The 21st-century retreat from public higher education
One striking thing about the current global recession, a crisis that has hit those in the United States with weaker education backgrounds much harder than others, is that one response has been the massive retrenchment, austerity and abandonment of the promise and ideal of public college education.
This is not only a U.S. phenomenon. One thing I learned in graduate school is that the best thing a professor can do is tell you who to read, so let me give you a reading list of the best of what I've seen recently. On the current situation in England, I recommend Collini here:
Much of the initial response to the Browne Report seems to have missed the point. Its proposals have been discussed almost entirely in terms of "a rise in fees." ... But the report proposes a far, far more fundamental change to the way universities are financed than is suggested by this concentration on income thresholds and repayment rates. Essentially, Browne is contending that we should no longer think of higher education as the provision of a public good, articulated through educational judgment and largely financed by public funds (in recent years supplemented by a relatively small fee element). Instead, we should think of it as a lightly regulated market in which consumer demand, in the form of student choice, is sovereign in determining what is offered by service providers (i.e. universities). ... This is more than simply a "cut," even a draconian one: it signals a redefinition of higher education and the retreat of the state from financial responsibility for it.
You see the protests in England, and there will be more in the United States. Especially after another round of fee hikes at the University of California system, 8 percent this time, along with University of California at Berkeley, the flagship of public education in this country, joining the "elite" club of the few institutions that charge over $50,000 tuition, fees, room, and board, for out-of-state students in that case. (That club is less elite than it used to be, as it's roughly doubled in the past year from 58 to 100.)
Here's UC President Mark G. Yudof's letter explaining this, featuring such language as: "This system of premier research campuses, medical centers and national laboratories remains on course to serve coming generations of Californians" (note education and teaching doesn't show up, merely research facilities whose products can be sold off after the fact) and nonsense like this that does little to inspire: "A mounting collision of irreversible forces-demographic, economic, environmental and social-could lead to a new dawn of progress and prosperity, mirroring other fundamental transformations that have occurred across the state's history." New dawn? This isn't the talk of someone who is seriously trying to save the ideal of public education.
Here's a series of articles by Peter Byrne about how the losses that UC suffered from bad investment decisions is much larger than the shortfall from state cuts.
The battle isn't really over the humanities anymore (though the humanities are going to take the brunt of this), but the actual idea of education as a public good, the idea that someone can develop their full capabilities in the wealthiest nation on Earth without entering debt peonage. That said, Aaron Brady has argued (here and here) the clear case the problem proposed is usually one of bad faith, that humanities tend to cross-subsidize the sciences, as sciences like medicine are expensive to teach (labs, chemicals, machinery) and humanities like English are less so (a book).
Last, one of my favorite thinkers, Wendy Brown, on DIY U-style online education:
What are some of the challenges of contemporary brand capital in marketing an elite product? To expand the market for the brand, and cheapen the cost of its production, without so degrading both the cache and the quality that consumers will replace it with cheap knock-offs or substitutes; to out-run open-sourcing and pirating; to keep the brand alive over time; and to be on the front curve of every new wave in markets and technologies. It is the measure of the marketization of public universities that these challenges, rather than that of providing a first rate higher education to an ever-changing public, are now organizing the university’s future. …
Some facts are in order here. To date, for-profit high quality on-line liberal arts education has been a financial disaster for most institutions engaged with it. ... A second group of facts is also important for understanding the economics of a proposed UC cyber campus. The drop-out rate for students taking on-line courses is persistently and consistently high, paralleling the drop-out rate of for-profit colleges. It is routinely 20% higher than drop-out rates from on campus courses and runs as high as 70% for some courses and programs. Moreover, the high rate, much studied, seems impossible to fix. … Why do drop out rates matter? Because students pay for courses and programs they don’t complete. ... Millions of former students are now “under water” with debt from on-line courses of study they never completed and/or whose benefit they never reaped. Indebted alumni of on-line education are thus joining the ranks of homeowners paying off mortgages on properties whose value is lower than the loan or which they no longer even own. …
As is well known, no matter how “high touch” it is, on-line education inherently isolates and insulates students, deprives instruction of personality, mood and spontaneity, sustained contact, and leaves undeveloped students’ oral skills and literacy. Countless studies reveal that on-line courses necessarily dumb down and slow down curriculums. They reduce as well the critical, reflective and reflexive moments of learning, moments of developing thoughtfulness, navigating strangeness and newness, and of being transformed by what one learns. On-line education necessarily emphasizes what Edley refers to as “content retention,” rather than what liberal arts education has long promised: the cultivation of thoughtful, worldly, discerning, perspicacious, and articulate civic-minded human beings. Thus to substitute on-line for on-campus education, especially in those first two years of college when students are initiated into university level inquiry, is to spurn the enduring Socratic notion of learning as a “turning of the soul.” It is also to privilege those courses that conform best to large-scale cyber teaching, those with the most information-based content. It would thus further orient students and the future of the university toward education conceived simply as job training and credentialing.
That right now is the moment our country is turning toward the idea of massive indebtedness as a prerequisite toward participating in the 21st-century economy is incredibly cynical, given how much worthless debt is hanging like an albatross around the neck of this fragile recovery.
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