Is big change in higher education possible?

With votes of no confidence flying around and private ventures getting serious amounts of flack, the world of academia has been pretty animated this week.

You know it’s serious when The Guardian decides to run a live-blog of events

photo by micn2sugars

photo by micn2sugars

But rather than weigh into a debate that’s being flogged to death, I want to ask one big question:

  • Can HE actually achieve truly different models of teaching and learning to the models already in action?

Essentially, how can anyone create a bold, innovative plan to take higher education forward in new ways unless economic constraints are lifted?

I ask this because money has become such a focus in recent years that it’s currently impossible to remove the link between HE and funding. Everything requires money, so where will it come from?

Increasingly, the answer seems to be ‘from the student’, although the truth goes much deeper and is much more complicated.

Indeed, the truth isn’t possible to tell right now. Making sense of it all will probably still be tough even when the long awaited government White Paper on the future of HE is published.

Whatever happens, new models of teaching and learning will likely be hard to find with much HE funding moving in the direction of the student.

Subject to so much criticism this week, New College for the Humanities (NCH) is not particularly different to other models already on offer. However, the price tag and celebrity catch has made it easy fodder for debating.

We are facing up to at least one aspect of the future. NCH’s yearly tuition fee of £18k is going to upset many, no matter what is on offer and how it presents itself.

Despite the controversy, however, this is just the beginning of a long for-profit march. London Met’s Malcolm Gillies says that a “fundamentally different economy [is] emerging in higher education”.

Even so, take away the question of private ventures and the university system is still set for a ride into the unknown. Can the current state of affairs in HE be used in alternative ways that continue to allow freedom of enquiry as well as a platform for students to achieve the many things they want, including (but certainly not limited to) future career prospects?

The more I consider this, the more I feel something will eventually give. My hope is that the necessary change will prove positive in the main.

And it is necessary change. On one hand, the government (among others) is pushing for change. On the other hand, critics are pushing for change in other directions.

The one thing few seem to be wishing for is that everything stays precisely the same as it currently is. And yet the HE community get constantly ribbed for resisting any type of change!

Perhaps too many things will change at once. When you alter too much at the same time:

  1. You can’t distinguish between successful moves and failures;
  2. Risks are much greater in the mid to long term, if not also the short term;
  3. Nobody is sure what direction they are facing, should be facing, or even want to be facing;
  4. The subsequent confusion can lead to much flailing about and little to show for it.

The marketisation of HE takes us into new territory, but one which doesn’t look like it can easily support genuine innovation in terms of delivery and concept. Perhaps perversely, for-profit players may be best placed to find different successes by fluke, but it’s still a long shot and will continue to be strewn with controversy. The only accurate thing to say at this point is that it’s anyone’s game.

Not that it is a game, or feels like one, of course!

With students touted as being at the heart of HE, does their growing role as ‘consumer’ bring hope or horror to the sector?

The answer to that question depends on who you ask, as I’m sure you’ve long worked out.

My next post will look at the dangers of relying too much on a ‘student as consumer’ focus.

6 comments

  1. “You know it’s serious when The Guardian decides to run a live-blog of events”

    Hmm, not sure about that. They liveblog everything! I think it’s because they typos are more forgiveable! 😉

    “Subject to so much criticism this week, New College for the Humanities (NCH) is not particularly different to other models already on offer.”

    You’re totally correct here, but would have liked you to expand on why, just so I didn’t have to keep re-explaining myself! 😉

    “Perhaps perversely, for-profit players may be best placed to find different successes by fluke, but it’s still a long shot and will continue to be strewn with controversy.”

    I’m inclined to, reluctantly, agree here. NCH could have been successful but is let down by one major thing-Grayling’s own arrogance. He wanted to announce himself as the great innovative saviour f the humanities. Had he just STFU and done the work, set up the college then built a reputation THEN added the star professors, he’d have been able to do all this. As it stands he quit, announced this grand design with much (self-celebratory, but mostly condemning) fanfare and got picked apart when challenged. He could even have done this whilst still working at Birkbeck so the abandoning public for private argument could have been mitigated somewhat.

    The nature of this announcement also asks questions about motive. He may believe he is being honest and true, but if he really was then he wouldn’t care about this publicity. The college could have grown naturally (and at a stronger rate, I’d guess) without it.

    “With students touted as being at the heart of HE, does their growing role as ‘consumer’ bring hope or horror to the sector?”

    Interested in seeing what you say in the next post. I think we’ll agree. Consumerisation, in my opinion, doesn’t work due to the nuanced and autonomous nature of the sector. There is far too much data “white noise” to inform the consumers, which can never be got rid of as once we marketise new agendas from new parties come in to play (most of which is profit motivated). I do understand the theories behind marketisation, I understand how they can be attractive and can see where benefits could be brought, however I disagree with them.

    1. The Guardian didn’t live-blog when I sneezed yesterday and I’m still bitter about that. 😉

      The way new ideas and ventures are introduced can make a big difference to their future success. That’s not to say that a big fail can’t ever rise again, but the work is likely to be much harder in pulling things back. While the NCH story isn’t solely about the way it was introduced to the world, it certainly influences a big part of what has followed so far.

  2. My question is why are colleges getting so expensive? Are we getting a better education? Are salaries increasing as much as college tuition prices? All these questions and no answers. There is no argument to say college students are getting more out of college than they did 30 years ago when test scores and grades continually decrease. I’m studying for a masters program right now but is higher education the best source for equipping ourselves for future career?

    1. Jared, I’d say higher education is *a* source for future career preparation. There are plenty other sources. And higher education is a source of many other things too.

      There is no single purpose for the university, but there is a need to assess purposes, alternatives, behaviours, and so on. Your questions don’t have specific answers, yet they are still important questions.

      I hope that you have a personal understanding of why you have chosen to undertake a Masters. Be it one reason or many, it’s better to have reason rather than doing it ‘just because’. Given the fact you’re asking these questions, I’m pretty sure you do feel at peace with your own position. I wish you every success!

Comments are closed.