Facing the Avalanche

The change or die message can be read as a warning – or a threat: a reply to the recent report published by the IPPR:
Barber, M., Donnelly, K., & Rizvi, S. (2013). An avalanche is coming: Higher education and the revolution ahead. IPPR.

Without a “home ground” the inter institutional disciplinary practitioner could no longer practice; without a “field” there can be no stars. There will be other models, variations and hybrids. Change may be more evolutionary than cataclysmic. Or there could be a different cataclysm. The “lower tier” full-service university will continue to perform a useful civic, cultural and educational function. This will be the “home ground” for most academics.

Universities are, the authors of this provocative report imply, an inconvenient bundle of services. It would appear that few universities do very many things in their bundles of services very well. Therefore, for many reasons, these bundles are going to be “unbundled”. Unbundling is the new Business Process Review (BPR), compulsory competitive tendering, outsourcing.

The authors present what they call “unbundling” as inevitable, but they represent organisations (and types of organisation: educational service providers, consultancy firms and and globalised elite universities) that stand to gain from such unbundling. All three authors currently work for Pearson. The lead author, Barbour is Pearson’s chief education adviser, Barbour and Donnelly previously worked for McKinsey. I am surprised this is published under the aegis of IPPR.  Next note that Barber went to Oxford, Donnelly, Duke ( whence Cathy Davidson), and Rizvi went to Yale: three very elite institutions. As an aside, the Report emphasises the importance of the STEM disciplines and economic inconsequence of the liberal arts, humanities and social sciences but the authors respectively read History, Economics and International Studies.

I am not making simply an ad hominem argument. It is a critical imperative to ask of anyone positing the inevitable, whether they stand to gain from the asserted inevitable outcome. If the answer is yes, it doesn’t mean they are necessarily wrong, but there may be other possible outcomes.

The Report is written from a stance that does not appear to question the entitlement of those who would take profit from the unbundling of educational endeavours or the consolidation of the curriculum around an elite, principally US, neoliberal model. It declares the student consumer as king and suggests this way is the only way. They assert that public funding for education must reduce and be replaced by private funding, but this is not inevitable, it is a political position – admittedly dominant, but an ideology, not a force of nature. Similarly presenting “change” as the new normal benefits those who sell services helping to manage change. It is in most consultancy firms interest to present the world as an unstable place, and even to create some of that instability (Andersen and Enron maybe took it a bit too far). Throughout the Report the models of success – heroes if you will – along with the aforementioned consultancy firms, elite universities and companies like Pearson, are venture capitalists, investment banks and derivatives traders, and those who start the kind of business that can enrich those institutions. Universities are urged to emulate or partner with such institutions or be destroyed. The change or die message can be read as a warning – or a threat.

Teachers and researchers are barely mentioned, except for a few big stars. Discipline communities are only mentioned in so far as they transcend or transgress individual institutional boundaries. But far from being an argument for the irrelevance of the individual institution, I suggest that without a “home ground” the inter institutional disciplinary practitioner could no longer practice.

And of course the number of first class honours has doubled in the past decade (p 15). The number of students in University has doubled. This is just bad science, or intentionally misleading rhetoric. Follow the citations? The authors here cite the Daily Mail (!), that well-known source of reliable data.  There may be grade inflation but the number of first class honours degrees is not a signal, unless you take an elitist view that only elite universities should award first class honours and all those students at new universities getting first class honours do not deserve them.

But, they may be right that not all universities are viable. They often refer to second and third tier institutions that will be swept away or unbundled.

The expansion of the University sector in the UK rested on two ideological fallacies. The first was a typical Tory move to take educational institutions -the polytechnics – out of local authority governance with an assertion that they were being “set free”, and then controlling them ever more tightly by central government. The second was to call them universities. This was seized on by Labour, which saw having a degree as being a signal as well as a means of upward social mobility and possibly also earnings. Having a degree correlates with higher lifelong earnings, but it is not necessarily causal. The Thiel fellowships and quote from the President of S. Korea (p 13) illustrate this. If you want real money and a big job, drop out; Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg are the poster boys for this campaign. Similarly going to Uni rather than Poly had more social cachet. Hey presto! You all go to university now. But, without the endowments and research funding, which is still concentrated in the old universities, the new universities were  going to struggle to achieve prestige status. There is a much bigger argument that could be entered into about the role of universities in both fomenting and managing dissent. Successive governments have been trying to stifle dissent in all parts of the education sector. They can barely cope with 20 elite universities. They certainly do not want to have to deal with 140 “real” universities, which are vibrant, troublesome hot pots of challenging ideas. I think this Report could be read as an attempt to reel in the wider sector, concentrate “power” in the elite institutions and shut down any activity in the lower tiers other than the production of a usefully compliant workforce at a profit for private enterprises.

The five models are interesting (p 55ff). Clearly the elite will survive – or most of them will. I expect that each of the other models will have many concrete examples. But I also expect there will be other models, variations and hybrids. Change may be more evolutionary than cataclysmic. Or there could be a different cataclysm. The “second tier” full-service metropolitan university, I suggest, will continue to perform a useful civic, cultural and educational function. This will be the “home ground” for most discipline-based academics. Their job will not be simply facilitating the delivery of MOOCs prepared by the elite. To run with a metaphor, there couldn’t be a Premiership without the Championship or even division 4 and non-league leagues. The major leagues need the minor league “farm system”. If nations or regions or cities or societies allow their home universities to die, I suggest that the “academy” will wither and the world will be a much poorer place. Without fertile ground tilled by those many academics chipping away at the face of knowledge there won’t be the stars. Or… are they arguing there is no room in the academy for anyone not attached to one of the elite?

The essay also almost completely ignores other components of the tertiary or post-compulsory sector. The term “continuing education” is not found. Foundation degrees are not mentioned. FE colleges are absent from the argument. There is only one mention of a community college and this is of one which has partnered with a trade association.

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