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What are educating them for?

Yesterday I had the privilege of attending a talk enabled “Universities in Crisis” at the RIA.  Read the speaker’s (Michael Burawoy) blog here.   Apparently, universities across many parts of the world are in trouble.  We are not alone.

It seems the universities are more in conflict than in crisis.  Conflict arises from change that is unwanted, unwelcome and seen to be for the worse. We can’t ignore the political / economic context the higher education finds itself in.  They have come in the door, we can’t kick them back out but neither should we let them control what we do.

The “privatisation” of higher education changes the essence of the university producing the horror of  commoditisation of knowledge, and bureaucratic regulation is creeping in.  We know that we need to counter this but money is getting in the way.  The costs of higher education have skyrocketed in recent times.  Staff costs have gone up, but this is dominated by the costs of non-academic staff whose numbers are on the rise.   Surely the domain experts in the different faculties are the prime staff.  Apparently not any more.  The support staff are increasing the prime staff.  Something is very wrong about this.

What is being done.  Increase student fees (or introduce student fees if you are in Ireland), bring in more foreign students and charge them even higher fees, get to work on the alumni for corporate donations, increase collaborations with industry, etc.   None of these solutions are without their problems.

Yes these solutions are a way of handling the crisis  but consider the conflict they bring.  Universities begin to look like corporate for-business organisations.  Then, the problems really happen. Output result: degradation of education quality, increase in temporary staff numbers (they cost less) who do the bulk of the teaching and learning, increase in distance learning (its cheaper), shorter degrees, some disciplines under threat (this has already happened here in the NCI).  We end up with very hierarchical corporate structures that have layers of management.  The plebs at the bottom are hit the most and it is these plebs that do the actual work.  Ridiculous competition emerges within and between universities as they compete for students and for research funding.

In the middle of all this it is easy to lose track of what universities actually do.  Universities are knowledge producers.  Who do we produce knowledge for? Ourselves and / or non-academics.  And what do we produce knowledge for?  The speaker talked about “reflexive” knowledge i.e. knowledge for its own sake to further our own critical thinking.  Problematically we are in danger of  having too much of what he calls “instrumental” knowledge i.e. knowledge for policy-making and commercialisation outside the boundaries of the institute.  We need to reclaim a balance of instrumental and reflexive knowledge and knowledge for ourselves and outsiders. This is a challenge, particularly when funding as a problem simply will not go away.

A member of the audience raised a good point.  We are vastly increasing the numbers going to college, yet it’s unreasonble to assume that we can make critical thinkers out of all of them.  What then are we educating them for?   What does their graduation parchment signify?  What a controversial question.  It brings up all sorts of theories, many of which involve the continuing debate around falling standards and dumbing-down.  The speaker answered in terms of lived experience, dialogue, variety of student backgrounds, etc.  There isn’t an acceptable answer to the question.  Universities in crisis to be sure!


What Twitterers are tweeting about

Some people flatly refuse to tweet because it’s boring.  Yes, it is boring to read “I’m going home now” or “having chicken for dinner”.  But a flick through the tweets of those I’m following reveals some interesting stuff indeed.  People really post about interesting things. Here’s a selection:

  • Interview with Mark Zuckerberg:  he’s big into integration, single sign-ons with Facebook at the centre of things.
  • 40 people who changed the internet: the list is predominantly male and American.  There is a grand total of 1 woman in the entire list.
  • Review of Kevin Kelly’s new book: the reviewer isn’t hugely positive but yet manages to create a curiosity about the book. It sounds like an in-depth philosophical view of the technology-driven world. Example: “technology is an emerging state of cosmic reality” – that calls for some pondering.
  • Social consumers and social marketing:  I started off my professional life in marketing (in the pre-internet world). It  didn’t last long. The whole thing felt like a combination of paper-pushing and how-to-get-suckers-to-part-with-their-money. Now, it’s all changed and internet-marketing is one of my more enjoyable subjects to engage in with students.  Social Currency is more than just a concept. Brands mean something to customers, and customers are in charge of the transaction
  • If third level education costs more, should third level education then be shorter in duration? – I don’t agree. But this is exactly what is being speculated on in the UK. College is as much about personal development as it is about learning the content of a particular domain.  I’ve always been fascinated by how students change and mature between their first year and their third year. I don’t  see the same gains being made in 2 years. In terms of the academic learning, I wonder if a 2-year degree is more about the dreaded, and ultimately wasted, “cramming” as it is about immersion in a subject to the extent that a deeper understanding is achieved, even if some domain facts become blurry with time.
  • If I were a rich woman would I live here? – in fairness, it’s a plush location close to all amenities, but think of the traffic and the pollution. I do like the floorplan and the reclining statue at the bottom of the bed. The bed in the bathroom (or the bath in the bedroom) I’m not so sure about.
  • John Seely Brown’s “The Power of Pull” – I’m ashamed to say I purchased this some time back and still not have got around to reading it.  There are simply too many good books screaming read-me-read-me.  The line “If I aint learning, it aint fun” caught my attention.
  • The top 10 social networking sites and forums: Surprise surprise, Facebook is way above and beyond the most popular. Why don’t I know more about Mocospace and Mylife?  Am I missing something?
  • The Times Higher Ed claim to have a preview of the Hunt report: and its unsurprisingly not pretty in places and rather intriguing in others: the general feeling seems to be that it lacks a sound academic base and anything build on sand tends to be blown apart quite easily. So far so uh-oh.