Maybe the future is bleak, or maybe it’s here

From Ken Freedman's WFMU Playlist

George Siemens has an interesting piece up concerning educational value, and it gets the wheels turning on the transitioning value schemes in higher education, the declining absolute value of “content” (a seemingly obvious observation, but one that has evidently not entered the collective consciousness of the academy yet), and the positioning of companies such as Pearson and McGraw-Hill.

George goes on to assert:

In an age of YouTube and open education, what possible value can university offer learners? Research and athletics – at least in the US – are commonly stated as important contributors to university value. However, we could do far more research if the state didn’t have to pay for students. Scrap students, invest it all in research. In terms of sports, the shame of college sports left a bit of a bad taste for me. I don’t buy that either research or sports need to be connected to universities.

As chance would have it, a few minutes later I found myself reading Aaron Bady’s post on the effective privatization of California’s public universities, which pointed out that “while UC students paid around $4,000 a year in tuition in 2000, their successors will pay over $22,000 a year in 2015.” Bady cites this barely-veiled parable from Christopher Newfield’s piece, Devolving public universities (which, I hasten to add, is worth reading in full):

Gold U does enormous volumes of high-end research at colossal medical centres and national laboratories, and loses enormous amounts of money doing so (there’s UC’s gross revenues of $3.5 billion, which lead to net revenues of minus $720 million). But they lose this money on behalf of politically and financially powerful external sponsors, such as Intel, BP, and the Departments of Energy and Defense, as well as of thousands of overloaded faculty scientists, struggling with reduced grant acceptance rates and shrinking support staff. Gold U will be obliged to continue to lose this money in order to save money for influential sponsors. Similarly, philanthropy, given its highly targeted nature, doesn’t have a prayer of keeping up with cuts to public revenues for general operations. The philanthropic network is also compromised by being embedded in the top fraction of American business and finance that has decoupled from the fate of the domestic economy. Fundraisers will continue to seek the ‘game-changing eight-figure gift’, but they will be looking to people who have little or no stake in mass quality for the batches of 220,000 or 450,000 college students who are piling out of a K-12 system that in California is 70 per cent students of colour. If the top 0.1 per cent or 1 per cent of the income ladder gives big, it will be as a targeted investment in a technology or disease area of special interest to their social world or to their portfolios. These same major players will continue to put a bipartisan kibosh on serious university resistance to cuts, since that would eventually lead to restoring business and various kinds of wealth taxes the cutting of which has allowed for incomes of the top 1 per cent to grow from between 90 per cent and 385 per cent (for the top 0.01 per cent, in real dollars) in the period after 1975 that saw real incomes grow for the bottom 90 per cent by –1 per cent.

Gold U will turn for money to its natural constituency, the middle and upper middle class (the top 20 per cent and the top 10 per cent exclusive of the top 1 per cent, respectively), which did see moderate income growth and who will be asked to cover fee hikes not quite of the 300 per cent grandeur about to appear in the United Kingdom, but of many small increases (of 7–10 per cent per year, three times the rate of overall inflation), punctuated with giant leaps of 20–33 per cent every few years (for 2009–10 and 2011–12 in California). Since Gold U’s private-sector partners have been redistributing wealth upward for years, leaving half of the student population with no private reserves for college, Gold U will take 33 per cent and in some years 50 per cent of fee increase money to pay financial aid. For this and other reasons, such universities will continue to cut educational opportunities, particularly the expensive, small-scale, face-to-face student-centred learning that is essential to the higher-order cognitive skills clearly needed to create equitable, sustainable economies and to solve the world’s most urgent problems. These repeated cuts to educational capacity mean that the coming decade will intensify the last decade’s student rule of thumb of pay more to get less. Student customers, especially those with the strongest academic records, will realize that $37,000 for State U lectures with 700 students and half-graded problem sets is not a good consumer deal, and will go elsewhere. Gold U will offer factory-style white-collar education at a high price for a post-white-collar economy. Although universities have traditionally enjoyed a captive audience, the business model of charging more for less will produce deteriorating returns, threatening not only the educational core but also the capacity of the university to transfer tuition money to cover the deficits created by sponsored research.

Essentially inverting George’s notion that “we could do far more research if the state didn’t have to pay for students”, this critique suggests that higher education is transforming into yet another mechanism to transfer public money, and what little wealth that still resides outside the grasp of the top 1%, into the coffers of corporations. Political cover, somewhat akin to money laundering, corporate welfare. It’s worth noting that George and I both reside in Canada, where the present situation is not quite so dire — then again, our leaders seem quite enthused at pushing deeper into the neo-liberal thickets, and I’m confident that the Great White North is merely lagging a couple years behind on this developmental curve.

I am insufficiently sophisticated in macroeconomics and higher education policy to pull this issue apart, but in my little corner of educational technology we see more evidence of transferring public wealth (in terms of budgetary dollars and outsourcing expertise) to large corporations every day. This short discussion from the wonderful people at UMW DTLT hits some of the key points quite effectively from the comfy confines of the cuddle couch. You’ll have more fun listening to Martha, Andy, Tim and Jim than you will reading this post… I promise.

I might have hoped that the spectacular and unmistakable failure of business-as-usual might enhance the appeal of promising alternative approaches (open, participatory, highly cost-effective), ones that have delivered demonstrable benefits – but from my perch it appears that support for these models is viewed as an unafforable luxury from bygone, pre-austerity times. We seem intent on doubling down on these disastrous bets. Instead of higher education as “a space of redefinition and reflection”, terrifying times send us blindly headlong into the protective arms of TINA thinking.

Yeah, I know this post is a muddled mess. My mind is a horrible place.

7 thoughts on “Maybe the future is bleak, or maybe it’s here

  1. Just coming back to this one. Superb post (from you, and George, and Steve).

    My big takeaway from it all is we need an economics/microeconomics MOOC – stat – aimed at educators and activists. It’s getting to the stage where we just need to understand this stuff, while we can still do something about it.

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