This is just scary

Jender blogged a few weeks back  about one aspect of the redoing of higher ed the current UK government seems keen on.  And I certainly don’t want to dismiss all the current goals, such as increasing  social mobility.  But a chill goes over me when I read this:

Mandelson to announce plans to modernise ‘ivory tower’ universities

Business secretary wants students and parents to be treated more like customers in proposals to overhaul higher education.

So what’s wrong with that?  Why can universities be more like corporations  turning out a product?  And aren’t Secretaries of Business really good judges of what the product  is? 

I’d be really interested in hearing what you all think.  My own worry is that universities get put under a great deal of pressure to produce a product that can be recognized by the consumer, and that  tends to lead to, among other things, massive grade  inflation and all that entails, which is a sense  that money is just about enough to entitle a student to be called educated.

22 thoughts on “This is just scary

  1. I was hired in 1992, and the big news that year on campus was that a Total Quality Management office was set up in cooperation with Local Big Corporation whose names I will not say. Total Quality Management will save the day!

    That went away after a while. Then then started shoving “Who Moved my Cheese” at us as the Answer to All.

    The president calls himself a CEO.

    Students say that they have PAID their tuition, therefore, they are our bosses, and they get the grade they want.

    As a friend of mine said, “Education: the only business where the consumer routinely demands less than their money’s worth.”

    Hasn’t anybody noticed how the practitioners of BUSINESS have, oh, devasted national economies lately?

    And we should be modeling ourselves on them?

    Education, Health Care, and the Justice system should NOT be for-profit enterprises.

  2. I know of a certain university in North London who are in negotiations *right now* about ditching the philosophy BA purely down to cash ‘problems’ ie they receive many, many more applications for sports/art/new media degrees and it is too expensive to run a degree for courses that only attract tens rather than hundreds of applicants. It’s not about serving the customer, but eliminating any customer base they can’t afford to satisfy and appealing to the mass market. Philosophy just ain’t ‘value for money’ :(

  3. Isn’t this indicative of end stage capitalism, where absolutely everything is a commodity. Even religion has been commodified by televangelists. What remains? The Academy, for me, has always been partially a spiritual practice of educating for a more just future. To become a product generating corporation is the antithesis of what I believe the role of the Academy is. We forget, I think, why we wear robes at graduation.

  4. Related to lani’s comment: in the wake of the Hypatia conference I have been thinking about Foucault and disciplines. One could easily see this all as an attempt to produce the docile bodies needed by High Capitalism. Among other things, the idea is to provide consumer information in terms of such things as jobs courses actually lead to, what the salaries of those taking a course look like, and so on.

    It would be really interesting to see what in the plans could be grouped together under “reducing the impact of courses the lead students to think subversively for themselves.”

    Philos, following on that, killing philosophy off might be just the way to go.

  5. Let me say something about modernisation from my own experience. I will preface this by saying that there are two things you need to know about me:

    1. I am extremely atheistic

    2. There is nothing about me that ressembles a mother bird

    Having done private tutoring for high school students in Australia, I was always amazed at the complete consistency whereby students with a secular background (and their parents) expected that paying for a tutor was as good as improving their grades. The students didn’t expect to make much effort apart from endure the hour of “medicine”. I was the authority with the magic potion of my presence, who would somehow improve the grades without any substantial effort on the students’ part to improve.

    The extremely religious students, however, which were fewer, did make the best use of the tutoring sessions to actively participate in their own educational process (by asking questions and doing preparation for the tutoring sessions inbetween lessons). They were the only ones that actually improved as a result of the tutoring.

    A passive attitude to education goes hand in glove with modernisation, which is really just another word for the psychology of consumerism taking over.

  6. I have currently one foot in each world: I work part-time in business (a bank to boot) and am pursuing a master’s in philosophy. What needs reforming is the business world. I think it’s a disgrace that at half my salary, I still make more than the people who are raising the next generation. And all I do is shuffle paper – virtual and real – while my bosses (broadly speaking here) are restarting the game of bringing the world economy to the brink of collapse with new vigor (they know they’re safe since they’re too big to fail). It’s absolutely absurd that something (self-)destructive like this is held out as a model. It’s as if someone jumping off a building is asked to teach us how to fly…

    Jennifer: That’s interesting. My anecdotal experience is opposite. Kids raised within secular households got a dose of skepticism, which helps critical thinking and makes them eager learners, though not necessarily of the stuff they’re supposed to learn in schools. I wonder if anybody studied the relation of secular toward educational attitudes more rigorously?

  7. People’s remarks are making me think more and more that it can’t be that they think education will learn from business. Rather, education is to service business by providing workers.

    That isn’t quite how it’s put, of course. What’s said is that education will serve its customers by making them more employable.

    So what’s it all about? Well, maybe social mobility, but it seems to me very tricky to think that one can use capitalism to benefit students. Capitalism is always very hungry.

