On “Surplus Applicants” and the Superflux: The Government’s Defunding of Postsecondary Education in Alberta

Yesterday several hundred highschool students held a noon-time rally for education in Alberta at the Legislature steps under the banner “Taking Back Our Education” (#tboe). Later in the afternoon a Metro News article claiming Alberta students are applying to postsecondary institutions in Saskatchewan went into circulation on Twitter. The article quotes Minister of Enterprise and Advanced Education Thomas Lukaszuk as declaring any such news “sensational”: “To be arguing that all of the sudden some kind of exodus of students from Alberta to other province is sensational in nature.” Even if the news is true Lukaszuk declared himself unperturbed: “Lukaszuk, however, said Alberta always has surplus applicants at its schools.” Some sensational students may go elsewhere, but not to worry: a “surplus” will remain.

Surplus. A strange adjective to apply to people, no, even though it has featured centrally in Marxist theory to explain what capitalism does to people?

surplus, n. and adj.

1.

1. a. What remains over and above what has been taken or used; an amount remaining in excess. †Also, (a) superfluity, superabundance.

b. Polit. In some systems of election by transferable vote: the votes which are transferred from a candidate who has attained the quota necessary for election to one who has not.

2.

surplus value n. (Econ., esp. in Marxism), that part of the value of the results of human labour which accrues beyond the amount needed to reproduce the initial labour power.

3.

Of a shop: that sells goods which are surplus to (chiefly, military) requirements.

If there are applicants to Alberta’s postsecondary institutions over and above the number of spots available for them, the system is not adequately accommodating the needs of the province’s students. There shouldn’t be any such “surplus.” But as news over the last weeks has made clear, this “surplus” can only increase: the University of Calgary’s Provost Dru Marshall announced last month, for example, that the University will cut some 200 spots from its Faculty of Arts in order to meet budget constraints.

Faculties of Arts are of course one of the most popular educational homes for those who wish to challenge current forms of social organization predicated on and fetishizing the production of “surplus value.” They furnish something deemed “surplus” to society’s needs: social innovation made possible through thought, analysis, critique, and creativity. Those Alberta students who choose to go elsewhere for their postsecondary education, despite the Minister’s claim that talk of any such possibility is “sensational,” will do so precisely because the Government is busy downsizing the postsecondary education system so that it meets the needs of one kind of “surplus” rather than the needs that Faculties of Arts address so well, the needs of civil society.

As one satirist writing on Twitter under the name Lukasz Hulk put it in a tweet a couple of weeks ago, the Minister is presiding over a Government agenda that is interested in “productive journeymen” rather than the “well rounded citizens” who emerge from programs in “Arts and Humanities”:

Screen Shot 2013-06-12 at 12.21.08 PM

The Government will facilitate certain kinds of enterprise (those that focus on extracting surplus value from those with “skills”) even as that other contingent of the “surplus” — those who want an education in fields such as the Arts — may choose to leave the province. In other words, as an engine of “Enterprise,” the Government will grow one kind of surplus (the kind in which venture capitalists are interested), and do so in part by downsizing “Advanced Education” (while apparently seeing no conflict of interest in combining the two in the same ministerial portfolio). It must do so because it is not (it seems) interested in properly creating and distributing another kind of surplus, the kind that Shakespeare refers to in King Lear, that tragedy about a king brought to utter devastation as a result of his failures as governor:

                                O I have ta’en
Too little care of this: Take Physic, Pomp,
Expose thy self to feel what wretches feel,
That thou maist shake the superflux to them,
And shew the Heavens more just.

superflux, n. 

1. An unnecessary or excess amount of something; a surplus.

The question is this: does the Government of Alberta have the capacity to do what Lear even in his tragic experience does not, the capacity to listen to critique and alter decisions so that it can properly nurture the “superflux” and distribute it to Albertans? We need an Alberta in which no one can be treated as “surplus” in relation to the Government’s devastations of any public good.

Let me let a few of yesterday’s rallying students have the last word:TOBE 4 on ledge 11june2013

We are your future take care of us 11june2013

TBOE blue headscarf

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