Rip-off U?

The ad­vance of the ‘edus­cep­tics’

THE (Times Higher Education) - - FRONT PAGE - Philip Cowan is a se­nior lec­turer in jour­nal­ism at the Univer­sity of Hert­ford­shire.

Higher ed­u­ca­tion is a scam. Ad­min­is­tra­tors run uni­ver­si­ties for profit and care lit­tle for stan­dards. Stu­dents don’t learn any­thing, don’t get good jobs and end up in debt poverty. Wel­come to the world of the edus­cep­tic, where we, my fel­low aca­demics, are the rip-off mer­chants of the age.

A slew of books, blogs, news­pa­per ar­ti­cles and doc­u­men­taries in re­cent years have ques­tioned the value of higher ed­u­ca­tion in the US and the UK. Th­ese crit­i­cisms have largely been ig­nored by the acad­emy, but, like the Euroscep­tics, this vo­cal (al­though dis­parate) group of crit­ics has started mak­ing a se­ri­ous im­pact – in the UK in par­tic­u­lar.

Even the prime min­is­ter has got in on the act. An­nounc­ing a re­view of higher ed­u­ca­tion fund­ing at the Con­ser­va­tive Party con­fer­ence last month, Theresa May noted that stu­dents in Eng­land “take on a huge amount of debt… and if we are honest, some don’t know what they get…in re­turn”. And since the sum­mer, for­mer Labour ed­u­ca­tion min­is­ter Lord Ado­nis has been bash­ing uni­ver­si­ties not just for over­pay­ing their vice-chan­cel­lors but also for (al­legedly) giv­ing aca­demics long hol­i­days and for run­ning a “car­tel” on tu­ition fees. Mean­while, in his in­au­gu­ral news­pa­per col­umn, pub­lished in Au­gust, May’s for­mer chief ad­viser, Nick Ti­mothy, called English higher ed­u­ca­tion a “gravy train” and a “point­less Ponzi scheme” that is “blight­ing young peo­ple’s fu­tures”. His out­burst earned him a front-page head­line.

Ti­mothy is by no means the first to sug­gest that aca­demics are small-time (or even

big-time) Bernie Mad­offs. The Ponzi scheme jibe hit home to me per­son­ally when I was at a re­cent con­fer­ence for jour­nal­ism ed­u­ca­tors. My for­mer tu­tor, Jenny McKay, was be­ing hon­oured for all her great work in higher ed­u­ca­tion (stretch­ing back to…well, a good while any­way). I had paid for my post­grad­u­ate course with a bank loan, and I couldn’t help but ask my­self whether I, as a lec­turer, was now mak­ing up my losses in this scam by suck­er­ing in the young and naive.

One of the more el­e­gant, per­sonal and poignant crit­i­cisms of higher ed­u­ca­tion in the US comes from the self-styled “Pro­fes­sor X”. He (we pre­sume he is male – al­though it might just be a ruse to shake us off the scent) is a part-time pro­fes­sor at un­spec­i­fied pri­vate and com­mu­nity col­leges in the coun­try’s north-east. In an es­say in The At­lantic mag­a­zine – later de­vel­oped into a 2011 book called In the Base­ment of the Ivory Tower – he tells the tale of a civil ser­vant who bought a house be­yond his means and turned to teach­ing in the evening to make up the fi­nan­cial dif­fer­ence.

Dispir­ited, dis­ap­pointed, but at least hu­moured by what he en­coun­ters, he paints a Hog­a­rthian por­trait of strug­gling and un­in­ter­ested stu­dents em­bark­ing on an ed­u­ca­tion that re­lates lit­tle to their dif­fi­cult and of­ten im­pov­er­ished lives. As a writ­ing in­struc­tor, he is full of the joys of reading and writ­ing, but is frus­trated that his stu­dents are sim­ply not ready for higher ed­u­ca­tion.

