Here is a Storify of the tweets from the Worldviews Pre-conference on April 16th.
I started the piece that turned into this essay after reading one too many news items about the same themes in higher education. it’s amusing to read it now, since certain ed-tech themes have come to dominate the discussion so heavily throughout 2012 and 2013. But much of this I’d say is still relevant, including the points about rankings, the obsession with whether higher education is “worth it”, and the concern with competitive recruiting of (the best) international students. Here is a link to the original post from January 17, 2012: Lazy higher ed journalism.
To kick off the New Year, I decided to devote some attention to the important topic of myth-busting. After coming across Tom Bennett’s excellent post, “The Ten Commandments of Lazy Education Journalism,” I felt compelled to compile the following list that addresses a roughly equivalent set of pet peeves from the world of higher ed news.
1. Higher education: Is it “worth it”? Yes. And no.
I’ve combined both sides of this argument and placed them at the top of my list, because I want to make the connection between the recession, the expansion of postsecondary enrollment, increases in tuition and the emphasis on economic “value” derived from education. This line of argument also tends to invoke the need for measurements of institutional “quality” and job market viability. As tuition increases — and government funding is stretched more thinly — the economics of education have become much more of a concern. But ultimately money must be one concern among many, taking into account the non-calculable aspects of education and the apparent mismatch between monetary “investment and return” that these sometimes entail.
2. Surprise: higher education doesn’t guarantee you a job…
…and yet we don’t have enough college graduates (or perhaps, as others argue, we have too many). Never mind; higher enrollments (and higher tuition) are the answer, even if that means more students have to go into debt. The problem here is that a degree itself has never been the only thing affecting one’s chances of finding a job. Market scarcity, privilege, individual capacities, and social and economic capital operate among other factors. The oft-cited correlation between higher education and employability doesn’t necessarily imply direct causality.
3. Yearly rankings released; Ivy League and Oxbridge universities hold top spots.
Of course, critiques of ranking methodologies are frequently put forth by low-ranking and yo-yoing universities. But I’d love to see rankings reports as an opportunity to examine the institutional effects of competition in a global higher education “market,” and to consider what’s actually signified by “rank,” given that the same universities consistently dominate (and that most of the world’s students won’t be attending these institutions).
4. Technology will save higher education. Or…
…on the other hand, technology — along with free-market economics — will blow higher education apart, “disrupting” it and making it irrelevant. Too often this involves simplistic and technologically determinist arguments. The pressures of economy, the lure of futurology, and the pressing need for a “fix” to chronic problems make these arguments seductive. From edupreneurs and edupunks to “parseltongues,” we see a proliferation of concepts that aim to capture what may or may not be influential and enduring elements of education’s techno-libertarian future.
5. International students are the answer to intellectual and financial deficits.
Where immigration meets academic recruitment, international students from “developing” and/or BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China) are the latest hot commodity. But does this not seem like an unsustainable, potentially exploitative way to fund education? Which students will be able to participate in this market? It seems there is only a thin stratum of the mobile elite, assuming a certain level of (economic) privilege entailed by the higher tuition and costs of living, and the available slice of academically gifted students is even smaller. Ramped-up recruitment also reinforces the academic dominance of Western institutions. The flip-side of this trend is the appearance of branch campuses, particularly in the Middle East and Asia, which could be viewed as another sign of the valuing of Western education over “local” forms.
6. Research shows: students aren’t as smart now as they were in the past.
Often the culprits are media and/or technology; grade inflation; or the sinking quality of high school education. A similar line of research makes the claim that students learn little that is demonstrable during university. Have we managed, yet, to develop accurate and reliable measures of student learning? That’s another question entirely, one that is seldom addressed, though the need for evaluation is assumed and the haggling over its purpose and method of continues apace (as it has done for over a century).
7. Universities are failing society, the government, and their “customers” (students).
Directly related to #6, this is a parallel to a point from Tom Bennett’s post. We hear that universities don’t contribute enough to the economy in the form of “innovation”. They don’t produce enough human capital to fuel the knowledge economy, the right number of graduates in the right fields for the moment (particularly in the STEM disciplines); and in general, university education doesn’t prepare grads for the job market, for academic careers, or for the “real world”.
