Higher education

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Saturday, 10 September 2016 - 7:47pm

Published by Matthew Davidson on Sat, 10/09/2016 - 7:47pm in

Had a brilliant idea in the shower this morning. As far as I can determine, the word "critical", in an academic context is either meaningless syntactic sugar ("it can be removed from the language without any effect on what the language can do"), or a sign of kinship with that community of thinkers which has a fierce aversion to ideas (forever working "toward a theory of…", but never arriving), or a totem handed down from charlatan to charlatan which is believed to magically shield them from — ironically — criticism ("If you don't understand/agree with me, it's because you're not thinking critically!"). These are not mutually exclusive categories.

My proposal is this: when asked to do something critically, treat the word as a placeholder for the adjective most likely to incite you to complete the task at hand. For example:

  • In place of "critically examine"; "urgently examine"!
  • In place of "critically discuss"; "loquaciously discuss"!
  • In place of "critically analyse"; "sardonically analyse"!
  • In place of "critically demonstrate"; "triumphantly demonstrate"!
  • In place of "critically engage"; "playfully engage"!

I hope this has been helpful, and I have not been "too critical" ("too much of a smart-arse").

Monday, 15 August 2016 - 10:48pm

Published by Matthew Davidson on Mon, 15/08/2016 - 10:48pm in

I submitted an essay on the due date. That almost never happens. As I was doing so, I saw this announcement on Blackboard:

Given the amount of requests for extensions […] I have extended the due date for assignment one by one week for everyone.

My rant took the following form:

Posted 5pm on the day it's due. Seriously? I've another essay due this week that could have benefited from the extra time had I known I could set this one aside for a bit.

It's nine thirty and I've just submitted the butchered abomination that fits within the word limit, rather than the essay I would have liked to submit. Word limits aren't about the discipline of writing to a limit; they're about limiting the time that it takes to mark essays, or rather the cost of paying someone to do it. Marking criteria aren't about transparency or equity; they're about turning academic staff into interchangeable box-ticking robots with no latitude for exercising professional judgement.

Call it "emancipatory teaching and learning" or "flexible converged delivery", the take-all-comers "demand-driven system" of higher education in Australia ultimately boils down to underpaid casual staff unable to take the time to properly deliver what is in any case a curriculum dumbed down for the benefit of students who can't read or write (because the income for every enrolment is the same) and don't know why they're at university, or that they're not really at a university but at a sleazy commercial vocational college whose business model is exploiting gullible youth.

At this point I'm just going through the motions because my friends and family insist that although they know and I know I'm not deriving anything of value from "the student experience", more people than I would expect take an Australian university degree very seriously. Why I should want to impress idiots in the first place is left unexplained.

I have every sympathy with students who struggle. I am one. I've almost never submitted an essay on time. I have to do the mental arithmetic to work out the gross mark I was awarded from the net mark after late penalties. (A pointless exercise anyway because "Did I meet the marking criteria?" is a completely different question to "Is this good work?") The problem with a semi-marketised system of higher education is that when a large proportion of students regularly receive low marks, or have difficulty submitting work on time, nobody asks "What is it about these students, or the conditions of their lives, that is generating this outcome? And what can we do about it?" The commercial imperatives force the question "How can we keep them enrolled, at whatever cost to the integrity of the system?"

Monday, 18 July 2016 - 8:46pm

Published by Matthew Davidson on Mon, 18/07/2016 - 8:46pm in

Here's a plausible explanation for my chronic ennui:

"The Cynics need a nearby academy, if only as a place to throw their plucked chickens, but the academy needs nearby cynics too, if only as walking advertisements for philosophy as a serious study, reminders that this is a subject people fall in love with."

More pointless than a rebel without a cause, I'm a Cynic without an Academy.

The Ivy League and the Lantana League

Published by Matthew Davidson on Tue, 23/02/2016 - 1:56pm in

[I'm archiving for posterity a few articles I wrote for a now-defunct website. This is the third, from June 2014; here is the first, and the second.]

Good afternoon everyone, and welcome to our external students who are tuning in via the Internet. To those external students I would like to ask that you put some pants on for the duration of this lecture, and to refrain from playing Angry Birds. I have no idea what it is to "play Angry Birds"; I assume it's a euphemism for something quite distasteful.

This afternoon we are considering the current state of university education in Australia. I therefore recommend following this lecture with a generous measure of the intoxicating substance of your choice. First, let us consider those characteristics of any conceivable higher education system which are universally considered uncontroversial, indeed axiomatic.

The first axiom is that the primary purpose of the Australian university system is to produce a skilled workforce to meet the needs of industry. This has been the case ever since the alleged expansion of the university system with the "Dawkins revolution" of the late 1980s. As former education minister John Dawkins himself declares, failure to take the focus of higher education away from the intellectual development of students, and reposition it towards the needs of business, would have left the Thatcherite economic reforms of the Hawke/Keating era incomplete. The trade and technical colleges that subsequently merged to nominally join the university system have largely carried on in practice as vocational training institutions. Wherever they have ventured into disciplines traditionally considered academic, the "new universities" of the last quarter of a century still, indeed increasingly, stress vocational outcomes. For example, in it's 2015 prospectus, Southern Cross University (the rebranded Northern Rivers College of Advanced Education) provides, for each of their courses, a list of the professions for which that course provides "work-ready skills", with even the School of Arts and Social Sciences promising "degrees which put you in the workplace".

