Behind the Scenes: Education is Not the Silver Bullet
Behind the Scenes: Education is Not the Silver Bullet
Mary Richardson discusses the A-Levels examination debacle caused by Covid-19.
Today we talk about the complexities of private higher education worldwide and how some private universities and colleges responded to and have been impacted by the coronavirus.
The COVID-19 pandemic has upended higher education internationalization. Many universities are worried the pandemic will cause a huge drop in international student enrollment and their associated fees, which account for a large part of many university budgets.
What role does higher education play in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals?
My guest today is Tristan McCowan, author of the new book entitled Higher Education for and beyond the Sustainable Development Goals, which was published earlier this year. Tristan interrogates the idea of a so-called developmental university working towards the SGDs, identifying both positive and negative outcomes.
Tristan McCowan is a Professor of International Education at the Institute of Education, University College London. I spoke with Tristan in his office in London, which just so happens to be around the corner from mine. This is actually the first podcast that I’ve recorded at my new intuitional home at the Institute of Education. There’s a lot more to say about the future of FreshEd now that I live in London, but I’m going to wait until next year to tell you all about it. For now, enjoy our latest episode and stay tuned for our end of year show with Susan Robertson and Roger Dale, which will air next week.
Citation: McCowan, Tristan, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 184, podcast audio, December 9, 2019. https://freshedpodcast.com/mccowan/
Will Brehm 1:39
Tristan McCowan, welcome to FreshEd.
Tristan McCowan 1:41
Thanks, Will. It is a great pleasure to be here.
Will Brehm 1:43
So, I want to start by talking a little bit about the SDGs, but specifically about higher education because this is something that might not get talked about as much as primary or secondary schooling. So where in the SDGs – in the Sustainable Development Goals – is higher education even mentioned?
Tristan McCowan 2:02
So, I think it is worth thinking about what comes before the SDGs to talk about how it does appear. And in the Millennium Development Goals that came before, there was a conspicuous absence of higher education there. So, the education goal was around primary education. I suppose higher education might be included in the requirement for gender equality that was also there, but it was absent in the education goal. And this was also indicative of a general neglect of higher education in the development community for some decades before. So, the inclusion of higher education in the SDGs marks something of a return – a rekindling of interest – in higher education generally in development. And there was a lot of discussion in the consultation around the creation of what was going to replace the MDGs about how higher education might be included in that. In the SDGs themselves, the most obvious inclusion of higher education is in how it appears as a target in itself. It appears along with vocational education, tertiary education, and a specific mention of university. So that is the access goal. It is not very demanding, in my view. It doesn’t require universal access or anything resembling that. What it requires is equal access, which, as we know from international law, is really around nondiscrimination. It is an important requirement, but it is not very demanding on this. But nevertheless, it is there. And I think it is very important that universities mentioned in terms of access, getting people into university or some form of higher education. But that is not the only way that it appears in the SDG. In the book, I distinguish between three different ways that it appears. So, there is that first one we have talked about, which is access, and then two others. The second is as part of the education system as a whole. And this relates to one of your previous podcasts that was talking about SDG 4.7 and the overarching aims of education in terms of promoting global citizenship, sustainable development itself. So higher education fits into that. It is part of the education system. And it might promote a lot of the goals that we would like to see in society. The third role for higher education is the one that the book focuses on mainly, and that is higher education as a driver for all of the goals. So, every one of the 17 goals in all different areas: environmental, health, poverty, and so forth require to some degree on universities in the broadest possible way, through its teaching, but also its research and community engagement and all of its functions.
Will Brehm 4:45
So I mean, in a way, what you’re saying is that universities have this massive role to play in the SDGs not simply as access not simply as being part of the education system to meet some of these very lofty goals of 4.7, which, as the previous podcasts have shown are very sort of diverse and complex ideas. But more importantly, and perhaps most importantly, this idea of higher education as being a driver of development. So, this is a pretty large role for education, for higher education. Can universities actually even fulfill this role, do you think?
Tristan McCowan 5:24
I think my answer to that is yes, but perhaps not in the way that might immediately be imagined. So, I think the potential of universities is extraordinary. And one of the arguments that I try to make in all different kinds of fora is that universities are essential for all countries and not just for the wealthy countries that we might imagine might afford it. Universities aren’t luxury; they are critical part of all countries, however impoverished they might be, however many challenges they might face. In fact, we might think of as being especially important in those. The teaching role of universities is crucial for forming professionals in a whole range of different areas, including the kinds of primary services that were focused on in the MDGs, but also in the SDGs, around education, health, and so forth. There is a much broader teaching role of universities as well for civic and personal benefits. There is the research role of universities, breakthroughs in health, the environment, all sorts of areas in which there are huge challenges facing humanity. And then the community engagement role where universities can apply that knowledge and also engage with the knowledge that communities have. So, the potential of universities is extraordinary. Whether they can fulfill that is a different matter, and that does depend on the level of quality that universities have, the resourcing that they have, how they are organized, the kinds of autonomy they have. So, it is not guaranteed. And I think, you know, the empirical research that we have… and we have fairly good research on some countries, less good on others. The research we have shows that they are sometimes able to do that. Sometimes they are able to do that in ways that we hadn’t actually imagined. In others, they struggle to. It is worth pointing out that in low-income countries, universities have roles that are not present in higher-income countries as providers of basic services often. So, communities will often use universities because they don’t have other spaces for meeting, for, you know, cultural pursuits. Even for things as basic as Internet access, and so forth. So, universities can play a really crucial role in all countries. The final point I’d make is that the role of universities as a driver perhaps is not as automatic or guaranteed as we might imagine, even when we might consider that to be a quality university. And that is because there is a level of unpredictability to all processes of learning and scholarship.