  8. Does a extremely atheistic mean you are very antitheist .
    But still a humanist ,caring loving ,without relating it to a god or religion ?
    Or the concept of caring for other people,love and compassion are alien to you,
    as the term atheist seems to convey .

  9. Does a extremely atheistic mean you are very antitheist .
    But still a humanist ,caring loving ,without relating it to a god or religion ?
    Or the concept of caring for other people,love and compassion are alien to you,
    as the term atheist seems to convey .

    Excellent question, Kenneth!

    How about you? Do you shave your pubes, or do you leave them hairy?

    Because, from the tone of your voice, I’m wondering if you might be a bit unhygenic! lol.

  10. O no! We have a policy!?! Be nice or be silent. Please.

    Perhaps Kenneth you could explain why you associate being aetheistic with not having caring or compassion. Many atheists seem to lots of us to be more caring and compassionate than a lot of theists are, so it is puzzling. After all, atheism is seldom invoked in any justification of murder or making people social outcasts, denying them what others consider basic rights, and so on and so forth.

  11. Jennifer, I suspect the differences you noticed between religious vs. secular attitudes toward learning has a great deal to do with attitudes toward higher authority. I guess there is something to be said for the motivational effects of fearing eternal damnation as contrasted with “well what the hell am I paying you for?”

    Note: I don’t believe in hell either.

  12. I guess there is something to be said for the motivational effects of fearing eternal damnation as contrasted with “well what the hell am I paying you for?”

    More like, the capacity to value things that are invisible is lacking and knowledge is not materially quantifiable, so “what the hell am I paying you for?”

  13. Surely something is wrong with the state of post-secondary education. Practically everyone agrees that a majority of students nowadays stagger out of college ill-prepared to find meaningful work or pursue a desired career (to make things worse, many go into debt in the process). We all know the cliche: the bachelor’s degree is the new high school diploma. While a BA is in some sense a prerequisite, it typically lacks substance. A college education increasingly seems like a dubious investment.

    I understand that the idea of modeling schools as businesses seems vulgar, but at the same time I am sympathetic to the claim that colleges and universities generally aren’t serving students well, and that there needs to be a way of ensuring some kind of accountability. Now, Jennifer’s example suggests that the problem may simply be that the students themselves are unmotivated–they’re the dysfunctional ones, not us teachers. Maybe there’s something to that, but it can’t be the whole story. Even if you happen to disagree with the precise recommendations of Mandelson et. al, it seems crazy to suggest that the academy is fine just the way it is.

  14. Actually, knowledge can more or less be measured in terms of net social benefits, overall well being, etc. I agree that attempting to translate that into some kind of twisted dollar cost averaging formula undermines the point of education, though.

    Then it’s more backsliding into the whole rich get more educated and do less for more money and the standards ‘trickle down” to the poor who leave elementary school unable to spell, and the rich torment them further… blah blah blah…

    I agree that adopting an American-style system in the UK would be as much of a backslide as it was here a few years ago. Did this Mandelson guy bother to look up the effects of perestroika on the system in Russia before he proposed this?

    Probably not. I studied economics in college too. The prof was a proponent of *ARGH!!* Friedman! As in–Canadian pinkos and commies… bad… Americans and big business… good…restructure…privatize…if armies or disasters blow it up we’ll take it and who cares about the third world citizens who used to own it…

    (Maybe Rachel could confirm whether or not this is the model that Mandelson is using?)

    Kindly don’t confuse a materialism/quantifying with consumerism/commodification/objectification. That’s as bad as the confusion Kenneth just made.

    Didn’t I just say (referring to the other post) that Mill was my hero?

  15. BTW, blog #16 was supposed to be addressed to Jennifer with blog #14, but another blog popped up before I finished it.

  16. Listen, show me the goods, and I will see what kind of reward it merits. Really, if you want the big bucks, you ought to do something for it. I want to see what you can offer.

  17. I thought I had said all of the following in an earlier comment, but maybe that was on another thread. Or maybe it was on Facebook. Anyways:

    I want to suggest that the basic problem here is that we (meaning the people of modern Western nations, especially where English is the primary language for public discourse) lack any widely-shared understanding of the value of education except in capitalist terms. Hence we run into the kind of dilemma Alix #15 pointed out quite nicely: we want to say that there are problems with the ways our schools are organized now, and we want to figure out how to organize them better, but the only measures we have for making judgments about what’s better, worse, improving, failing, etc., are based on the students’ employment prospects. Call this the capitalist measure of the value of education, and the resulting problems the appropriation of education by capitalism.

    Of course, this wasn’t always the case. Education in the liberal arts and humanities used to be defended in terms of autonomy: a good education in science, math, history, literature, &c., is necessary for people to lead rich, thoughtful, and truly happy lives. (Note that that’s happy in the sense of Aristotle and Mill, not happy in the sense of Bentham and Friedman.) This sort of Enlightenment measure is deeply antithetical to the capitalist measure. Whereas the capitalist measure reduces the value of a human life to a cog in the machine, the Enlightenment measure finds an independent measure of value in human autonomy.

