The ‘Avalanche’ Metaphor in UK Higher Education

According to a March 2013 report by the Institute for Public Policy Research:

“Right now, nothing looks more solid, more like that snow-covered mountainside, than the traditional university…”

This doesn’t sound good. Mountainsides never stay all nice and snow-covered for long. We all know what’s on its way. And, sure enough, the report soon breaks the news that we all feared:

“…an avalanche is coming.”

 

The report’s author is Sir Michael Barber, chief education advisor at Pearson. Pearson is keen to get a foothold in the UK higher education market, and already run a few courses. Sir Michael chairs the Pearson Affordable Learning Fund, because “affordable schools, operated on a for-profit basis, can make a big difference”. Barber is also responsible for coining the neologism ‘deliverology’, a truly beautiful addition to the educational lexicon.

The report is co-authored by two of Sir Michael’s colleagues, one of whom is Pearson’s ‘Executive Director of Efficacy’. Parts of the text are oddly chummy – “Whenever Katelyn inserted an example from Duke, Saad responded with one from Yale” – and I did sometimes wonder quite how much time the authors spent researching their topic in the lower reaches of the UK’s post-92 sector.

In fairness, ‘An Avalanche is Coming’ – characterised elsewhere as a “rich and nuanced account of the technological and economic pressures facing higher education” – raises some very important questions. Why should universities bother with research if that’s what thinktanks are for? How can any funding system accommodate the needs of mature students? Shouldn’t learning always be delivered through practice and mentorship? Doesn’t some HE teaching still assume that all students are would-be academics? Why does the cost of higher education rise faster than inflation? Can three year degrees remain the norm?

Particularly interesting is the way in which the report speculates about what students really want from a degree. While accepting that “undergraduates are too often seen as a necessary drudge that, with promotion, perhaps one can give up”, the authors don’t draw the simplistic conclusion that competition alone will drive up teaching quality:

“For many students it is the degree itself rather than the teaching and learning that really matters. A degree has currency in the labour market and, while … its value may be falling, it is nevertheless a passport to a range of professional opportunities denied to those without one… The university brand remains potent.”

Few answers are offered (“ponder anew,” we’re advised), but the tenor is pro-MOOC, pro-business and relentlessly pro-unbundling. New metaphors are offered on every page (“in the new world the learner will be in the driver’s seat, with a keen eye trained on value”), but less attention is paid to diagrams being printed the right way round (see Figure Six, page 66).

An Avalanche is Coming” follows on from “The Oceans of Innovation”. However, for most in HE, the avalanche isn’t ‘coming’ – it’s been around for some time. The cause isn’t restless students, demanding a marketplace based on debt tolerance rather than academic potential; it’s the end-product of an ideology that began with the idea that “universities are complacent because they are over-protected from the market.”

Avalanches, like oceans, are natural phenomena. However, many of the issues facing UK universities are man-made. As a society, we’re choosing to see HE as private commodity, not a public good. Ways forward are still available – and Sir Michael helpfully points us in the direction of many – but whether metaphors of impending catastrophe allow the issue to be better understood, I’m not sure.

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