8. Universities are inefficient…
…and the solution is [insert overly simplistic idea that’s already been suggested]. Often it’s argued that privatized, marketized education is the answer when it comes to universal accessibility and financial efficiency. And there’s nothing like comparing higher education to industries such as high-end car production, to drive the point home. Of course, since there are no economies of scale in education and nor is it a one-time purchase, the comparison isn’t really a valid one. Knowledge is inefficient. So is learning. Yet the more we “invest” in education, the more we continue to try to pin down its ultimate ingredients and link those in turn to the “outcomes” we desire.
9. It’s all the fault of the faculty.
Naturally, one of the reasons why universities are struggling financially is because professors are overpaidfor the work they do; another criticism is that professors prefer research over teaching undergraduates,which is why high tuition is “not worth it.” Sometimes we see examples provided of the outrageous pedagogical practices and academic ideas of professors protected by academic freedom (and high pay). A “solution”? Tenure should be abolished and a free market established for academic work. Tenure is also critiqued for entrenching academic orthodoxy whilst preventing the diversification of academe. Whatever grains of truth they may contain, these arguments personalize systemic issues, they project and individualize, blaming professors for what is really the outcome of decades of social, economic, and political change as well as myriad policy decisions made at various levels.
10. Higher education has lost its way; here’s the real purpose of the university.
Almost everyone seems to have had a go at this issue. I’ve often wished I could feel the certainty that so many commentators seem to enjoy about the role of the university. It’s surprising (or is it?) that we often see the same or similar criticisms and prescriptions being rearticulated regularly in public debates. The nature of critiques, and the prescriptions that tend to accompany them, is important because we must agree on an idea of what is “good” before we can change the university and make it a “better” institution. Changes tend to be based upon a logic that justifies their implementation. Thus most other assumptions about higher education hinge on the notion of its (assumed) purpose.
All the issues listed above are key themes concerning higher education, and universities more specifically. Because of their importance, I think the discussion needs to be made broader and deeper, and also more nuanced. There is still a major role for the media in shaping public debates over political issues, and universities can be deeply affected by this. The more the public has a concern with higher education and its institutions, the more the stakes are raised for institutions in helping to frame the great debate about our academic future.
I wrote the blog post below, as a re-cap from the Worldviews Pre-Conference event on April 16th at the University of Toronto. As my example when I spoke on this panel, I discussed the media rhetoric about MOOCs and how it reflects various aspects of the current context of postsecondary education and its “crisis”. You can find the original post, from April 19 2013, at this link: Pragmatic preoccupations.
This past Tuesday afternoon I participated in another panel (‘tis the season!) about higher education, this time at the University of Toronto. The panel was part of a pre-conference event for the Worldviews Conference on Media and Higher Education, addressing how the “pragmatic agenda” is represented in media coverage of higher education. According to the event description, this agenda includes a focus on issues such as privatization of costs (and tuition fees), technological solutions to systemic problems, the “completion agenda” and job training, and emphasis on the value of STEM disciplines alongside critiques of the liberal arts. The other participants on the panel were Janice Gross Stein, Clifford Orwin, and Scott Jaschik, and the moderator was Rick Salutin. The keynote talk was given by journalist Tony Burman, formerly of Al Jazeera.
I’ve been looking forward to Worldviews because media coverage of higher education is an area in which I’ve had an interest for some time. I think this is at least in part because my undergraduate degree was in Communication Studies with a focus on mass media and linguistics. In my MA thesis I analysed university PR, and since I started my PhD I’ve done several projects involving media coverage of university-related issues such as the York University strike in 2008-2009, and the CERC announcements in 2010, and written a fewblog posts on the theme of media and academe. Aside from my interest in these issues, I also attended the last Worldviews conference and thought it was an unusually interesting mix of attendees (primarily from the media and from academe, and international in scope).
Before the event, we discussed the panel format and Mr. Salutin proposed a question in advance: “what are your frustrations and criticisms regarding media treatments of the pragmatic agenda in higher education?” The response I gave to this was that, probably because I research this area, I find oftentimes complex issues are simplified in media articles in ways that more clearly support one argument or another that is associated with some particular agenda. The way a problem is framed tends to point to a particular solution. Since so many problems seem to be framed primarily in economic terms, there is a certain reductionist logic that recurs in the discussions.
