All killer, no filler

New gatekeeping needed for real choice and access, says Malcolm Gillies

August 9, 2012

“Access” is everywhere. We have “fair access” as an aspiration in educational admission, and “open access” for research findings.

Clearly, the scholarly world has a problem with access being unfair or closed, although not necessarily at the same time or in the same domain.

It seems the admissions track needs to be fair, at least for citizens, through not playing to closed groups. Research findings, especially if funded by citizens, need to be open otherwise this is unfair. Of course, if you are not a citizen of the relevant entity, you may have only restricted access or none at all.

Our application of “access” could be different. You could, as a citizen right, have open access to university admissions, as New Zealand has struggled to maintain - sometimes contentiously - for nearly a century. And you can advocate fair access to research findings if you are really concerned about knowledge inequalities, for instance, through nationally funded site licences to digital journals. But access can quickly start to compete with another principle of free societies: fair competition.

The biggest facilitator of “access” over the past 20 years has been the web. The world was a very different place in 1992. By 2002, however, most of today’s educational and research access initiatives were in place. Their successes and failures are largely a story of how we bundle knowledge, scholarship and courses.

The revolution in access to music that began in the late 1990s was about connecting producers and consumers to the detriment of the middlemen who had hitherto packaged and sanctioned musical knowledge, above all, the established recording companies. The album was disaggregated into the track. No longer did you need to buy that other song on the flip side of your 45rpm pop single. Now you can access Donny Osmond’s hits of just 1973, or only the slow movements of Rachmaninov’s piano concertos, as you like. You control the bundling.

Scholarly journals were doing something similar, but the middlemen proved stronger, often playing to academic vanity (itself based on an anti-access word, “exclusivity”). The journal volume/issue was disaggregated into the article (the equivalent of music’s track). No longer did you have to subscribe to the journal or buy the whole issue. Issues were unbundled into articles.

This did not mean the death of the journal. Journals proliferated, becoming more specialist, with narrower banding of articles by methodology, content or location. And the level of bundling changed: to the “big deal” involving access to hundreds, then thousands, of journal titles within a publisher’s stable. Learned societies were, in the main, slow to address the trend; some were even initially flattered by the attentions of the middlemen.

Degree programmes are another example of bundling. Course prospectuses are just aggregations of academic “tracks” that purport to add up to the full and essential album. But do students want, or need, that particular full album? Or tracks scattered across half a dozen different albums? Do we need more pick-and-mix programmes if the student is really “at the heart of the system”?

These bundlings of knowledge are often dictated by middlemen such as the professional societies or accrediting bodies that control the keys to professional entry. With high-status professions such as medicine, the bundling may be extremely tight, through a view that there is a great deal of common knowledge that each and every doctor must have.

But sometimes, in less vocationally oriented fields where bundling could be more flexible, it remains tight: because of the renowned specialisations of particular departments, or essential methodological inculcation based on case studies or to preserve subdisciplines “at threat”. It can also result from the collusion of colleagues wanting to keep their jobs, or retain the existing packaging of knowledge through laziness.

Did you really have to do palaeography in your Classics degree? Or study all that medieval history? Or all those business case studies written up in your lecturer’s own textbook? As with a Christmas hamper, you really wanted the turkey but had to take the cheese sticks and chocolate almonds pushing their use-by date as well.

Alan Milburn, the fair access tsar for the professions, has attacked the “closed-shop mentality” of professions such as law, medicine and journalism. And of his own, politics. One lesser-noticed aspect of his fight for greater professional access is around the degree package. “Universities should offer modular degrees and flexible learning,” his 2009 report, Unleashing Aspiration, says. That is, the bundling of many professional degrees needs to be liberalised.

Professional conservatism or just plain elitism can easily result in tomorrow’s graduates being saddled with yesteryear’s narrow training and, in consequence, yesteryear’s narrow source of students. Too packaged a curriculum or too tight a set of sanctioned study modes will result in the perpetuation of “a limited pool of talent having access to a limited set of opportunities”, as Milburn explains.

His most recent progress report, Fair Access to Professional Careers, reinforces the close connection of educational and professional access, particularly with respect to curricular integration of work experience and internships. Three years on from Unleashing Aspiration, he reports that the access “problem” remains uncracked; it is still sidelined in most professions.

Dig deeper, however, and we see two conflicting approaches to access: between those who want fair access to achieve an “even playing field” for fair competition and those who want to open up access to allow all to play, to widen participation. We won’t reconcile these two views any time soon, I’m afraid.

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