Thursday, January 02, 2014

Seven Real Signs of Surrender

Responding to a story in Inside Higher Ed called Signs of Surrender in Public Higher Ed. John Warner uses as a metaphor the 'surrender' of the press, as follows:
The rationale for Time’s move is that the magazine can now “explore new revenue opportunities,” which is code for the “native advertising” practices utilized at websites like Buzzfeed – which substitutes memes for news - and Politico - which makes no apologies for the fact that its Chief White House Correspondent engages in de facto influence peddling, as amply demonstrated by Erik Wemple at the Washington Post.
Fair enough. But he then follows his article with an absurd list of seven signs of surrenter that have nothing to do with the point he just made. So here are seven real signs of surrender in higher ed generally (because, believe me, private higher ed is not immune):

1. Passing students in courses that the professor has never actually met and whose work the professor has never seen. This is common in classes of dozens, sometimes hundreds, of students. Often such students are graded by teaching assistants (or sometimes by machine, in the case of multiple-choice assessments).

2. Accepting industry grants for research or the creation of specific courses or programs. While I am sympathetic to the idea that industry should pay its fair share of the costs of educating its future employee base, it should not take over the management of these programs. The proper way to fund public works is through taxation, the way all the rest of us pay for it, and which ensures the work serves the wider public interest, and not the narrow self-interest of particular individuals or corporations.

3. The naming of buildings and facilities after people or companies who have given money to the institution. The value of these contributions is usually a fraction of the overall cost of building and operating the facility. If we credited the people who actually pay the lion's share of these facilities, they would all be called "the People's Sports Arena" or "Community Scientific Laboratory".

4. Giving publications over to a commercial enterprise for no remuneration, and then paying premium prices in order to read or obtain a copy of that same publication. This surrender is so complete that university professors routinely require students to pay significant amounts of money to these publishers for each course they take, while the return to the institution for producing this work is a fraction, if any, of its value.

5. Enticing students to work without pay as athletes or other competitors in major commercial events held in partnership with funders and corporate media providers. This practice does not always provide revenue to the university (and would be suspect even if it did) and results in a considerable diversion of time, energy and resources to supporting this corporate media partnership that would otherwise be spent providing students with the education they need.

6. Redesigning programs and services in order to climb positions in 'league tables' created by private agencies. These agencies identify criteria they value (such as standardization of offerings to facilitate the commodification of learning resources, or the directing of research into industry-specific fields such as business and finance, or catering to a wealthy clientele) and then rank institutions according to these criteria. Institutions that seek to climb in these rankings are tacitly ceding control to well-funded lobby groups.

7. Charging tuition, and increasing tuition fees at rates well beyond the rate of inflation, thus creating a barrier to those who cannot pay fees. This includes favouring corporate and private interests with admission criteria that reward legacy or sponsored students, and tilts admission criteria in favour of those who have enjoyed a privileged upbringing and economic opportunities.

As we can see from this list, universities have long since 'surrendered' in just the same way that the news media has surrendered, effectively signing over a public trust to the highest bidder. And what should be noticed is that this abdication of public responsibility has nothing whatsoever to do with the use of computers or machines to deliver instruction, and everything to do with a hollow lack of will at the centre of the institution. The professoriate, which should be responding with anger to all seven of these, reacts instead with indifference, and meanwhile managers and administrators entrench their own positions and benefit personally working with and for those private interests.