The example I raised was that of the media coverage on MOOCs. I’ve written a piece about this phenomenon already, and I’ve also been following the ongoing coverage from a variety of sources since it first exploded last year. During the panel discussion I found that while I wanted to use MOOCs as an example of media discourse, the debate drifted to the pros and cons of MOOCs and not to the way that they are talked about and positioned within existing political, economic, and institutional contexts and discourses. I think if we focus in on that positioning, there are clear connections to the most salient post-secondary “crises” of the day. This is part of why MOOCs in the abstract have become a kind of popular trope for educational change, if not in mainstream Canadian media, then certainly in the higher ed news and in a number of U.S. media sources. For example (pardon the scare quotes):
- Emphasis on curing a problem of “scale” through technological intervention, which is presented (inaccurately) as a form of genuine accessibility;
- Focus on “outcomes” rather than (educational) processes;
- Metaphors of “delivery” and “production” that point to the objectification and commodification of knowledge and learning;
- The assumption that what the university does can and should be “unbundled” for “efficiency” and “flexibility”;
- “Value” is defined in a specific way, i.e. economically;
- “Quality” is envisioned on market terms, e.g. “elite” professors (who efficiently deliver educational “content” to tens of thousands of students);
- Concomitant critiques of faculty mediocrity, particularly in terms of teaching, placed in relation to rising tuition fees;
- Framing of higher education “crisis” and necessary radical, institutional change with metaphors of inevitability such as “avalanche”, “tsunami”, “storm” and “wave”, all of which invoke natural disasters over which people have no control, and to which they must “respond” quickly and appropriately.
Further to the MOOCs example, we can also look at the amount of “debate” driven by big name players in (ed-) tech and publishing right now, and how the agendas there can play in to the fragmentation and privatization of higher education. This rhetoric supports the strategy of commercializing and commodifying education for a larger, international “market”. In addition there have been a number of articles in the mainstream press by “thought leaders” such as Clay Shirky and Thomas Friedman, that demonstrate false analogies and hyperbolic assumptions that fit with much of what I’ve described above.
Thankfully, raising this example didn’t totally derail the rest of the discussion, though overall the panel did make me wish I had the time right now to do more research on media coverage, particularly the “link bait” pieces that seem to be popping up with more regularity these days (such as the recent “don’t do a PhD” article in Slate, and last year’s Forbes article describing faculty work as relaxing). These provide us with another example of how important issues can be hijacked in the name of raising an angry response that generates pageviews – in other words, the changing political economy of the media interacts with the context of higher education and influences how it’s talked about and understood. I think that’s a good reason for us to pay attention to that relationship and to the kinds of talk it produces.
This is the second of two posts that I wrote following the Worldviews conference in June 2011. Here is a link to the original post, from June 23, 2011: Universities and the media, part 2: Why the media matter.
Yesterday I wrote about some of the main themes we find in current media coverage of post-secondary education, and of universities in particular. Much of this coverage is highly critical of various aspects of university education and in many cases these criticisms are entirely justified, particularly from the perspective of students and parents, who represent a large audience for education coverage.
In spite of highlighting relevant issues, the critical arguments made in the media and in the “crisis literature” (and even in the comment sections of news websites) often seem ill informed. So while there are serious problems with some of the changes happening in universities, the debates that happen in the media don’t necessarily contribute to public debate in a productive way.
This is why one of the themes throughout the WorldViews conference was the presence or absence of “trust” in the university-media relationship and the ways in which the university can be “mis-represented” when it does not actively seek to inform publics about the nature of its role, its functioning, and its usefulness to society.
The assumptions underlying many critiques of post-secondary education tend to be the same assumptions that then frame suggestions for the reform, or renewal, of universities. It’s often argued that we must either return to (the best aspects of ) the university of the past, or destroy the institution utterly and begin again with a lighter, cheaper, more innovative and adaptable model, one that can somehow resolve the weighty tension between democratic and meritocratic that has become so much more evident in recent years; all the while becoming financially self-sustaining.
By some commentators, the techno-futuristic (and somewhat libertarian) argument is made that the introduction of new disruptive technologies, particularly the Internet and digital media, will force universities to change themselves and offer “value beyond content” as it were–since all “knowledge” will be available to students on the Web.
I think these arguments often ignore or discount the relational nature of education and conflate information with knowledge, assuming that education is the “delivery” of a product. They also reflect commitment to technological determinism, the idea that technologies drive social and cultural change; and they seem to assume that a high degree of individualism is necessary/desirable.
