The Profits of Knowledge

Speaking of Michael Heathfield, Assessment Chair extraordinaire, he’s also sent me some other interesting items of note, such as:

1) This story by a New York teen about how his English class was “hijacked” by DeVry.

2) He also sent this article about a bunch of chaplains in the U.K. who are dissatisfied with the government’s explanation for their Higher Education reforms. Why, you might ask?

“University education is said to bring economic benefits, equip individuals for work and raise their expected income. Whilst these aims are good in themselves, in our understanding higher education includes much more,” the letter states.

“Universities also serve the common good – they help to build societies where there is greater mutual respect, understanding and tolerance, they deepen understanding and question commonly held assumptions. The university experience is about self discovery and personal formation as much as it is about improving employment prospects.”

There’s more, too. Check out the rest HERE.

And thanks to the second article (which he actually sent first), I was led to a post on the Leiter Reports about U.K. reforms (and the white paper mentioned by the chaplains) called “The Triumph of ‘Management Speak’ in British Higher Education” which shows a great quote from a work by Stefan Collini of Cambridge. That, in turn, led me to read the original piece by Stefan Collini. First I carried it around for about three weeks because it’s kind of long and dense, but when I finally read it, even though there were lots of bits that I couldn’t make heads or tails of, I was entirely delighted by some dazzling chunks of prose.

Stuff like this:

Another feature of the current BIS-speak that pervades the White Paper is the replacement of analysis of desirable goals by the pseudo-measurement of ‘consumer satisfaction’. The central concept here is ‘the student experience’, part of the individualist subjectivism by means of which market transactions hollow out human relations. The model is that of, say, a hotel guest, filling in the feedback questionnaire on the morning of departure. Was ‘the guest experience’ a good one? Did you find the fluffy towels fluffy enough? Sometimes, the use of such language is just a meaningless reflex, as when a perfectly sensible proposal to amalgamate the separate processes of applying for university and applying for loans to pay for university is said to ‘provide a seamless customer experience’. In other contexts, the same terminology serves as sales-speak. Magna Carta College in North Oxford, ‘an independent Business School offering high-quality affordable degree programmes’, promises potential applicants ‘the Oxford experience’. Of course, universities marketing ‘the student experience’ don’t need to worry that anyone will take them to be offering a simulacrum of the real thing.

Where all this talk about ‘the student experience’ starts to betray the purposes of education is in its focus on a narrow form of short-term box-ticking satisfaction. This is spelled out in one of those phrases that can easily delude the busy politician into believing that he is saying something, perhaps even what he intends to be saying. The proposals, we are told, are ‘crucial to ensuring that students experience the higher education they want’. On graduation (‘exiting the student experience’, we should say), it’s easy to imagine respondents ticking all the boxes to indicate that the goods and services they received corresponded to those promised, and yet being left with the uneasy feeling that they haven’t been – as we used to call it – educated. Not that practical things are unimportant or students’ views irrelevant or future employment an unworthy consideration: suggesting that critics of the proposals despise such things, as David Willetts did when discussing my LRB piece on the Browne Report (4 November 2010) in a speech at the British Academy, is just a way of setting up easily knocked-down straw opponents. It is, rather, that the model of the student as consumer is inimical to the purposes of education. The paradox of real learning is that you don’t get what you ‘want’ – and you certainly can’t buy it. The really vital aspects of the experience of studying something (a condition very different from ‘the student experience’) are bafflement and effort. Hacking your way through the jungle of unintelligibility to a few small clearings of partial intelligibility is a demanding and not always enjoyable process. It isn’t much like wallowing in fluffy towels. And it helps if you trust your guides rather than assuming they will skimp on the job unless they’re kept up to the mark by constant monitoring of their performance indicators.

It also has to be said that, even on the proposals’ own cockeyed premises, the system will not actually be driven by ‘student choice’ but by the decisions of schoolchildren and their parents. All the paraphernalia of marketing is brought to bear on the moment when sixth-formers choose the courses and universities they hope to get into. But even if one tries to elevate these anxious 17-year-olds to the full majesty of ‘consumers’, the analogy doesn’t hold: the ‘producers’ choose the ‘consumers’ at least as much as the other way round, and applicants mostly don’t get the chance to modify their behaviour as a result of their experience of the satisfactions yielded by rival products. For most school-leavers, applying to university is a one-off event: it is more like getting married than like buying soap powder. It cannot primarily be price-sensitive, adaptive, feedback-governed consumer behaviour.

The main proposal in the White Paper intended to ensure that university applicants act as fully informed consumers – when did you last meet one of those? – is to force all universities to publish a Key Information Set, which will include information about courses and their requirements, much of which is already available, plus statistics about student satisfaction, employment prospects and so on. The KIS, we are told (in another example of the dogmatic future tense), ‘will enable higher education institutions to illustrate the quality of the experience that they offer’. But of course ‘quality’ is just what such crude data cannot illustrate. Learning, for example, the ‘salary for that subject across all institutions 40 months after graduating’ will tell you nothing about the quality of teaching or education at a given institution, and the data will be hopelessly flawed unless the government adopts more draconian methods to identify named individuals’ salaries in the private sector. (One might almost be persuaded there was some merit to this particular proposal if it meant that the exact income of young bond traders and investment bankers would be made public.) As with so much in this document, measures which may in themselves have some merit – who could be against fuller provision of information? – are devalued by being turned into the premises of a tendentious set of claims about ‘markets’.