Will Brehm 8:01
So, what do you mean? Is there a downside, sometimes, to higher education?
Tristan McCowan 8:06
There certainly can be a downside. I mean, universities have not always had positive impacts on their societies through history. One of the downsides is in exacerbating inequalities in societies. So, while universities can certainly act as mechanisms for social mobility, they can also do the opposite. And in many points in history where access has been restricted to an elite, or for particular religious or language groups, or just for men, for example, it has actually made things worse rather than make things better. So, there is that element. Also, universities have been implicated in fostering of prejudice and xenophobia as all parts of the education system.
Will Brehm 8:51
Right. Okay. So you’re sort of taking this complex view, whether it’s good and bad, the development is not always this positive linear idea but can have a complex multitude of outcomes as a result of work in higher education, or any sector, I would imagine in education more broadly defined. So, I guess when we think about the university, what you are sort of saying is that not all universities are the same. There is a lot of potential in higher education, but what actually happens looks different in different contexts; the cultural context, the national context, whatever it is. So, when you think historically, then, how can we make sense of, you know, different types of universities? You know, maybe ideal types, not necessarily what actually exists. How can we start categorizing different types of universities?
Tristan McCowan 9:48
Thanks. It is a really important question, and one that’s not posed often enough, I think. And it is worth saying at the start that what we are seeing now across the world in higher education is much less diversity than there might have been. Historically there have been models of higher learning in many parts of the world – in India and China, in the Islamic world, in Mesoamerica. Other places as well that have been quite distinct. And many of those have been lost. In fact, most of them have been lost through history. We’ve seen a dominance of the European model of university from medieval Europe, which in its spreading around the world has gained new forms of diversity, but perhaps not as much as we might have wanted and still rooted in some very similar assumptions. So, there is a degree of homogeneity around the world, but what I argue is that universities have a kind of a mixing of different historical models within them. And as you say, they are partly ideal types and partly real historically. So, you have got the medieval institution, which was a community of scholars, a community of students, engaging and debate over authoritative texts. You have the Humboldtian model that emerges in the 19th century of the research university on the pursuit of truth and academic freedom and so forth. You have then got drives towards greater relevance of the university to society, and the land grant universities in the United States were very influential in this regard. Also moves in Latin America in the early 20th century towards democratization of the university space. And leading to what in Africa in the post Second World War period was called the “developmental university,” one that is tied very much to service to society. And then most recently, the emergence of the entrepreneurial or the enterprise university, one which is focused on income generation through selling of its services. So, we have got these different models, and I think we can see them all in our institutions. In some, you know, the entrepreneurial model is dominant. In others, we might see, you know, more of the Humboldtian model, but jostling for space, and of course, in the different actors that are engaged as well.
Will Brehm 12:07
You are thinking through this developmental university because it sort of links in with the SDGs. So, in what way do you see the developmental university? How do we think about that university, that type of university, if it truly does do service to society in the ideal that is written in the SDGs?
Tristan McCowan 12:31
Yeah, I mean I think if you look at the role that’s proposed for universities, it is something close to the developmental model: a university that has as its primary purpose serving society in an egalitarian mode, or perhaps beyond the egalitarian, actually focusing primarily on the most disadvantaged populations. By privileging those populations, reducing poverty and so forth, and dealing to a large extent with applied knowledge and an impact on nonacademic communities. And there is something of a contradiction there between the kinds of higher education that are promoted by many of the international agencies, which in many ways actually undermine that kind of developmental role of universities.
Will Brehm 13:13
Tristan McCowan 13:15
Particularly through a promotion of expansion at all costs. Now, there is a real need for expanding higher education. Access has grown rapidly over the last 20 years. But much of the expansion has taken place in very commercialized, for-profit sectors of higher education, or sometimes distance education with low quality, which has, while it has allowed more people to gain higher education diplomas, it has not necessarily allowed them the learning that will be meaningful in their lives, and certainly hasn’t promoted research and community engagement in the public interest. So, there have been dynamics in the growth of higher education sectors, which have brought some benefit for individuals, but without much of a contribution to the public good.
Will Brehm 14:04
So, given this sort of “massification” of higher education and how that might begin to challenge some of the value and the functions of the university, what sort of trends have you noticed worldwide? You know, let’s take a broad view here. Broadly speaking, what sort of major trends do you see in higher education today?
