Friday, June 24, 2011

Reinventing higher education for a networked age

Here is part one of some notes to accompany a talk I gave this afternoon at the UWS learning and teaching conference. All that follows, the presentation and the notes, is  'work in progress' thinking, feeding into a wider project on 'network pedagogies' that I hope will see the light of day as a book within the next 18 months. It may also make a more practical appearance as an interactive project in cyberspace.
The debate about the value, purpose and function of higher education is old. It's as old as the idea of a university itself, which has always been contested and politicised. As individual academics and students working in and around these institutions, we are caught in the cross-currents of long historical and philosophical debates. A wonderfully informative In Our Time programme about the formation of the medieval university describes the ways in which approximately ‘self governing’ communities of scholars set about negotiating a role for what was to become ‘higher education’ between church, state, guilds, city authorities and other rich and powerful patrons. Towards the end of the programme Miri Rubin draws attention to the  relevance of the 'early modern' synthesis that some Italian universities managed to achieve in curriculum development that balanced ‘classical’ and more contemporary, applied knowledge, informed by a particular set of civic traditions: "The Italians, in the late 14th century, because of this connection between the universities, scholarship, and the utility of the city state, ...[developed]... a more applied and sensible way of getting the teaching to match the needs of the polity." 

In this mangled, compressed and partial history of the university (which jumped over the humanist revolutions that led to the Renaissance, glossed over the Enlightenment, and which ignored the world outside western Europe) I particularly tried to emphasise these negotiations between universities and the communities that they live amongst - how they play out and how teaching and research is informed by different discourses of knowledge, of power, policy and economy. It’s also worth thinking about the etymology of the word  ‘universitas’ –  Latin for 'a whole',  a self-governing corporate body that, according to the participants of the In Our Time programme, was originally applied to the craft guilds. The term 'universitas' was then adopted by itinerant and fractious communities of scholars to define the project of creating the early centres of learning that have evolved into today's famous and iconic institutions. 

Somewhat perversely, I deliberately didn't make explicit reference in the talk to three key things that are happening in UK higher education right now:

i) The changing relationship between government and higher education, and the differences between the nations of the UK in how this is playing out

ii) The crisis of governance in higher education, the problems of ‘managerialism’ and how the current generation of argumentative academics respond to the advent of the corporate, competitive, globally ambitious university. Are they to be “communities of scholars” or  “knowledge entrepreneurs’? (or both/neither?)

iii) The wave of resistance/protest that opposes the assault on public funding for the arts and humanities, in which we are seeing a wholesale privatization of undergraduate programmes in the non-STEM subjects in England, stripping out direct public investment and support for arts and humanities from the fabric of the publicly funded university.  

Paradoxically, perhaps, as Francis Mckee recently remarked in a conversation about the arts, the less interest the government takes in the universities, the less the universities are likely to be interested in what the government thinks, particularly as funding is withdrawn. The less money on offer, the less relevant government (and other funders, such as research councils) become. Institutions will be forced to look elsewhere, which is clearly the intent of the English government – a policy that is likely to have bad consequences for democratizing access to higher education and social mobility. 

Current policy in England seems to represent the worst of both worlds. We have heavy-handed, restrictive, ideologically driven regulation and a ramping up of the rhetoric of markets/choice/performative league tables.  We have strict caps on home student numbers, a squeeze on the availability of public cash to support the work of the sector, and restrictions on how many international students can be recruited to make up losses. Tuition costs are entirely pushed onto the individual student, as a kind of mortgage on their future life prospects, although the state guarantees the debts (which, perversely pushes up the public deficit which the government claims to want to reduce: it would be cheaper just to give the universities the money). The idea of higher education in the arts/humanities as a public good, which has benefits for the wider polity/community/society, as well as the individual, is virtually abandoned.

In a sense this approach just takes market values to their logical conclusion - education is utterly commoditised, offered as a product for sale. The humanities are sent to the province of those who can afford to participate, which has profound consequences for democracy, identity and community. And the false hierarchy of the science/art divide (and to an extent the vocational/academic divide) is enshrined in public policy. This radically differential treatment of science and the arts represents an attack on the independence of universities and their ability to design and deliver a curriculum that is responsive, relevant and accessible. It's an approach which suggests a profound indifference in public policy to the nature of knowledge and innovation, the foundations of critical thinking, and the value and worth of the arts and humanities for all disciplines.  The aspiration to become a popular, comprehensive, democratic university  is replaced by a dogmatic insistence on strict hierarchies of status, 'mission groups' and 'research excellence', expressed through the separation of the critical from the vocational, the reflective from the practical, research from teaching, etc.

And what scarce public funds that remain are concentrated mainly on centres that are already well resourced, with no thought for the consequences for the sector as a whole, or the wider implications of rationing access to higher learning. Even in narrow 'economic competitiveness' terms this policy will be a disaster.

In Scotland the picture is somewhat different. We have little idea what the future funding framework for Scottish higher education will look like, but we do have a commitment from government to the maintenance of public funding for arts, humanities and science/technology, the acceptance of some principles of public value and access to HE regardless of 'ability to pay'. Nonetheless we have plenty of local tussles, demand for student places outstripping supply, and two high profile disputes at Glasgow and Strathclyde over proposals to remodel/reduce/remove aspects of arts and humanities education from institutions which have very particular and distinguished relationships to the traditions of arts and humanities scholarship: programmes which apparently appear arcane and alien to technocrats and businesspeople.