Critics of the current policy need to acknowledge that it is designed to tap into the anger of middle-class parents about the conditions their children encounter at many universities, principally very high student-staff ratios and a consequently low level of contact hours. But in so far as there is a problem here, it is due to two factors: first, the deliberate underfunding of the huge expansion in student numbers that has taken place in recent decades, especially in the late 1980s and early 1990s; and, second, the distorting emphasis on ‘research productivity’ caused by the Research Assessment Exercise. Since the White Paper’s proposals do not address either of these problems, it seems a trifle optimistic to claim (in yet another example of the dogmatic future tense) that they ‘will put excellent teaching back at the heart of every student’s university experience’. ‘Back’ refers here, as so often in public discussion of universities, to some unspecified moment in the past when everything was so much better, but since the proposals say nothing about how the present average student-staff ratio of somewhere around 21:1 will be returned to its early 1960s level of around 8:1, and contain no suggestion that the exactions of the research assessment process will be reduced or eliminated, the claim that the policy is about improving students’ contact hours is bogus.

Further along there is this, which is my favorite part:

The White Paper twice quotes a celebrated phrase from the Robbins Report: ‘Courses of higher education should be available for all those who are qualified by ability and attainment to pursue them and who wish to do so.’ The implicit claim is that the government’s radically new policies are in some sense a continuation of those inaugurated by Robbins. But it may have been unwise for the drafting team at BIS to remind their readers of the cadence of Robbins’s prose, since it seems bound to provoke some thinking about how far we have travelled from the assumptions expressed by that prose, how that has happened, and whether something valuable may not have been lost along the way. We might, for example, be reminded of the following passage from Robbins:

It is the essence of higher education that it introduces students to a world of intellectual responsibility and intellectual discovery in which they are to play their part … The element of partnership between teacher and taught in a common pursuit of knowledge and understanding, present to some extent in all education, should become the dominant element as the pupil matures and as the intellectual level of work done rises … The student needs from the beginning to be made aware of the scope of his subject and to realise that he is not being presented with a mass of information but initiated into a realm of free inquiry … Most discussion of this subject clouds the issue by setting teaching and research over against each other as antithetical and supposing an opposition that exists only at extreme points, as if teaching were nothing but patient recapitulation and explanation of the known and all research were a solitary voyage to discover something that will be intelligible to a mere handful of persons.

Or, before our minds are utterly numbed by the boardroom language of the White Paper, we might remind ourselves of the deeper understanding of universities evident in the following:

Universities have an obligation to preserve and advance knowledge and to serve the intellectual needs of the nation. University teachers must keep abreast of new developments in their subjects and need time for reflection and personal study. Many also want to make their own contribution to such developments and this desire must not be frustrated if they are to remain intellectually alive. In addition, the influence and authority of those who have become acknowledged experts in their own fields of study radiate out far beyond the walls of the university in which they teach. Such persons are rightly required to undertake many duties in the cause of learning and in the interest of the country and indeed of the world, for learning is international. These compete for time with duties within the university. Again, it is the duty of universities to foster the study of new subjects and to ensure that subjects that are important but that do not attract great numbers of students are adequately studied. The ratio of teachers to students in the universities thus needs to be more favourable than the ratio in other institutions of higher education that do not have in the same measure the duty to preserve and advance knowledge.

In neither of these passages is the language slack or indulgent: they sternly talk of the ‘obligation’ of universities, and of how university teachers are ‘rightly required’ to undertake ‘duties’, and so on. But what such passages display, and what the White Paper so lamentably lacks, is a considered understanding of the character of intellectual inquiry and of the conditions needed to sustain it successfully across a wide range of subjects and across many generations. Universities cannot be glibly said to exist ‘to serve students’: that neglects precisely ‘the element of partnership between teacher and taught in a common pursuit of knowledge and understanding’ which Robbins identifies. The language of these passages is well informed and accurate: teaching at this level is not simply the ‘patient recapitulation and explanation of the known’; university teachers ‘need time for reflection and personal study’ if they are to ‘keep abreast of new developments in their subjects’, and so on. Such phrases would stick out in current HiEdspeak precisely because they are modest yet confident, not all outer bluster and inner defensiveness.

And then, finally, there is this utterly spectacular ending:

Lionel Robbins, it should be remembered, was a neoclassical economic theorist and no admirer of socialism or left-wing ideas more generally. The case against the White Paper, and against the shift in public discourse that it both reflects and tries to push further, does not involve the repudiation of economic reasoning any more than it involves some supposedly utopian disregard for the financial cost of public services, education included. Similarly, pointing to the damage likely to be done to universities by the application of business-school models of ‘competing producers’ and ‘demanding consumers’ is not to indulge a nostalgic desire to return to the far smaller and more selective higher education system of 30 or 40 years ago. The expansion of the proportion of the age-cohort entering higher education from 6 per cent to 44 per cent is a great democratic gain that this society should not wish to retreat from. To the contrary, we should be seeking to ensure that those now entering universities in still increasing numbers are not cheated of their entitlement to an education, not palmed off, in the name of ‘meeting the needs of employers’, with a narrow training that is thought by right-wing policy-formers to be ‘good enough for the likes of them’, while the children of the privileged classes continue to attend properly resourced universities that can continue to boast of their standing in global league tables. There is nothing fanciful or irresponsible in believing that this great public good of expanded education can and should be largely publicly funded. This White Paper and the legislation already enacted are not about finding ‘fairer’ ways to pay for higher education or, in any meaningful sense, about putting ‘students at the heart of the system’. Rather, they represent the latest instalment in the campaign to replace the assumptions of Robbins’s world with those of McKinsey’s.

Read the whole thing. It’s worth it.

4 thoughts on “The Profits of Knowledge

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