Monday, March 05, 2012

Day 1/100: My Adventures in the Margins of Higher Ed

Four events marked my rather remarkable day. 

First, a colleague pointed out that Professor Malcolm Gillies, the Vice Chancellor of London Metropolitan University, mentioned this blog in his opinion piece in Times Higher Education. I am indeed a huge fan of Professor Gillies, and see him as a transformational leader leading what used to be a troubled university to excellence. Him mentioning this blog, particularly what was a particularly impulsively written post is both exhilarating and unnerving for me.

Second, it seemed that I am winning the argument in favour of 'big strategy' at work. Independent Higher Education in Britain is at a crossroad, and there are a million reason why a private college should downsize, or shut shop. However, it is also clear to see the big opportunity beyond the horizons. One can see the clampdown on student visas can't last forever, and once the government has cleared out the majority of 'bogus' colleges, which they must do and have been quite successful at doing so far, they have to open up the field for all legitimate providers. The trick is to see through this period and emerge on the other side of the tunnel. However, just surviving and being legitimate will not do: The independent college sector must have a reason to exist. I have been doing some work defining this 'big strategy' at work. It has been a continuous see-saw, and at times, it seemed like we were all ready to hang our boots. However, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the UK Higher Education will look a lot less monolithic in two years time than it is today, and the space for different kinds of providers is almost certain to open up. This is the redeeming force behind the strategy I am recommending - that we take bold decisions and attempt to define the field - drawing inspiration from, among others, the work Professor Gillies is doing at London Metropolitan University.

Third, work on my dissertation, which had to endure another quite intense cross-examination with my tutor, underwent another reversal. I could see my arguments - that the student as a consumer transforms the process of education and results in alienation of students - were going nowhere. My tutor was not ready to accept that the students have become consumers, that very passive creature who is always ordered around by the invisible whip of the marketer. Instead, his perspective was that the student was the appropriator, someone actively seeking to meet his/ her own ends. Moreover, he thought that was always the case. Midway into the conversation, I could see two perspectives emerging at the same time. First, I may be buying, rather uncritically, what the newspapers say. That the students have not become consumers nor would want to be, but the policy-makers and the media, and everyone else, are trying to fit them into a mould. The easiest mould to fit them into is that of a consumer, particularly as they are expected to pay, and carry debt, for education. It is rather we want them to be consumers rather than they really wanting to become one. Besides, the institutions may have started treating them as consumers, but the student, sitting in the middle of all this, is possibly, quietly, subverting all of it, following his/her own agenda rather than the one imposed by the society on them. However, it is equally plausible that my tutor, sitting within the settings of one of the most respected universities in the UK, can't see the student consumers at all. It is his own educational experience, and people who he will come in touch with, is somewhat triggering his question whether students have changed at all. And, with these two questions, I was immediately in that swampy territory which I have now come to recognise as the breeding ground for education: A feeling that I don't know which starts the process of knowing.

Finally, in the evening, I was at the RSA listening to Stefan Collini laying out what the universities are for. In his supremely articulate formulation, the universities are that final bastions of intellectual freedom where the independent scholarly enquiry could be carried out without having to meet the incessant and short term demands of practical ends. He is quick to point out the diverse nature of the university - an institution which is different from a business or the governmental organisation - and warned that attempting to mould it to the shape of either may end in the loss of vitality and purpose that the successful modern universities have come to embody. He painted an illuminating picture of a 'Faustian Pact' between the society and the university, the point being the society sets up the university for various practical purposes and grant it intellectual freedom which it must invariably require to attain these ends, but pursuit of this freedom invariably means that the university would go beyond the practical requirements. It was a fascinating end to my rather strange day of looking at Higher Education from different perspectives.

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