Yesterday, Claudia Webbe, a Labour MP, called purely online university education provision during the current pandemic “daylight robbery”. She cited the maximum fees that universities can charge students in England and Wales.
I had some thoughts about that, which I put in a Twitter thread, but am saving here to refer back to. (I regularly delete my tweets.)
The fees are a product of government policy. Hence universities are in the impossible and unenviable position of both having to operate like businesses in a marketplace *and* be subject to government interference.
When I did my doctorate, I did pretty much all of it online and paid £££ for some very good supervision, access to stuff I couldn’t easily get other than through the uni library, and… the qualification at the end.
As has been written about at length elsewhere, credentials are signals to the job market and other groups. University degrees have historically been top-quality signals, but that’s less and less the case in the industries I work with. People want to see what you can do.
This is not to say that universities are just about credentials, or that those credentials aren’t valuable (I hope they are for my sake!) What I am saying is that there are other ways of packaging up knowledge, skills and understanding. Open Badges, for example.
Universities, because they’re acting like businesses, don’t have as much goodwill from the general population anymore. Especially given the general distrust of experts generated by the right-wing media over the last decade. They need to tread really carefully.
New approaches like ‘masterships’ where you get a Masters-level qualification while learning on the job are currently provided by orgs like Accenture in collaboration with universities. It’s a win/win for employer and employee, but for the uni…?
I can foresee a situation, which is probably already happening, where elite research centres are decoupled entirely from teaching, learning, and credentialing operations. As that happens, the latter function becomes more and more focused on employment.
For ~£9k you can do a 480-hour bootcamp over a few months with an org like General Assemblysand get a well-paid job at the end of it. No debt after a year. Now, I’m a graduate of Philosophy, History, and Education degrees, but I’m not sure I’d advise my kids to do traditional uni.
So back to the tweet from the Labour MP. She’s absolutely correct, despite the protestations of academics and those who love higher education (like me). You can get daily feedback to quickly develop employable skills, which is more important than ever in a pandemic.
So how will higher education respond? Who is nimble enough? I feel like the main problem is the pseudo-market created by the government. Many unis can and want to respond more quickly, but they have baggage and regulation that others do not. Sadly.
Some research I did during the Black Lives Matter protests pointed me towards Seeing White, which is Season 2 of the amazing Scene On Radio. I’ve been catching up with other series of the podcast since then, and the third series about toxic masculinity is also excellent.
However, it’s an episode of the most recent season which I want to focus on here. Season 4 concentrates on the origins of American democracy and, towards the end of March 2020, the hosts recorded a special bonus episode.
I listened to the episode this morning and it put into words something I’ve really been feeling about references to ‘the economy’. Thankfully, Scene On Radio provides audio transcripts.
Here’s the main host, John Biewen, talking to his co-host and collaborator, the academic and activist Chenjerai Kumanyika. They’re discussing the tension between the economy and democracy.
John Biewen: So in those cases from our series, and in others that we’ve looked at, it seems clear that building a healthy economy, as the ownership class understands that, is usually not the same as achieving wellbeing for most people. And here we are today, this argument still seems to be very much with us.
Chenjerai Kumanyika: So, you look at what we’re dealing with right now with this crisis, there’s a lot of evidence suggesting that this thing of prioritizing profit has a lot to do with why our disaster preparedness is so far from what we need right now. Most of y’all have probably heard that Trump dismantled a pandemic preparedness team inside his administration that had been created during the Obama administration. But what you really have to look at is how he explains hisreasoning for this. In a press conference where he was describing why he cut thepandemic team and other things, he said, “I’m a business person….”
They play a clip from Trump where he says he doesn’t want people ‘standing around’ being unproductive. But of course that only makes sense if you think countries should be run like businesses.
Chenjerai Kumanyika: And so there’s all these ideas circulating that everythingin the world should operate like a business and that somehow businesspeople are the best equipped to do everything. But in this case what you see is that business instinct was incredibly shortsighted. When we’ve actually known about these kinds of flus for decades, and people have been warning about just this kind of global pandemic — including Dr. Anthony Fauci, who’s playing such a prominent role right now. He’s the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and you’ve probably seen him talking about this. He’s been warning about flu pandemics at least since the 1990s. But with that government pandemic unit cut from the budget, the decision of whether or not to develop and mass-produce vaccines and tests was an economic decision left in the hands of people figuring out, like, are we gonna profit from this?
So there we have it. By ‘the economy’, what politicians and others mean is ‘profits for wealthy people’. This is why, with a straight face, they will talk about the ‘balance’ to be struck between the economy and the number of deaths caused by the pandemic.
Put like that, as profits for wealthy people, I don’t particularly care about getting the economy restarted. I care about human lives. Trickle-down economics has, after all, been debunked as bogus.
The priority here in education, formal or informal, should be upon facilitating learning, not finding ways to use the latest technology that comes along. While there’s an undoubted thrill in, for example, finding ways to use something like Google Glass, we as educators shouldn’t feel pressure to do so merely because it exists. We should focus on creating learning environments that integrate technology use, not throw the baby out with the bathwater in the name of ‘disruption.’ Education isn’t broken, it’s just being systematically defunded in order to let private providers ‘save the day.’
I’d really appreciate your comments – whether you agree with what I’ve got to say or not. I’ve closed them here to encourage you to comment on the original post.