Tara Brabazon: Giving the sector the second degree

Tara Brabazon muses on a non-graduate’s resentment at ‘taxpayer-funded’ higher education and the academy’s vision of lifelong ‘learner-earners’ buying social mobility

March 11, 2010

For weeks, I played email tag with the British distributor of an American camera company. Finally he agreed to telephone me during a 20-minute window in his schedule. I answered the phone. Before I could say hello and state my name he said, “British taxpayers have certainly paid a lot for all your degrees.”

I paused. After this odd beginning to our conversation, I replied – realising that my accent might reveal an academic history distinct from his assumptions – “Hi Paul. It is great to finally talk to you. Actually the British taxpayer has not paid a penny for my degrees. I was awarded a couple of scholarships in Australia, but most of the degrees were funded from savings while working.”

I was right. The accent unsettled him. He had assumed in a British-jobs-for-British-workers kind of way that a professor must be born and educated in his home country. These inferences about nationality did not interest me, but I was intrigued by his anti-education bias. For him, anyone holding degrees had wasted public funds.

Paul stammered through this unexpected start to our interview. When hearing my broad Oz-tray-lee-an vowels, he moved the discussion to cricket and then looped back (yawn) to the low value of media studies as a qualification. I intervened in his agenda to suggest that since I had only a few minutes of his time, I would like to discover how he was using social media in advertising campaigns. He had no idea what I was talking about, but thought it was a great idea to use Facebook for promotion (and soon after he started to do so). From this strange and jolting conversation, I managed to organise an interview with the marketing department of the American-based corporate headquarters. However, before ending the call, Paul offered a final question to conclude this odd telephone conversation: “So Tara, why did you get all those degrees?” My reply was honest and simple: “Paul, I like learning and thinking about new ideas.” His only mumbled response was “seems like a waste to me”.

The story cuts to a year later. I am present at a lecture being delivered by Geoffrey Crossick, warden of Goldsmiths and soon to be vice-chancellor of the University of London. He reveals a vision for the next 30 years in British universities. He describes the new quality- and customer-driven environment, noting that postgraduates are integral to institutional financial stability. A concentration of research funding will be matched by aggressive competition for student numbers and the variable fees they bring. Most powerfully, he forecasts a diversifying higher education sector, with the abandonment of the increasingly arbitrary barrier between further education and higher education.

Crossick constructed a new dividing line – or funding line – in our universities of the future. The crucial debate is the extent to which taxpayers and individual learners should pay for education. This changing business (and learning) model means we are entering a highly competitive environment in which students buy social mobility and employment opportunities through postgraduate education. He argued that a key determinant of life choices for citizens in the future will be the attainment of second degrees.

I am always interested in hearing people’s visions of the future. As I listened to Crossick, I remembered a report I had read ten years ago, “The business of borderless education”, written by Stuart Cunningham and others. They offered similar predictions.

Borderless Education - the changing provision of education

The arrival of new information and communication technologies
The development of a knowledge economy, shortening the time between the development of new ideas and their application
The formation of learning organisations
User-pays education
The distribution of knowledge through interactive communication technologies (ICT)
Increasing demand for education and training
Scarcity of an experienced and trained workforce

Source: S. Cunningham, Y. Ryan, L. Stedman, S. Tapsall, K. Bagdon, T. Flew and P. Coaldrake, “The business of borderless education” (Canberra: DETYA Evaluation and Investigations Program, 2000)

Terry Flew built on this research and described how education would slot into a new economy. He predicted a range of transformations in the form and function of universities.

Education in the “old economy” and the “new economy”

Old economyNew economy
Four-year degreeForty-year degree
Training as a cost Training as a source of competitive advantage
Learner mobilityContent mobility
Distance educationDistributed learning
Correspondence materials with videoMultimedia centre
Fordist training – one size fits allTailored programmes
Geographically fixed institutionsBrand-named universities and celebrity professors
Isolated learnersVirtual learning communities

Source: T. Flew, “Educational media in transition: broadcasting, digital media and lifelong learning in the knowledge economy”, International Journal of Instructional Media, 2002, Vol. 29 (1): 20

Many of Cunningham’s and Flew’s predictions were accurate. Flew coined the phrase “learner-earner” to describe how education will be funded in this new age. Students would gain some education, move into the workforce and earn money to pay for further qualifications. They then secure better employment and fund more training. This cycle continues through what he described as a “forty-year degree”.

This is an unfortunate – and predictable – rebooting of lifelong learning into lifelong training. The “learner-earner” creates Student 2.0, flowing into Crossick’s vision that the future will be run by those with second degrees. The impact on education through the learner-earner model is that the (only) reason to enter education is to attain a job.

I experienced a version of this learner-earner as a student in bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education. Both were attained by distance education, enabled through early templates of online learning. One morning, I entered the online discussion forum where 32 people from around the world were evaluating strategies for social justice in education. I was motivated to learn with and from these well-educated, interesting and involved students. They were principals of schools, academics and community workers with an interest in disability and learning. It was one of the most memorable mornings I have spent in education. While participating in this forum, I remember thinking how much all of us had paid to enter this course. Even for someone like me who believes in learning, the fees for this particular degree did strain the bank account and create a sharp intake of breath when the invoice arrived through the post. While the expense was substantial, there were incredibly positive moments gleaned from this experience. Flew’s “learner-earners” were motivated, skilled, interested and engaging people thinking about education. They enrolled to improve their chances of employment, rather than for the intrinsic worth of learning.

There is less enthusiasm for second degrees in the UK than I experienced in Australia. It is hard (and often impossible) to convince fellow academics that a teaching degree may improve the learning provided to students. I recently met an academic who told me that he had selected assignments for a course to reduce his marking load. He “marked” online participation in a Blackboard discussion forum, student seminar presentations and a 1,000-word essay “reflecting” on the presentation. I asked how this scheme had passed through validation protocols. He replied that he had worked backwards: determining the assessment that reduced marking and then writing learning outcomes to fit his workload. He mentioned phrases in the module description like communication skills, student-centred learning and online collaboration. It passed through validation without comment.

If Flew is right and the “learner-earner” is entering our universities – and if Crossick is correct and the future belongs to those with second degrees – then academics have some professional development issues to address. We all know academics working in our universities who hold only a three-year degree. Even now these academics occasionally teach students with higher qualifications than they hold. I see this problem in media studies classes throughout the country when a guest lecturer is brought in to offer “experience” of “the real world”. His first statement in a lecture is something like, “I have worked for the BBC”, or “I make documentaries for Channel 4.” A few years ago that might have impressed students. But in our age of second degrees and learner-earners, our students are starting to respond with statements like, “So what? So have I. And I am working through my master’s degree. What else have you got?”

I am not looking to undermine the value of academic or professional experience. It is important to develop a range of options and ideas in an environment of community collaboration and corporate partnership. However, experience must be anchored to expertise. “Learner-earners” will expect nothing less. Unless professional development strategies in universities keep up with these changes, then many academics will be the least qualified people in their classrooms.

Paul’s comments noted the waste to British taxpayers of money “shovelled” into education. He received an unexpected critique of his views through my accent if not my argument. If these futuristic visions of education are accurate, then such views are reducing in their relevance. We will soon be in a system where the already educated gain further qualifications and the under-educated never overcome disadvantages. Lifelong learners will become lifelong earners. Those without opportunities may continue to complain about a waste of taxpayers’ money. Ironically they will pay less tax and receive a smaller wage when compared with those holding the degrees that triggered their critique.

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