The second axiom is that the benefits of having a higher education system overwhelmingly accrue to the student. To reconcile this belief with the demand that universities must primarily serve the needs of business requires sturdy ideological blinkers, or at least the ability to maintain a logical contradiction whenever it is in your interest to do so.

A necessary corollary of the first two axioms is that the public purse has next to no business contributing to the funding of higher eduction, and that public funding of public higher education can only decrease over time. The consensus on this is quite striking, across all institutions and both major political parties. Indeed, out on the lunatic fringe, some vice chancellors have been pleading for less government funding in exchange for more market-based deregulation.

So if everybody, or at least anybody who matters, agrees on the fundamental characteristics of the Australian higher education system, why such fuss about the latest wave of incremental change enshrined in the latest federal budget? Well, there is one fundamental difference of opinion among university administrators and between the Coalition and the ALP; that is, whether it is worth preserving the role of traditional, pre-Dawkins univerities in any form.

The current government is keen to push our higher education system from neoliberalism to full-blown neoconservatism, with (small "l") liberal education confined to Abbott's bunyip aristocracy, professional training for the managerial class, and tough love for the proles. The Labor party differs only in that it sees no point in liberal education at all. If one wants to participate in civic discourse, and needs to learn the finer points of politicking and rhetoric, one goes about it the traditional way: get a job at the ACTU and work your way up the ranks until you reach preselection for a safe seat.

The older, more prestigious universities which make up the Group of Eight (Go8) have never been particularly happy about the Dawkins revolution and subsequent aftershocks. While the far greater number of new universities have staked their futures on a mass market in higher education, the Go8 have nothing to gain, in a commercialised system, by any implied equivalence between themselves and the former polytechnics. On the other hand the new universities have flourished under the "demand driven system", introduced in 2012, where they are free to accept as many publicly-subsidised students as they can bear, on the premise that the resulting degree is as solid a guarantee of a well-paid career as a degree from any institution in the country.

While much fun has been had from the revelation that federal treasurer Joe Hockey was, in his own student days, a protestor against student fees, the prime minister can at least boast of more ideological constistency. In contrast to the later, largely phony expansion of university student numbers resulting from the Dawkins annexation of non-university institutions, there was a real, almost tenfold, increase in student numbers between 1955 and 1975. The young Tony Abbott, as a vigorous student reactionary at Sydney University in the 1970s, found to his horror that the wrong sort of people were attending his university and actively engaging with the wrong sort of ideas.

It should therefore hardly come as a shock that the Jesuit-and-sandstone-educated Prime Minister and his Jesuit-and-sandstone-educated education minister might seek a compromise that would restore some of the pre-war elitism to the prestige end of the market, while also accommodating the wish list of the mass market providers of vocational "learning outcomes". However when even Fred Hilmer, vice chancellor of Go8 member the University of NSW, and previously a lukewarm critic of deregulation, welcomed the government's vision of a US-style "diversity" between an Australian Ivy League and what we might call a "Lantana League" of second-rate institutions, the administrators of the latter seemed oblivious to the evidence that a deal had been done to explicitly segment the higher education market into a prestige line of products, and a low-margin, no-frills brand.

The trick to being a successful free market advocate lies in knowing which markets, when deregulated, will naturally deliver your desired outcomes, and which regulations should be left well alone. The demand driven system, which uncapped the number of students a university could accept in each course, has served the vocational universities well, allowing them to drop those courses that were difficult to sell and focus on the mass marketing of degrees as future employment vouchers. Further expansion of the demand driven system to sub-bachelor two-year courses was merely expected to add proportionally more cars to the gravy train. So when the government's Commission of Audit (a.k.a. the razor gang) also recommended tuition fee deregulation, Peter Lee, Chair of the Regional Universities Network and vice chancellor of Southern Cross University, greeted the recommendation as "no surprise" and welcomed a "robust discussion". For the benefit of the millenial generation, this can be translated as: "WTF??? OMG!!!"

Fee deregulation would mean that the Ivy League would be free to charge what the market would bear, prompting speculation of five-figure annual tuition fees, while the Lantana League would be forced to admit that their credentials were worth perhaps a tenth of the Ivy's, or else simply lose customers, or perhaps both. In the face of these prospects, Professor Lee appealed to the notion of the university as a "public good", a notion conspicuously absent just weeks earlier, when yet more of the less vocational units of study were mercilessly cut from his own campuses for the second term of 2014.

I must admit to some degree of schadenfreude at the thought of my own university's vice chancellor in the character of Wile E. Coyote, strapping on his ACME-brand, market-driven roller skates, and so enthused by the initial accelleration that he's unaware that he's shot off a cliff, then blinking with confusion at his sudden loss of forward motion, looking down, and finally holding aloft a little sign saying "FOR THE LOVE OF THE PUBLIC GOOD, HELP!" before plummeting to the canyon floor and vanishing in a tiny "poof" of dust. Sadly, this is poor consolation. Regardless of the outcome of the proposed robust debate, the Lantana League already exists, independant of the prospects for an Ivy League, and is the only available option for students in much of the country outside the major capital cities. I can testify to this from first hand experience here in Coffs Harbour.