One issue I did not hear discussed at the WorldViews conference was whether post-secondary education earns more media attention now than in the past, and whether the nature of the coverage has changed over time. Because this question informs a part of my dissertation, I had it in my mind throughout the conference. I became interested in the question through having done media discourse analysis in the past, and through analysing universities’ public relations materials for my MA project.
The small amount of preliminary research I’ve done shows an increase to the amount of coverage universities receive, over a 30-year period. I’ll need a much more exhaustive corpus of news coverage from the 1970s and 1980s before I can say for sure, but I think the coverage has probably changed quantitatively as well as qualitatively, and that that’s the case then there are plenty of reasonable explanations for the change. (I was focussing only on one university, as well; I’d love to expand that and study the issue in more depth for a larger project.)
For one thing, universities now receive far more “exposure” to different publics; more people come into contact with universities than in the past. This is a process that began decades ago and has waxed and waned over time, but at the moment PSE enrolments are higher than ever before and so the student exposure alone has increased significantly. This process of massification (which I’ve also discussed here) was mentioned by Philip Altbach at a panel on the second day of the conference, but that was the only time I saw the issue raised explicitly.
Not only are there more students in the universities, but these students are paying more for their education. Tuition tends to be on the rise in the U.S. (e.g. in the collapsing California system), in Canada, and most notably of late, in the U.K. where the government has raised the tuition cap from about £3,000 to £9,000. The cost of education is being transferred onto the individual even as the value of education to the individual is seen to be in decline.
This form of privatisation tends to encourage a consumerist attitude towards education, and changes the dynamic between universities, students, parents and also the media. Rankings tables create comparisons between institutions that allow for informed consumer “choice” (among other things); Macleans magazine designs its yearly university rankings issue as a guide for student/family stakeholders. Because students are assumed to rely on their parents or families for this money, parents too become increasingly invested in the “quality” of university education.
Universities have responded to marketisation, and to the privatisation/diversification of their funding sources, by investing more in strategic communication including advertising and branding, various forms of public relations, and reputation building efforts aimed at different key stakeholder audiences (public/taxpayers, students, parents, the government, granting agencies, donors, alumni and so on). These efforts tend to affect media coverage as well.
Why does media coverage matter? With all the trends taken into account, it’s clear that government policy, not only in post-secondary education but also in science and technology, intellectual property, and other knowledge policy areas, affects more people than ever. It’s therefore more likely to be the subject of heated public debate.
Universities need to pay closer attention the ways in which universities and PSE in general are discussed in newspapers, on TV, in magazines, and on the Internet, because these media have a strong hand in setting the terms of that important discussion. This is also where the terms of policy may be set out openly, where members of the voting public begin to make choices about what they support politically.
Attitudes and beliefs are circulated, reinforced, and re-formed both in the news and in the discussions that happen that are based on or triggered by media coverage. And what people believe, they tend to act (or vote) on. Universities have ramped up their efforts to present themselves positively, yet coverage of university education has been dominated by overwhelmingly negative discourses.
What is the disconnect happening here, and what can universities do to better inform the debate about them that ultimately happens beyond their walls, and beyond their control? How do universities adapt to this fast-paced communicative context wherein critiques and problems are amplified so rapidly? I think this is one of the major challenges not just for universities but for all organisations, at a time when negative messages can easily “go viral” through social media.* Universities, with their deep institutional roots and their immediate connection to young people, may feel this pressure even more. They’ll also need to find an answer to it, since the (real and mediated) experiences of today’s students will eventually shape the decisions they make about the educational systems of tomorrow.
[*I’m interested to see whether universities begin to engage differently with students who already attend, and to enlist them in ongoing efforts to build reputation and shape expectations of future students and their parents.]
Following the first Worldviews conference in June 2011, I wrote two posts that take up the issue of media coverage of universities and postsecondary education. This is a topic that interests me partly because it beings together two areas that I’ve been looking at for some time – media studies (and discourse analysis), and PSE.
Another angle that I haven’t been able to dig into very much is the influence of media coverage on policy-making in higher education. I did do a conference presentation on the 2008-2009 CUPE strike at York University and how this was discussed/debated in public and in the English-language news, but I haven’t yet done an in-depth piece about coverage of universities in the long term, which would really have to be a book-length project.
Here is a link to the first post, from June 22, 2011: Universities and the media, part 1 – What they say about us. The second post can be found here.
