Thursday 23 January 2014


The business model of widening participation universities is simple: attract students, keep them happy and keep them on-roll until they graduate. The business of 'attraction' is a dark art. University marketing departments have for many years pushed images of attractive bright-eyed students with a pipette or some ancient relic in hand surrounded by sophisticated equipment that looks like its taken from the set of a sci-fi movie. These images are important for the business of 'attraction'. They make learning look sexy. I find learning sexy (to a far greater extent that anyone dare admit, learning is all about sex!) - but learning doesn't look like this. I cannot give an 'image' of learning which accurately presents it for what it is because my own capabilities are tied up with my experience of it. If the business model of a University is simply to attract students (and to kick the day-to-day experience into the long grass), the image of learning will do. But the image takes over the substance. Whilst the substance of learning doesn't really change (it is a fundamental human activity), the image has changed dramatically. In my own university's engagement with the power of images, it deployed dancing girls around sports cars at the launch of a new 'supercar' all in aid of indirectly marketing a course in 'motorsport engineering' (here's the video of the 'launch':

The unions are understandably outraged at the exploitation of women as 'trimmings' for the sale of a course. The outrage is important because it draws attention to a very demanding question for everybody working in Higher Education today which goes deeper than both the pathologies of the exploitation of women and sanctimonious puritanism. It is about the relationship between the substance of learning and how it is represented, and the capabilities of those who interpret those images to gain a realistic impression of the substance and the labour involved.

Today all universities market their products through brandishing the esoteric accompaniments of institutional life. Thorstein Veblen noted (100 years ago) the tendency for Universities to surround themselves with the paraphernalia of rituals, gowns, flags and ancient titles like "Senate", "Provost", etc. In this, he argued that essentially the business of education is archaic. Such things are also about 'image' - about a way of representing something which is processual in a way easily digestible to the uninvolved observer. For Veblen, the University was the way the 'leisure classes' became part of the 'priesthood'; education was an aspect of the "wasteful behaviour" that was fundamental to the lives of the leisure classes: admittance to the priesthood granted legitimacy to individuals, and even (in some cases) nation states (witness the unholy relationships with toxic regimes in the Middle East!). Cambridge may turn its nose up at Bolton's Sports cars and its dancing girls, but in its place they will present their alumni lists of the great and the good, ancient quads, and nobel prizes. How are they not the same thing? 

This is the key question because it boils down to the capabilities of those reading the images. If you have the social and cultural capital and the capability of gaining admittance, the image becomes a badge you can wear - it is like a kind of sacrament: "An outward sign of an inner grace" as Bateson so beautifully put it. The inner grace is not within the institution; it is within you. If you don't have the advantage of high capability and suffer low social capital, the quad, the gown and the senate are simply images. They represent something you might dream of, and in dreaming of them, they may say something about you, but fundamentally they say something about what you lack, not what you are: paraphrasing Bateson, they are "an outward sign of inner absence".

So what of the dancing girls and the sports cars? If you have the social and cultural capital and the capability, these too can operate as sacraments in the proper sense (is it so different from the Virgin Mary??). Indeed, my University also has a popular course in Special Effects Production which recruits kids who do well and many of whom strongly identify with their learning activities (partly because it's edgy and weird!). But images of sports cars and girls are not designed to appeal to a select audience. Indeed, people who possess the capability to deeply identify with such cars as part of their identity are likely to be the people who conceive and design the courses! For everyone else, they are symbols of absence. But symbols of absence are a powerful attractors to those who lack the capability to be able to say who they are. 

To attract people in this position with images that can only be seen as symbols of lack and then to put little effort into the provision of addressing the lack (what would you do?) other than giving people what they've always got in education - in this case, lectures on engineering - looks misleading at best: the lack that lead to the temptation only becomes more apparent in reality. The transaction is similar to the behaviour of the pimp: the promise of something through the exploitation of an objectified person that symbolises a lack, but where the reality only makes the lack more apparent. 

Soon after buying-in to the bargain, students are forced to realise the game they are in. The University must keep them on roll. This means "getting them through" which in turn means ticking off learning outcomes based on evidence of their work (to be defended to external examiners) across the requisite range of modules of the course. Learning outcomes provide a rationalised metric for "quality" processes, easily graspable by managers, and whilst they capture something of a student's capabilities, they can be written in a way which means that defensible evidence for justifying the 'tick' isn't hard to come by. Learners, for their part, will either see their strategic job as to pass and get the degree, or to leave: it is perhaps unsurprising that strategic learning practices in completing assignments is not an infrequent occurrence.

The problem is that (like the pimp) accompanying the effort of it all is a whopping great bill! If only the efforts that go into the images went into the substance of learning experiences that genuinely aim to raise the capabilities of the learners who pay for their courses.

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