- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 9, 2010

It’s been a busy fall for many European university students. But it’s not necessarily their course work that has engaged their attention and required their stamina in recent weeks. Instead, thousands of students in Great Britain, Italy and Greece have devoted their time to protesting, defacing property and generally making a nuisance of themselves.

In Britain, university students have staged a series of actions across the country since early November to protest the government’s plans to raise the annual cap on tuition fees to $14,200 from the current $5,200. A few weeks ago, they vandalized the headquarters of the Conservative Party, attacked police vans and set street fires in London. This week, in the lead-up to the final vote yesterday in Westminster, students and academic trade unions have been intensifying efforts to convince MPs to vote against the proposal.

In Italy, thousands of students have blocked highways, defaced historic buildings and clashed with police in actions that began in late November. These have been part of nationwide protests against the Education Ministry’s reform plans. If approved, nearly $12 billion would be cut from the education budget and 130,000 jobs eliminated. Italy’s lower house has already approved the law but the Senate’s vote is pending.

Not to be outdone, Greek students in the last week have also taken to the streets of Athens to protest planned education cuts. At times they have been joined by thousands of other youths, some of whom marched to commemorate the police killing of a 15-year-old two years ago. Like their counterparts in Great Britain and Italy, Greek students have shown as little respect for their surroundings - smashing windows, throwing Molotov cocktails - as they have for their academic vocation.

In each case, the root cause has been the same: budget cuts in education and proposals that students begin to shoulder more of the costs. Currently, the working majority in Europe pays for the education of the fortunate few. Waitresses, taxi drivers and security guards - none of whom need a degree - are taxed to pay for the education of society’s future doctors, lawyers and politicians.

But the students seem to be oblivious to the dire fiscal straits in which their countries find themselves. In Britain, the Office for Budget Responsibility, an independent panel set up by Her Majesty’s Treasury, has estimated a staggering budget deficit of $234 billion and reduced its growth estimates for the next few years. Italy and Greece, in turn, are among the five weakest Euro-zone countries. Italy has a debt above 90 percent of Gross Domestic Product, staggeringly unsustainable by any stretch of the imagination, and the story of Greece’s fiscal crisis is well known.

Whether students realize it or not, the age of government largess is over. But having been raised in the welfare state economies of Europe - where policymakers seem to have never met a benefit that couldn’t be made into an entitlement - they have simply become disconnected from fiscal realities and have come to expect a free education no matter what.

But there is something else afoot. Accustomed to government assistance that takes care of people from cradle to grave, European students have lost an appreciation for the virtues of hard work, sacrifice and self-reliance. In the process, after decades of entitlements at the hands of publicly-funded universities, students have been reduced into mere clients of the state.

But American universities fare no better. Their academic life is undermined in other important ways. Driven by what could be called the “nonprofit motive” - attracting as many high-quality students and teachers as possible - universities-turned-corporations, with campuses designed like luxury resorts, have reduced many students to consumers.

The result is that a sense of entitlement reigns on both sides of the Atlantic. In neither case is academic life being served well: In Europe, higher education is a right, while in America, the customer is always right. And, along the way, the character of students has been spoiled and their moral fiber steadily eroded.

A year ago, in these pages, we wrote about the benefits of opting for graduate study in Europe, rather than in the United States. Recent events have not changed our minds. We see in Europe the continuing legacy of an older intellectual tradition and extol the virtues of Bildung, the German concept of the formation and betterment of the self. Nonetheless, we see quite clearly the deleterious effects that decades of welfare-state educational policies have had on Europeans students.

But at the same time, we recognize that the approach taken by American universities has contributed to a distortion of the purpose of the university, reducing it to a merely commercial enterprise. While there is something to be said for European universities adjusting their funding model to include higher tuition fees, the commercialism of American universities is something to be avoided as well.

After weeks of unrest, European students need to get back to work - and perhaps consider working part-time jobs or taking on loans to fund their education, rather than making simple-minded demands. U.S. students, on the other hand, also need to get back to work and should think more critically about the transformation of the typical American university into “Club Ed” - a country club and vacation resort with the occasional lecture or seminar. Perhaps they should consider making a fuss about that.

Alvino-Mario Fantini and Jonathan D. Price are doctoral students in Europe.

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