The first thing you will notice as a Lantana League undergraduate is that your study options are somewhat constrained. Each Lantana League campus will have a business school, a few other vocational disciplines, and perhaps a prestige vanity school (in the case of SCU Coffs, psychology) whose presence is tolerated as long as it is able to generate fine-sounding press releases and revenue-raising partnerships with industry. Rare exceptions notwithstanding, you will not find many of the traditional subjects of a liberal education available to study.

In fact the "study of" a subject is eschewed in favour of the "study for" a career. The Lantana League is steeped in a culture of instrumentalism. Nobody here attends university because they want to attend university; they are working/paying for the award of an employment voucher. TV advertisements for Lantana League institutions repeatedly hit the word "career" as if it were a punctuation mark, while the word "education" is never heard. The idea that there might be intrinsic value in what you study or the work you do while at university is anathema.

Lectures are discouraged in the Lantana League, in favour of the verbatim recitation of administratively-approved bullet points from Powerpoint slides. External students recieve these as an audio or video file download. Often, so do internal students; lectures nominally scheduled as on-campus are frequently teleconferenced in from another campus to save money. Even when a recitation is given in-person, that person must stand rooted to the spot behind a Star-Trek-like panel of technology (which they don't really know how to operate), because the camera trained on them is unmanned and stationary, and the majority of their audience is out in cyberspace. Engagement with the audience in the room is physically near-impossible under these conditions and, in any case, there is an unspoken pact between lecturer and students to maintain an imaginary partition between them in order to preserve equity with remote students. It would be unfair to take the opportunity to ask a question when the majority of your fellow students have no such opportunity.

These recitations are literally audiovisual crib notes. Indeed prior to an exam, your unit assessor (you are unlikely to meet anybody with the title of "professor" during your time in the Lantana League) will refer you to the appropriate Powerpoint slides for revision. Lantana League vice chancellors, in touting technology as a replacement for academic staff and campus facilities, are fond of noting that their students overwhelmingly prefer downloading lectures to attending them. This is approvingly dubbed "voting with their feet". There may be some truth to that, but it is also true that by their second year many students have realised that there is not a lot of point in downloading lectures, either. I know of some who record and listen to their own crib notes, in preference to the university-supplied recordings. You might call this "voting with their brains".

[I'm archiving for posterity a few articles I wrote for a now-defunct website. This is the second; here is the first.]

The typical recitation will involve someone who evidently intensely dislikes public speaking "umm"-ing and "err"-ing their way through slides which may have been hastily reviewed that morning in preparation, occasionally losing their place, or stopping to apologise for how boring the subject matter is. This is not to criticise these members of staff. This style of presentation is entirely in line with the institutional agenda, and is what is expected of them. The subject matter should be dismissed as boring, and each activity in the course of one's studies must be a bitter pill to swallow, otherwise the credential would not count as an accurate measure of dedication to one's career aspirations. To enjoy your time at university, or find your chosen discipline interesting, would be positively perverse.

Each assessment task is accompanied by a detailed marking rubric, examples of past work, a generous quantity of notes, tips, reference material, and so on. The marking rubric ensures that academic staff have no latitude to exercise their own judgement in grading, thus reducing the act of assessment to a mindless box-ticking exercise, and reducing the staff to interchangeable (and disposable) work units. For the student, it also reduces the task of doing the work to a similarly mindless process of reverse engineering from the material dropped in the student's lap.

Most courses can thereby be reduced to an empty charade of going through the motions; a pantomime education.

This is not to say there are no avenues for dissent. There are multiple administrative branches of any Lantana League university that are most eager to hear you rat out an individual member of the academic staff for providing insufficient "student satisfaction". However, if your criticism bears on the shallow, commercialised nature of the institution, there is an artificial mosquito breeding pond conveniently located on campus for you to go jump in.

This spoon-feeding of weak and enfeebling learning outcomes is justified by recourse to the increased socioeconomic equity of a system that is able to welcome "less academically-prepared students". In principle, I am one of those students who can boast of being the first in their family to attend university. However I have no desire to go to university merely for the purpose of vocational training.

My father received a great deal of vocational training in his progression from apprentice to tradesperson to management, and every cent (well, every penny initially) of the cost of that training was paid for by his employer. While on paper university enrollments have increased dramatically over the last 25 years, the real aim of that expansion, and the corresponding employment "credential creep", has been the imposition of a sadistically regressive tax, known as the Higher Education Loan Programme (HELP), which shifts a substantial portion of the cost of business (i.e. training, not to mention R&D) from employer to employee. As a side effect, unscrupulously entrepreneurial university administrators, and soon perhaps private for-profit training providers, do very well for themselves. Access to the kind of university education recognisable from the prime minister's student days remains as remote as ever for most Australians.

So for the foreseeable future of the Lantana League system, now that the eradication of "study of" in favour of "study for" is nearly complete, students outside the elite institutions have no hope of acquiring through university study a clear understanding of the world around them, nor the ability to actively participate in that world, or - heaven forbid - the will and means to consciously change it. Cheers.

An Introduction to the Self-Hating University

Published by Matthew Davidson on Tue, 23/02/2016 - 1:52pm in

[I'm archiving for posterity a few articles I wrote for a now-defunct website. This is the second, from February 2014; here is the first, and the third.]

