{teaching} Getting a Free PhD in Life: A comment on The Economist


Image licensed under Creative Commons by Jared Klett; the quote from Seth Godin’s blog post from 2009.

It has been long time coming, already.

Screen shot 2014-06-27 at 7.00.57 PMThis week’s the Economist is dedicated to the future of the universities. The arguments are loud echoes of the debates of the past years. The business model of universities doesn’t work any longer. The biggest losers will be those middle-tier institutions that educate public administrators, teachers, and so on. The MOOCs will have a part in disrupting the scene by providing a cost-effective alternative. However, at least at the moment MOOCs are not necessarily excelling in pedagogical solutions (and they invite cheating), neither are they necessarily independently sustainable, nor do they offer same networking — social capital — opportunities than real-life higher ed institutions.

Ok, that we know.

A couple of additional thoughts come to mind. They are by no means original, but a compilation of conversations that have circulated around this issue.

1. Is the university failing merely as a business model?

The classic idea of a university is to educate, research, and serve the public.

The crisis that the Economist discusses is distinctly the crisis of the more vocation/profession-oriented, teaching-focused part of the system. University education as a doorway to a well-paying job is a myth, and the cost of the university services are getting too high for the clients.

At the same time, as the genre of ‘Why I left the Academia‘ essays depict, the educators are more and more pressured and less and less supported. Even in professional studies, research fuels interesting and innovative thinking.

And: How well do universities engage with the surrounding world? How do they help in solving urgent social/economic/political challenges? How quickly can they react? And how often do they hide behind the mask of objectivity — and shun away from ‘engaged scholarship’?

So: What comes first? The financial aspects of the crisis or the lessening quality of higher ed, because?

2. Is ‘democratization of education’, noted by the Economist, actually a myth?Surely more students have access to ‘higher ed’ than ever before, but as hinted in the aforementioned article, the elite Oxfords and Harvards will remain so, and flourish. Community colleges will suffer. The corporatization of education and the tyranny of rankings seems to increasingly define the haves and the have-nots. The knowledge factories (the term coined by Stanley Aronowitz) can be high-tech and productive, or with broken equipment.

3. Online pedagogy is getting, and will get better. And our online lives/practices that are changing other realms of our lives will change the way we learn, too. I’m not an advocate of MOOCs as such, but a realist: All online/mobile-based services have been improved, as long as there has been a demand for them.

4. (Structural) globalization of education is diminishing diversity and creative thinking. Having moved to the States from Finland, and having finished my degrees according to the Northern European system, I had a hard time at first grasping the Anglo-American undergraduate-graduate-doctoral system. I studied in an environment where a university is automatically focused on scholarly pursuits and research — so much so, that I remember some students in my field (communication) complaining about the lack of practical courses and workshops. Even my Master’s in business communications, included hard core linguistic courses — and for the matter, every student of the Helsinki School of Economics had to write a research-based Master’s Thesis. For a more practical careers, there were other institutions, with more compact curricula, and often with learning-on-the-job possibilities.

I know that with the Bologna Process of the EU, (Northern) European universities have adopted some features of the Anglo-US-system.

This long explanation just to illustrate why I was somewhat puzzled by the U.S. system, at first. And here I simply describe the difference between American and Northern European systems.

I don’t say one system is better than the other, but the standardization is troubling to me. Any structure always reflects, to an extent, the ways of understanding the world, and the ways of valuing it.

2014-06-22 06.45.39When the Anglo-US system, its principles, its values becomes a global standard (exported everywhere especially by divisions of US universities) — and when that is the very system that is in the most in trouble — what happens? Will we lose alternative ways of learning and understanding knowledge, to a system that is about to be dismantled?

But, yes: 5. I do believe that right now things are in flux, and perhaps there is even a‘War on Learning’ ongoing. I just finished the brilliant — and entertaining — book by that name, by Elizabeth Losh. Can’t wait to review it. Stay tuned.