Review: the Immiseration of Higher Ed

Merritt Moseley

July 2017

Anyone interested in higher education is aware that it is in trouble. For years public universities (which enroll the large majority of American students) have been systematically deprived of adequate public support, requiring them to rely ever more on students and their parents for the costs of education. The same legislators then criticize them for rising tuition and the burden of student debt. Those who study or teach in the Humanities have been made to feel impostors or free riders on the all-conquering STEM disciplines. A culture of assessment, driven by suspicion of the motives and work habits of the professoriate, has stolen valuable time from the real business of teaching and learning while providing precious little information of any value. Partly in response to the record-keeping involved—but only partly explained by that—administrations have burgeoned, becoming in effect “the university,” while the faculty, traditionally the heart of the enterprise, is immiserated, sidelined, and increasingly relegated to low-paid, insecure adjunct positions.

It is too early to be sure, but the new administration seems likely to make things worse. The appointment of Betsy DeVos as secretary of education and the quick move to reduce government regulation of the for-profit college sector are troubling indicators. That our president chose to label his program of costly weekend seminars on making money in the real estate business a “University” is also worrying. What we have seen for many years, and can expect for many more, is the assimilation of universities and colleges into the business sector. Higher education deserves support, in other words, only as and to the extent that it trains workers for jobs. My own former governor, Pat McCrory, before he turned his attention to who could use which bathroom, denounced liberal education and promised to “adjust my education curriculum to what business and commerce needs to get our kids jobs.” As a metric for funding, McRory delicately proposed, numbers of students should rank below “butts in jobs.”

The larger social issue is the conviction that the only valid model of human endeavor is business. From this flow the ideas that students are customers (so the traditional funders of higher education should stand aside and allow the customers to pay the costs of their own educations); that education is a product (about which the only question is how efficiently it can be provided, in a pile-’em-high and sell-’em-cheap system); and that the most important “stakeholders” are future employers. If Valvoline does not need German majors, then there should be no German majors.

This vision may sound apocalyptic, but I think most educators will recognize it. What many Americans may not have been following is the rapid changes in higher education in the United Kingdom, which in some cases have gone far beyond the U.S. Take one example: the ministry of government in charge of the British university system is the Department of Business, Innovation, and Skills. Another: in the late 1980s the government launched a scheme to assess the quality of the research undertaken in universities. As is usually the case, what was more available, and therefore more likely to be measured, was information about quantity. The results were tabulated, rankings were drawn up, and funding based on those ranks was distributed, making it clear that universities needed to concentrate on research. Predictably, busy researchers were headhunted by ratings-hungry universities. Inventive boffins figured out ways to game the system. Such a concentration on measurable research output (combined with sharp reductions in the support given to teaching, even as student numbers exploded) made for distracted professors, larger class sizes, fewer contact hours, and unhappy undergraduates. But universities had to follow the money.

Recent changes insisting that research must not only occur, but must also demonstrate “impact,” have been even more destructive. The metrics of impact are all business-related, of course. They include bringing grant money into the university, something which obviously privileges the STEM disciplines and biomedical departments. In a recent email, a British friend of mine reported that she had failed to secure a promotion:

I tick all of the boxes . . . but I have no ‘external funding’ and that was pretty much what it all came down to. In the long run, nobody is really interested in how many publications I have, or how many keynote invitations or other evidences of peer esteem I have – all that counts is the external money. The success rate for Humanities funding in the UK is currently somewhere in the region of 1%.

The other way to demonstrate that one’s research has “impact” is to show that it delighted a business in some way. If that research brought about a complete revolution in the way people understood the Nag Hammadi codices, or made Byzantine histories newly available in English, or discovered the proper dating or attribution of a Renaissance play: how would this help business? It is not surprising that those in the Humanities disciplines feel themselves at the sharp end of these new developments (which, by the way, are not “Thatcherite” or “Cameronian,” having been also pursued under Tony Blair’s Labour government).

One of the most eloquent voices commenting on what has happened to universities in the UK is that of Stefan Collini. He is Professor Emeritus of Intellectual History and English Literature at Cambridge University and the author of books on English literature (Matthew Arnold: A Critical Portrait, for instance) and intellectual history, the most recent being Common Reading: Critics, Historians, Publics. For some years he has been paying close attention to developments in higher education, reacting subtly but vigorously to government white papers and new policies on such matters as student loans and the licensing of for-profit “providers.” His essays, which usually appear in the London Review of Books, have provided a powerful critique, identifying both flaws in detail—e.g., showing that the government does not actually believe its own arguments about a free market in student selection of subjects—and returning to first principles, as in his 2012 book What Are Universities For? His new book, Speaking of Universities, published by Verso, is another profound treatment of the place (or plight) of higher education in the 21st-century neoliberal state. It is recommended reading for anyone concerned with the future of the university.

But the UK is not the U.S., some might say. The disparity is not as great as many folks, dreaming of spires and paneled tutorial rooms and college servants making up beds for undergrads, may think—even Oxford and Cambridge aren’t much like that these days, and most universities never were. Certainly there are big differences: Britain has never had our liberal-arts-college sector or anything quite like our community colleges. But Americans should read it for other reasons. For one, Collini points out that some of the changes in the UK are based on the American system and its purported successes. More significantly, both countries are proceeding in the same directions, perhaps on parallel tracks. Consider his terms “managerialism” and “the audit culture”: do these not resonate with American academics?