Distance learning just isn’t worth as much as on-campus tuition. That’s the opinion of Professor Jim Barber, vice-chancellor of the University of New England and self-satirist of note; or at least that’s what his opinion appears to be if one engages in a little speculative reading between the lines. He has just announced his intention to charge significantly less for online than on-campus courses. Moreover, in a stroke of breathtaking audacity, the money foregone will not be lost from the UNE administrative budget, and certainly not from executive salaries; Professor Barber is taking it from his students. From 2014, external students undertaking distance education will be exempt from the Students Services and Amenities Fees (SSAF). As for the subsequent defunding of student services, well tough luck.

“University students around the country are increasingly voting with their feet and not showing up to class,” says Barber, while making the very cuts that will make showing up to class even less desirable, “yet we continue to slug them for our services whether they use them or not. This is a pretty inefficient way to run any enterprise let alone a service industry.” (University of New England, 2013).

Barber proclaimed at a conference last year that “unbundling” is “where best practice is heading pedagogically. MOOCs [Massively Open Online Courses] are an extreme example in a bigger movement towards unbundling of services. Excellence in the business of higher education will increasingly mean individualised levels of service delivery, so pay for what you want and as you go.” (Streak, 2013).

Even before one begins to speculate over the prospect of pay-as-you-go lavatories for the recklessly profligate micturators on campus, it may seem extraordinary that a v-c would explicitly boast that his own institution deliberately aims to be the no-frills Ryanair of the higher education “service industry”. Nevertheless he maintains that “while most traditional universities around the world continue to press their governments for more funding, UNE is trying to move in the other direction.” (University of New England, 2013). UNE's staff and students just aren't worth the money, according to Professor Barber, and such naked contempt for students and staff alike is not as rare among university administrators as you might think.

In the US, San Jose State University has been leading this allegedly inexorable unbundling by outsourcing course delivery to proprietary MOOC providers. When asked whether this might lead to a decline in the quality of the education his students receive, SJSU's president merely deadpanned “It could not be worse than what we do face to face.” (Bady, 2013).

Such disdain for the practices of “traditional universities” is common throughout the world wherever Thatcherite principles of governance have taken hold. The “self-hating state”, to use George Monbiot's incisive term, “renounces its powers. Governments anathematise governance. They declare their role redundant and illegitimate. They launch furious assaults upon their own branches, seeking wherever possible to lop them off.” (Monbiot, 2013). It is therefore hardly surprising that when the self-hating state determines the regulatory environment in which universities operate, the state's attributes are reproduced in the self-hating university.

As Simon Marginson (2013) observes, the self-hating Australian government “prefers automatic economic mechanisms that remove the need to make and defend arguable policy positions”. In its turn the self-hating Australian university disavows any intrinsic purpose or values, and therefore any responsibility for the social consequences of its operations. It is merely a commercial service provider - shapeless clay to be moulded by the economically rational student-customer to suit their interests.

Two policy pumps maintain this pedagogical vacuum: Income-Contingent Loans (ICLs), and the Demand Driven Model (DDM). These and/or similar mechanisms pertain to an increasing number of other countries; the differences between them are interesting, but arguably increasingly marginal, so for simplicity the Australian example will be taken as broadly representative.

The pioneering implementation of Income Contingent Loans was Australia’s Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS). It was adopted in 1989 as a resolution to the tension between greater participation in higher education (spurred in part by the abolition of tuition fees in the 1970s), and the Hawke/Keating Labor government’s “considerable fiscal parsimony”, to quote the charmingly diplomatic chief architect of HECS, Bruce Chapman (1997).

To be politically palatable, HECS necessitated a reframing of public education as an individual good rather than a social good. In this way it could be argued that public funding of higher education is a form of progressive taxation: If, broadly speaking, the better educated are the better paid, it is unfair to tax the poor to fund the rich. To the counter-argument that higher education is an important way for the poor to improve their lot in life, “HECS' defining feature - income contingent repayment” (Chapman, 1997) appeared to be the perfect have-your-cake-and-eat-it rejoinder.

Indeed many commentators have marvelled at the “elasticity” of tuition pricing wherever income contingent loans are available, particularly in the wake of the unprecedented tuition hikes of 2010 in the United Kingdom. But in the Australian Universities’ Review, Emory McLendon (1997) posited a persuasive explanation for the ease with which students transitioning from high school to university accept the prospect of deferred fees: “The key word is deferred and the key factor is being 18 years old. […] A young student would tend to view the deferred payment of HECS in a similar light as a superannuation payout. It is simply too far into the future to be of great concern.”

Rachel Wenstone, vice-president of the UK National Union of Students suggests another explanation for demand-side price elasticity and “increased participation”, even in the face of the 2010 tripling of tuition fees: “With more than a million young people unemployed in the UK, some may feel like their options are somewhat limited and that choosing a situation which involves huge debt is the only way to enhance their employment options.” (Garner, 2013).

Nonetheless, consensus on tuition price elasticity is far from universal. In response to sectoral labour market shortages in the mid-nineties, the incoming Howard government introduced a tiered fee structure, with the intention that the price differential between disciplines would offer an incentive for students to enter those professions with the greatest demand for new skilled labour. Bruce Chapman was appalled. Recall that his scheme was designed to recoup the cost of higher education along economically rational, user-pays, free market lines. In his eyes, these changes were “not coherent, nor […] based on a well-defined set of economic principles” and charging inexpensively-trained lawyers more than expensively-trained nurses was “arguably poor economics” (Chapman & Nicholls, 2013). A genuine free market ideologue would sit back and allow the wages of nurses to rise in response to demand. Of course, to the nominal free market ideologues in government, the overriding principle is that free markets are fine for the plebs, but when the interests of employers are threatened, the free market can go fly a kite. Chapman clearly missed the memo.

