The Value of Higher Education Made Literal –

December 14, 2010 at 11:49 am 2 comments

Alan kindly forwarded me this article (thanks!).  Fish makes his point well, that students aren’t the “customers” but the “product,” and they are not the best judge of what they need from education.  But the relentless monetization of higher education increasingly places them in that role, and places us in the role of providers of only that education that results in measurable monetary value.  I particularly found striking the end of the piece — while the report that Fish is responding to is from England, the attitudes seem strongly American.

While Fish makes a terrific point, I wonder what the way forward is.  We can’t turn back the clock and undo the choices made and attitudes developed over the last 30 years (the Bayh-Doyle Act is 30 years old this month).  We developed Media Computation because, explicitly, we had to appeal to student interests to get them to engage with computer science.  Maybe we shouldn’t have had to and maybe students should have studied computer science because it’s a great subject, but they don’t and we do.  Now, within this worldview, how do we achieve the opportunity for all that Fish describes?  How do we make sure that students learn what they need, and not just what they want?

The rhetoric of the report is superficially benign; its key phrase is “student choice”: “Our proposals put students at the heart of the system.” “Our recommendations . . . are based on giving students the ability to make an informed choice of where and what to study.” “Students are best placed to make the judgment about what they want to get from participating in higher education.”

The obvious objection to this last declaration is, “No, they aren’t; judgment is what education is supposed to produce; if students possessed it at the get-go, there would be nothing for courses and programs to do.” But that objection would be entirely beside the point in the context of the assumption informing the report, the assumption that what students want to get from participating in higher education is money. Under the system the report proposes, government support of higher education in the form of block grants to universities (which are free to allocate funds as they see fit) would be replaced by monies given directly to matriculating students, who would then vote with their pocketbooks by choosing which courses to “invest” in.

But at second thought this paean of self-praise is merited once we remember that that the report’s relentless monetization of everything in sight has redefined its every word: value now means return on the dollar; quality of life now means the number of cars or houses you can buy; a civilized society is a society where the material goods a society offers can be enjoyed by more people.

One must admit that this view of value and the good life has a definite appeal. It will resonate with many not only in England but here in the United States. And to the extent it does, the privatization of higher education will advance apace and the days when a working-class Brit or (in my case) an immigrant’s son can wander into the groves of academe and emerge a political theorist or a Miltonist will recede into history and legend.

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Bijan Parsia  |  December 14, 2010 at 3:51 pm

    I’m sad that I came to the UK after fees were imposed and am even sadder that the stupid evil coalition has done its wicked will by slashing funding and making us all have to worry about fees.

    I know the evil stupid coalition *wants* to destroy the spirit of HE in the UK (so that’s a feature for them, not a bug), but it really is sad.

    In spite of my run ins with the NHS, it really is amazing to just go to the doctor when sick, not to have a co-pay, and not to worry about health insurance. It’s equally amazing that when they ask me if I pay for prescriptions and I say “yes”, I *know* I’m paying at most 8 GBP. The quality of life improvements not having to worry about all that is just amazing.

    I think it must have been similar for HE. No fees meant that you just thought about your education, not how the hell you were going to pay for it. Similarly for institutions. There’s *so* much pain with this move both explicit and subtle that, well, grr!

  • […] heard the argument that the Bayh-Doyle act was the downfall of undergraduate education in America.  By allowing universities to keep the […]


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