From mooc-dog-eat-dog:

Fellow dissenters:

The following essay attempts to place our travails in the broader context of ‘moocs’ and the emerging online global academic marketplace. It is pitched to non-uws ears. Link and circulate to those poor beloved around you who have been absorbing your stress and anger; it might help them understand our peril.

“Take one job centre. Add several apprenticeship programmes. Combine with an industrial lab (fold in a medical research centre for extra flavour). Throw in some subsidised gigs and a large dollop of cheap beer. Don’t stir too much. Decorate with a forward-looking logo. And hey presto! – you’ve got a university.”
So quipped Stefan Collini during the storm of Higher Education reform in the United Kingdom last year. He was satirising the view of the contemporary university taken by government education departments, university administrations and their bastard child, the HE entrepreneur. Yes, very funny Mr Oxford Don; fine to joke if your university is able to add £1 billion to its endowment when throwing itself its 800th birthday. Not so funny for the staff at the University of Western Sydney. 775 or so years younger than Collini’s, and serving the opposite student demographic, the administration at UWS have in the last fortnight announced plans drastically to cut back academic staff and programmes, particularly in areas that have traditionally been at the core of the university – humanities, arts and social sciences. Comments by the university’s Deputy Vice Chancellor (Corporate Strategy and Services) show that those responsible for these measures have a different understanding of “core”: “we’ve had to implement changes to continue to operate an efficient economic model for all of these courses. About 400 subjects are offered by the university, which will need to be cut back by a third . . . so we can focus on our core business.” She lists subjects such as nursing, business, health and medicine as examples of core areas.
While it may be true that the students which UWS attracts want careers in the professions most obviously associated with these areas; medicine without science, business without economics, health without sociology have not traditionally been understood as university disciplines. The disinterested academic study of a subject requires theoretical thinking, which is to be distinguished from technical training centred on practical know-how. It is not a surprise that the subjects which form the “core” of the university when it is understood as a business geared to produce ready-made employees for the industries should marginalise those at the core of the traditional university, whose task it is first to pursue truth. Yet these two things are not necessarily separate. One of the UWS economists being lined up for the sack predicted the global financial crisis: a business student taking one of his modules would likewise be enabled to think sceptically and critically about their business strategy in the broader economic context. But more on this in a moment…
The programmes that constitute UWS’s “core business” are made so by density of student demand; any dip in demand at a University whose revenue almost entirely comprises domestic student fees would seem to make redundant any debate about what does and does not constitute the unversity’s “core”. And, indeed, in the context of the recent deregulation of student places, there has been a dip in demand in some of the old-fashioned critical subjects; though the market environment has been fluctuating so unpredictably, there is no way of knowing whether the dip is a trend. In any case, this shows only a small part of the financial context in which these latest cuts are being carried out. Even though it is laying off staff, the University will run a healthy operating surplus in 2012. The practice of firing academics while running a surplus is not unique to UWS; the same has happened already this year at ANU and Sydney. (Richard Denniss has lucidly deconstructed the logic of such fiscal practice.)
The real story is inside UWS’s “Schools” (the divisions within the university dedicated to teaching – in other words, that which used to constitute a university). At UWS, the percentage of the revenue generated by the Schools which go directly towards their operating costs has decreased drastically over the last 10 years. Over the same period the number of academic staff has marginally decreased, whilst general staff (managers, administrators, IT technicians, and so on) has increased by 27%. Lecturers are being fired while the value they create is siphoned off for extra-scholarly functions. Consequently, they are forced to teach to ever-expanding economies of scale, using ever more elaborate apparatuses designed to extract more teaching and research from them. The latest innovation is “blended learning”: a smoothie of online and in-class teaching methods and assessments. Lecturers are increasingly pedagogical engineers, who set up digital mechanisms that deliver content and process assessments.
Such economies of scale could be keeping a university like UWS afloat in the local context of the NSW HE market (though it seems hard to believe any student would welcome enlarged classes). Many probably believe that such an embrace of the onlinification-of-everything makes a university dynamic, mastering early the emerging market conditions. The global context, however, makes such efforts seem pitiably small-scale. A sociology course of 1500 students coordinated and taught by two full-time academics with four or five tutors appears a quaint artisanal guild against the emergent “massively open online-courses” which are serving numbers in the hundreds of thousands; and which are being assembled by the world’s top professors. And, as with the shift to online in music and media, “moocs” are being offered for free, remorselessly undercutting the market. A local course with 26 hours contact conducted by stressed-out academics who won’t look you in the eye in case you make a request of them for $2000, or a slick University of Stanford-designed course with online lectures supplied by an assured and charismatic world-leading researcher for free?
It is unlikely that we are yet at the Matrix dystopia of higher education delivered exclusively through (i)pods. Students at Cambridge, Stanford, Harvard, Yale, perhaps even sandstone universities in Australia, will continue to attract students whose parents will pay the premium. This is because a university education is a lot more than content-absorption. It is the imbibing of styles of thought, meeting and interacting with other talented and eager students, having the society’s most sophisticated thinkers available to you: a time free from strictly utilitarian application when thought may follow its own path. A time of imagination and creativity. Such educations are starting to look like the free range organic variety, producing slim healthy minds that do not merely perform employment functions, but can think through the logic of those functions. These graduates will continue to outperform their peers. For the rest, it is the crowded, disease-ridden barn; a university on the phone screen where advertising and other digital clutter, and always encroaching life-commitments, distract attention. Students will tend to aim for the bare minimum in order to pass, and it seems unlikely that the algorithms processing their assignments will be much bothered to motivate them to work harder.
Perhaps the better analogy will be with the market model that has emerged in fashion: the super-brands now subsidise loss-making high fashion with mass-produced imitations. Stanford degrees for the wealthy, bling Stanford online certificates for the rest. Benevolent bursaries (thank you Sahib/Massa!) will cream off the best-performing of the rest, giving the semblance of opportunity within the system.
After delivering his satirical formula for the modern university, Collini continues: “In reality, of course, no one has ever successfully created a university by following this recipe. But if you simply
go by what is now said about universities in official pronouncements from government departments or funding agencies or employers’ associations, you could be forgiven for thinking that this recipe pretty much describes what these institutions are all about.”
He is, of course, right, but the context is rapidly shifting. The universities with the longest traditions and/or the most resources will be able to continue to smirk at such recipes. When the University of Cambridge recently issued 40-year bonds for £350 million to fund capital investment, it was handed a Triple-A rating (a better rating than its national government), and received £1.5 billion in orders. The market is maturing in the most predictable, monopolising fashion: the universities with the most established brand-names, illuminated by their old-fashioned loss-making “core”, will be bullish in pursuing whatever profit-making avenues become available. The Idea of the University is not really threatened. What’s at stake is regular availability of spaces of critical thinking for the disempowered. Most will shrug their shoulders upon hearing UWS’s travails, including many in the sector: it demonstrates the folly of trying to provide a university education for those who, “let’s be realistic”, really need vocational and technical training. The notion of a well-resourced university that is specifically designed to draw on and improve the native intelligence of its working- and lower middle-class constituency will increasingly seem like those brutalist social housing blocks: another misguided utopian project of the post-war bourgeoisie. Like the entitlement to housing and health care, the entitlement to a critical education starts to look like rotting concrete.