Tristan McCowan 14:24
Well, one of them I have touched on already, which is the move towards commercialization. Which is present in the astounding growth of the for-profit sector. And that is very evident in one of the countries that I work very closely with, which is Brazil, but you can also see it in many other parts of the world. But also, of course, there is a commercialization of public institutions through so-called cost-sharing policies, the charging of fees, and other forms of creeping privatization. Now commercialization is a term that encompasses a whole range of different activities which have different kinds of influence. And it is certainly, in an immediate sense, has assisted in allowing higher education systems to grow. So, it is complex. But if we are thinking about the SDGs, or about the public good more generally, there are some very worrying outcomes of that. Firstly, around the attaching of quality to price. So, as the system starts to marketize more, variable costs of courses will start to become attached either to quality or to prestige, which has worrying implications for equity. But also it makes it much harder for universities to engage in research in the public benefit, or community engagement in the public benefit, without some kind of a name to generate income from those communities; makes it much harder to fulfill the SDGs. So that is one of the big trends. A second trend is associated with the very often discussed international rankings in higher education. And one of the implications of those rankings is a privileging of a certain kind of university or a certain kind of university action. And I am not saying for a moment that the elite universities that do well in rankings are not benefiting the SDGs. Actually, I think they are with a lot of their work. But it is certainly not the only kind of institution that does that. And much of the work that is most beneficial for communities around the world is not valued by those rankings. Community engagement has almost no presence in the rankings. And an inclusive intake of students also is not valued through most of the rank.
Will Brehm 16:33
In your book, you point to this like unbelievable indicator or proxy for, I think its quality of teaching in these rankings, that is used. Can you explain what it is?
Tristan McCowan 16:44
Well, in the Shanghai ranking, the number of alumni with Nobel Prizes is taken as a proxy for quality, which is…
Will Brehm 16:52
That is crazy! I mean, so, these rankings then, the way they sort of measure this idea of quality across universities, can be pretty absurd, almost to the extreme sometimes.
Tristan McCowan 17:06
It is a small minority of all higher education institutions that are listed on international rankings at all. So, you could say, “Well, perhaps it’s irrelevant”. But actually, it does have an influence. Because even if most institutions don’t have a realistic chance of getting into the upper echelons, discursively, it does influence the way institutions see themselves. They start not to value the good work that they are doing. And they start to aspire towards work that perhaps isn’t in their best interest.
Will Brehm 17:33
I mean, we are sitting here at the Institute of Education, and out the front door, there is a big sign with the ranking on it. I mean, it is sort of, you know, it is the first thing you see when you walk into this building.
Tristan McCowan 17:46
Will Brehm 17:48
So, one of the last trends that you write about in your book, you use the word “unbundling”. Can you explain what this is? I never really came across this term before.
Tristan McCowan 17:57
So, it is a term that comes from business originally. And it is the process of separating out products that had previously been sold together for commercial advantage, either for the producer or sometimes for the consumer. I suppose the most obvious example in contemporary times is low-cost airlines, where you are not tied into paying for your baggage or your seat or so forth; you can purchase things individually. In higher education, it is a very controversial process. It is quite incipient; we’re just seeing the earliest signs of it yet. But for example, the separation out of different parts of what we might have considered to be the bundle of higher education. Of instruction, assessment, research, extracurricular activities, and so forth. So, one way that this has manifested itself is in the provision of no-frills, what I call no-frills courses. Very basic provision, where you pay a lower cost, and you just have access to the basic instruction, and you have to pay extra if you want some other things
Will Brehm 19:01
Such as? Like access to the library?
Tristan McCowan 19:03
Well, I have never seen a case of no access at all to the library. But certainly, there is an example in the UK where you have very minimal access to university facilities beyond what you would basically need to do one’s course. You know, this does open the door to a kind of a segregation of lower and higher-income students.
Will Brehm 19:25
Of course. And where does the process end? Right, you almost can get to the point where you have to pay to use the bathroom.
Tristan McCowan 19:30
Absolutely, absolutely. I think it is very worrying. It is a seductive idea because it appears to be addressing the huge escalation of costs, particularly in the United States. And allowing more people into the higher education system. So, it is seductive in that sense, but it is very worrying because then you start to have a very hierarchical system, a stratified system, where disadvantaged students have access to less.
Will Brehm 19:54
Second class students. You know, these are pretty worrying trends. This idea of status, this idea of commodification and commercialization, and this idea of unbundling. So, do you think this idea of, you know, the developmental university, service to society, these sort of liberal democratic ideals. You know, what has to change so we can actually create universities that embrace those ideas rather than … or, you know. It seems as if some of these other ideas and trends you have been talking about sort of go against some of these developmental ideas.
Tristan McCowan 20:32
Well, I think we need two things. I think there does need to be state investment; there needs to be public investment and state support. But I wouldn’t want to say that all of initiative needs to come from the central state. I think we also need to create more opportunities for local innovation. So, in my work, I am very interested in and supportive of various grassroots initiatives in higher education. I think this is a really important part of the answer as well. And there are some great examples around the world of developmental institutions. They are fragile in many cases, but they are very inspiring. So, we have got University for Development Studies in Northern Ghana, which is a very interesting institution serving the arid regions of Northern Ghana, working in very innovative ways with integrated teaching and research and community engagement. There are the so-called “thematic” federal universities in Brazil, which were established over the last 15 years to promote different forms of international engagement and local development. They are fragile because, to a large extent, they just depend on the governments of their day. And in Brazil, you have had a very radical shift to the right and the consequent withdrawal of support from these institutions. You have also got challenges with innovative institutions starting to, you know, being pulled back to the conventional type over the years. So, there are challenges, but there are some inspiring examples that we can look to.
Will Brehm 22:01
I also think about some of these protests in Chile. I know it started recently with bus fare increase, but it sort of dovetailed with that longer student protests from 2013 that was very much against what we might call the “neoliberal university,” or whatever it might be. And even here in London, they only just had, in the UK, 60 universities went on strike for about eight days trying to really counter a lot of these same trends that you are talking about. So, there are these signs, it seems, of pushback. Now, will it actually result in any action, that’s another sort of question, I guess.
