USA: Trade union joins call for a New Deal for Higher Education

published 17 February 2021 updated 19 February 2021

The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) have launched a campaign calling for increased funding and reforms in public colleges and universities. The two organisations have partnered in this campaign because a crisis for higher education means a crisis for democracy.

On 10 February, the AFT and the AAUP launched the New Deal for Higher Education platform seeking to reclaim American public colleges and universities as a common good. A panel discussion also set out a reimagined federal role for the sector under the Biden-Harris administration.

Faculty and staff must be treated with dignity and respect

“After decades of counterproductive austerity, we stand at the precipice of a new era for higher education,” stressed AFT President and Education International Executive Board member, Randi Weingarten. “We know from experience that we cannot create a system that works for all if we do not allow everyone to access it. We know we cannot have meaningful job security and voice if faculty and staff are not treated with dignity and respect. That’s why we need a New Deal for Higher Education.”

For AAUP President Irene Mulvey, framed the COVID-19 pandemic recovery as an opportunity to do better, “a Band-Aid approach will only lead us back—to precarity and unsustainability, and a weakened educational sector. It is time to go big. It is time for this New Deal.”

Student debt must go

In her video message, Elizabeth Warren, the Democratic Party Senator from Massachusetts, insisted that student debt, one of the greatest obstacles to a fair and accessible system of higher education, must be tackled.

Senator Warren introduced a resolution in the Senate urging President Biden to cancel $50,000 in student debt for borrowers – as did Massachusetts Representative Ayanna Pressley in the House of Representatives. “Once we have addressed the student debt that is holding down an entire generation, we must ensure that we never have another student debt crisis again, “said Warren. “We can do that by recognising that a public college education is like a public K-12 education, a basic public good that should be available to everyone, with free tuition and zero debt at graduation.”

The launch event closed with a panel of AFT and AAUP members outlining what a New Deal for Higher Education would mean to them.

Achieving the values of higher education

In addition to addressing tuition costs, institutional funding, and student debt relief, the campaign demands continued reforms related to racial injustice and inequities, labour practices, academic freedom and governance, federal research funding, technical and vocational education. It also pays particular attention to inequity and access for Black, Indigenous and Latinx students.

The campaign’s website details how the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the long-standing crisis in public higher education. Declining state support, the erosion of tenure and shared governance, the increased use of contingent appointments, and the loss of the faculty voice are threatening the core mission of higher education in society.

The campaign also reiterates the four key values of higher education:

  • Build prosperity from the bottom up
  • Advance social, racial, and economic justice
  • Strengthen democracy and civil society
  • Foster knowledge and innovation

The policy plan

The New Deal for Higher Education aims to reauthorise the Higher Education Act and create other federal policies that establish dedicated public funding streams and hold administrations accountable for how those funds are spent.

The campaign will advocate for:

  • Prioritising teaching, research, and supporting student success
  • Allowing all students to access higher education regardless of their ability to pay
  • Ensuring job security, equitable pay, professional voice, and sustainable careers for all faculty and staff
  • Creating academic environments free from racism, sexism, and other bigotries that prevent learning, degrade research, and perpetuate inequality
  • Cancelling student debt for borrowers who have unjustly shouldered the burden of financing higher education over the last 40 years

It also provides higher education institutions, staff, and students with various resources, including the Campus Toolkit.

Watch the e-event launching “A New Deal for Higher Education”: