Monday, 24 May 2010

The Red Queen and the Blue University

An 'information alert' that has just come round our university from the strategy department likens UK Higher Education to the Red Queen in Alice Through the Looking Glass, running as hard as she can in order to stay in the same place.

It argues that in the new socio-economic climate, characterised by 'seismic shifts', 'inexorable forces', 'irreversible changes', 'fundamental transformation', etc., universities need to ditch their outmoded (publicly funded) business model and adopt demand-led models that promise ' income earned through value delivered', like Amazon (the online bookshop not the jungle), 'the learning hotel', 'the umbrella' etc.

The Alert is a a digest of a report from PA consulting group on the 'new economics of higher education' which itself recycles ideas that have been doing the rounds in technology/business thinking about higher education for a few years now, for example Seely Brown and Adler's 'Minds on Fire, Anderson's 'The Long Tail' (and, not referenced but there in spirit, Katz's 'The Tower and the Cloud').

I'd like to do a critical discourse analysis job on the language of some of these alerts and reports on the future of higher education, and indeed on some of the scholarship on which they are based, but this is more properly the subject of an essay than a blog post. Suffice it to say here that there is another story also to be told about the purpose and sustainability of universities. The UK higher education budget for 2010 -- 2011 includes £5 billion for teaching, and £1.6 billion for research, paid for out of the income tax of 30 million people and intended to benefit up to 40% of their children over the next 12 months. This system, unfair as it undoubtedly is, outmoded as it may be, nevertheless reflects an embedded tradition of thinking about public responsibility and mass social benefits that can't simply be overturned by the mantras of demand-led economics.

Craig Calhoun explores some of the complexities of public and private benefit in university education in works such as 'The University and the Public Good' and his keynote talk ' Free Enquiry and Public Mission in the Research University' at the Open University Centre for Identities Citizenship and Governance last April. He argues that 'public' does not simply mean an aggregate of private interests, but has a larger reality critical to democracy.

Cowan et al 'Running the Marathon' analyse innovation as one of the public and private goods over which universities and other sectors compete. They show that the real contribution of the public university to the advance of knowledge is an educational one, to provide people who are capable of being innovative, not simply innovative ideas per se.

I put these sources forward as examples of thinking about higher education that engage with its public role from a different ideological position to that of the Red Queen authors. The different positions do not necessarily refute each other, but whereas Calhoun, Cowan, and other critical educational theorists recognise the role of ideology in the construction of their ideas, neo-liberal business theory seems to believe it is simply talking common sense. 'Escaping the Red Queen effect' employs Carrollian nonsense rhetorically to emphasise this, but that does not make its prescriptions (learning hotels and umbrella universities) necessarily any more sensible in the long run than the HEFCE grant settlement.

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