Taking care of some medical ‘business’ today so can’t really work as such. So I thought I’d have a rant about higher education.
The decline in state funding for higher education over the last 10 to 15 years has had one major effect: institutions must now operate as quasi-corporations. I’ve never seen this as some sort of neoliberal takeover, more like a case of needs must. That’s not to say that many academics don’t take to this brave new world with gusto – some do – but I think we should see changes as an almost unconscious adaptation, rather than a sinister plan of some sort.
These days, we need lots of students and plenty of research income to survive and that has a distorting effect on everything we do.
Since our fellow institutions are in the same boat, the development of a student recruitment marketplace, especially an international student one, is inevitable. This affects our programme design – with an almost complete emphasis on education as training – and an increased emphasis on “engagement” and the student experience. Innovation becomes an obsession, and we all try desperately to distinguish ourselves from our competitors. UCD is the “Global University”, DCU is the “University of Enterprise” while Trinity just tells people how wonderful they are and that, apparently, settles that.
Of course, the private sector loves this because if the universities start to focus on workplace skills, it saves that sector a lot of money. Why recruit a Leaving Cert student with a H1 in maths for your actuarial training programmes when you can recruit a maths graduate with a bunch of exemptions? It doesn’t matter if by doing so, the smart kid from a disadvantaged background ends up being excluded.
The need for research income also goes to heart of what our values are. If income is the goal, where does quality, originality, and scholarship stand? In an earlier blog I talked about the “chicken shit” meeting where we were attempting to set up a collaboration with a company who had a problem with, well, chicken shit. I’m not too sure if anything ever came of this proposed project but I do know one thing: there was nothing in the project that was remotely close to being PhD work but yet, had been funded it would have been viewed as a great success. Why? Because it would have brought in income and it was the sort of project that could be praised for having an impact on the “real world”. The longer I work in a university the more it seems to be implied that I’m not actually in the “real world”.
While this cultural change has been happening, the private sector has been rubbing its hands together to get in on the action. Apple pushes “challenged based learning” with a strong focus on using Apple devices. Microsoft pushes Minecraft to teach…what exactly I’m not sure. Lego have suddenly become concerned about Learning through Play after many years trying to convince us that building Lego robots helps develop “problem solving skills”, a totally discredited concept. That’s not to say that Lego doesn’t make a nice break from the routine and maybe helps to create bonds between students, but it makes no sense to attempt to teach context-independent skills. It simply doesn’t work.
Further down the corporate chain, smaller companies are tapping into the STEM concept. Anything remotely “sciencey” can be labelled as STEM such that STEM is more a marketing device than a valid educational concept.
Then there are the high-tech folk attempting to emphasise AI and personalized learning. Most are genuine in their beliefs, but I find it interesting that many of those proposing AI-based “solutions” seem awfully angry with traditional teaching methods. I think the cost of education is a factor, but some of the criticisms of, for example, the lecture, and the anger directed towards this form of teaching, seem a bit disproportionate. If Covid has taught us anything it’s that students want to be part of a community. It’s not all about Online versus Face-to-Face. Some students like the flexibility that asynchronous teaching provides them. Some prefer structure. But they all want some human contact and, dare I say, they want to be taught by a human being, not an algorithm.
Back to waiting.