Every day I read news of reductions in classes, students, faculty, and funding of some institution of public higher education. I mean every single goddamn day. This has to mean something.
The easy answer, which I propose is dead wrong, is that states have run dry, and higher education is a place where cuts can be made. One reason I think that's dead wrong is that budgets for those institutions have been cut even when the economy wasn't in recession.
I've got something else cooking, too, and it's more complex. There is an obvious crude economic argument for funding public higher education: it repays. Every dollar spent on the CSU comes back to the state five-fold. What does it mean when the state chooses not to fund public higher ed, even though the investment provides a 500% dividend?
It could mean that those who choose not to fund public higher education have simply decided to steal that return from the labor of people, by privatizing public universities and colleges and demanding increased tuition payments by students. The more students pay, and the less state revenues have to be invested, the more profitable to the state public higher education is.
(Note that this rationale is not only cynical and condoning kleptocracy, but also non sequitir, since it uses profitability as a criterion for decision-making about a non-profit, public good. I digress.)
There may be something to that interpretation, but during the last couple of years, I've become convinced that something weirder is happening, which I'm going to try to pursue. I think what's happening is a crisis in the legitimating narratives of higher education in general. That is, what's happening in public higher education is not only a reaction to recession (and, in fact, fundamentally isn't), and not only a form of class welfare (in fact, it is a form of class warfare, of the kleptocratic class against the working poor), but reflects a crisis in the legitimating protocols of education in general, and higher education in particular.
In short, my preferred hypothesis (I sound more like Baudrillard than Lyotard at this point, but either way, pants) is that our society has reached a stage in the postmodern condition in which we* no longer can or do sincerely believe in the metanarratives that legitimate education. We have an apparatus, an economic-political-cultural institution of higher education, but nobody* seriously believes it serves any grand purpose.
If I were to follow Lyotard, I would say that the legitimation of higher education is no longer on the basis of some notion of human progress or liberation, or of the good of the nation or state. Instead, the only legitimating narratives are the petit narratives of performativity and paralogy - "What have you done for me lately?" and "Are you following your own rules?"
But I think it may have gone further, because the crude economic justification for higher education would seem performative, and the self-legitimation of peer review would seem paralogical. (I'll probably talk this through at some point, so not to worry if they're unfamiliar terms.) I believe it goes further than public higher ed, too - it's education in general that has lost legitimacy.
Please keep reading! I promise I'll stop name-dropping and get to brass tacks!
* By "we" and "nobody" above, I mean to refer to a convenient, fictional social actor who represents a generalized ideological subjectivity. I think it's interesting that, while Lyotard's analysis of the postmodern condition is certainly brilliant, he puts the "incredulity toward metanarratives" in the passive voice, such that the notion that there have to be people whose consciousness involves this incredulity is totally elided. Lyotard was a clever dick.