While proponents of a commercialised higher education system point to growing participation rates in recent decades as a measure of its beneficial effects (at least on employment prospects), it is far from clear whether and to what degree this is the case. Longitudinal studies of the long-term effects of university study on either the individual or society are virtually impossible to use as a basis for policy prescription when the university is in a state of constant crisis and reinvention. The benefits that have accrued to the graduate of a generation ago cannot reasonably be assumed to apply to the graduate of today’s radically changed system.

To anybody involved in higher education prior to the reintroduction of tuition fees, the suggestion that one might attain a Bachelor of Business in Convention and Event Management, that economics would be taught as a component of business studies rather than vice versa, or that publicly funded universities would be teaching rank pseudoscience, would be considered laughable. However vocationalism and a business-centric view of the world is a logical consequence of user-pays tuition with a primary focus on financial return on a student’s “investment”.

Outside the small number of elite institutions that carry on the task of educating a privileged few, the majority of universities have embraced the pursuit of the “three Ms” of New Public Management (NPM): markets, management, and measurement. Lee Parker (2013) identifies this as “a clear example of goal displacement, whereby the financial resourcing of university missions and operations has become the end in itself.” Far from freeing each university to develop a unique character, and providing incentives for higher education to diversify and specialise, the result of commercialisation is quite the opposite. “Operating in a global marketplace and reflecting NPM, universities inevitably converge, presenting often-times homogeneous brands, missions, product and service offerings, and general organisational profiles.” (Parker, 2013)

Even so, you may ask, isn’t it undeniable that student-consumers are indeed “voting with their feet”, and that there must be some degree of declining demand behind the oft-repeated claim that there is a “crisis in the humanities”? As noted above, the apples vs. oranges obstacle to meaningful comparison of today’s universities to those of a generation ago makes quantifying any such effect problematic, and formal research with the aim of critically evaluating this contention is thin on the ground. American statistician Nate Silver recently dipped his toe into the quagmire and has tentatively concluded that “the relative decline of majors like English is modest when accounting for the increased propensity of Americans to go to college. In fact, the number of new degrees in English is fairly similar to what it has been for most of the last 20 years as a share of the college-age population.” (Silver, 2013). While this may be seen as some comfort to proponents of traditional academia, the more troubling corollary of this observation is that it seems quite likely that the liberal (indeed liberating) education that one would have expected to receive at university a generation ago remains just as much the preserve of elites as ever.

That the much-lauded increased participation in higher education, and avowed concern for students of “low socioeconomic status” (SES), is principally directed towards addressing the skilled labour requirements of industry brings to mind an adage from Earl Shorris, founder of the Clemente Course in the Humanities: “the poor are so often mobilized and so rarely politicized.” (Shorris, 1997). As Noam Chomsky notes, self-funded education is “one important way to implement the policy of indoctrination of the young. People who are in a debt trap have very few options.” (Chomsky, 2011). The combination of tuition fees and student loans effectively serves as a sin tax on the kind of education that produces politically empowered human beings rather than docile employees.


The Humpty Dumpty University

Published by Matthew Davidson on Tue, 23/02/2016 - 1:45pm in

[A couple of years ago, I started a website called UniAdversity to track the decline of higher education under neoliberalism. Within about a year, I found that there was far too much material for one person to keep abreast of, and my efforts to nonetheless do so meant I never had the time to recruit co-editors to share the load, so I simply gave up (if you're interested in helping to revive the site, let me know). There were a few pieces I wrote that are worth archiving publicly — at least if you're a fan of sledgehammer sarcasm — and this is the first of them, from November 2013; here is the second, and the third.]

In 2013, Southern Cross University (SCU) very quietly made the decision to stop offering Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Social Science degrees at its Coffs Harbour campus. The move went unremarked upon in what passes for the local media and, among staff and students at the university, was widely assumed to be a consequence of recent federal funding cuts, combined with a pre-existing executive antipathy to non-vocational subjects and the decidedly unglamorous Coffs campus. A look at the institutional pressures behind this ostensibly minor decision, in a satellite campus of a regional university, reveals that the 21st century university, in this country and elsewhere, is suffering an identity crisis. The long-term consequences of a higher education system that disavows its fundamental reason for existence may be considered out of scope for that system's managerial elite, but are for the rest of us already proving to be nothing short of catastrophic.

What’s so bad about cutting a couple of under-enrolled courses from one campus? Let us first consider whether the loss is necessary in the first place. Isn’t the problem merely one of fundraising? One source of funding has been lost, but there’s no reason why another can’t be found. Whenever I put this argument to staff and students at SCU, the near-unanimous response was that the university is simply not interested allocating resources to the humanities, or to the Coffs Harbour campus. Vocational courses attract far more students, and resources are either being centralised at the Lismore campus, or sent north to the sexy new Gold Coast campus. The gloomy consensus is that SCU Coffs is being deliberately bled to death, and this year’s funding cuts have merely provided a pretext to hasten the process. I’m as cynical as the next man, provided the next man is Machiavelli, but even to me this sounded somewhat extreme. Not wanting to rely on speculation, however well informed, I decided to ask SCU’s vice chancellor, Professor Peter Lee.

