. It is a way malicious to penetrate in the systems of education.

–And in the face of these outside pressures, can be constructed in alternative models of incentives and production?

–Well, will have to see if it is possible to create models of critical discussion in the universities. Can a university be among their faculties, students, and researchers a community in which to discuss collectively what is the university and what is their place in society? Academics tend to be very competitive and individualistic.

–What role does sociology enter this discussion?

–Depends on what is understood by a sociologist. From my point of view, a social scientist linked to experiences micro with macro parameters from the perspective of civil society. Economists, in contrast, have as starting point the expansion of the market. The political scientists do, from the consolidation of the State and the power. I think, therefore, that sociologists have a special place in the constitution of the public university as I understand it, because the university has to be able to engage in a dialogue with the civil society, not only with the State, and not just with the market.

[pullquote align=”left|center|right” textalign=”left|center|right” width=”30%”][…] sociologists have a special place in the constitution of the public university as I understand it, because the university has to be able to engage in a dialogue with the civil society, not only with the State, and not just with the market.[/pullquote]

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