What is best about In the Base­ment is that its au­thor is gen­uinely nu­anced. He loves his sub­ject, and he loves teach­ing; he just finds it hard to pass stu­dents who read so lit­tle and who haven’t mas­tered the ba­sics of gram­mar and spell­ing. The fi­nal plea­sure for in­struc­tors – of see­ing their stu­dents grasp what they have been taught and put it into prac­tice – is too of­ten de­nied to them, Pro­fes­sor X reports.

Some of this rings true to me, from my emo­tion­ally scar­ring years teach­ing in UK fur­ther ed­u­ca­tion. In that sec­tor, there was a sim­i­lar fo­cus on re­ten­tion and on dis­pens­ing pa­per grades ir­re­spec­tive of ac­tual learn­ing. And that com­bined with the lowly sta­tus of lec­tur­ers to gen­er­ate ab­ject cyn­i­cism among teach­ing staff.

Per­haps stan­dards have since im­proved, but, less than a decade ago, ex­ter­nal scru­tiny of BTEC course­work was neg­li­gi­ble – and for many, if not most, of th­ese pro­fes­sional qual­i­fi­ca­tions, course­work was all there is in terms of as­sess­ment. Dozens of stu­dents each pro­duced 18 port­fo­lios (one per mod­ule) over the course of two years, yet fewer than 10 of those needed to be put for­ward for ex­ter­nal ex­am­i­na­tion – and even those were cho­sen in ad­vance. The ex­am­iner would not speak to the stu­dents or ask to see any other work. It was sim­ply taken on trust that the teacher would put for­ward work that re­flected the stu­dents’ true knowl­edge of the sub­ject. But of course, if you have a col­lege prin­ci­pal wait­ing in his of­fice to fire you, de­mote you or ban­ish you to some god­for­saken cor­ner of the cam­pus, no tu­tor in their right mind is go­ing to let all their stu­dents get any­thing less than straight dis­tinc­tions.

This is the point that the self-styled “Pro­fes­sor Doom” presses home again and again in his 2013 book, Why Johnny Can’t Read, Write, or Do ’Rith­metic Even with a Col­lege De­gree: An Ac­count of the Fraud of Higher Ed­u­ca­tion, and his blog, Confessions of a Col­lege Pro­fes­sor. Along with is­sues of free speech and the en­croach­ing power of “ad­min­is­tra­tors” in the US, Doom is de­spon­dent about grade in­fla­tion. The Louisiana in­struc­tor in math­e­mat­ics sees a con­spir­a­to­rial col­lu­sion be­tween col­leges and the gov­ern­ment to feed a sys­tem with debt that ul­ti­mately im­pov­er­ishes many of the stu­dents who take it on while leav­ing them with a val­ue­less de­gree. In the pro­fes­sor’s mind, this is a clas­sic bait-and-switch. After promis­ing an ed­u­ca­tion that will more than pay for it­self, the col­leges sub­sti­tute for gen­uine teach­ing a cur­ricu­lum and as­sess­ment process that can eas­ily be passed – re­sult­ing in low learn­ing and no in­crease in saleable skills.

In Why Johnny Can’t Read…, Doom pin­points the root of the prob­lem: “You re­ally do have to push a lit­tle to move peo­ple ahead, and some will push back…If an ad­min­is­tra­tor sees no­body push­ing back, that should raise ques­tions, at least if ad­min­is­tra­tive goals were about ed­u­ca­tion, in­stead of re­ten­tion. An ed­u­ca­tor that is loved by all his stu­dents and never chal­lenges them is as likely to ed­u­cate stu­dents as a gen­tle drill in­struc­tor is to take raw re­cruits and turn them into elite sol­diers with­out chal­leng­ing them.”

