American Federation of Teachers Conference Highlights Commercialization of Higher Ed

by Lydia Hou

The American Federation of Teachers 2014 Conference was held April 11-13 in Baltimore Maryland, offering numerous panels and keynote speakers exploring concerns and advancements of higher education in the United States. Some notable individuals who presented research and policy work at the conference included: Charlie Eaton of Berkeley, Erica Smiley of Jobs with Justice, Sara Goldrick-Rab of University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Tressie McMillan Cottom of Emory University, among many others – all of whom were addressing core themes of the AFT conference – including various levels of examination of the commercialization of higher education. I attended this conference as a representative of the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Graduate Employee’s Organization IFT/AFT Local 6297 (AFL-CIO). Some of these considerations included strategies to uncover the influence of Wall Street on institutions of higher education, the impact of for-profit universities on transitioning structures of traditional colleges and universities, and the influence of corporate industry on undergraduate and graduate students’ experiences with debt.

One particular theme included the transition of organizational structure in colleges and universities to incorporate corporatized efficiency as much as possible – less faculty would have influence over university decisions or policy, profit would be a signal of success, and curriculum would be transferred online as much as possible in order to take the “human” aspect out of teaching due to the costs (monetary, timely, and otherwise) that are attached to those who instruct college students. Many attested to the fact that corporate companies who sponsor various features of universities – banks, sports, etc. – are impacting the quality of education due to increases in prioritization of profits.

Many important questions are being raised in the context of commercializing higher education – perhaps most importantly, is higher education a public or private good and can it be considered a human right? As we look to the future of higher education and the importance of providing opportunities for mobility and equality among future generations, one must question the transition of education to a corporate structure. Higher education is now necessary in the same way that primary education is viewed, needing equivalent structural support that it now seeks through corporate sponsorship. Moving forward to a future of more corporate influence and higher student debt on college and university campuses has the potential to increase disparities as fewer and fewer individuals are able to access higher education that should be viewed as a human right rather than a social privilege.

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