Tristan McCowan 22:41
Absolutely. I think there are mobilizations in different parts of the world. South Africa recently has had a huge student mobilization around decolonization, the curriculum, and also around fees. I think we look at Chile as a great example of a student mobilization, not only because of its massiveness, but also because, perhaps unusually, but very successfully, what started as a student mobilization started to bring other spheres of society on board. And also gained real endorsement from society and, you know, made things … you know, the government couldn’t ignore it anymore. So, I think it is a really successful example.
Will Brehm 23:20
You know, that actually makes me think of the Chicago teacher strikes in America, where it wasn’t higher education, but it was public school teachers going on strike, I think 2012/2013. And one of the reasons that they were successful, that many scholars point to, is precisely the same reason is that they had this broad coalition; it wasn’t just this narrow focus on teaching and learning, but it brought in all sectors of society, and it became such a massive movement that the government had to respond. And more importantly, a lot of the leaders from that strike ended up getting elected in many parts in Chicago. So, I mean, it seems like it is a bigger conversation on social mobilization and successful social mobilization.
Tristan McCowan 24:03
That is a really interesting example. And it also makes me think of, you know, these ideas of “post-truth” and “anti-experts” that were coming out in 2016, through Brexit and the election in the United States. And I think some politicians have tried to drive a wedge between universities and society by creating resentment. And I think it is a really important task that those involved in universities have is to try and communicate with society this shared enterprise to a large degree.
Will Brehm 24:32
Exactly. And to see it as a service to society. It is not just our own little siloed workspaces here. So, as great as that makes me feel: this idea of social mobilization and trying to change universities away from status competition, away from commodification, away from unbundling, I do wonder – and you point out in your book – that, you know, there’s a critique, as well, of that movement. Of, you know, promoting a university for liberal democracy, for furthering capitalism in many respects. So how can we even begin to think about post-development: a critique of development itself?
Tristan McCowan 25:14
So, this is why I ended up making the title “For and Beyond”, because it is very important to look beyond as well. And I see the SDGs as being important. I am not trivializing them, but they are an intermediate step. And I think ultimately, they are not going to solve all of the problems that the global community faces at the moment. As you say, the SDGs are rooted in liberal capitalist model, to a large extent, a modernization model. And there are some deep flaws in those, and indeed, you know, we can be very skeptical about whether a capitalist system can ever really achieve, you know, equality and sustainability in a global community. You know, some of the incentives for accumulation and profit that corporations have are precisely the problem that we have with the fossil fuel lobby and so forth. So, there are some real problems there. There’s another issue with the SDGs in the lack of attention to questions of identity, culture, language that leading into another issue that I think is important to a certain relation to higher education, which is around what Boaventura de Sousa Santos calls a dialogue of knowledges. So how can we think about epistemic pluralism? How can we think about not just mainstream Western academic knowledge, which is important. But how do we put that in dialogue with other forms of knowledge from different knowledge communities, from indigenous peoples, from diverse traditions around the world, which will inevitably enrich that knowledge. And this is a very important aspect of where we go with development and also where we go with higher education. And I think we need to think about two forms of creativity and imagination in the higher education space: one is around questioning the institutional forms that we are very familiar with. You know, we look at a university, and we assume that it’s going to have very particular kinds of structures and practices. And I think we need to open up our imagination, perhaps drawing on Ivan Illich’s ideas of deschooling to think about how our university might be otherwise. And then the second point around epistemic pluralism, around having different kinds of knowledge in the university, and drawing on the experiences. I’m familiar with experiences in Latin America, indigenous institutions around the continent, but there are some in other parts of the world as well, Swaraj University in India is an interesting example of how we can create universities in different ways. And if we need to go beyond the SDGs, we need to think about sustainable development. It is a different kind of university that’s going to help us achieve it.
Will Brehm 27:56
Tristan McCowan, thank you so much for joining FreshEd. It really was a pleasure talking today, and I look forward to your next book.
Tristan McCowan 28:02
Thank you very much.
In the second installment of our focus on the big issues facing education unions, we focus on union renewal.
My guest today is Howard Stevenson, Professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Nottingham. He has researched teacher trade unions around the world to try and understand the best way to revive the power of unions. In our conversation, he talks about his findings and contextualizes the state of education unions.
Citation: Howard, Stevenson, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 167, podcast audio, August 12, 2019. https://www.freshedpodcast.com/howardstevenson/
Transcript, Translation, Resources:
Many universities around the world are focused on their efforts to internationalize. But what does that even mean? And what does that look in a single country, such as like Japan?
My guests today are Tom Brotherhood and Chris Hammond. Together with Yangson Kim, they have co-written a new article in the journal Higher Education that explores junior international faculty in Japanese Universities. Their actor-centered approach to the study of internationalization adds new insights about the phenomenon.
Tom Brotherhood is a doctoral researcher at the University of Oxford and a pre-doctoral fellow at the Research Institute for Higher Education at Hiroshima University. Chris Hammond is a doctoral student at the University of Oxford and an assistant professor in the College of Education, Psychology and Human Sciences at Aoyama Gakuin University in Tokyo, Japan.
