They can burn books, destroy libraries, forbid languages, ban beliefs, delete past times,
draw new present times, order future actions, torture and execute people...
But they still don´t know how to kill the intangible and bright
bodies of ideas, dreams and hopes.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

University’s ill health 90 years afterwards...

University's ill health 90 years afterwards

By Sara Plaza and Edgardo Civallero
Translated by Sara Plaza

In Chile, university and secondary school professors and students went recently on strike for an unlimited period in protest at the Education Reform Bill presented by the government...

At the Spanish universities, a storm of protest has been raised against the Espacio Europeo de Educación Superior (EEES, European Space of Higher Education, better known as Bologna, after the city where the declaration was issued). Critics and detractors believe that it will help privatize and commercialize public university; that it will diminish the quality of degrees; that it will contribute to subordinate knowledge to commercial interests; and that it will turn university into a professional training school where teaching/learning processes will be connected with practice rather than with reflection, debate, constructive criticism, research, discussion...

The Congreso Regional de Educación Superior (Regional Conference on Higher Education) organized in May 2008 in Cartagena, Colombia, by the Instituto Internacional para la Educación Superior en América Latina y el Caribe (IESALC/UNESCO, International Institute for Higher Education in Latin America and the Caribbean) sets strict limits on the participation of thousands of researchers, fails to address the current situation in education, hardly presents new ideas and excludes a great part of Latin American thought from its working sessions. In addition, it assumes the role that had previously criticized the World Bank for, becoming a market where educative community was silenced with fruitless documents –mostly elaborated by economists– and where neoliberal terms such as efficiency, efficacy, quality, access and equality, competitiveness, innovation, pertinence, management, governance, funding, accredited programs and evaluation were widely repeated

These are a few pieces of information extracted from different media during the last week. Curiously, at the same time, we have found some articles celebrating the University Reform 90th anniversary, which stemmed from the students' requests at the Universidad Nacional de Córdoba (UNC, National University of Cordoba), Argentina. Those students, seeing that their demands were not going to be met, burst into the University Assembly when the new rector was to be designated on the 15th of June, 1918 and came out on strike. The strike was supported by workers from all over the country and was meant to last for a period of time that had no fixed end. On the 21st, "La Gaceta Universitaria" (the university journal) published the Manifiesto Liminar de la Reforma (preliminary manifesto on the reform) written by Deodoro Roca and signed by the leaders of the Federación Universitaria de Córdoba (University of Cordoba Federation). Through July the university –whose control had already been taken in April, when the protests intensified, following President Hipólito Yrigoyen orders– was closed, the rector chosen by the clerical association called Corda Frates tendered his resignation and the government took over the running of the university. At that moment the statutes of the university were updated, the teaching staff changed and many of the students' requests introduced.

Among the bitter criticism leveled by the Manifesto we can find some accusations made against the current university models on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean:

"Universities have become a copy true to the original decadent societies that strive to offer a pitiful sight proper to advanced age immobility. (...) Our university regime –even the most recent– is anachronistic. It is grounded on a sort of divine law: the divine law connected with lecturers. It comes from itself. It starts to exist and stop existing with it. It keeps deepening the rift. (...) The finished reins of the power that derive from strength do not agree to negotiate with what is claimed by the sense and modern concept of universities nowadays. The crack of the whip can only sign the silence of irresponsible persons and cowards. (...) University youth from Cordoba states that they never thought to question names or employees. They rose up against an administrative regime, against a teaching methodology, against a concept of authority. Public functions were exercised in favor of particular cronies. Plans and regulations were never reformed for fear of offending those who might lose their jobs. The instruction 'you can do the same for me one day' was common knowledge and achieved pre–eminence as university statute. Teaching methodology was marred by a narrow dogmatism contributing to keep university separate from science and modern disciplines. The lessons, hidden behind the repetition of old texts, protected a spirit of routine and submission."

The Argentinean University that Deodoro Roca mentioned 90 years ago was tied to "the old monarchic and monastic domination". The Spanish university that today students dress in banners reading "NO a Bolonia" (No Bologna) seems to have been injured by transnational commercial interests that want to hold it tight, which have also pierced the Congreso Internacional de Educación Superior that took place in May in Cartagena, Colombia. In 1918, the religious feeling inspired by the Compañía de Jesús (Society of Jesus) bounded and gagged university – "strange religion that teaches to despise the honor and look down on the personality. Religion for defeated or slaves", wrote Roca in the Manifesto. At the present moment the World Bank thesis derived from the theory of human capital (stating that "the state should not invest in Higher Education" for "the act of investing in Higher Education is a regressive step") and the World Trade Organization resolution (indicating that Higher Education is something produced to be sold) both pressure into making the university community free expression become weaker.

It seems to us that little progress has been made if the place occupied by religious persons 90 years ago is now taken up by modern economists... Maybe it is a good idea to discuss and promote 2008 education laws in the light of the 1918 reformist principles. At that time it was claimed that universities should act independently of government. Today it would be desirable that they also acted independently of international market, companies, WTO, WB... It continues being good practice that the university main characters, that is, teaching staff, students and graduates keep its management in their hands. It would be worth supporting free public education. And to improve outreach activities: university, its community and its knowledge should not be indifferent to society problems and social debates, on the contrary, university should play an important role in them. No doubt, it is necessary to defend teaching freedom and to update periodically the teaching staff, and to connect teaching with doing research. If 90 years ago a sort of Latin American Unity was proposed, why cannot we reformulate the European Space of Higher Education without confusing convergence with a single way of thinking, doing and saying things, without putting aside diversity and acknowledging difficulties, pressures, errors and failures in order to share and discuss new proposals?

We can certainly feel the effects of the mercantile system in every single facet of our life immersed in this huge "global village" –less and less "unified" and more and more "colonized" as time passes– and can also notice those effects on the way we produce, use and enjoy knowledge. Mercantilism presses education (a key factor in the countries' growth, development, and progress) and information management deliberately. Our libraries and documentation centers provide conclusive proof of applying "management strategies", "quality and efficacy measures" and an increasing number of techniques and tools that seek to turn knowledge units into profitable businesses. Mercantile culture contaminates everything: policies on "borrowing fees" are being discussed in our libraries while copyright legislation makes it difficult to share, spread, and use a lot of documents and software. At the same time the digital divide broadens and the social roles of library professionals blur or vanish, information illiteracy grows... Librarianship –similar to education– is being attacked by a new model, whose advocators neither call a truce nor accept alternative ways of doing things or adaptations nor listen to reason. It seems a battle in which no mercy is going to be shown and whose victims will be the ones always injured in any battle...

In 1918, the University Reform that took place in Cordoba, Argentina, spread throughout Latin America and raised a storm of protest from students all over the region, who, going over the ideas expressed in the Manifesto written by Deodoro Roca also achieved important changes in their national university systems. Today... who will set an example of how education and other public services can be improved without freedom constraints? Who will rise up against the yoke of mercantilism?