Among the richer topics in Speaking of Universities is his discussion of proxies. As Collini points out, the audit culture must always substitute things that can be counted for more important things that cannot, while claiming nevertheless to care about and measure these more important things. Surveys of research quality must always turn to proxies: number of citations, perceived quality of journals (this would be measured by the percentage of submissions rejected), external funding attracted, or just naked page counts. Society’s demand for accountability is answered by a pretense of accountability, a busy collection and accumulation of numbers.

Proxies also play a sinister role in government efforts to evaluate teaching and learning in support of market competition for universities in the UK (this is less systematic in America, though not unknown). The British government has almost completely ceased providing public money to support teaching (medical courses are an exception), so universities pass on the cost via higher tuitions, which in most cases students finance by loans. The government sets an upper limit on tuitions (here is where the US experience is so different), but encourages universities to compete on price. The idea is that seventeen-year-old students are fully informed “consumers” able to decide which “provider” offers best quality for money. To help out, the government provides measures of educational quality which are, of course, proxies for effective teaching and learning: do courses provide clear descriptions of aims and procedures? Contact hours? Is student work marked and returned promptly? Attrition/retention rates? Income for graduates? As Collini writes: “If students will set aside airy-fairy old-fashioned notions about getting an education, and will instead focus upon finding the least expensive course that will get them the highest-paying job, the government wants them to know that it will go in to bat for them.” Information on “transferable skills” and “positive student outcomes” features largely here and, in Collini’s droll summation, “There will be frequent appearances by our old friends, Robust and Transparent, the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of HiEdBiz prose, attendant lords that will do to swell a progress.”

As everyone knows, “student experience” is not the same as quality of learning, and in some cases is even antithetical to learning. But the rivalry among American colleges and universities over “student experience” helps to explain the recent rash of weight rooms and snack bars on campus, on-the-quad ice cream sundaes and massages, and so on. Collini compares the assessment of “student experience” to the feedback questionnaire on the fluffiness of pillows or provision of lotion for those checking out of a hotel, as part of the “individualist subjectivism by means of which market transactions hollow out human relations.”

There is no precise equivalent in the US to the market management by which the UK government puts a ceiling on tuition but encourages some universities (i.e. the more undesirable ones) to offer cut prices, but when Harvard and Stanford have no need to compete on price, while the 250th-best liberal arts college in the country is under fierce pressure to cheapen its product, the practical effect is the same.

And what of our own rankings—the ones that assure students that Harvard and Stanford are worth whatever it costs to attend them? Consider the proxies employed by the best-known purveyor of rankings, US News & World Report. They include faculty salaries, percentage of faculty with terminal degrees, and institutional resources—all inputs, not measures of learning—percentage of applicants accepted (another number that can be and has been gamed), as well as peer assessment, a measure that ensures that, as Collini says, “Markets will always reward those who are already advantaged.” The Browne Report, one of the white papers on higher education helping to change the landscape of UK universities, asserts flatly, and to my mind breathtakingly, that price is the “single best indicator of quality.”

The author makes a number of other points worth pondering by anyone interested in higher education. One is the peculiarity of the demand that universities should operate more like businesses, and of the assumption that such a change moves in the direction of more “success” (another frequently deployed but undefined buzzword). But “British business enterprises have an extremely mixed record—frequently posting gigantic losses, mostly failing to match overseas competitors, scarcely benefiting the weaker groups in society,” while institutions historically operating under different principles—British universities, galleries and museums, the BBC—have a much better track record. Nevertheless the second group is required to become more like the first. Which did a better job of providing their essential services over the past twenty years—American universities, or American mortgage companies? Which did the most harm?

Much of Speaking of Universities, it should be clear, is gloomy or at least provisionally pessimistic, as when the author suggests that there may soon be a point where using such terms as “universities” and “higher education” will be the retention of an outmoded vocabulary that has outlived the principles that used to give these words meaning. His social diagnosis, too, is uncheerful: “The decline of deference, the erosion of trust towards professions, the empowerment of certain kinds of populist relativism”—remind anyone of American politics?—are among the forces driving change in university education. Yet he professes not to despair. And though he never provides a fully articulated definition of what university education should be (What Are Universities For? does so more straightforwardly), his own ideas are clear both in the via negativa of his critique and in occasional passionate declarations. The best is a short piece, “Who Does the University Belong To?” originally delivered at Leiden University. There he challenges the (invidious) distinction between “useful” and “useless” forms of higher education and suggests, as a way to “characterize the intellectual life of universities,” that “the drive towards understanding can never accept an arbitrary stopping point, and critique may always in principle reveal that any currently accepted stopping point is ultimately arbitrary.” In a university, “various forms of useful preparation for life are undertaken in a setting and manner which encourages the students to understand the contingency of any particular packet of knowledge and its inter-relations with other different forms of knowledge.” And, “Undergraduate education involves exposing students for a while to the experience of enquiry into something in particular, but enquiry which, in itself, has no external goal other than improving the understanding of that subject matter.”

That he spoke these words in Belgium, and others in this book in Edinburgh, Lisbon, Amsterdam, Charlottesville, Pittsburgh, Florence, and Cambridge, Massachusetts, testifies to the international dimensions of the problems he deplores. His book is a well-timed and valuable one for the information it conveys, the wisdom it embodies and the alarum it sounds.

Merritt Moseley is an Emeritus Professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Asheville who has been covering the Man Booker Prize for the Sewanee Review since 1993.

Read More

Web Design and Development by Riverworks Marketing