Citation: Brotherhood, Tom & Hammond, Chris, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 164, podcast audio, July 22, 2019. https://www.freshedpodcast.com/tombrotherhood-chrishammond/
Transcript, Translation, and Resources:
Today we have a slightly different type of show for you. One of FreshEd’s producers, Lushik Wahba, created an amazing podcast about the experiences of international students at one small college in the USA. Over 1 million international students currently study at colleges and universities across America. Why did they choose to study in the USA? What can we learn from their experiences? Lushik’s podcast gives voice to some of those students, showcasing the promise and challenges of internationalization.
Born and raised in Cairo, Lushik Wahba came of age during the 2011 Egyptian Revolution. This was a time when citizen journalism flourished, and she saw first-hand the power of an informed public. Growing up in such an environment inspired her to work in media. At 16 she earned a scholarship to study at the United World College in Bosnia and Herzegovina. After high school, she moved to Vermont to attend Bennington College. She just graduated in May but before doing so she put together this podcast, featuring many of her fellow international students. Lushik is determined to pursue a career in producing podcasts and documentaries that focus on issues affecting marginalized populations around the world. We know Lushik has a bright future in media in front of her, well-beyond the FreshEd podcast, so we are extremely lucky to be able to air one of her first podcasts for you today.
Content warning: Some of the students you will hear today use potentially offensive language. If you’re not into that or are with small children, a beeped version can be found under the Resource tab blow.
Transcript, Translation, and Resources:
Today Raewyn Connell returns to FreshEd to talk about her new book, The Good University. In it, Raewyn takes a deep dive into the labor that makes a university possible while also detailing the main troubles the institution currently faces.
She argues that a good university must work for the social good rather than for profit. It must embrace its democratic roots and protect the process of being truthful.
Raewyn Connell is Professor Emerita at the University of Sydney. She is an active trade unionist and advocate for workers’ rights, student autonomy and educational reform.
Photo by Peter Hall
Citation: Raewyn, Connell, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 157, podcast audio, June 3, 2019. https://www.freshedpodcast.com/raewynconnell2/
Will Brehm 1:30
Raewyn Connell, welcome back to FreshEd.
Raewyn Connell 1:31
I’m very glad to be here.
Will Brehm 1:33
So, congratulations on your new book. And just halfway through this book, when I was reading it, you tell this wonderful story about this famous Jacaranda tree at the University of Sydney. And I want to just ask, what made this tree so famous? And why did you end up writing about it?
Raewyn Connell 1:48
Well, it’s a very beautiful tree. It has lovely purple flowers, and it’s absolutely covered in blossom at a certain time of year, which happens to correspond with when graduations are held. So, for many years, since the invention of color photography, all the graduates would go and stand in front of the tree in their robes and get the photographs at the end of their degree. And it’s all in front of this sort of mock Gothic sandstone building in golden stone. It’s a lovely picture. Well, a few years ago, five or perhaps eight years ago, the University began including in its advertising, a picture of a tutorial group -a discussion group- sitting on the lawn in front of this tree in full bloom. And that was a lovely picture for advertising with the mock Gothic building behind suggesting how ancient and venerable the University was. Unfortunately, it wasn’t true for two reasons: one, no tutorials are allowed to meet on that lawn. Two, the tree actually blossoms after tutorials are over. So, the thing was a fake! And it seemed to me that that somehow represented what was happening in universities as they became more commercialized. There was more fakery and misrepresentation. And just a couple of years after that image was used in the advertising, the tree died. Now, no biologist among my friends would agree that the tree died of shame but one suspected, and that somehow to me symbolized that the university in some sort of crisis. Yeah, universities in general. Well, by corporate standards, there’s no crisis. You know, the higher education industry is booming. There are now more than 200 million university and college students around the world. The flow of fees and money into the system is bigger than ever before. So, from a profit-making and corporate growth perspective, we’re doing wonderfully in universities. But, by other standards, there are terrible problems. I mean the casualization of academic labor force, virtual end of the prospect of a career for very large numbers of university teachers, the growing level of distrust and antagonism between workforce in universities and the managers, the growing level of inequality within universities just in sheer money terms, the level of anger that you see in conflicts in universities now, and of course, the decline of government support for higher education in most parts of the world, not quite all, which escalates in some countries like Hungary -it’s a famous example recently- of outright attacks by government on the university sector -at any rate, parts of it- showing a kind of political antagonism to good higher education, which is very disturbing, indeed. And in that kind of sense, yeah, there is a crisis that’s bubbling/boiling up around us.
Will Brehm 5:25
Yeah, I mean, I’ve seen photos of many years ago, protests in Chile, just recently, protests in Brazil. Even in the UK, there’s been these mass protests of university lecturers fighting for basically better pensions and better wages and trying to resist this sort of corporatization of the university. So where do we begin? If this is this crisis that we see -and in your book, you basically start by looking at the foundations of the university, and really focus on the massive amount of labor that universities do in a way. All the different types of people that make a university possible require huge amounts of labor. Can you talk a little bit about, you know, what sort of labor actually happens based on your long career in universities?