    Now,the Enlightenment measure has some problems. It suggests (though it does not imply) that people who don’t go to college can’t think for themselves, that a mastery of words and books is less important than a mastery of skills and tools, etc. Hence, my second suggestion (complementing the diagnosis above) is that there are both `conservative’ and `progressive’ projects to be done, if education is to be re-appropriated from capitalism. The conservative project is the recovery and maintenance of the old-fashioned Enlightenment measure of the value of education. The progressive project is the development of that measure to deal with the sorts of problems I identified a couple sentences ago.

  18. I didn’t know Milton Friedman made statements about happiness. I thought he was just a Bush/McNerney/Blackwater type of mercenary capitalist that got rich off the victims of people like the Chilean war criminal Pinochet–as in a few shades worse than Thatcherism.

  19. Noumena: We all study philosophy here, so I take it we all appreciate that an education can be more than merely a means to gainful employment. Still I worry that the enlightenment values you present are just not enough.

    You point out that, many years ago, people didn’t worry about whether their studies in the liberal arts would literally pay dividends–but as admirable a spirit as this is, I imagine that those people generally didn’t have to worry about paying off their student loans, either. Imagine telling a young person today that the real reason she should work two jobs and go deep into debt is in order to cultivate a life of the mind.

    Much more than in the past, post-secondary studies represent for many students a very serious financial burden. And with that in mind, I don’t think that we can in good conscious recommend a liberal arts education if there isn’t a real connection between one’s studies and what one would like to do after graduation. The rewards of simply being well-read and culturally literate, however wonderful, seem to me insufficient.

  20. “Our schools are failing our students,” and “we lack any non-capitalistic conception of the point of education,” sound so familiar, but I’m not sure they are exactly true. I can’t in fact believe I’m going to defend US higher education, and I do think there are all sorts of problems, but maybe more mixed than we might think.

    It is, among other things, very hard to generalize across all Western countries. If you look at the various statistics for measuring success, there are huge variatiions. So I’m going to stick to the US, where I have more understanding of the kinds of things that get highlighted. Also, in the States, I’m certainly prepared to say that K-12 is a mess, by and large. But colleges and universities?
    1. One thing US universities are bad at is getting good graduation rates. That’s a significant factor in the US News & World report rankings; it’s key to social mobility, and it is something university administrators obsess about if its a problem. (My stint in faculty governance led to this sort of knowledge, fortunately or not.) But it’s a very hard problem, and a big part of the solution is financial aide. Without that, you’ve got kids working full time and trying to complete a degree. That’s very hard. Also, if you’ve got first generation college students, they may be utterly culturally lost, another hard problem to solve without money. I googled “failing universities” and there’s plenty right now about the UK, but the best article on the US I could find is this one.

    2. Is the only public conception a capitalistic one? I’m less sure about this too. The US has some very influential voices in higher ed and they aren’t just talking about students getting jobs. William Bowen has been a very powerful voice in education, and he has a wide range of concerns:

    In 1988, he left Princeton and joined The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, where he created a research program to investigate doctoral education, collegiate admissions, independent research libraries, and charitable nonprofits in order to ensure that the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s grants would be well-informed and more effective.
    William Bowen has also been partially responsible for JSTOR, the Mellon International Dunhuang Archive, ARTstor, and Ithaka Harbors, Inc..
    Bowen has authored 19 books, including the Grawemeyer Award-winning The Shape of the River: Long-Term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions (co-authored with Derek Bok). His most recent book, Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education (2005), was coauthored with Eugene M. Tobin and Martin A. Kurzweil. Bowen’s current research project is a study of graduation rates at public universities in the United States.

    Another example: The Washington Monthly’s year guide to universities says:

    We rate schools based on their contribution to the public good in three broad categories: Social Mobility (recruiting and graduating low-income students), Research (producing cutting-edge scholarship and PhDs), and Service (encouraging students to give something back to their country).

    But, it might be said, the public doesn’t care about that stuff; they just care about what sort of job will students get. I don’t think that’s true. The US News and World Report’s rankings are very influential and they take into account (a) the completion rate and (b) rankings by other university administrators who do care about Bowen’s sort of stuff.

    3. But the universities at least fail the capitalisic goals, it might be said. But do they? This is tricky, because asking about what degrees lead to ignores then those who don’t get degrees. But a while back we linked to a report on expected salaries – both beginning and mid-career – of graduates with college degrees and they look not so bad. (It’s done by school.)

    There are surely still large gaps in US higher education, in addition to poor completion rates among a number of places. Some community college, for example, can be important parts of social mobility and fail at that.

Comments are closed.