Last week I attended The WorldViews Conference on Media and Higher Education, which ran from the 16th to the 18th of June, 2011 in Toronto. I was able to spend the full three days at the conference, and was lucky to meet face-to-face many of the people with whom I’d already chatted on Twitter (notably, Mary Churchill and Lee Skallerup), and whose articles I had read in the press or academic journals.
I made a Twitter list of conference Tweeps, based on tweets using the #WV2011 tag. I also wrote a live blog during the sessions I attended at the conference; here are the links to my rough notes from day one, day two and day three of the conference, if you’re interested in seeing the content in more detail. There’s an archive of tweets from the conference (created by Caitlin Kealey) available here.
The conference addressed an array of issues including the effects of international rankings on university governance; the role of science journalism; the relationship between academic experts and journalists; the continued under-representation of expertise from women, people of colour, and members of developing/Global South countries; and, of course, the nature of media coverage of higher education.
What exactly does current (mainstream) media coverage of post-secondary education look like, and why does this matter?
One of the primary organising themes in media coverage of PSE is that of the value of education, usually its economic value (as measured by the additional income generated for individuals from a PSE credential). The question of value is usually posed as one of whether a degree is “worth it”—“it” being the cost of tuition and living expenses, or in some cases the debt that a student may incur if s/he cannot pay up-front. I’ve even addressed this theme a number of times here in my blog.
Advocates of the continuing value of PSE tend to argue that average post-graduation lifetime earnings justify the rising short-term cost of a university education, and/or that the non-monetary benefits of PSE should be recognised. But the chorus of critics has begun to drown out these optimistic (and often over-simplistic) arguments. Now that so many people are receiving university degrees, in an increasingly unstable global economy, there’s no “guarantee” that going to university will land you a job, let alone help you become “upwardly-mobile“. Since living costs and tuition are increasing rapidly, the calculation of “risk” and “reward” in higher education becomes more of a focus. More students are taking on loans, which increase the risk involved (one needs to be able to repay one’s debts from the additional income generated later).
Some coverage also focusses on how undergraduate students are “cheated” by a university system brimful of over-privileged professors who do very little work for high pay, and who would prefer not to have to deal with students at all. The university is already perceived as an arena for the elite, always somehow disconnected from “real” life and work, and such myths are reinforced by articles like this one from The Weekly Standard.
The assessment of value has also been applied to graduate education, and there’s a raft of commentary on the futility of the PhD, particularly in the Humanities. The “ponzi scheme” image is invoked as a means of highlighting the relationship between the “production” of new PhDs and the (proportionally) shrinking number of tenure track academic positions available.
The latest critiques link higher education directly to economic tropes, invoking concepts such as “sub-prime education” (a comparison between sub-prime mortgages in the United States, and student loans) and the idea of higher education as an economic “bubble”, popularised by PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel.
News media articles, blog posts and think-tank reports are joined by books that represent not merely criticism but a “crisis literature,” like the infamous Academically Adrift in which the authors claim that universities are not performing well enough in their educative role (i.e. students are not “learning” anything), and even the more recent Lowering Higher Education: The Rise of Corporate Universities and the Fall of Liberal Education from James Côté and Anton Allahar in Canada (both of whom also co-authored Ivory Tower Blues). While these books contain many valid critiques, and they do “stimulate [public] debate” as their authors usually intend (Côté & Allahar, 2011, p.3), the critiques are often presented in a sensationalistic or reductionist way.
Along with the many public arguments made about the failings of universities to educate students, there is a parallel if more specialised thread of critique. Often found in the business section of newspapers, this argument invokes “innovation” and commercialisation as under-developed in Canada—that universities should play a more effective (economic) role in their research and development capacity, too. It’s worth noting that this criticism has been levelled at universities, and at Canadian industry and funding councils, for decades (Dufour & de la Mothe, 1993, p.12).
In a second post tomorrow, I’ll take a look at the implications of some of these criticisms and the assumptions underlying them, as well as some of the reasons why media coverage of universities is important for students, faculty, and parents, and for politicians and policy makers.
Reference: Dufour, P. & de la Mothe, J. (1993). The historical conditioning of S&T. In De la Mothe, J. & Dufour, P. (Eds.), Science and technology in Canada (pp. 6–22). Harlow, UK: Longman.