Sunday, May 29, 2016

Why universities are failing 5. The Kelsky critique

As recently reported in the Guardian Education, Karen Kelsky is a former acadmic turned job consultant for academics who has a very strong critique of particularly US universities where 75% of academic staff have no job security, health insurance or other work benefits.  She is a critic of privatisation and 'corporatisation' of Higher Education (HE) including "of how higher education has changed, including the financial burden on post-graduates". She goes on to say:

"Every country should adequately fund its institutions of higher education,” Kelsky says. The consequences of this lack of public moral purpose include reduced participation by people from disadvantaged backgrounds. “The most privileged institutions that serve the most privileged classes will survive. They have private endowments and funding models that are actually wealthier now than they were five years ago.”

While the UK may not be as far down the track of privatisation – or as she puts it the “vitriolic anti-intellectualism” – or suffering the outlandish student debt of the US, Kelsky warns that it is “stunningly far down the road” on what she calls “neoliberal productivity rubrics”. She means the REF, or Research Excellence Framework, the system used to assess UK academics’ “output”, which includes targets, for example, on the number of journal articles published.

“You can’t quantify academic productivity the way you can other kinds of productivity. You could point to countless people who probably wrote one book in their entire career but that book changed the way we think.”"

Clearly not all share the Kelsky critique as reponses to her article demonstrate.  This is clearly a systemic issue that warrants careful unpicking and interpretation.  I cannot help but feel that the proponents of HE reform, and thus what universities are becoming, engage in simplistic analysis and inadequate and uncritical boundary judgements re the 'system of interest'.  In part this claim can be gleaned by considering Aditya Chakrabortty's article (What the great degree rip-off means for graduates: low pay and high debt) and a critical response from former Higher Education Minister, Bill Rammell.

In the UK the new Higher Education White Paper is out without, it has to be said, many ringing endorsements.  In the Guardian Opinion pages the writer notes:

"There is something hypocritical about this instrumentalist approach where the marketplace is to be the only judge. It may be true that the old idea, often persuasively advanced by the academic Stefan Collini, that the university is “a partly protected space in which the search for deeper and wider understanding takes precedence over all more immediate goals” cannot survive unscathed in a world where there is huge unmet demand for technically literate and numerate graduates to staff the knowledge economy. Yet, by sleight of hand, it seems Mr Johnson is promoting the latter for most students, while for a shrinking elite the old ideal quietly prospers. It is hard to see how the Office for Students, which will absorb the Office for Fair Access and the Higher Education Funding Council, will be able to shape the university landscape so that the small elite improves outreach to less privileged applicants. A new research and innovation body that has overall responsibility for the annual £6bn research budget will not reverse the trend towards its concentration in a shrinking number of universities. In years to come, most students will go to lower-status teaching-only colleges."

It thus needs to be asked what is 'the' university becoming such that it can be claimed to be failing...or not?

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