“Let us say, hypothetically, that it were possible to find a source of funding to offset the Gonski cuts, or one or more partnering institutions were willing to participate in the provision of on-campus courses,” I suggested via email. Were this the case, what would be the likelihood of SCU “contributing towards the provision of face to face, university level education in the arts or social sciences in the Mid North Coast Region at any point in the foreseeable future?”

With a breezy shamelessness that points to a bright future in politics, the VC very kindly answered a completely different question of his own choosing: “We constantly evaluate demand for our programs (both new and existing courses) and to date, the demand has not justified an expansion of humanities programs at Coffs Harbour,” he replied.

“Demand” is the concept that cries out for scrutiny here. A greengrocer may decide to forego the provision of fruit and vegetables on the grounds of greater demand for coffee and sweets, but in doing so he forfeits the right to call himself a greengrocer (and also potentially accepts some responsibility for the subsequent local outbreak of scurvy). It would certainly not be appropriate to pronounce the provision of coffee and sweets to be the future of greengrocery, and to deride anybody who maintains that fruit and vegetables are still an important part of the trade as a nostalgic old hippie.

Furthermore, “demand” is not a synonym for “need”. Beyond government departments and market-driven university administration offices, there is general consensus on the role that universities are expected to fulfil. That fine source of inspiration for after dinner speakers, the Oxford English Dictionary, defines a university as “an institution of higher education offering tuition in mainly non-vocational subjects”. In contrast, from 2014, the bachelor courses available to students in Coffs Harbour are restricted to Business, IT, Education, Nursing, Midwifery, and Psychology.

The 1963 report of the Robbins committee on higher education, in delineating the responsibilities of the UK university system, emphasised promotion of the “general powers of the mind”, to produce “not mere specialists but rather cultivated men and women”. By insisting that the primary purpose of a university is to provide vocational rather than academic education, and to meet market demand rather than social need, SCU is, in the manner of Lewis Carrol's Humpty Dumpty, maintaining that the word university “means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less”.

“Southern Cross University does not intend and never has attempted to emulate other universities”, its website declares. “We aim to become the most progressive and innovative regionally based university in Australia - and we are well on the way to achieving that aim.” That is, by redefining what it means to be a university. Twenty years ago, as part of the Dawkins Revolution, the (vocational) Northern Rivers College of Advanced Education became Southern Cross University. Now it is coming full circle, back to specialising in qualifications “designed in consultation with industry […] to produce work-ready graduates.”

For those students who aspire to more than work-readiness, the quaint vestiges of the humanities at Coffs Harbour are still available via distance education. As it happens, demand is not so much of a problem when you can make what you're supplying cheap enough. Cheap, that is, for the university to provide; the fees borne by the student and the public purse remain the same. One might conclude that the students who are of no use to the modern commercial university's partners in industry are being fobbed off with third-rate correspondence courses, but in some quarters it is contended that they are actually the fortunate pioneers of  higher education's coming cyber-utopia.

According to Professor Jim Barber, vice chancellor of the University of New England, “The nation has invested, and continues to invest, billions of dollars in […] classrooms, laboratories, libraries, student accommodation and buildings of various kinds under the assumption that it is necessary to duplicate all of this infrastructure around the country if Australian students are to receive the best education possible.” However, “Massively Open Online Courses” (MOOCs) “demonstrate that much of this capital expenditure is unnecessary and that this generation of vice-chancellors really ought to stop lumbering their university balance sheets with superfluous lecture theatres and burdensome depreciation costs.”

Moreover, by offering courses at no cost, “MOOCs merely confirm what we’ve known for years—that the most basic currency of universities, information, is now more or less valueless,” according to the Professor, who apparently sees no distinction between value and price, and for whom “universities really only have one saleable product—a credential.”

If the university of the future has a campus at all, “it will not be because they provide the best or most efficient means of educating people but because some individuals will always want to 'go to a university' in order to hang out with friends” - if you can imagine such a thing! The more efficient majority of students will instead eschew “bricks and mortar” to “live and move, interact and experiment in a network cloud”.

“Virtual environments are emerging that mimic the real world and provide us with a visceral sense of immersion. Some have even argued that the distinction between virtual and material will disappear altogether. This is because all surfaces, including the skin, are potential interface points enabling users to issue and receive computer commands using their own body parts as touchpads.”

I am not personally acquainted with the systems (or perhaps psycho-active substances) that Professor Barber uses when issuing these breathless prophesies from his corner of the network cloud, but I can say for certain that the system his students (like those of SCU) are compelled to use is the clunky and much derided Blackboard Learning System, which is more closely related to the early online bulletin board systems of the 1980s than to the Star Trek holodeck. It is true that there are some quite compelling virtual environments already in existence. These are very well suited to pursuing aliens, zombies, or dark-skinned foreign people, and dispatching them with a hand-held rocket launcher, but utterly excruciating when attempting any more nuanced interaction.

So if we can't afford bricks and mortar, and our unsociable but efficient students don't want it anyway, how do we fund the construction of the dermatologically-interfaced cyber-campuses of Professor Barber's fevered imaginings? Fortunately it turns out that higher education isn't as cash strapped as one might suppose. The new federal Minister for Trade and Investment, Andrew Robb, points out that education is actually “Australia's fourth largest export, behind iron ore, coal and gold, and last year it had student enrolments of more than 500,000, earned $15 billion in revenue, and employed more than 100,000 people.” This is why his department, along with a consortium of universities and their omnipresent partners in industry, have launched the “Win Your Future Unlimited” competition to lure more full-fee-paying student-customers to Australia.

