Monday, April 07, 2014

The Consumer University: Developing An Idea

The university is changing. This statement may be self-evident, but there is no consensus about what it is changing into, much less on whether this is a good thing. On one hand, there is nostalgia, based on an image of a golden age, which, as one of my teachers appropriately defined, was always based on as things were when the interlocutor was about twenty years old; on the other, there are the apocalyptic visionaries, the prophets of the information age, those who believe software is eating the world and should, must, eat the universities as well. And, overarching all these passions and interests is the very real question of entitlement - the questions of winners and losers of a new system - played out in Britain over the last few years noisily and vividly.

I engaged in this conversation with intent and purpose. The changing landscape and its implications perhaps became clearer to me during the time I was attempting to set up a network of Vocational Training centres in many different countries, and was engaged in a conversation about jobs, careers and recruitment in a global scale. The clear message that I was getting is that, despite massive worldwide expansion, the model of Higher Education is out of sync and isn't delivering for most people. My conversations with educators illustrated to me some of the problems: They were mostly engaged in a game of their own, of publication, prestige, conferences and entitlements, rather than concerning themselves with this pesky problem whether the education is working for people they teach. As they said, they wanted - education for education's sake - though what they really meant was that they were educating for a degree.

Then, there were the conversations with the employers. They were concerned about education, but only as far as it served their own requirements. They were complaining about the insularity of the educators, but not because the education isn't serving the learners: Because it was not serving them. They mostly wanted those learners who can fill their jobs, and in the context of the developing countries that I was visiting then, these jobs were really lowly paid jobs of Sales Execs or Back-office Operators. They were insular to the ideas that the job market may soon be changing and if one is skilling for back office, one may not have a job soon. They were not ready to put their dollars to train these executives: They wanted public universities to just deliver to their order. And, above all, while they were talking about skills problems, they were also steadily decreasing the number of people they employed at every level.

And, then there were those who went to study in these universities in increasing numbers: I met them, a lot of them, as I interviewed for positions, held road shows or just gave guest lectures. Most cases, they were convinced that Higher Education is the best way to get into a job (and get a better life, buying things they wanted to buy). The disconnect between the degrees and the jobs didn't bother them: They were all too eager to get the right degrees, such as an MBA, and believed the media stories unquestionably, those which were often told in conjunction with the employers and the educators, that degrees get jobs (or rather, lack of degrees mean unemployment). It was indeed the latter that was told, though the students read the former into it.

I listened to these stories and tried to work out the riddle, over those years and thereafter. I left my job and went to graduate school to study Adult Education, and focused my work on this apparent disconnection. I took a job in a For-Profit college which offered education for jobs, and then in a Public Sector institution which did a lot of Employer-led Qualifications. I spoke to investors who invest in education, helped arrange conferences where policy makers and educators came together to discuss the issue, and indeed, founded my education start-up trying to create a version of education that may bridge this gap. After five years of search, I shall claim, the truth is only beginning to dawn on me.

What I see now (and didn't see before) is something like this: That the thing we call 'University' has indeed changed and it represents a different thing now than it did any time before. And, while we still talk about the 'idea of the university' in pre-historic terms, time has come to recognise what Lawrence Lessig will call 'institutional corruption'. So, here is the first idea: Because the money plays the role it plays in the university today, the 'idea of the university' that we speak about is already corrupted, even in the best universities of the world. [Note that in Lessig's conception, 'corruption' is value neutral: It stands for not doing what is expected, but not necessarily meaning that it is bad.] So, the first object of my inquiry, which I intend to turn into a book-length work, is to figure out what 'university' really means in this changed context.

Which leads me to the second part of my proposition: That the changes in the idea of university isn't simply a reflection of the societal changes, on which there seems to be an agreement on all sides, most notably from the academics, but it is rather an active agent for those changes. I believe that the universities have become an instrument for overall 'financialisation' of the society [which is about allowing finance to decide on values and priorities, and those controlling the finance the position of power].

Indeed, this is unlikely to be taken kindly by my university friends. They would like to see, as with everyone around us, as the banks as the bad boys and everyone else as their victims. And, indeed, some will be indignant because they, within the universities, have been the strongest critiques of the financialisation and the devastation it brings to communities. However, this is about how universities as institutions play a defining role in progressing the agenda for financialisation, shaping the students' aspirations, binding the academics' successes or failures against financialised criteria, helping shape the wider society's values and what we care for, rather than the work of individual academic. Any dissent, within the university, which may be tolerated in the name of academic freedom as long as it does not undermine the scheme: And, it never does, as the individual acts of divergent thinking is treated as 'dissent' while convergent thinking is systematically promoted and valued throughout the system of education.

In my idea then, the modern university is the 'Consumer University', an institution whose sole purpose is to create generations of consumers and establish the values of consumerisation, which is the bedrock of the value creation that justifies financialisation. This is my next project, indeed - clarifying my thoughts and putting them coherently - and in this, I believe, lies the answer to my original paradox: Why do educators obsess themselves with the system itself and not its students; why do employers not get value from the education students receive; and finally, and most importantly, why do the students still go to universities. The answer, I intend to show, is that the universities are merely 'society factories', they are merely processing a class of people credentialled to supply the social values that legitimises the system that we live into. And, as things change outside, and the foundations of finance faces challenge of legitimacy, these values that modern university has come to propagate, at all levels, must be challenged too. Our only hope for a stable society perhaps lies with such an enterprise. 

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