The consensus is that Higher Education is broken, which is strange, because we are seeing an unprecedented rise of Higher Education. Every year, more and more people want to go to college, new institutions get set up, more graduates come out, more research money becomes available and more media coverage, measured in column inches, gets dedicated to Higher Education. The only thing that is going down is how much the Governments spend on Higher Education, but that is at the back of the general demise of the welfare state and the currently dominating view that Higher Education is primarily a 'private good', that it makes its recipients richer, and therefore should remain in the realm of private enterprise. This growing demand and shifting structure allows us a view of a sector in motion, where, with us as witness, the structure and the processes may all change, along with the attendant relationships, world views and what it actually does.
So, here is my hypothesis: Commercialisation of Higher Education will also lead to its fragmentation into various constituent functions. The modern universities are complex institutions, perhaps too complex, for when higher education becomes solely a private good, the current form of the universities will not be able to deliver 'value for money'. In the drive for efficiencies, which invariably follow the ascendancy of private purpose, the complex and nuanced relationships that sustain an university will have to give way to a more formal, 'results driven', structure. And, in turn, that structure will lead to dis-aggregation of various functions of a modern university, like Research, Teaching, Content Production, Credentialing, Student Services etc. We already see some of it: A number of mini-industries, university preparation, textbook services, open courseware, certification services, course franchising, new lifeforms preceding the full-fledged disaggregation, have started gathering momentum. The research activities of the universities, facilitated by the triple helix of government-industry-academia collaboration but transformed by the industry-sponsored research, are being transformed to become results driven rather than pure research: The search for useful research has already began in the media.
One way of looking at this is that this is the spirit of the age, this is what is happening all around us. The student-as-consumer in the classroom demands that the university studies become more meaningful and the taxpayer demands more bang for her buck from the institutions. However, there is very little research and evidence that the modern student is really any different from the ones in previous generations. Yes, they study less hours on an average, but they have to work for more hours to sustain the increased tuition fees and living costs. They keep coming to the university when better jobs are increasingly rare. They see the university as a way to make a better life, not just match their parents' achievements but exceed it, but that is not necessarily just a financial goal.
I see that the gift economy, the one of free exchange and community, that sat at the heart of an university is being actively replaced by a market system, because the nature of the knowledge is changing from an open commons underneath private enterprise to a form of private property, which is to be used for profit purposes. This means that the universities, the fountainheads of secular knowledge, must move to private sponsorship and ownership, and they should become factories of production of the modern workers. And, since it is politically difficult to create a visible two-tier university system, one for those who own the property and one for those who produce it, the system must be disaggregated and made invisible, so that most university students concern themselves with only one part of the activity, just the certification, say, without any visibility of the process of knowledge creation and ownership.
This transformation indeed means a number of changes in the relationships that surround it. The rise of the research professor has already been well researched. The demise of great teaching causes a lot of angst, but the goalposts have possibly moved. The students' alienation, that they have actually lost the plot inside an increasingly complex and obscure institution, is noted but generally ignored, as this is seen as an extension of life in general and not as a function of the institutional transformation. On the whole, the nature of knowledge, how it is produced and how it is owned and used, is the key contention, and the market economy is pushing its boundaries all the time and transforming the nature of the universities.
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