The edus­cep­tics’ bible is 2010’s much-cited study of un­der­grad­u­ate learn­ing by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, Aca­dem­i­cally Adrift. The essence of the book’s ar­gu­ment is that al­most half of US higher ed­u­ca­tion stu­dents do not im­prove their crit­i­cal think­ing or writ­ing skills after two years of study. Arum, now dean of the School of Ed­u­ca­tion at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Irvine, is em­phatic that it is a mis­read­ing of the book to use it to ques­tion whether higher ed­u­ca­tion is worth­while. “Higher ed­u­ca­tion de­grees are ex­traor­di­nar­ily valu­able in terms of im­prov­ing a wide va­ri­ety of in­di­vid­ual life course out­comes, in­clud­ing labour mar­ket out­comes, mar­riage mar­ket out­comes and health out­comes,” he tells me. “We should en­cour­age more stu­dents to go to col­lege, but we also need to en­cour­age col­leges to do a bet­ter job of in­ten­tion­ally de­sign­ing pro­grammes to im­prove stu­dent learn­ing.”

Still, Aca­dem­i­cally Adrift is fre­quently pre­sented as ab­so­lute proof that there is some­thing rot­ten in the state of higher ed­u­ca­tion.

Other books in the edus­cep­tic genre typ­i­cally bear much more apoc­a­lyp­tic ti­tles. A case in point is Emory Univer­sity English pro­fes­sor Mark Bauer­lein’s 2009 polemic The Dumb­est Gen­er­a­tion: How the Dig­i­tal Age Stu­pe­fies Young Amer­i­cans and Jeop­ar­dizes Our Fu­ture (Or, Don’t Trust Any­one un­der 30), which ba­si­cally amounts to a list of study after study show­ing that young peo­ple don’t read much. Fail U: The False Prom­ise of Higher Ed­u­ca­tion, pub­lished last year, also burns with in­dig­na­tion at the whole US sys­tem, and is just the lat­est in a se­ries of books from con­ser­va­tive po­lit­i­cal com­men­ta­tor Charles J. Sykes that take a bite out of academia. Pre­vi­ous of­fer­ings

Aren’t we faced, yet again, with that old ‘golden age’ chest­nut? The one that goes: ‘It used to all be good, but now we are head­ing to hell in a hand­cart’

in­clude ProfS­cam: Pro­fes­sors and the Demise of Higher Ed­u­ca­tion (1988) and The Hol­low Men: Pol­i­tics and Cor­rup­tion in Higher Ed­u­ca­tion (1990). With such bile be­ing poured out, one won­ders if univer­sity lead­ers should not per­haps hire body­guards.

The Bri­tish, too, have their edus­cep­tics. In 2013, Christo­pher Giles, then still a stu­dent at the Univer­sity of Bris­tol, wrote a piece for The Daily Tele­graph ad­vis­ing those who had just re­ceived their A-level re­sults that “if you aren’t go­ing to a Rus­sell Group univer­sity or oth­er­wise re­spected in­sti­tu­tion, for­get about it al­to­gether. Life is about mak­ing the right in­vest­ments and univer­sity is pretty big one. It has to be worth ev­ery penny.” In the same ar­ti­cle, he claims that “the stigma at­tached to hav­ing a weak de­gree could be worse than not hav­ing one at all”.

Un­sur­pris­ingly, the re­ac­tion was fierce. One Univer­sity of Sun­der­land grad­u­ate wrote in the on­line com­ments: “I can safely say you are sorely mis­taken. Since grad­u­at­ing last year with a 2:1, I have worked for some of the most pres­ti­gious fash­ion brands in the world, in­clud­ing Chanel. I am now go­ing on to study my mas­ter’s de­gree at the Univer­sity of St An­drews. The ma­jor­ity of those who were on my course are also now do­ing in­cred­i­bly well.”

A strong, per­sonal re­but­tal, but news­pa­pers con­tinue to print sweep­ing crit­i­cisms of the en­tire univer­sity sys­tem. In July, in the wake of the Labour Party’s pop­u­lar gen­eral elec­tion cam­paign pledge to abol­ish English tu­ition fees, Times colum­nist Melanie Phillips pre­empted Ti­mothy’s charge by also claim­ing that “the whole of higher ed­u­ca­tion has be­come one gi­ant Ponzi scheme…Young peo­ple have been led up the gar­den path and are then hav­ing to pay through the nose for the priv­i­lege”.