The other issue that I left out of my talk was any serious discussion about the dissolution of ‘knowledge hierarchies’ in education – of which there are at least two dimensions:

Firstly, there has been an explosion in the everyday and ubiquitous availability of learning resources, through search engines, web and pervasive media portals of all kinds – part of what Manuel Castells calls the informational society.  So the question for higher education becomes not so much how to teach students to gather information, or even to test ‘what’ they know, but more to develop their ability to select, judge, curate, control, transform – to do things, to act, to make -  with information and knowledge. In the convergent multimedia revolution driven by web technologies we can combine image, audio, text on screens and in spaces to generate new ways of communicating in hybrid digital/face-to-face forms.

This is why ‘creativity’ is such a persistent totem for the transformation of the educational environment in these early years of the 21st century, and the turn towards practice-based research is so significant.

Secondly, there has been a ‘performative turn’ in the way in which knowledge is conceptualized and applied and validated. To (lazily) quote (and adapt) an earlier blog:  What is  ‘performativity’? The phrase originates with Jean-Francois Lyotard’s 1979 report The Postmodern Condition: a report on knowledge. He argued that, with the breakdown of traditional forms of authority, the collapse of 19th century ‘grand narratives’, and the ending of a consensus that a cadre of elite, expert professionals could determine what counts as valid knowledge, (in part driven by the challenge to ‘normative’ knowledge mounted by the new social movements and by radical politics), instead the extent to which  knowledge valued depends upon it performs a function. In other words, the Strathclyde test of “useful learning” is brought to bear on all sorts of discourses and practices that sit within the academy. But there remains the question – useful to who? Under what circumstances? In what ways? There is a tendency for the test for utility to be framed by normalizing assumptions that reflect the desires of powerful interest groups and patrons, which push the idea of critical reflection – the desire to examine and change the status quo ante – out of the picture altogether.

On the other hand, it is perfectly clear that universities have to make strategic choices about what their priorities should be, in terms of curriculum, pedagogy, recruitment, research etc. And the speed with which ideas/initiatives circulate and complex concepts get packaged up as simplistic slogans like 'engagement', 'employability' and 'excellence' makes time for reflection and debate scarce and precious.

So, a number of variants of utilitarianism and functionalism drive many of the prevailing ideologies/discourses in higher education, and the friction seems to be most acute in places where strong ‘liberal arts’ traditions of philosophical/critical enquiry comes into conflict with a more applied, technologic and deterministic approach to educational outcomes.  This is also paradoxical, because as Stanley Fish points out in a recent New York Times article, the interdisciplinary space that much serious, cutting edge research now occupies represents a radical synthesis of the arts/sciences in which the humanities play a crucial role. There are hundreds of important (trans)disciplines such as cultural geography, bioethics, acoustic ecology, urban planning and so on. And it is these transdisciplinary conversations that are more likely to generate sustainable solutions to some of the intractable problems that face the world.

I am always amazed at the institutional persistence of static, reified, bounded understandings of knowledge construction, which as Nigel Thrift points out in Afterwords,  completely fail to account for the ‘becoming’ and ‘emergent’ state of the world…”the world is a making, it is processual, it is in action, it is ‘all that is present and moving. There is no last word, only infinite becoming and constant reactivation.” Examined from a Foucauldian perspective, institutions exist in order to erect boundaries, to discipline, police and control knowledge and behaviour. But they remain negotiated spaces, particularly in the liquid, slippery, porous spaces of the ‘cloud’.

And there is a powerful countercultural tradition of autonomous protest, dissent, projects, demonstrations and occupations to challenge the hierarchical, static, bureaucratic conception of the world that the university-as-factory metaphor represents. Two well documented examples that I particularly like (but plenty of others could be chosen and represented) are the Hornsey College of Art occupations of 1968 and the Copenhagen Free University (2001 - 2007). Add to this the playful and constructive approach of the 'hacker ethic', the open source movement and (dis)organised, networked sociality and there is a potent mix to push institutions towards a paradigm shift.
The slippery cloud world of porous institutions also generates and constructs new forms of social identity and professional subjectivity. Our main communities of practice don't principally reside within the institutions that we work in - they are broader and wider. The internationalization of the university and the ways in which we can collaborate across time and space (assuming we have time and space…which is often not a given...) offer massive opportunities. But they can also create precarious and unsettling, risky situations in terms of economic survival and integrity. In working across networks of practices – constructing particular kinds of subjectivities in different situations -  students are learning about how to manage their public profile and learning intercultural/dialogical skills, which is particularly important in an informational economy. The growth of blogging academic communities offers the chance of putting work out there for scrutiny and feedback (that is, if anyone’s watching/listening/reading/paying attention….) without necessarily engaging in the formality of a 'peer review' process and high-stakes publication. The blogosphere can also give lazy thinking and provisional/unverified knowledge (and shameless self-promotion, and easy plagiarism) more amplification than perhaps it deserves, but that's another story...

I could go on (and on…), but that’s (more than) enough for now: in another post I’ll write a bit more about emerging tools, platforms, projects, and communities that respond to some of these issues. And I ought to tackle those questions of power, money, markets and hierarchies a bit more thoroughly too.