Saturday 26 May 2012

Education as Industry

What sort of an industry is education? Behind that question is a question about industry in the first place. We tend to have a particular view of industry which manufactures or sells goods and services. In doing so, it creates employment and generates profits. The car industry makes cars; the banking industry sells financial services; the building industry builds houses; the supermarket industry sells food (but  increasingly provides banking and other services). A trite continuation of this is that "the education industry sells educational services". But what does that mean? Is an 'educational service' like a financial service? Or is it like manufacturing?

In the sense that advice is sought and benefited from in education, the education industry can be said to be like a financial service. However, in the sense that degrees are printed and coveted by potential customers, the education industry is like manufacturing. In these two aspects, the education industry has an important historical precursor: the selling of indulgences by the Catholic church.

That's perhaps not a good precursor, but really, little else fits in thinking about the kind of industry that education is. And in a business sense, it is highly profitable - until someone smells a rat and does something about it (enter Martin Luther!). However, the rat is there, and education as an industry (which is clearly where it is heading) has a big problem.

But I want to return to nature of industry in the first place. Because, as I discussed in my last post ( Industry does far more that manufactures or sells goods and services. In employing people, the workplace becomes the locus for human relationships and learning. And whilst the nature of the workplace itself has changed drastically in the post-industrial world, we all have someone to say 'good morning' to, or to gossip about the latest misdoings of management. Such exchanges are meaningful to individuals, and in good companies, camaraderie amongst the workers is an essential part of business success, and workers see their identities in the context of their professional and domestic relationships. In bad companies, there will always be pockets (or cliques) or camaraderie, although other workers may become alienated from their work or their role in the organisation.

Educational institutions, as workplaces, are no different. There is someone to say 'good morning' to, and there is plenty to gossip about. But learning is the thing in the educational workplace. Indeed, whilst in the software industry, programmers might say 'good morning' before diving into some code (actually, being programmers, they might not say 'good morning'!), workers in education say 'good morning' to each other before saying 'good morning' or afternoon to their students, and conversations bleed over from the work to gossip to administration and so on. Educational institutions make communications.

In a good educational institution there are individuals who are skilled in the art of making communications with students and staff which light up those students and staff and lead to ever more interesting communications. Such communication is borne out of the conviviality of the environment of the educational institution. Eyes can be looked into, gestures noted, questions asked, emails sent, blogs written and referred to and Skype conversations launched.

Communication is incidental in industries like banking and manufacturing. Whilst good organisations will nurture and exploit it, they will always ensure that it doesn't get in the way of the 'main job'. In education, it is the main job. Yet, in education it is often not recognised as being the main job by those who are not academics (often managers): they do not see the making of communications is an art where academics are masters of this art. They might be more inclined to see it as 'unproductive' and academics as 'lazy'. They may instead, see the education industry either as manufacturing degrees, or providing educational services, or (worse) selling indulgences. A bums-on-seats-retain-at-all-costs mentality is the natural consequence of this. Yet this is a poor way to achieve objectives around both recruitment and retention.

It is here that an Education Industry might be an enlightening operation. An Education Industry that sees its role in the "production of communications" will only focus on those communications that are meaningful (because only meaningful communications can be sustained). Conviviality, flexibility, openness and an embrace of diversity are essential elements to achieving this. But what is needed most of all is a sense of purpose within the industry that this is what it is about.

Education has traditionally seen itself as being about knowledge (just in the same way that religion can see itself as being about faith). Knowledge is tied up with communication; it seeps through the togetherness of people - whether they are in the workplace or the classroom. But with the industrial workplace increasingly not able to supply the pre-requisite conviviality in society, it must be left to education to fill the void, and consequently to nurture knowledge and fulfil the deep yearning for meaning that is felt by every human being.

1 comment:

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