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!