Maybe such col­umns are sim­ply a sign of a broader scep­ti­cism about higher ed­u­ca­tion that has been run­ning through UK jour­nal­ism (which never used to be a grad­u­ate pro­fes­sion) for many years. In 2011, Kelvin MacKenzie, the for­mer ed­i­tor of top-sell­ing tabloid The Sun, told XCity, a stu­dent mag­a­zine at City, Univer­sity of Lon­don, that jour­nal­ism univer­sity cour­ses were a waste of time and money (the re­marks were deemed im­por­tant enough to be reprinted in The In­de­pen­dent).

“There’s noth­ing you can learn in three years study­ing me­dia at univer­sity that you can’t learn in just one month on a lo­cal pa­per,” MacKenzie as­serted. “Univer­sity may be en­joy­able: you make friends, drink a lot and oc­ca­sion­ally turn up to lec­tures, but you don’t need any of those things to be a jour­nal­ist.”

There is, how­ever, the small is­sue of learn­ing the dif­fer­ence be­tween fact and fic­tion, and the need to check whether a claim bears any re­sem­blance to re­al­ity – a les­son that, per­haps, could have saved MacKenzie from dis­grace at least twice. (He was re­cently sacked as a Sun colum­nist after com­par­ing a mixed-race foot­baller to a go­rilla; in a later apol­ogy, he claimed that he had been un­aware of the foot­baller’s “her­itage”.) How­ever, fact-check­ing is not some­thing that is on the Kelvin MacKenzie School of Life cur­ricu­lum: “Some sto­ries are too good to check,” he once told a BBC doc­u­men­tary.

The pic­ture is clearly not all black-and­white. I agree that if some de­grees in the cre­ative arts and the me­dia (and as a jour­nal­ism lec­turer, I am acutely aware of this) do not “pay their way” by open­ing up a ca­reer path in which grad­u­ates can repay their stu­dent debt, then there is some­thing amiss. The ethics of £100 bil­lion (and ris­ing) of stu­dent debt in Eng­land can­not be de­bated in iso­la­tion from the other is­sues fac­ing higher ed­u­ca­tion, such as grad­u­ate em­ploy­ment and wage lev­els, and the qual­ity of teach­ing and learn­ing. In that sense, May’s fund­ing re­view is over­due.

But wait. Aren’t we faced, yet again, with that old “golden age” chest­nut? The one that goes: “It used to all be good, but now we are head­ing to hell in a hand­cart.” I am old enough to have been an un­der­grad­u­ate in the fee-free 1980s. I grad­u­ated with a de­gree in phi­los­o­phy and (even­tu­ally) went into the Civil Ser­vice. That turned out not to be for me, and, now need­ing a bank loan, I re­turned to univer­sity life in the early 1990s to study jour­nal­ism un­der Jenny. So, old as I am, I can still feel the anx­i­ety of to­day’s stu­dents. But I also sus­pect that their fears are just that: fears.

In his col­umn, Ti­mothy re­counts a tale of hav­ing his hair cut by a Southamp­ton So­lent Univer­sity grad­u­ate in foot­ball stud­ies: “I doubted whether he thought his qual­i­fi­ca­tion was worth the debt he will carry as a mill­stone around his neck for 30 years.” Well, a few years after grad­u­at­ing with my jour­nal­ism qual­i­fi­ca­tion, I went back to the univer­sity where I had learned my new trade and saw on the wall a list of for­mer stu­dents in­di­cat­ing where they were now. Nearly ev­ery­one was work­ing in their cho­sen pro­fes­sion.

Of course, things might be tougher now, but LinkedIn tells me all about for­mer stu­dents who are do­ing well. And while things may be tough for many oth­ers, who are silent on so­cial me­dia, the ab­so­lute pes­simism of the edus­cep­tic just seems to me wil­fully blind to the many suc­cesses of higher ed­u­ca­tion. A lit­tle bal­ance, folks, please.

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