Friday, 21 November 2008

Educational commodities: my ideas about the mechanisms

Pretty much everyone says that higher education – both teaching and research – was commodified in the 1980s. The values that underpin the shift to commodification are generally agreed upon (neoliberalism, largely) but the exact mechanisms are much harder to pin down.

My feeling has been that much of the commodifying task has been accomplished by the time of the Dawkins reforms in the late 1980s. If this were the case, it would suggest that it is more than policy that has driven educational commodification (for we know, c/- Marginson, those processes pretty well too).

From my recent research, I think that the commodification of education (that is, in this case, enrolling) occurred in a very short time span - between 1980 and 1982. Here’s how.

The newspapers show that in this period, academics had an image problem. The funniest description I found for them was “layabout dons” (which sounds like a grotesque cross between the god-professor and the student-ratbag) – lazy, leisured (now in a bad way) and irrelevant. In fact, the word “academic” had started to mean “irrelevant”.

Tenure was somewhat blamed for this, and requests for salary increases by the staff unions (not yet recognised as unions legally) probably didn’t help, though was happening everywhere. Bureaucracy had a bad name too, with the public imagining universities to be run by Humphrey Appleby types inclined to systemic inefficiency. Worse, some university administration was still in the hands of academics (seen to be important in previous eras) and academics were seen to know even less about administration than they did about anything else relevant to the “real world”.

So between layabout dons and bureaucratic administrative processes, universities were seen as large, lumbering wastes of public money. And every dollar of public money in all the OECD countries was under intense scrutiny since the oil shocks of the late 1970s.

In light of public opinion and the scarcity of public funds, it is unsurprising that in 1981 the Fraser government decided to decrease spending on higher education. Strikes by academics and students do nothing to enhance public support for them, of course. No one likes layabouts striking.

Federal and (especially) State governments start “interfering” in universities much more explicitly, all calling for more political representation on university Councils/Senates. Qld and Vic both try to pass laws that would give them control perhaps even over course content.

Universities were continually lobbying for funding and autonomy, but right-wing intellectuals and politicians started suggesting that if universities want autonomy they should diversify their income streams and not be so reliant on Commonwealth funding. A more diverse income stream would prevent external influence, they argued.

At the same time, the earlier 1970s growth in student enrolment at university had reversed for demographic and other reasons – fewer students were enrolling at university, enhancing the sense that funding should decrease.

Very importantly, since funding was attached to students in their allocation, with students suddenly scarce, for the first time universities started to compete for them. The very first advertisements appeared – starting with Sydney University, but very quickly followed by the rest.

Without making any successful policy decisions, government expressed a great deal of interest in replacing at least some of the funding of universities with fees and they were also keen on loans to students.

Claims were made publicly that some of the inefficiencies of universities are a result of their failure of client-focus by bureaucracy. Universities would be more efficient were they to see students as clients and it was asserted that fees would assist them to do this. This idea starts to gain some sympathy within universities as well, creating the condition necessary for active and deliberate marketisation of higher education.

All it took for commodification was two years. While several colliding conditions contributed to it, I can’t but feel that it was the bad reputation of academics that really enabled it.

(Note that this description only considers commodification of education as a product, not yet of teaching as an act or of research. These were coming soon.)

Monday, 17 November 2008

The start of the research commercialisation quandary - does the person who pay get to have, use and own the knowledge they pay for?

1987 OECD report on higher education.

pp. 58-62 External and industrial support for Research - that is, among OECD countries, research and industry are starting to have significant links in 1987 so that increasing numbers of universities are trying to build relationships with industry as a funding source. Some of these (p.59) are "inspired by national need a priorities" which is one way to put it.

"Science parks" are a way of having industry offices near university laboratories, especially re. silicon and DNA.

But for the reflective OECD report, this is cause for caution, if not alarm.

p.60: "The President of the German Professors' Association has warned that universities are in danger of being reduced to "useful servants", the political parties regarding them as machines "in which you put D100 and expect DM200 to come out the other end after six months"

"In Australia an important middle and long-term problem is posed by the nature if the contractual relationships into which universities enter. Quote from Australia's Country Report about universities with extensive contractual arrangements in biotechnology which give "the clients specified rights over the results" which has "raised issues concerning the role of universities and research, the ownership of research findings, and the responsibilities of university researchers to society and the traditions of independent scholarship"

Monday, 10 November 2008

Casaubon and the middle-aged scholar

Reading Middlemarch - slowly...

"He has got no good red blood in his body," said Sir James.
"No. Somebody put a drop under a magnifying glass, and it was all semicolons and parentheses," said Mrs Cadwallader.
"Why does he not bring out his book, instead of marrying?" said Sir James, with a disgust which he held warranted by the sound feeling of an English layman.
"Oh he dreams footnotes, and they run away with his brains. They say, when he was a boy, he made an abstract of 'Hop o' my Thumb,' and he has been making abstracts ever since.

George Eliot, Middlemarch, p.96

But at present this caution against a too hasty judgement interests me more in relation to Mr Casaubon...does it follow that he was fairly represented...? I protest against any absolute conclusion, any prejudice derived from Mrs Cadwallader's contmpt for a neighbouring clergyman's alleged greatness of soul, of Sir James' poor opinion of his rival's legs...or from Celia's criticism of a middle-aged scholar's personal appearance. I am not sure that the greatest man of his age, if ever that solitary superlative existed, could escape these unfavourable reflections of himself in various small mirrors...

Suppose we turn from outside estimates of a man, to wonder, with keener interest, what is the report of his own consciousness about his doings or capacity: with what hindrances he is carrying on his daily labours; what fading of hopes, or what deeper fixity of self-delusion the years are marking off within him; and with what spirit he wrestles against universal pressure, which will one day be too heavy for him, and bring his heart to its final pause.

Doubtless his lot is important in his own eyes; and the chief reason that we think he asks too large a place in our consideration must be our want of room for him.

George Eliot, Middlemarch, p.110