Raewyn Connell 6:17
Well, what I do in the first chapters of the book is show how research, the production of knowledge, has to be understood as a form of work -a complex and intricate kind of work, but work nevertheless, with a workforce in certain conditions. And the same for teaching too. Education involves a form of labor by the teachers and by the students for that matter. And we have to understand the circumstances in which this work is done, the relationships that shape the work in order to understand the production of knowledge and the educational process itself. Now as the universities have got more commercialized and commodified, this labor has been changing. And the conditions of this labor has been changing. So, the academic work: Well, there’s a much higher level of casualization and insecurity for academic workers, as more of the face-to-face teaching is done by people in insecure, short-term jobs. The role of academics in longer term jobs has also changed. They’ve become a kind of middle management group responsible for organizing a casualized, insecure workforce. There’s been an intensification of labor. This is not unusual in today’s economy. That’s true in other industries as well. But it’s quite striking in academic work. The growth of a long hours culture, the decline of the sense that you have time to sit and think and look around, read around and come up with fundamental new ideas -this is now harder simply because of the change in the kind of work. And there’s more control over academic labor via audits and measurement, and management surveillance. Even a simple decision, like when you’ve done some research, you’ve written an article about it, where you publish it, that used to be your own decision as to where you should publish it to reach the audience who needed to know. No! That doesn’t apply anymore. There are now management pressures to publish only in high-prestige journals in the most central countries in the world, and so forth. So, that’s a very significant set of changes in academic labor. And for non-academic workers, what I call the operations workers, who are half the workforce of universities, the work also has been changing -sometimes in the same ways. There’s more sort of surveillance and control from above, so fewer people are just trusted to get on with a job, assume that they know what their job is, and they should get on with it -there’s less and less of that. More surveillance, more auditing. But there’s also more outsourcing of work in universities. That is, workers who actually work for the university, but are not employed by the university, rather employed by another company, which has a contract with the university management and that changes relationships in universities too as it would in any place where that kind of thing happened. Because people working in an outsourced basis for another company don’t have rights, don’t have recognition on campus, are not likely to be there long-term so they can’t develop long-term relationships with the teaching or research staff, and there’s just less of the basic, ground-level know-how on which universities have depended in order to work effectively as organizations. So, more control concentrated at the top means less effective work down below. And that has been happening on a large scale in universities.
Will Brehm 10:25
And has there been any consequences or impacts on student learning? I mean, this seems to be a major function of the university. So, with these various reforms, with this corporate-style management, this power residing at the top in these administrations, what effect on the student?
Raewyn Connell 10:42
Two things: One, because corporate management drives for lower wage costs, lower labor costs, they’re terribly interested in technologizing university teaching. So, MOOCs are the classic example of that, the massive online open courses, which have something like a 90% dropout rate, I mean they’re quite stunning. But in other ways too, the learning experience is more computerized, more technologized, therefore, more -and this is the other side of it- in various ways more formalized. So, we have more frequent and technologically controlled testing. There’s less scope for ambitious but out of the way learning practices by the students. They’re more, sort of on a prescribed path all the time. I can remember -this is, you know, I’m now one of the older generation very much. When I was an undergraduate doing a history program, we actually had two years in the middle of the degree with no exams at all. We had an exam at the end of the two, but for two years, we could pursue our own learning interests, we had to attend courses, lectures, tutorials, and so forth. But we weren’t tested. And, you know, modern students, I think -and this applies to schools, as well as universities- are tested to within an inch of their lives sometimes. And I think that really degrades the kind of learning experience that a university should be.
Will Brehm 12:25
So, one of the things you mentioned earlier was that there’s something like 200 million students enrolled in higher education around the world. And in a way, this is very much a massification of higher education. So many more people today are going to university than say 50 years ago. And we talked-
Raewyn Connell 12:45
-and that’s a good thing.
Will Brehm 12:46
Right. That’s a good thing. And universities often talk about this in terms of equity, and diversity, and opportunity, and enlarging that student base. But in your book, you start calling the university sort of “privilege machines”. You talk about how they actually produce inequality. And so, I wanted to know, in your mind, how are universities complicit in the production of inequality?
Raewyn Connell 13:08
Hmm. Well, universities have always been connected with privilege and power throughout their history. So, a phrase like “a college man”, a bit out of date now but it used to be an expression which signaled leisure and money among young people. Well, as the university system has expanded, it’s also become more unequal in itself. So, we’ve now got this massive hierarchy of universities from the very well-funded privileged institutions down to a worldwide mass of higher education institutions, colleges, universities, called different things in different places. And that’s symbolized by the league tables that are now published, you know, with Harvard on top, and MIT and Stanford up there at the top, and your local community college way down at the bottom. Now, the biggest part of the expansion, very recently, has been in privately owned, for-profit universities. That’s now a large sector worldwide. And I would emphasize the for-profit part because what these kinds of colleges sell, basically, is vocational training. They do hardly any research, that’s not their game and they have a very casualized workforce so that you’re not getting a high quality of educational thinking there because people don’t have time and opportunity to do that thinking. But you do have connections with local industries, local businessmen, who are often on the boards, and even involved in developing the curricula of those kinds of colleges. So, what you’re getting then, is an apparent mass expansion but also a change in the character of most higher education as that expansion occurs, which becomes a thinning out of the university or the college experience and a commodification of what it’s taken to be. So, the advertising, the marketing of the for-profit private colleges, is all about what this ticket you’re getting should yield you in terms of future income. Now that benefit often doesn’t happen because labor markets themselves are changing, and the meaning of qualifications in labor markets change. But that’s the way universities, on a mass scale, are now sold. I’m entirely in support of professional education. I think that’s a correct business of universities, and there I differ from some other critics who criticize the idea of professional education. I think that’s a central role of universities. But professional education itself should be an intellectual proposition, it should be involve thinking carefully and at length about the ethics, about the social meaning of the profession that you’re going into, it should involve understanding the clients that your profession is going to meet, so it truly involved social sciences, philosophy, humanities, other technical areas -all of those kinds of knowledges should be involved in good professional education. And I think that is being thinned out now in a very worrying way.
