Do academia and banks favour a new Middle Ages period?

Participation of Androulla Vassiliou, member of the European Commission (5th from the left), at the event 'Education to employment: the growing skill and job gaps in Europe'. (EC Audiovisual Services, 13/01/2014).

Participation of Androulla Vassiliou, member of the European Commission (5th from the left), at the event ‘Education to employment: the growing skill and job gaps in Europe’. (EC Audiovisual Services, 13/01/2014).

Androulla Vassiliou, European Commissioner for Education and Culture, delivered a speech last Friday in London’s King’s College, entitled “Investing in education in times of crisis”. Her major point was that virtually all EU governments are either reducing their education spending or maintaining current levels. She added that “The latest data from Eurostat tells us that hardly any government is actually increasing education spending”.

However, the Commissioner forgot or avoided to mention that the tendency of falling government expenditure in education is not new and is not a necessity imposed by the still on-going financial and fiscal crisis. According to Eurostat, “Government expenditure on education decreased continuously from 2009 to 2011. As a ratio to GDP, government expenditure on education (also) followed a declining trend from 2002 until 2007…”. This cannot be a mere coincidence. It’s impossible that almost all EU governments to have randomly decided simultaneously to keep devoting a declining percentage of their budget to education. This tendency has then become a feature of our times.

Freezing education

When it comes to higher education, government financing becomes continuously more miser and increasingly replaced by private expenditure. Behind this new reality is a whole ideological construction, which has been developed during the past few years. It’s about ‘cost sharing’ in higher education. It means every student, who later on in his working life will reap the benefits of a university degree, should increase his or her participation in the cost of acquiring it. This new ‘ideology’ is being already applied in Britain, where the students who cannot afford to pay the latest exuberant increase of fees, can borrow from a government agency. In the first place, there are a lot of prerequisites for those loans and in any case they are being paid directly to the institutions.

Undeniably, there is some logic in this ‘cost sharing’ argument. However, its first and most important effect is that it prohibits a fast increasing part of lower-income group kids even from thinking about embarking on a university degree endeavour. Just the fact that parents may also be responsible for the repayment of the loan discourages the families of the prospective students. Until some years ago, the only screening procedure for aspiring university students was only one; grades.

Now there is an additional screen for university candidates; family income. Some decades ago when the ‘economics of education’ became an independent academic discipline, the first researchers concluded that fathers’ income was one of the main determinants of a successful university entrance. No need to say that a university degree guarantees a life-long remuneration differential for all graduates.

It seems that nowadays family income continuously gains importance in this affair and thus helps perpetuate income inequality. From time immemorial wealthy families had much better chances to see their offspring acquiring a university degree. Now that a fast growing part of candidates coming from poorer families are excluded from the competition, the wealthy kids have increased possibilities to be accepted by a first rate but hideously expensive university. In short, income inequality is now constantly boosted as a university entrance screen.

Less bright minds

At the same time the universities themselves loose the possibility of examining more entrance applications. In this way the more prestigious and expensive institutions lose some bright minds. As a result, the entire society loses the extra impetus and the scientific results that those additional bright minds could offer.

It is as if the modern time higher education ‘ideology’ exists to help freeze the present social structure and perpetuate the current distribution of incomes. This is done by exaggerating the role of wealth, thus helping the wealthy families to retain the prerogative. It is like higher education supporting the pursuit of an inherent rentiers’ position in the social structure.

Like the ‘undead’ banks

Isn’t it the same with the banks, the ones which are ‘too big to fail’. This brave new economic reality freezes the structure of the banking business sector, at least where it matters. Given that business names which control 70% to 80% of the financial market ‘cannot die’, this reality neutralises the dynamism of capitalism itself. Being a share holder of an ‘undead’ institution, it’s like securing a perpetual position in the earthly heaven, for your offspring for many generations to come.

It is exactly as in the case of the exuberantly expensive higher education, where the new ‘cost sharing’ ideology, tries to neutralise the role played by grades and knowledge competition in university entrance. All this new brave ideology in banking and academia tends to freeze the current income distribution, favouring the same wealthy families in perpetuity.

If this is the case, our world runs the danger of becoming a Pharaonic unchangeable structure, exorcising change in the distribution of wealth and not supporting other scientific research than that which can solidify the existing status quo in everything. Then the question comes freely, is humanity heading to another Middle Ages?

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