According to the competition website, “Seven finalists will be flown to Australia for a study tour. And one finalist will win the major prize – a year of study in Australia, including flights, tuition, accommodation, and much more.”

It's tempting to jump to the cynical prediction that before long some lucky boy or girl will find an Australian Ph.D. in their box of Corn Flakes, but there are additional layers of subtlety to this initiative. “The basic idea,” says Robb, “was to shift the focus away from Australia's lifestyle and natural beauty as points of attraction for students to one emphasising the ways in which study in Australia can help fulfil career ambitions through a quality education.”

Wait a moment. “Quality education”? Surely nobody wants that any more? A credential is sufficient to demonstrate work-readiness, and efficiency demands that we minimise the amount of education involved in getting it. And why would anybody want to be dragged around the country touring a lot of fusty old bricks and mortar, much less spending a whole year in such a place? Surely the efficient winning student would much prefer to stay at home in his underpants and enjoy the “visceral sense of immersion” in watching a dimly-lit, near-inaudible video recording of an overworked casual teaching assistant in Lismore joylessly ploughing her way through a PowerPoint slide deck?

Of course the truth is that very few students, given the option, would spurn a Robbins-era liberal education in favour of logging on to the post-Dawkins vocational credential delivery system. The former holds the promise of producing a finer, more sophisticated, fuller human being, and prepares one for an infinity of potential futures; perhaps a celebrated life of grand artistic achievement, or selfless public service, or a cosy directorship at the BBC hob-nobbing with the Davids Attenborough, Frost, and Dimbleby. The latter gets you a cubicle at the call centre next to Dave, a gormless teenaged backpacker from Aberystwith.

Setting aside the personal ambitions, or lack thereof, of our students, is there any major harm to society in reserving real education for a cashed-up global elite who can afford to shop for sandstone, while the majority of students in less august institutions pursue courses in lower education designed by and for business?

Eminent economist Ha-Joon Chang, currently teaching at Cambridge, has noticed the effect of narrow, vocationally focussed curricula on economics students, and is alarmed to find that few “know what is going on in China and how it influences the global economic situation. Even worse, I've met American students who have never heard of Keynes.” (Inman, 2013). These students may have no idea what caused the 2008 economic crisis, or perhaps even that there was one, but they do have a solid command of the mathematics that allows them to play successfully in the global casino economy on behalf of their employers in the City of London.

Closer to home, one might question the value of producing “work-ready” graduates in Coffs Harbour, a place with a very high degree of unemployment, under-employment, and tenuous employment, and with one of the country's greatest gulfs between income and cost of housing. Surely it would be more fruitful to produce graduates capable of investigating, analysing, and solving such problems? Or perhaps the method behind the university's apparent madness is a version of Say's law, a particularly potty notion that supply causes demand, and therefore if you supply the cubicle drones, the cubicles will follow. (However, given that the majority of the university's management will have graduated in the work-ready post-Dawkins era, it's unlikely that they will have heard of any such theory, as it isn't industrially relevant.)

A solid grounding in economics might also lead one to wonder what the long term consequences of a massive national program of vocational degrees promoted as a pathway to guaranteed employment might be, given that the promised employment largely does not exist. There is something oddly familiar about the prospect of overvalued assets purchased with cheap and easy credit by people with limited ability to repay. As British higher education analyst Andrew McGettigan notes, “Subprime degrees, like subprime mortgages, are sold to communities relatively unfamiliar with the product.” (Collini, 2013).

Professor Simon Marginson, of the University of Melbourne’s higher education faculty, writes “If higher education is emptied out of its public purposes we can no longer justify its survival. Today’s higher education institutions need a larger purpose that underpins their existence, a purpose that is more than a marketing slogan. The 21st century university needs to redefine itself as a creator, protector and purveyor of public goods.” (Marginson, 2013). For this to happen, the responsibility lies with students and academic staff to reclaim their universities from managers and marketers.

At the University of Manchester last year, a group of economics students found themselves increasingly frustrated with a course that, in the words of a university spokesman “focuses on mainstream approaches, reflecting the current state of the discipline” because such a blinkered view is “important for students' career prospects”, even if it teaches them nothing about how the world beyond the finance industry actually works (Inman, 2013). In response they instituted the Post-crash Economics Society, which seeks to “provoke discussion between students and staff about what economics is, what it should be and how it should be taught”.

These students have been echoing, although they didn’t know as much at the start, an earlier decades-long struggle led by students and staff at the University of Sydney, which finally culminated in the establishment of the university’s Department of Political Economy, now one of the world's most respected and vibrant centres of academic enquiry in economics.

Just as economics can be retrieved from business studies, so we can rescue the arts from the study of the creative industries. Perhaps we can also once again learn from history. Or even revive philosophy, the august and ancient progenitor of academia, long neglected and even scorned by the disciples of vocationalism and credentialism, who proclaim their devotion to the real world while condemning all of us to a toxic fantasy of their own making. As students and academic staff at university, even at the market-driven university, we occupy positions of substantial privilege. We therefore owe it to our society to reform our institutions to serve society’s needs, because we know the difference between need and demand, and between price and value, and we know what the word “university” means.


