Saturday 16 May 2015

Education's Deepwater Horizon moment: The new Road to Serfdom

My academic home of the last 13 years closed yesterday. Although the "Institute for Educational Cybernetics" officially only existed for 7 of those, the work on E-learning for JISC and the EU goes back to the beginning of my time in Bolton. It has changed my life and I am profoundly grateful to all those who gave me opportunities and let me flourish.

Historians of education looking at the period between 2000 and 2013 will see it as a time of profound change, and technology was at the heart of that change. Although much of the technology we worked with seemed to under-deliver on the claims made for it (by me and pretty much everyone working in the field), something underneath the surface stirred the system. As always, however, the changes that actually occur are not what we expect, and not always welcome: the contingencies of a planned outcome always overwhelm its anticipated results. Basically, the technology became part of a managerialist tool reinforcing the technocratisation of education. Technology reinforced a functionalist perspective over education; in many parts of the sector (particularly in newer universities) critique has been pushed out in favour of instrumental skills.

This now presents us with deeper educational and societal problems: I fear many of our institutions of learning are at risk of corruption as the shifts of power brought about through technological control coupled with weak governance contribute to the creation of "fiefdoms" with a government license to indebt young people in order to fuel capital building projects, whilst reinforcing the power of institutional leaders in a positive feedback cycle. The human consequences of this are only beginning to become apparent. Staff will feel it first. But then the consequences for students - the next generation - could be more serious. At one level, I think a connection needs to be made between the kids who get sucked into violent radicalism and the spiritual poverty delivered to them by the education system. More generally, marketing talk of "graduate premiums" carries with it a societal menace: education is not a game, and yet too many institutional managers appear to treat it as such.

The governance problem is not unacknowledged: the Times Higher Educational Supplement reads like a litany of abuse of power and privilege, and government ministers recognise the problem (since all VCs are paid considerable more than the Prime minister!) but seem incapable of doing anything about it. Some of these stories are not new. However, the sums of money involved are now astronomical, and the power wielded by institutions has never been greater. It used to be that to see new glass buildings being built in a city was a sign of the latest greedy expansion by banks or insurance firms. Now it tends to be Universities (someone should do a survey): every UK city train station appears now to welcome travellers to "the home of the University of xxx". Local councils will now look to the local university as a means of delivering capital developments with money borrowed by the young. The University and its leaders become increasingly protected by establishment figures in local and central government who see this as an easy route for making our cities look as if everything is fine in the economy, whilst pushing the problems of student debt into the long grass (when they will have retired on handsome pensions). Power increasingly shifts to the University which gains a stranglehold over the city but where the electorate, and particularly the employees and students are left with little say in what's done: complex behind-the-scenes alliances involving establishment figures ranging from government, the judiciary and even the church (truly shocking) conspire to protect University leaders and stop difficult and important questions being investigated. It won't end well.

So we start with technology. It reinforces functionalism. Which reinforces power. Which creates risks of corruption. Which seep into the fabric of society and compromise democracy. Maybe this is a new "Road to Serfdom". This time it's not the left (which Hayek blamed); it's the technologists. Like the left though, the root problem is the technologist's idealism: it creates the structures and means of production for the dictators to exploit.

Where is knowledge? How do these dynamics play out in different parts of the sector? I think what is clear is that there are vast differences in the political ecologies of different institutions. Elite universities display greater diversity and richness in their management structures and in their academic body than institutions that focus on widening participation. The richness and vibrancy of the political ecology is the real sign of institutional health - not financial surpluses or grandiose building projects. This is not to say that widening participation institutions cannot maintain healthy political ecologies, but it is clearly more difficult for them. Knowledge exists in the dialectical processes and tensions of institutions: in its academic body, its deliberative committees and its executive. If institutions become monocultural, the dialectical tension disappears. Fear takes over in the form of an existential crisis that has no means of expressing itself and challenge gives way to deference. Knowledge is lost.

We urgently need to find new ways of examining the health of our higher education system. This is education's "Deepwater horizon" moment: whilst technology is complicit in delivering us to this point, we should carefully consider what we can now do with it to help us clear up our mess.


Chris H said...

Once again Mark you have hit the nail on the head.

Anonymous said...

Although it's uncomfortable, it is for the best. Shake the dust from your shoes and move on to something new, where you can express your views openly and honestly with no fear of reprisals or gagging clauses. I hope you find that new opportunity soon, and with your intelligence, love of justice, and care for others, I'm sure you will.

Mark Johnson said...

Thank you :-) There are different kinds of discomfort. Double binds are the things to watch out for - that's generally 'bad' discomfort. This IMO is 'good' discomfort - the world changes and I have to adapt whether I like it or not. The difference, I think, is in the master-slave relations: In the former, one is a slave; in the latter, one is the master.

Teresa Robert said...
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