Wednesday, November 3, 2010

A Browne study

I had thought of blogging on this response to the Browne Report on higher education in England and Wales (I don't think it applies to Scotland, but I could be wrong), but I had nothing to say except: "Well said!" Now Eric Schliesser has attacked the response, so I can decide how right or wrong he is about it.

Schliesser has eight critical comments on Collini's response to Browne, starting with an unnumbered parenthetical one:
(What's wrong with Ryan-air, by the way?)

1. It romanticizes the past and treats younger colleagues in stereotypical fashion.

2. For the life of me I can't understand why (other than naked self-interest, fear, and ideology) folk are so eager to endorse what is one of the most paternalistic and condescending documents I have read in a long time.

3. To treat students as near children might explain why Collini sees no point to "student satisfaction."

4. Collini notes in passing, but does not reflect on the fact, that the removal of block grants will limit the degree of flexibility to university administrators. I think this is a good thing

5. It is especially noteworthy that Collini is so focused on defending university education as a public good that he has not noted how regressive the current system is. Poor folk (who do not tend to go to university) are subsidizing the education of the middle (and upper) classes.

6. Finally, the market gets disparaged a priori. Yet, the most envied and admired university system is the one in the US. It has, of course, many flaws (that we regularly debate here), but one of the features that has made it thrive is the constant competition and emulation among all kinds of universities.

7. There is a kind of pessimistic undertone that does no justice to the facts. As if the Humanities cannot thrive in these new circumstances!

Ryan-air is a cheap airline that offers notoriously poor service. Unless I'm thinking of a different airline, they actually boast about their poor service (no free toilets in flight, etc.) in order to encourage the belief that they have cut costs to the minimum in order to be able to keep fares low. Collini's point is that this is not what we want universities to do. What he fears, I imagine, is that Oxford and Cambridge (and maybe one or two others) will remain elite while every other university affected will become something like the University of Phoenix.

1. Collini simplifies to make a point, but I think he does have a point about academic culture. I will simplify too in an attempt to make much the same point. There used to be professors who cared primarily about teaching and reading. No doubt there was some dead wood too. But to get rid of the dead wood, administrators have required that everyone publish all the time. A lot of rubbish gets published, and a lot of time is spent producing this rubbish that ought to have been spent on reading and teaching.

2. The point about paternalism is prompted by Collini's analogy of students choosing courses with children choosing candy: they know what they want, he believes, but not what is good for them. Students vary, of course. When I was an undergraduate I chose the courses that sounded most interesting to me. Others chose the courses that were reputed to be the most difficult. But many choose only what seems easiest or most likely to lead to gainful employment. Hence many undergraduates study Business, even though they might be much better off studying something else and learning about business through direct experience or an MBA program taken later in life. Our highest earning alumni (at VMI) are English majors who went on to become lawyers, but English is still regarded as being a recipe for relative poverty. Sometimes students surely do need to be told what they should take. Not because they are children, but because, by definition of their status, they lack the expertise to know what it is important for them to learn about the subjects they are studying.

3. Student satisfaction would be relatively easy to achieve not by teaching students well but by doing such things as the following: emphasizing one's English accent, dropping highlights from one's CV into lectures, telling students that they are very smart, telling them that the course is challenging, telling them lots of jokes, saying things they don't understand so as to create the impression that you are smart, and so on. Being tall, male, and good-looking supposedly helps too. High grades and easy assignments are obvious ways to keep the customers happy too. Some students will tend to see through such tactics, especially if they are employed crudely, but many will not. And how can the ignorant, who are still learning a subject, judge how well they are learning it relative to how well they could be learning it from a better teacher? How can they know if the facts they are being taught are out of date, for instance? Student evaluations of teaching are important, it seems to me, or at least somewhat valuable, but unpopular courses should not all be scrapped, nor unpopular teachers fired.

4. I have no idea whether administrative flexibility, or the lack thereof, is good or bad. If we want a good market in higher education, though, I would think variety would be a good thing. A lack of flexibility for administrators would seem likely to work against this ideal. But I could well be missing the point.

5. I don't know how regressive the current British system is. Rich kids go to university more than poor kids do, but their parents also pay more in taxes. Would the poor be better off if they had less access to higher education? Surely not. I like the fact that poor kids in Britain can (or used to) go to the very best universities in the country, and not just in a handful of cases. If these universities charge ever higher fees (as seems likely) this will cease to be the case, if it hasn't already done so.

6. Is the US system the most envied and admired in the world? I don't know. Should it be? That would be even harder to determine. I think people admire the fact that so many people in the US go to college, although the number who graduate from four-year colleges is not as impressive relative to Britain as it used to be, I understand. The percentage might even be lower (although a typical BA in Britain takes only three years). The quality of research faculty in the US is also admired, which stems from US schools having lots of money to lure the best minds from other countries and ensure that the best US minds stay here. This wealth appears to come from alumni donations, which are the result of a kind of brand loyalty that does not exist in the UK. I don't see how this shows that "the market" should not be disparaged (although I'm not saying it should be either).

7. The humanities are already under attack (see Middlesex philosophy, for instance). The proposal is to cut their funding. How would this make them thrive? Of course they might survive, and probably will. But there is no freshman comp or western civ in traditional British universities. If there are few English majors, why will universities keep their English departments going? I expect most will, because there will continue to be demand. But not as many will. There are bound to be more Middlesex-type cases.

I hope I'm wrong, but most of this seems obvious to me and, apparently, to most other people who have read and agree with Collini's piece. The bottom line, I continue to think, is Browne bad, Collini good.

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