New academic year – state of higher education (aka lessons from the media, Stephen Fry and Cengage)

A new academic year and renewed, but no doubt short lived, interest in the media for (higher) education.  The BBC’s On The Money advocated the continued value of a degree in face of renewed interest in apprenticeships and ongoing tuition fee burdens.  Meanwhile The Guardian ran a story on the negative impacts of the rises in degree seeking students numbers, the comments including some ‘interesting’, but valid, ones on how industry, economic and education policy still do not seem to be aligned.

Personally I always like to think of education in the terms of Stephen Fry’s memoirs – “a university is not, thank heavens, a place for vocational instruction, it has nothing to do with training for a working life and career, it is a place for education, something quite different.  A real education takes place, not in the lecture hall or library, but in the rooms of friends”.  I perhaps exaggerate my support for what he calls a “loose learning” experience, especially of the late ‘70s Cambridge kind, but in hindsight his experience was similar to mine, I transformed between 18 and 21.  Although I acknowledge there are other ways to do it, I do not think going into the management training scheme I was offered at 18 would have led to me becoming as ‘rounded’ a person as I am now, albeit one still in debt to the Student Loan Company decades on.

On The Money’s host and panel still found, in 2013, that they could make jokey remarks about getting up late, staying up late and enjoying ‘dating’ whilst a student.  We seem to have created a perverse situation where we tell students they should be enjoying themselves but effectively force them into a world of debt worries and part time work.  I could only complete my BA through parental support (ably assisted by the cheapest rents of any UK university city), the fact tuition fees were much less then than now and when it came to my MA I worked 9am-10pm for a fair percentage of the time (university in the day and shop work in the evenings – with an hour or so commute at the end of the day).  It is this postgraduate spell which creates my empathy for today’s undergraduates, I did not enjoy myself in the way I did as an undergraduate and I did not take away a full ‘education’, it was very much about passing the vocationally-focused course.  The growth in student numbers, highlighted by The Guardian, has created the situation that degrees are, as it describes, used as a differentiator for any kind of job description (when I’ve advertised for jobs the logic has been that a graduate should guarantee a certain grasp of English that a school level qualification would not) and we are really now talking about postgraduate qualifications as the way into a particular workplace.  In this regard Mr Fry is perhaps correct that undergraduates would be better looking for liberal arts grounding but the postgraduate costs are such that people are jumping in to a profession centric undergraduate degree, limiting their options afterward.  The realities of today’s job market versus the need to educate people to be flexible in tomorrow’s are the great challenge created by tuition fees in my opinion, people simply cannot afford to reskill in the way the country should need them to.  There has been much in the press about a lack of anti-cyber crime skills, presumably there are un(der)employed computer science graduates who would love the option to study that area to a higher level but simply would not be able to afford the fees (presuming training providers can get the course out in the first place).

This all said, there seems to be less bad news in the press about the economic malaise facing education than last year, perhaps as the HE funding landscape has had a year to readjust.  However, a warning of the long feared ‘education bubble’ has come from the bankruptcy of Cengage (excellently covered in this article).  Whilst it is easy to consider that OER, MOOCs and the resources available on the Open Web have crippled Cengage it is a clear warning to those expecting guaranteed results from investment in education.  Indeed it is perhaps a warning against specialist organisations, in publishing or anything else, going it alone rather than having a larger body to absorb losses.  YouTube, for example, is infamously expensive to run but via its own marketing and Google’s muscle can continue.  Cengage seems to have left itself open to collapse unlike education publishing within bigger organisations such as McGraw-Hill or Pearson.  Perhaps the publishers saw the collapse coming but it is noticeable that, after years of complaining at publishers holding onto materials and charging too much, that there is now the risk that really high quality products are lost to the world’s educators and students.  It is simply not the case to say the web will serve everything you would need to educate, self publishing may be a solution but the potential volume of digitisation and the scope for innovative design means that there will surely be a room for the for-profit sector.  Indeed their real value may be in capturing subject expertise from industry, such as cyber detection, for students where the professional does not perceive a career in academia as the correct one for themselves.  Whilst JISC and others have worked with partners in digitisation and other areas I would see this as a key area for academic publishers to improve upon, they seem the natural conduit for bringing business and academia better aligned and they might just make some money in the process.

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