Barber, J. (2013). The end of university campus life. Ockham's Razor.

Collini, S. (2013). Sold out. London Review of Books, 35(20).

Inman, P. (2013, October 25). Economics students aim to tear up free-market syllabus. The Guardian.

Marginson, S. (2013). The modern university must reinvent itself to survive. The Conversation.

Robb, A. (2013). Education geared for growth.

You can replace university with MOOCs, because Sesame Street

Published by Matthew Davidson on Fri, 07/08/2015 - 9:41pm in

This is really reaching:

An analysis of the effectiveness of Sesame Street can potentially also inform current discussions regarding the ability of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) to deliver educational improvements. In essence, Sesame Street was the first MOOC. Although MOOCs differ in what they entail, Sesame Street satisfies the basic feature of electronic transmission of online educational material. Both Sesame Street and MOOCs provide educational interventions at a fraction of the cost of more traditional classroom settings. Most (but not all) MOOCs exist at the level of higher education, which clearly differs from a preschool intervention. Our knowledge of the ability of MOOCs to improve outcomes for its participants is so limited, though, that any proper evaluation of the impact of electronic transmission of educational content is beneficial.

Where do you even start? What definition of "online" includes broadcast television? Even setting that major quibble aside, if "electronic transmission of educational material" equals MOOC, what isn't a MOOC? I've learned that Coca Cola is the pause that refreshes, and that Coke adds life; where's my diploma? And what does my excessive consumption of fizzy sugar water say about the educational outcomes of MOOCs? Is it really the case that because "our knowledge of the ability of MOOCs to improve outcomes for its participants is so limited" that almost anything involving electricity and information counts as evidence?

Let us set aside, for a moment, my antiquated expectations of higher education. Purely as somebody who can't count to twelve without experiencing visions of funky psychedelic pinball machines, this egregious case of false equivalence is particularly galling. Sesame Street is Sesame Street. It's brilliant. But it is not online kindergarden. It is certainly not blanket evidence that teachers can be replaced by software, at any level of education, to the benefit of all concerned.

I would do something about this outrage, but I can't. I have a purple hand.

UPDATE: In breaking Sesame Street news, Why Sesame Street’s Move to HBO Is Both Great and Extremely Depressing:

Sesame Street was founded to help low-income kids keep up with their more affluent peers. That is literally why it exists. It succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations. And now it is becoming the property of a premium cable network, so that a program launched to help poor kids keep up with rich kids is now being paywalled so that rich kids can watch it before poor kids can.

UPDATED UPDATE: Clearly,  I should devote my life to telling people how great Sesame Street is, before I miss the zeitgeist. Sayeth Cory Doctorow:

When Sesame Street first launched, it was all about kids: the whole thing was designed to be as compelling as possible for children, especially the vulnerable kids of the job-juggling urban poor who were finding themselves being babysat by the TV. But Jim Henson and the Children’s Television Workshop scrapped that whole design and started over, remaking the show as something that had jokes that parents would enjoy, songs that could please the adult ear as well as the kid’s.

The key insight was that whatever pedagogical value Sesame Street held, it would be multiplied if it opened a conversation between kids and their carers. The kid might enjoy singing the ABCs along with Big Bird, but what if Dad or Mum could be persuaded to sing along with her, after the show was over, reinforcing the lessons and shaping them around the kids’ own life and circumstances.

This is the gold standard of kids’ media.

Mind you, I can't stand Elmo. Annoying, over-merched purple newbie. You weren't there when we lost Mister Hooper!

UPDATED UPDATE UPDATE: Now Mark Thoma is piling on! I didn't want to do this, but I'm forced to bring out the Slippery Slope ("By Milton Bradley. Incremental fun for ages 8 and up! Contains choking hazard at pointy end."). If Sesame Street is a MOOC, Dr. Seuss is a MOOC about repetition, assonance, and rhyme. Enid Blyton is a MOOC on the evils of smuggling and the importance of keeping hydrated with lashings of ginger beer. Need I go on…?

“Dissociated Consciousness[es]”: The Rising Voice of the Administrator and the Falling Voice of the Academic in the Winter 2015 Labour Disruption at the University of Toronto

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 27/06/2015 - 1:40am in

End_of_the_day_in_Torontoby Oliver Lue On February 27th, 2015, CUPE 3902 Unit 1, representing 6000 teaching assistants, course instructors and lab instructors, began job action against the University of Toronto.1 Members of CUPE 3902 demanded an increase to the minimum yearly stipend … Continue reading →

Thursday, 18 June 2015 - 1:23pm

Published by Matthew Davidson on Thu, 18/06/2015 - 1:23pm in

You have to laugh: "internal classes have been cancelled […] As there are no internal classes there will be no recorded lectures for you to view so ignore sections of the Study Guide that refer to these things." Classes or lectures formerly in Room 101 are now down the memory hole. There never were any classes or lectures, and we've always been at war with Eastasia. We hope you have enjoyed the flexible delivery of your increased human capital.

Beyond the Politics of Civility and Trauma: The End of Higher Education as We Know It

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 09/06/2015 - 12:54am in

americas-ed-deficit-300x449The academy is entering a dangerous time. Academics now find themselves entering a time when a more comprehensive politics that deals with the rise of authoritarianism through a variety of related fundamentalisms–economic, religious, political, and educational–is being overlooked as a … Continue reading →