Monthly Archives: October 2012

2. “Degreezamillion! We’ve got lots of ’em right here!”

As Hil observes, universities today are much given to prating about their particular “brand,” a term I’ve never understood in relation to an institution of learning, any more than I’ve grasped what university management means by “our product.” Education, surely, is an ongoing process, and hopefully continues beyond the temporal limits of a degree programme.  It isn’t the end-result of some of some other process, nor is it an object that one can point to and say, “That right there, that’s education.”

So what is this “product”? The piece of paper or parchment that the student receives upon graduating?  The student him- or herself?  The cumulative research and teaching, together with their various practices, that go into a degree programme? And what is the “brand” — the logo on university stationery, buildings and vehicles?  Simply the registered name of the institution?  It seems to me that trying to apply the concepts and terminology of business while jockeying for position in the marketplace closes down important aspects of the educative process, and reduces the university system to a group of touts spruiking their wares at a fairground.

The focus on the idea of an end-product, I think, has led university managers to assume that the degree achieved and received by a student has some magical and significant property.  It doesn’t: it is merely an attestation that the student receiving it has undergone a process of learning, and has been judged competent and ready to join her or his peers as holders of such certification.  In the old dispensation, that student was held to be a member of  a community of scholars.  “University,” indeed, comes from the Latin universitas magistrorum et scholarum, meaning, precisely, a community of teachers and scholars, while universitas itself derives from the Latin for “all turned into one.”  The idea, therefore, is that the university brings together both teachers and students (please note: administrators and management, while no doubt necessary, do not figure as part of this community) in a context conducive to scholarship, whether continuing, on the part of the teachers, or being acquired and assimilated, on the part of the students — but each group is, notionally anyway, integrated into a larger group embarked on the same project and venture.

That, however, is rarely felt to be the case in the university of today.  In the first place, the emphasis on “career” and “job-readiness” means that “education” has really been transformed into “vocationalism,” despite the high-level and often complex nature of the material being taught.  In the second place, there rarely seems to be much interaction at an intellectual level among academics from the various disciplines.  Yes, there is sometimes collaboration — on research and, sometimes, teaching projects; but there is otherwise little ongoing dialogue of an intellectual, conceptual kind.

Of course, Australian culture seems to militate against such a thing, given the generally anti-intellectual attitudes toward the academic and the conceptual.  There is little tradition in this country of a public intellectual debate in which much of the population engages — we are a far cry from the televised debate in 1971 between the linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky and the historian and philosopher Michel Foucault, which held the attention of a large sector of the population in France and surrounding countries.  But this simply highlights the problem in the Australian university: the latter should be fostering such debate and, what’s more, encouraging a tradition of public intellectualism.

(By “debate,” I mean genuine intellectual discussion by people well-versed in ideas and their own — and perhaps other — disciplines; and sincerely interested in and engaged by various ideas, issues, problems abroad in the culture.  I do not mean the sort of thing that goes on in debating societies in the schools and elsewhere [including, unfortunately, the State and Federal Parliaments], namely, the scoring of points off of opponents in discussing often fabricated and/or supposititious topics.  While such engagements require a certain intellectual agility, often their intellectual levels are at low ebb, and what passes for wit is frequently just embarrassing.)

Instead, however, the university today is mired in the business of education as a business.  It has been transformed from an intellectual, educational institution into a degree mill, churning out graduates whose contribution to society is largely material and materialistic:  they are simply technicians in their fields, and, most likely, budding bureaucrats and managers themselves, the system thus replicating itself like some ghastly spawn.  What of their engagement in social issues, intellectual problems, ethical and moral concerns, and so on?  How might they make a genuine contribution to society, in terms of bettering conditions and circumstances, improving the way people live and think, and so on?

This, of course, is no longer the goal of the contemporary university, it would seem.  Where universities and university campuses have historically been hotbeds of criticism of and dissent from social and cultural developments since the foundation of the first university ever, the University of Bologna, in 1088, today universities – in Australia, at least — have remained quiescent and passive as successive governments have dismantled older, traditional notions of higher learning, and, though individual academics may have voiced their opinions, it has been as voices crying out in the wilderness, as university managements have readily made themselves the willing handmaidens of such government policies.  One wonders what would have happened, under the conservative Howard regime (and the succession of Ministers of Education hostile to the tertiary sector), had the then Australian Vice Chancellors’ Committee simply refused to do what the government demanded, if only on the basis that the government was funding the tertiary sector less and less, and therefore should have had correspondingly diminishing say in what the universities did.

But if wishes were horses, beggars would ride . . . And so here we are, with universities that are focused on profit, and have a Fordist approach to both research and teaching.  Leaving the former aside for the time being, the idea that one can make education more “efficient” seems to me misguided.  Certainly, there have been, and no doubt are, occasions when academics over-teach (including requiring a greater number of assignments than the individual academic may actually have time and energy to mark – but often this is due to a desire to provide a pedagogy that in the long run benefits the students); but when university apparatchiks start talking about “smart teaching,” they usually mean cramming more students into the class, reducing the number of assignments, using online teaching methods, including computer-assessable tests and examinations, and the like.

There is often also an impulse to standardise teaching design, regardless of the nature of the discipline or the topic involved. While this no doubt makes it easier to assess and scale the teaching (and research) conducted in the institution, as well as to apply the standards that are supposed to lead to “quality,” that elusive goal that administrators apparently think an object to be materially achieved, what gets lost is the realisation that standardisation leads, not to “quality,” but rather to mediocrity: everything reduced to the same level.

Some years ago I was in Istanbul for a conference; and during my stay there I explored the Grand Bazaar, visiting, with friends, a carpet seller.  As the seller showed us his wares, he explained that various designs and even colour schemes were associated not only with particular regions, but also with particular families or villages.  Persian and Turkish carpets cost what they do because they are hand-made, come from ancient traditions of dyeing, weaving and patterning, and reveal the uniqueness of each carpet and rug through the slight imperfections and differences that distinguish one item from another even when both come from the same region, village and weaving family.  One can, of course, often purchase a mass-produced carpet with similar designs and colours, in nylon or some other artificial fibre, and it will cost a good deal less than the hand-made product; but then the mass-produced carpet will be indistinguishable from the hundreds, even thousands of other carpets produced at the same time on the same factory machinery.

This, it seems to me, is a telling metaphor for the kind of education that is now being promoted in the university sector: standardised, neither particularly distinctive of an individual institution, nor particularly distinguished in terms of quality and value.  Under the old dispensation, when the “quality” of teaching (and, for that matter, research) was more individualistic and less predictable, the nature of the process, it is true, was highly variable; but at the same time it was capable of brilliance, both in those who taught and those who were taught.  Now, with the micro-management of teachers and teaching (a phenomenon that loudly bespeaks managerial mistrust of professionals to do well what it is that the latter were trained to do), the variability is decreased, making the “product” more assessable, but rendering it also pretty lifeless, exanimated — spiritless and dispiriting.