Will Brehm 16:48
So, I guess the obvious question then is, what can be done? What does a university look like that doesn’t embrace this corporate management, doesn’t embrace these sort of for-profit logics that many universities are around the world today? Like, what’s the alternative in a way?
Raewyn Connell 17:05
Well, there are multiple alternatives. It’s not a single blueprint that we should be following. That’s part of my critique of the “league table” mentality that assumes we all want to be like Harvard and we don’t frankly. So, one thing then is diversity. Multiplicity of purposes, and styles, and approaches to teaching, and knowledge. There are multiple knowledge systems in the world. We’ve talked about that kind of thing before. It should be part of the universities thinking. Universities now model hierarchy and even propagandize in favor of inequality. All this jargon that comes out about “excellence” really gets up my nose!
Will Brehm 17:58
I don’t know what it even means!
Raewyn Connell 18:00
It’s just a signifier of inequality, basically. And also, the nonsense that comes out about leadership. Leadership, for what for heaven’s sake! in what direction? Well, I think there is a direction which we should be leading and that’s democracy, and public service, and that doesn’t need hierarchies and league tables for heaven’s sake! Talk about self-satirizing university systems, they’re now developing league tables for public service!
Will Brehm 18:39
So how can a university be democratic? How can that ideal be embraced inside a university?
Raewyn Connell 18:45
Well, parts of it is already there. We do know how to run institutions democratically. And that’s what you know, the last 200 years of global history has taught us. There are ways of doing that. So, we have leaderships that are elected, we have forms of responsibility, from top-down and bottom-up, rather than just one way. We diversify the membership of institutions, we take steps to make social inclusion real rather than simply symbolic and selective. We can’t have a democratic education and a democratic knowledge system in an authoritarian institution, it doesn’t work.
Will Brehm 19:34
So, what would that mean? That would mean giving more power to the professors to make decisions to drive the direction of the university, than the central management?
Raewyn Connell 19:43
More power to the whole of the workforce. Remember that half of the workforce of universities are non-academic and they also have know-how and commitment and ideas and should be part of the governing process of the institution. I mean, what I’m talking about is, you know, you can put in the phrase, ‘industrial democracy’, we know how to do that. We’ve done it in cooperatives, in mainstream industries, we do know how to do that kind of thing. It’s not rocket science. But we have been shifting away from those ideas in higher education, as in other industries recently, and there’s a struggle on our hands, I think. The other thing to remember is that at the core of the modern university is a system of knowledge, which I call the ‘research-based knowledge formation’. So, research is central to the knowledge on which we build our curricula, on which we base our professional practices, and which we give to the world at large, is what universities offer. And there’s a democratic core in research, actually. I mean, we don’t necessarily represent it that way because we give Nobel prizes, to a very few top scientists, or the media will drool over the professor with the furthest away galaxy, or the latest cure for cancer. But in fact, research knowledge is a democratic theme in itself. It’s produced by a whole workforce, not just by individual stars. Particular research programs involve research teams, not, in most cases, individual stars. Or the individual stars are standing for teams of 20, 30, 100 people. And they depend on other teams and other researchers. The term publication, which has become a kind of sight of tension and horror for young academics, is actually a sign of that democratic character of knowledge. We put our knowledge out there when we publish. We put it out there for everyone to see, and for other people to build on. That’s the whole point of publication.
Will Brehm 22:08
Yeah, its publication, not ‘priva-cation’.
Raewyn Connell 22:11
Exactly, exactly! And we’re building in the knowledge system, that universities depend on and produce, we’re building a “knowledge commons”. We’re building a common social resource in research-based knowledge. So, there’s a democratic element at the very heart of universities, which is not necessarily immediately obvious, but it’s there. And we can build on it.
Will Brehm 22:39
And it’s particularly not obvious when, you know, Elsevier and Wiley and Sons, and Taylor and Francis are owning that knowledge commons. And it sort of does take that public out of publication.
Raewyn Connell 22:52
Yeah, that’s a classic example of the harm that’s done by privatization, I think. And it is being resisted. There’s quite a strong movement now to reverse that by open access policies on the part of funders, by a kind of movement among academics towards open access for other ways of circulating knowledge that don’t run into those monetary barriers. That’s a hot topic in universities now and I’m very glad to see that kind of struggle going on.
Will Brehm 23:29
So, the beginning of our talk today, you talked about this sort of fake image that the University of Sydney was promoting, and it sort of gets to this idea of truth. And this idea of, what is the role of the universities in being truth?
