Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The University for No One

In Kevin Carey’s The End of College, a liberal analysis leads to a neoliberal conservative solution:  higher education will increase access and affordability and quality by using online technology to make it virtually free to billions around the world.  Ironically, this reformation of education will be powered by high-tech billionaires and millionaires who will take control of the production of degrees from greedy public institutions.  Moreover, Carey’s “university of everywhere” would eliminate research universities, just like online media has destroyed most newspapers. In this high-tech fantasy scenario, most current academic jobs would be downsized as a single superstar professor teaches all biology students in the world over a shared online platform.

It is unclear how the research that generated all of this technology will continue to be produced since the same institutions that generate most research are the ones that will be destroyed.  It is also unclear who will assess students or answer their questions since the new mega MOOCs will be operated without human intervention.    In fact, the only way to reduce the marginal cost of adding more students to zero is to simply eliminate human labor. 

Carey’s extreme representation of higher education celebrates every billionaire investor and denigrates every current professor.  Although, one can agree with many of his criticisms of their current state of undergraduate education, the medicine is far worse than the disease.  It is also unclear who will pay, train, and house the global online superstar professors.    After all, the great courses coming out of MIT, Stanford, and Harvard are being supported by the same hybrid universities Carey wants to eliminate.  

Like many higher ed reformers, Carey appears to be blissfully unaware of the casualization of the academic labor force and the adaptation of business-oriented management and budgeting.   From the billionaire high-tech innovator’s perspective, public institutions are inherently corrupt and ineffective, and so they must be replaced by platforms driven by speed and capital.   

In response to this vision, UC President, Janet Napolitano, offered a defense of public research universities in a book review she wrote for The Washington Post.  What is curious about her analysis of Carey’s book is that she fails to take on his sustained attack on the quality of undergraduate education at research universities.  One reason for this lapse might be that she did not actually read the whole book, but another may be that she has no response.  Like so many university administrators, she rarely talks about how to improve the quality of undergraduate instruction, and when she does discuss undergraduates, the topic is almost always about tuition, financial aid, and enrollments. 

Since research universities are not making the quality of undergraduate instruction a major priority, it is easy for outside groups and pundits to dismiss the value of the entire higher ed enterprise.  As the current debates over the funding of the University of California show, higher education institutions need to examine how they can support their research and teaching missions.  This means that calls for increased funding have to be coupled with clear indications of how the money will be spent.