Another day, another turgid intervention on ‘the future of universities’ in the digital pages of the Times Higher Education. This time, for those of us who actually work in universities either brave or masochistic enough to read on, we are treated to a breathless paean to progress from, well, this guy, and from someone neck deep in peddling for-profit education in east Asia. Parag Khanna is basically a consultant in the business of pushing TED-talks as if they are strategic business wisdom for a globalised world. Khanna is not an educator. His job is to step out in front audiences of tech workers and day traders, or now in front of a video-conference connecting the same people, and produce warm prophecies of their continued ascendance. Khemka, the co-author, is an investor, again, not an educator but someone who sells access to it, and is responsible for such gifts to the discourse as ‘what education companies can learn from surfing schools’.
Their article is some pretty classic hot garbage and hardly out of place in the Times Higher, which regularly commissions this kind of empty clickbait as part of their larger strategy of kicking out enough vaguely journalistic-seeming content to disguise the fact that they are now a ratings agency, funded almost solely by selling access to their global university rankings, and by selling some pretty hilariously overpriced advice on how to game those rankings to various credulous institutions.
Anyways, let’s take a look at what these guys are selling. What’s their vision for a ‘renewed’ higher education in our COVID-19 world? As is often the case with this calibre of writing, most of it is empty of specific meaning, and accordingly hard to concretely agree or disagree with. For instance, the authors write that ‘now is the time for universities, as bedrocks of discovery, to make a new, mutually beneficial compact with society’. I mean, yeah sure? If we ever find out what that means. Once we do get into their numbered list of suggested priorities, specifics slowly begin to emerge. Here are the five headings: ‘real investment’, ‘true inclusivity’, ‘applied public service’, ‘collaboration drives quality’ and ‘true resilience’.
The authors ask some leading questions, such as: ‘why can’t Harvard University enrol 100,000 students?’, to which the answer is pretty obviously: it could enrol that many easily, but how would it educate them, and frankly, how much would they pay? This question leads into the headline grabbing suggestion, and the one absolutely lighting up lecturer twitter this morning, which is this:
One way to focus higher education’s work on more important activity would be to shift to a mode where collaboration, even sharing pedagogy, becomes the norm. If Cambridge’s lectures in any subject are indeed superior, then the imperative to share them across the world only increases.
This is what they always wanted. ‘Education’ without educators.
By ‘this’, I mean a window, a moment, when the vast structures of education across the world are absolutely laid open and vulnerable, ripe for a combination of savage job cuts, intense digitisation of any remaining delivery, and the resulting commodification of all outcomes. An educational landscape in which the University of Phoenix Arizona is the model, or Harvard Business School’s online division, or even ‘Prager U’ (which is not actually a university, it’s more of a YouTube platform which produces some truly weird shit like this video on ‘what you need to know before you buy a gun’).
‘This’ is a world where the video ‘lectures’ of one prominent historian might be commissioned, purchased, and then licensed to thousands of undergraduates, and followed up with an ‘online tutorial’ facilitated by a catastrophically underpaid ‘teaching fellow’, delivering a simulacrum of what it means to learn from their living room, because, well, they have bills just like everybody else.
There are many obvious holes in this idea. First of all, how do you know that Cambridge’s lectures are ‘indeed superior’? Presumably you consult the global rankings of the Times Higher, or maybe even Ratemyprofessors.com. Second, a single good lecture in the humanities is by definition insufficient, since the whole point is contained in the diversity of approaches, methods, priorities, and evidence that you get from many classes taught by many lecturers. But poking holes in this relentless onslaught of education shock doctrine is not going to make it go away. We, actual educators, actual labour, are the enemy here, we are the cost. Us objecting to the new world order is already priced in.
We can all see now what ‘this’ is, but who are ‘they’? They generally fall into two groups, the first being the senior management of universities across the world, managers who long ago gave up anything but the pretence of being educators, and who have instead given themselves over to the spectacularly well-remunerated job of selling restricted access to specialists and to knowledge, while glorifying the misty idea of the university by financing new buildings and campus beautification projects. #notallmanagers, but you get the idea. The second group hover around the edges of higher education and attach themselves in parasitical fashion to its various important outputs: companies like Elsevier or Cengage who profit from the peer pressure system of academic knowledge production, education consultancy companies and HE ‘brand management’ companies whose services gratify the first group, and ‘free speech warriors’ who reap cultural capital in the journalistic and political spheres by pretending to know anything at all about universities, freedom, or speech, and by objecting at volume and at length about ‘assaults’ on all three.
These people all need higher education to exist, obviously, but they don’t need it to exist in anything resembling its present form. They need to be able to sell it, or parts of it, or some hollow version of it, they need to be able to cash in on the student loan book as an investment vehicle, or commission very highly educated researchers to produce articles and monographs for them virtually for free. What they do not need, or arguably even want, is happy, critically engaged, and politically aware students, nor a diverse field of different lectures, seminars, workshops, trips, forums, et cetera. They want education without the educators.
So, if this is what they always wanted, what can we do about it? By we, I mean students, teachers, and anyone who actually cares about the value of education as a public good, anyone who isn’t eagerly waiting in the wings ready to carve and sell a chunk of it. I can only think of one thing that might help here: mass dissent and the mass refusal to engage with this process of asset-stripping HE. Come Fall term, come what may, we are going to be in the thick of this forced transformation and the only thing that might make everyone wake up to the terrible reality of what it means is if students refuse to buy it en masse and lecturers refuse to deliver it. A global strike of students and workers across all of higher education—one that does not stop until its demands are met—might be the only tool left to prevent the transformation of Higher Education into a Black Mirror episode so dark the creators would probably refuse to air it.