What do they know of education, who only education know?

Scot L. Newstok has proposed the term `close learning’ to refer to university education as we presently understand it:

“Close learning” evokes the laborious, time-consuming, and costly but irreplaceable proximity between teacher and student. “Close learning” exposes the stark deficiencies of mass distance learning such as MOOCs, and its haste to reduce dynamism, responsiveness, presence.

Or, in summary, “to what are they being given access?”

The argument about access to higher education, the ground on which much of the mooc stooshie is being fought out, is based on ideas about social mobility, and meritocracy: in short, going to university will let you make more money and escape the harsh grinding poverty (intellectual and financial) of whatever benighted hole spawned you.

The problem with this argument is that the financial benefit of higher education, if there ever really was one, is disappearing. Stefan Collini pointed out the vacuity of the graduate premium some time ago:

The question of whether these higher salaries are actually the result of their recipients having had a university education also exposes the fatuity of the rhetoric of ‘potential’ and ‘fairness’. Let us, first of all, attend honestly to the facts of who gets a higher education. Overwhelmingly, it is the children of the professional and middle classes, who come from homes which give them cultural and linguistic advantages from an early age, which help them to succeed at school, which develop their educational and career aspirations, and so on. In formal terms, those who go to universities are on the whole those who, largely for these kinds of reason, get the best results in the school-leaving examination system. Now let’s suppose there were no such institutions as universities, and everybody went straight into work at the age of 18 or 19. Who would be likely to be earning, on average, salaries twice those of their contemporaries? Exactly the same people as do so now.

In other words, the `graduate premium’ is a `middle class’ premium, of financial value only when a certain background gets you a certain kind of job, degree or no degree.

This is not to discount the value of higher education. David Kynaston, in his most recent book, lists some of the people who benefitted from the grammar school route to a university education. They include Melvyn Bragg, Alan Bennett, Joan Bakewell, and Tony Harrison, none of them shabby intellects. When they went to university, the university was still what we would think of as `traditional’, and still offered itself as a site of disinterested scholarship, even if it did cross the line into uninterested. Clearly, however, this value is not, or not only, financial, nor should it be.

Universities today sell themselves as places to improve your chances of getting a well-paid job. The confusion of higher education with employability is proving fatal to universities, and makes the mooc inevitable, because who can be against giving everybody credentials? The problem is that we will be selling Big Macs and calling them fiorentine.

In the past, there were usually two routes into adulthood and paid work: university followed by a `graduate’ job, and direct entry into employment from school, possibly with further training in the form of an apprenticeship or other means of gaining a qualification. Today, the university route is seen as the only good way to get a good job, even though a student who learns the kind of trade which cannot be offshored, plumbing say, can make a good living, unlike the language graduates translating manuals for software companies. They also have no student debt, and earn from day one on the job.

The arguments made for higher education, and consequentially for `access’, and thus moocs, are essentially economic arguments, whether individual (the graduate will be richer), or national (the country will be more productive). If true, these arguments neglect the non-financial value of an educated country, and ignore the moving goalpost effect. Once, wealthy people sent their children to university so that they could take a degree before entering secure respectable employment; now that just anyone can go to university, the wealthy buy their children internships instead. As a commission in the brigade of guards used to be, a career in journalism is reserved to those with a private income. Floreat Flashman.

Obviously, since we live in a meritocracy (see Kynaston again, and his books), where outcomes are the result of (lack of) effort, talent, or intelligence, the goalposts cannot be openly moved. Thus we have a demand for access (fifty percent of young people to go university), with no thought given to what is on offer. As long as `everyone’ can `go to university’, we all have a fair start in the race, and the result is a fair one.

When Ruskin College was in its early days, a WEA activist famously said:

I claim for my class all the best that Oxford has to give. I claim it as a right wrongfully withheld… What is the true function of a University? Is it to train the nation’s best men, or to sell its gifts to the rich?

What is being sold to many students, and to the public, as university education is thin gruel indeed. The mooc is the end (?) of the process of turning universities into the educational equivalent of vanity publishers: your name on a colourful document of little substance. For now, human contact, with academics, non-academics, other students, and students of other disciplines, is keeping universities in the apostolic succession from Plato’s focus groups. The danger of the mooc is not that it will destroy higher education, but that it will reveal the destruction that is already happening, and take us to a point of no return, where universities will quite openly offer nothing but a brand to be stamped on graduates, who are paying good money for shoddy goods, neither a head start in employment, nor intellectual enrichment.

If you want a vision of what a decent higher education system, properly detached from narrow economic considerations, might look like, think of this: a plumber with a degree in philosophy. If that seems ridiculous, ask yourself why.

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One Comment on “What do they know of education, who only education know?”

  1. […] be nothing to left for higher education to suck up except for itself. Indeed, as Michael Carley writes, that process may actually have started […]


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