Canards about the University: Three Orthodoxies

by Ed Kazarian

Earlier today, Natalia Cecire posted a remarkable intervention into the current debates about higher education on Twitter. She wrote:

@ncecire: Three orthodoxies. 1. There is a “skills gap,” meaning young people aren’t getting enough high-level education.

@ncecire: 2. We need far more teaching than we can possibly provide, which means we need MOOCs. 3. Far too many people are getting Ph.D.s.

My first response to this was to be thrilled, and to send her the link to my first post in this series, which interrogates her number 3 above.  What I appreciated, initially, was how I felt she’d captured something fundamental about the incoherence of the current state of the conventional wisdom, and I told her as much. But the more I think about it, the more I’m tempted to reformulate these slightly, or at least to ask after the conditions under which they frame not an inconsistent, but rather a consistent way of thinking.

Let’s assume that we take 1 as given, though there is an awful lot to be said about what ‘skills gap’ could mean and there are a variety of different interpretations of it. In fact, the phrase is so vague that it’s almost certain that part of what structures the debate right now is that everyone more or less accepts that premise, but may not realize that they don’t agree to a substantial degree about what the actual problems may be.

For the moment, what needs to be commented on is that the conclusion that stems from the widespread acceptance of 1 should fairly obviously not be the first clause of 2, and should certainly not be the entire chain of reasoning contained there. What should follow is simply ‘we need more teaching,’ in which case 3 begins to seem questionable. If, then, the argument is actually framed in the terms that Cecire outlines (and I agree that it is), we can see that doing so involves a very problematic (or at least undefended) assumption about our ability to provide sufficient teaching (or at least more teaching than we currently do) in classroom settings.

Furthermore, there is also a problem with the logical move from ‘we can’t provide enough teaching in classroom settings’ to ‘we need MOOCs.’ This inference is problematic because it assumes that MOOCs will, in fact, make up for what students are not getting in terms of classroom teaching. But the most recent evidence, which comes from a study that was widely discussed recently, is that the students most likely to suffer from identifiable ‘skills gaps’ coming out of secondary schools–those from substantially disadvantaged backgrounds–are also the ones who fare worst in the MOOC environment, measurably worse than they fare in a classroom setting. In other words, the students most in need of more teaching than they are getting are least likely to benefit from or do well in the MOOC setting that is being held up as a solution to the problem of the ‘skills gap’ (granting the ambiguity of that term).

So what do we have here?  A chain of reasoning that is coherent only insofar as one accepts two very problematic unstated assumptions: a) that we cannot provide more / enough teaching in classroom settings; and b) that MOOCs are an adequate substitute for classroom teaching. Interestingly, both of these tacitly and rhetorically support 3, which now appears to be not so much a premise as an unstated conclusion.

And if this is correct, then the entire thing starts to look a bit more like what it almost certainly is: an attempt to support the transfer of funding and resources away from graduate programs and faculty salaries for undergraduate teaching and toward MOOC providers, i.e., extra-institutional contractors that may or may not (but most often are not) be non-profit institutions. In other words, we have here another version of a story we’ve been hearing for some time now: the neo-liberal ‘privatization’ of the University, which is to say the reconstitution of the University (and here we can include both ‘public’ and ‘private’ institutions, insofar as they remain nominally  non-profit) as a mechanism for the transfer of public funds (student loan money) into individual debt and corporate, for-profit revenue.

And it is in terms of this aim that the rhetoric that Cecire so neatly encapsulates acquires its consistency.