Monday, September 13, 2010

Interesting Critique...

...of the latest clutch of Higher Ed books to drop into the market. The "Failed University" is becoming the topic-du-jour for those looking for a fresh target on which to pin national and economic failure.

An interesting point here is the continuing segregation of colleges and universities into the "haves" and the "have-nots", with the student populations at these schools reflecting this divide in terms of their socio-economic status (for example). Underprivileged students are coming in to an "accessible" system where they find that not all "access" is equal, particularly at for-profit institutions that charge high tuition and enable students to rack up many thousands of dollars in debt (as we have seen recently in the U.S.).

This is an important point--and I agree with it. However, I think another important thing to remember is that "higher education", particularly the university, was an elite institution--more or less--for its entire history up until about 50 to 60 years ago. And structurally this is still the case today.

In Canada, this meant small institutions with religious affiliations, where funding came from student tuition and private donations. Not until the post-WWII period, with the Veterans' Rehabilitation Act, did Canadians see an accessibility initiative anything like what we have in place today; and in the period from the end of the 50s to the beginning of the 70s, enrolments tripled.

Have we really created planned/considered structural solutions that reflect these significant changes to enrolment, and the drive to "accessibility"? Or have we merely tried to extend the old, elite model to more people--negating its past function, without acknowledgment that we've done so? What will we substitute for this model--and why, after 50 years of increasing massification and its deep consequences, are we still asking?

We know there has been a change in signification--a Bachelor's degree simply doesn't "mean" what it used to in the past. Some people even talk about graduate market glut (another jobs/skills mismatch?), even as others build arguments about why a university degree is "still worth it". But as I argued in my previous posts about tenure, I'm not sure we're really acknowledging the extent of the changes that have occurred--or indeed the ways in which higher ed is repeating mistakes made in the past with the primary and secondary education systems. "Worth it for whom?" is only the first and most obvious question.

The critique of socio-economic class reproduction--one so frequently levelled at national, public school systems--is now being targeted at universities and colleges. I think we need to ask: why are the problems persisting and the same critiques being offered? Why have we not solved this problem in primary and secondary education? If we haven't "fixed" the first 12 years of education--can we expect to manage the postsecondary problem successfully? And is is really the best approach to simply attack the existing system--as we are seeing now with universities?

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