Raewyn Connell 23:46
Yeah. I should say that I’m not particularly blaming the University of Sydney. I mean, that’s just where I happen to be. And I happened to know that tree from a long time, because I’m also a graduate of this university. But what the University of Sydney was doing was what the University of Melbourne is doing, the University of Queensland is doing, what all the universities in the country in one way or another have been doing, and internationally too. So, I was trying to give an example of something that is, in fact global, as a problem. And why I think that’s significant is that universities do have a cultural role. I mean, they’re not -the corporation famously has, there’s a lovely saying, by Lord Chancellor of England in the 18th century, that “a corporation has no body to be kept, and no soul to be damned therefore it can do as it likes”. And that is pretty much the attitude of the mainstream corporation. And as universities approach the status of money-making corporations which indeed, some of them now are 100% that, they inhabit that kind of situation. And the problem is that universities DO have a soul. And that soul concerns truth. It’s the cultural commitment to telling the truth. And anyone who has done research, you know, I’ve been a researcher for more than 50 years. And I know how difficult it is to establish truth. But that’s what research is, it’s hard work. It’s a struggle. So, you know, it involves interacting with many people and trying to understand situations and speak the truth. It’s difficult, but it’s what we’re about. And if universities start fudging the truth in advertising, pretending to be what they are not, misrepresenting reality, then they are doing terrible damage to their own cultural position as the institutions that embody truth telling. That seems to be a very, very serious problem. And, and that’s why I get, you know, more angry about what seems to many managements to be just good commercial practice. It’s not good university practice.
Will Brehm 26:05
Are you hopeful that the university will soon move away from this corporate-style management? Or are there examples of universities around the world that are actually doing something different? And yes, it could be a multiplicity and a diversity of different ways of managing and organizing the university but sometimes I get very pessimistic about the whole industry that I have spent the last ten years of my life working in. And I don’t know, is it going to change in my lifetime or am I going to be battling this corporate-style management for the rest of my career?
Raewyn Connell 26:41
It’s a good question. And I think everybody involved in these issues at times despairs at the difficulty of moving in a more democratic direction. And I’m sustained, I think -I mean, I’m originally a historian. So, I’m always interested in the history of institutions. And I took some time when I was working on this project to go back into the history of universities and look specifically at the history of alternative universities. And it turns out, there is a wonderful history of alternative and experimental universities all over the world, which is not all that widely known. But things like, for instance, there’s an extraordinary story of the Flying University in Poland, which was developed back in the 1880s, when Poland or most of Poland was part of the Russian Tsarist Empire. And the Russian regime tried to control universities, to ratify them, and to exert regime control over them. So, the Poles went underground and invented a kind of underground university, which became known as the Flying University because its classes would move around from place to place in Warsaw in order to avoid the police. And taught a whole curriculum, natural science, educational sciences, humanities and so forth, all under the radar. And after the 1905 revolution in Russia, that came to the surface, became legal, became a regular university. Then Poland was invaded by the Nazis and they did it again, under incredible repression during the Second World War. Then the Russians threw the Nazis out and established a communist regime in Russia, which restored the universities but also attempted to control them and the Poles did it again! They had a Flying University teaching all the forbidden kinds of social sciences and humanities. Now, that’s one story, there are anti-colonial universities in India, which was set up by people like Rabindranath Tagore, the poet, back in the 1920s as a place for the meeting of civilizations rather than the Eurocentric curriculum in the universities the British had set up in the colonial system. When the pink tide occurred in Latin America 10 or 15 years ago, a series of progressive governments around the continent, they set up reform universities too. Indigenous universities, working class universities, universities in remote parts of the country with rural populations and so forth, publicly funded, bringing in new groups of people who, for years, they’ve been excluded from the university system. In AotearoaNew Zealand, there’s a university which is based on Maori indigenous culture. Similar things in parts of India, all over Central America, in parts of South America, like Bolivia, there are now indigenous universities which have curriculum that try to blend research-based knowledge with indigenous knowledge and develop curricula that are relevant to indigenous communities. So, there’s lots of experimentation in the history when you go looking for it, and that, to me, is a deep source of hope. People have done it in the past, it’s still possible for us to move in these directions now.
Will Brehm 30:34
And that actually is incredibly hopeful that the system that we’re in today is not static, and it can change and there is a history of change over time. And that’s deeply, deeply hopeful.
Raewyn Connell 30:45
I had a bit of involvement in this kind of work back in the 1960s when I was a radical student among the many other radical students. I was involved in setting up what we called Free University in Sydney, which was a student-directed, cooperative learning institution that did a couple of dozen courses on a variety of issues that we felt were missing from the mainstream university curricula. I’ve taught in publicly funded universities that were part of another reform movement, the kind of “Green Fields” universities set up in the 1960s and 70s in countries like Australia, Britain, the United States. The expansion of the University of California was a good example of that, places like UC Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara Davis, were involved. You know, experimentation with curricula, combinations of disciplines, student-centered teaching practices, lots of really interesting educational innovation happening in those institutions over a period of 20-25 years. So even in the mainstream system, it is possible to innovate and democratize in inventive ways.
Will Brehm 32:04
Well, Raewyn Connell, thank you so much for joining FreshEd. You know, I read your book, and it’s like a love letter to the university itself. And it’s critical but supportive and offers so much beautiful history. So, I mean, I can’t recommend it enough. And I just want to say thank you for writing the book and getting these ideas out there. And, as a young academic, I must say that I am actually very hopeful of being in this industry and in this career and hopefully getting involved in some of these new movements to diversify the university. So, thank you very much for joining FreshEd and you’re always welcome back on in the future.
Raewyn Connell 32:40
That’s great to hear. Thank you.