Wednesday 15 January 2014

The Bolton Question (Part 2): The Fairness of Going High-Tech

As I wrote a couple of days ago (see, there are fundamental ethical problems with Widening Participation as the de-facto business model of educational institutions like my own. It is inescapably about paying salaries of University employees (large salaries in the case of rich Senior Managers) with money borrowed by the poor. How different is this business model from that of Pay-Day lenders like Wonga? It looks very similar: in fact, at least with Wonga, the poor have the short-lived satisfaction of having 500 quid in their pocket for a short time before they're roped into endless repayments; Universities make them sit in dull lectures and gives them tedious assignments to complete! Like Wonga, we lure them into their bargain with promises of a better life that we are in no position to keep: getting a degree does not guarantee a better life, although it might remove some bureaucratic barriers to success.

We've stepped over a line in education and now we have a big problem.

Nobody's going to pretend the 'education industry' doesn't exist. Nobody's going to pretend that "not having a degree" isn't now a big problem for young people seeking employment, and that the provision of a degree entails some kind of economic bargain. We've made all of this happen in our society. The question is about how we deal with it.

There is a political question about loans versus general taxation, and the extent to which the interest rate of student loans in under political control. David Willetts yesterday suggested that the loan rate would remain under political control: a move underlying the fudge and nervousness about the whole situation (see his talk Is a loan a tax? What's the difference between a tax and a loan when a basic need like education is the subject? But then the question is Is it fair? Individual capability (by that I mean Amartya Sen's definition: see, social and cultural capital (Bourdieu) all tip the scales in favour of the middle classes - the kids who would succeed whether they went University or not. So what about Bolton?

Is it fair that students with less capability and less social and cultural capital should be 'taxed' (have to borrow money) at the same rate, when their life-chances are hampered before they even begin? Education is not a level playing field. Are student loans like a "poll-tax" on capability? The inequality is exacerbated by institutional business models which increasingly aim to cut costs and 'pocket' money borrowed by poor students to bolster financial 'reserves': such behaviour is less about the security of the institution (which is how it is usually portrayed), but much more about the security of the leader in a world where financial performance is the measure of success. Indeed institutional security can be damaged by withholding money that poor students have borrowed, to the under-resourced detriment of educational experiences for those students, whilst putting more pressure on staff to 'deliver' to those students for less money to both their detriment and the students who pay for it. The 'efficiency' model is inherently unstable and morally repugnant all-round.

The question is How to level the disparity of capability? There will, in fact, be some kind of subsidy for less capable students because their salaries will not reach the £21,000 mark for repayment in the UK. Indeed, there are deep worries that even for capable students in a depressed economy, this target will not be reached, leading to an ever-deepening black hole of government supported student debt, and the likelihood of an education-oriented financial crisis (Think how popular Universities will be when welfare cuts are imposed because student loan debt has become uncontrollable!)

We need to address the capability imbalance: this is, and always has been, the job of education. At one point in our history, the capability imbalance concerned literacy: mass education addressed the problem when many believed it wasn't possible. We now have different kinds of capability imbalances and technology forms an important element of them. Accessibility to technology is now as fundamental as literacy. But in terms of addressing capability imbalances, methods of teaching and learning are very important. The combination of teaching and technology is currently underexploited in the classroom. This is not about social media, or effective internet searches. It is about how technology can give us a better insight into ourselves, our learning needs, effective teaching, our emotional management and our attachments to others. Whilst it feels like "e-learning"  has run out of steam, the capability gap and its ensuing moral problems in education demand that we move forwards and invest in the high-tech capability-raising of the poor. To not do this will maintain an injustice whose ultimate consequences will be explosive.

This is why Bolton should go high-tech. Virtual Reality, bio-feedback, sophisticated analytics, corpus-oriented self-steering, video, flipped classrooms, flexible curricula, service learning are all important. But going high-tech means something else. Currently there is a tendency to invest money current poor students have to borrow in projects for the future (so current students whose money it is do not benefit). Technological investment benefits the students who pay for it: to each according to their needs. It creates opportunities for reorganising the classroom where those with more capability can help those with less: from each according to their ability.

I have blogged for a while about balancing the needs of society with the learning needs of individuals. The needs of our society are simple: we must redistribute wealth, risks and capabilities. Now I think that the way of achieving this is to drive the process of redistribution of capability in the University - in Bolton - using technology as the means to do it.

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