Transaction or Transformation

As I wrote in last week’s blog, there is an increasingly loud neoliberal voice driving the future of universities.

As we move into the first year where student number controls are scrapped, and the effective protectionism that they afforded to universities lower down the league tables, then it’s important that we reflect on who we are, what we are trying to achieve and how.
However this is where my personal opinions may differ from organisational thinking, but a university is nothing if it is not a place where ideas are allowed to be expressed and challenged.

As Henry Giroux (author of “Neoliberalism’s War on Higher Education”) has written in a piece entitled “Higher Education and the New Brutalism“:

“Viewed as a private investment rather than a public good, universities are now construed as spaces where students are valued as human capital, courses are determined by consumer demand and governance is based on the Walmart model of labor relations…….in particular, the ideal of the university as a vital public good no longer fits into a revamped discourse of progress, largely defined in terms of economic growth. Under the onslaught of a merciless and savage financialization of society that has spread since the 1980s, the concept of social progress has all but disappeared amid the ideological onslaught of a crude, market-driven fundamentalism that promises instant gratification, consumption and immediate financial gain.”

For us to be successful, we need to be able to express clearly why we exist as a university, and what benefits that the organisation brings. We are focussed on being modern, relevant and vocationally inspired, and the VC has provided his exposition of each of these descriptors. But in marketing ourselves to potential students, to the businesses and other organisations that we work with, and to ourselves, then we should be able to provide more critique debate how we can express and enact these ideals.
The university as a concept is seen as being under siege. We are increasingly driven by league table rankings and external metrics. I don’t have a huge issue with this – many of the measures that are used are those we should all be able to sign up to – student success, satisfaction and employment. At the same time however, an over-reliance on these metrics reduces the value of higher education to a transaction between a consumer paying fees, who expects to be treated as a paying customer, and for whom an undergraduate degree course has become a rite of passage to the expected 2(i) and a graduate job.

The first challenge then is for us to learn to work with students in such a way that we can satisfy the transactional nature of education, while ensuring that their exposure to an environment where challenge of conventional wisdom, where a democracy of ideas is still valuable, so that when they do gain that 2(i) and gain a job in a widget factory we will have done more for them than provide them with just a passport to work, but provided them with a truly transformational education.

The second challenge is for us to be clear about what a university exists for today. Stefan Collini in “What are Universities For” in providing a critique of the sacred cow of Newman’s view of a university says:

“The twenty first century university needs a literary voice of comparable power to iterate in the idiom of our time the idea of the untrammelled quest for understanding”.

So when we say we are modern, relevant and vocationally inspired, we should develop a full understanding what we mean by each of these terms, and how they can be articulated beyond the immediacy of the dominant neoliberal threat to the academy.

Modern. We expect all of our students to be learning at the forefront of knowledge so that they become discipline experts, and that all of our academic staff are themselves creating new knowledge and scholarship. This is not just about training for jobs – this is about providing our students with the opportunities to engage with and in scholarship and to learn that there are limits to knowledge and that they will need to learn how to solve unfamiliar problems and challenges based on incomplete information.

Relevant. The relevance of a degree at its most reductive could be seen as being relevant to specific industries or job roles. However, when it is expected that many of the jobs that will be available in 10 years have not even been invented yet, then we have to ask relevant to what? Our degrees will be relevant solving the problems to the society we want to live in. To be relevant our graduates will need to be able to provide critique and challenge to the status quo, and take their place as true global citizens.

Vocationally inspired. Are we in danger of reducing higher education to the role of training students for the world of work? The evidence about the improved life chances of people who engage in HE shows that the gains are much broader than getting a job. We need to ensure that our students are employable, but that doesn’t just happen through awards that are vocationally inspired. If it did, then hardly anyone with a humanities degree would find work, But they do. Employers recognise that these students are able to study and engage in critical debate at a high level and have spent a number of years working with others who are clever and engaged – just the kind of people that employers want. We need to avoid dangerously reinforcing to the outside world that we are just a part of the process of producing workers for employers. As an institutional do we want to subscribe to the idea that the degree has become a transaction – you pay us £9000 a year, and you’ll get a better job because of it? We know that HE is transformational and not just a simple transaction.

The vandals seem to be at the gates, and perhaps understandably so after a long economic depression where utility has become the most sought after prize, but this is the time that we need to reiterate what we stand for. We are, and always will be, modern, relevant and vocationally inspired – we need to explore the full range of what these things mean, and looking at our definitions of gradate attributes we can see how we can start to create a broader definition for success as one of our graduates.
(note – this is acting as a working draft of a paper on Transaction vs Transformation)

4 thoughts on “Transaction or Transformation

  1. Nice piece MGH. I sometimes wonder if we mistakenly still think of HE and employability in a dicotymous way;

    20 years ago, Pre employability, pre fees with non vocational courses, no fees a grant to learn and learning for the sake of learning
    Now, Post fees, £9k fees with students demanding a 2/1 and a vocation is a must.

    This dicotymouse, historical view is too simple.

    A university degree (actually a university experience) in itself develops employability skills. On the whole Graduates are better at reading, writing, communicating, analysing, articulating , presenting than those who have not read for a degree and better at these things upon graduation than they were as a fresher.

    Higher Education is transformational. We change peoples lives. It is also transaction as well, although not a transaction without strings. You may pay your nine grand but this buys you the right to engage and a great student learning experience. It does not buy you the right to a degree and a job at the end…

  2. Don’t often agree with everything you say Mike. But this is spot on. How do we get that conversation going across the university?

  3. My point entirely, but we mustn’t be driven into thinking in a reductionist view, and need to “speak truth unto power”

  4. I’d be disappointed if people agreed with everything I said- that would defeat the purpose of us being a university, where we search for shared truths through debate, discourse and enagagement. As to how do we get the conversattion going- well this is just a start- we all need to focus more on these big issues not the hygeine factors of, say, car parking!

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