Why Education has become a Poor Cousin to the Business of Australian Universities
(with lessons from the culture industry)
If universities of today had produced brilliance, we would not have the global problems we have now. They would have produced enlightened human beings of visionary qualities who could anticipate changes and take measures to avoid the dangers and seize the opportunities. What universities have done is produce legions of drones and clones that think the same, react the same, and do the same. And they’ve been producing 20th century product.
– Gerald Celente, founding CEO, Trends Research Institute
The culture of scholarship and independent thought assumed to be intrinsic to the collective psyche of universities can, through technology, be intentionally or unintentionally, albeit methodically influenced to acquiesce to diminishing standards in academic practice. A classic thread of entropic cause and effect is readily traceable over several decades of tacit agreements and undeclared decisions that rarely filter down to grass root communities – the lecturers, the researchers, and the students.
For many academics there is no warning of the consequences such agreements and decisions harbour until they are personally confronted with a disquieting circumstance that often results in undesirable compromise. It is then, through the benefit of hindsight, that they recognise the problem and consequences of declining standards and diminishing scholarship. Despite constant assurances, the rhetoric from the decision makers winds its way along a pathway that leads to one inevitable outcome, mediocrity.
As we will see, Einstein eloquently described the problems that tarnished universities at the beginning of the 20th century. The genesis of what I am about to describe is a more recent phenomenon (circa the past two to three decades) during which the former problems of agendas, motivations, and the inevitable conflicts with altruistic aspirations were compounded through the introduction of a corporate style management mindset accompanied by a myriad of extraneous practices, which for the most part have been markedly devoid of genuine academic experience and scholarship. The emergence of countless MBA graduates who saw advantage in the untapped opportunities of university life were naturally drawn to the idea of reshaping academic practices to comply with their distinctly incongruent viewpoints. The conspicuous irony is that it is the universities themselves that produce the MBA degree.
The rise and growth of corporate thinking denotes the point at which university history took a turn toward something more destructive than witnessed by Einstein. This is when mediocrity began to be indelibly ingrained into the daily processes of university life. Whilst not attuned to the core business of a university – teaching, learning, and research, the new management regime proclaimed that as thousands of employees and students are involved, meticulously crafted policies and procedures require standardised solutions to satisfy legislated accountability mandates and to ensure conformity to mounting pressure for transparent financial controls and accountability.
Technology, specifically computers and their highly protected (and costly) infrastructure and software systems, were later introduced to mitigate “the technical contrast between the relatively few production centres (central administration) and the large number of widely dispersed consumption points” (staff). Such dissemination and sharing of information it is argued, demands organisation and planning by management.
Invariably, the claim is that technology solutions serve the needs of staff and students, and for that reason are accepted with little resistance. After all, greater organisational efficiencies and ready access to information and data must reduce rising workloads and thus afford more time for academic staff to teach and engage with students. “No mention is made of the fact that the basis on which technology subliminally assumes control over organisations is the power of those whose economic hold within the organisation is greatest”.
There is justifiable merit in the notion that “a technological rationale (for administrative change) is the rationale of control and domination that relies on the coercive nature of the society of employees to succumb to alienation both collectively from the organisation and individually from each other”. The goal is to preserve the illusion of progression and improvement until an inevitable levelling element reveals its strength in the very mediocrity that is the destined outcome from the outset. In other words, if not carefully constructed and implemented, technology is not only an instrument for standardisation and mass production, it also sacrifices whatever characterises the distinction between the logic of academic work and the needs and goals of the social system in which staff and students play a crucial role.
This circumstance is the “result not of a law of advancement in technology per se, but (more specifically) of its function in today’s economy”. The need that might resist central control has already been suppressed by the control of individual consciousness (over academic integrity and ethics). The result is a circle of manipulation and retroactive ‘expediency’ in which the unity of the control system strengthens and grows over time.
Witness the increasing workload placed on academics as a result of the burgeoning presence of online forms that must now be assimilated and completed to accord with policies and procedures that impose limitations on productivity in lieu of much needed services, much of which were once the responsibility of administrative staff. Whilst the rational mind would naturally assume that this unwelcome encroachment on academic time would produce the effect of reducing the numbers of administrative staff, in fact the opposite ensues. Moreover, this paradox of expectations around administrative staff numbers produces a second unwelcome paradox – increased workloads for academic staff.
Staff and students gradually acculturate to increasing administrative workloads, in full knowledge of the fact that something must be surrendered, namely the very ideals and motivations that attracted them to academia in the first place – scholarship, excellence in research, teaching and learning, the pursuit of knowledge and the cooperative sharing of such knowledge. As academic pursuits are surrendered, the administrative workload continues to balloon, leaving even less time for productive scholarship.
Then, once mediocrity is entrenched, a second more corrosive agenda emerges. Financially (as the argument unfolds) it is cheaper and more efficient to deliver degrees and courses through technology. So naturally ‘curriculum reform’ is viewed as an attractive solution to achieving such ends – all under the guise of raising teaching and learning standards, in turn impressing governments to increase funding allocations.
The reality, and what is intended, is to deliver face-to-face course content at a reduced cost relative to each student at the lowest (read cheapest) possible standard. Students do not have to work as hard, greater numbers can be attracted to enrol in each course, lecturers do not have to impose high standards, plagiarism can be ignored (unless made public), low achievers can be given a pass, and the university can appear vibrant and productive. The best outcome of all however, is the increased revenue derived from higher turnovers and lower failure rates.
“The step from the telephone to the radio” illustrates the dichotomy between administrative and academic goals. A telephone call “allows the recipient to play the role of subject, and is liberal in its intent (to communicate and inform without the corollary of mass persuasion)”. The lecture and the tutorial play an identical role. “The radio however, is deceptively egalitarian: it turns all participants into listeners and authoritatively subjects them to broadcast programmes that for the most part deliver minimal variety”. It gives rise to the culture industry in the same way that distance education and now online learning, represent another application of the ‘point to mass’ (then shoot intellectually?) distribution model – the education industry.
“No effective machinery of rejoinder is devised (or overtly permitted), and private broadcasters (this includes academics) are denied any semblance of genuine freedom”. They are confined to the apocryphal field of the “amateur,” and must accept organisational structures imposed from above. In official broadcasting, any trace of spontaneity from the public is controlled and absorbed by talent scouts, studio competitions, and programmes of every conceivable kind that are selected by professionals” who make no attempt to incorporate the views of the listening audience.
For academics, the notions of academic freedom that foster independent thought and unimpeded pursuit of scholarship is slowly eroded and reduced to an unsavoury piecemeal exercise in their attempts to create even a minute semblance of quality from a plethora of ‘administrivial’ overload and control. Just as the views of the listening audience are ignored, the needs and preferences of teaching staff and students are given minimal credence in informing the effective management and delivery of education.
“Talented performers belong to the entertainment industry long before it displays them; otherwise they would not be so eager to fit in. The attitude of the public, which ostensibly and in actuality favours the system of the culture industry, is a part of the system and not an excuse for it. If one branch of art follows the same formula as one with a very different medium and content; if the dramatic intrigue of broadcast soap operas becomes no more than useful material for showing how to master technical problems at both ends of the scale of musical experience – real jazz or a cheap imitation; or if a movement from a Beethoven symphony is crudely “adapted” for a film sound-track in the same way as a Tolstoy novel is garbled in a film script: then the claim that this is done to satisfy the spontaneous wishes of the public is no more than empty rhetoric”. Once again, mediocrity is the means to lowering costs and increasing profits. It goes without saying, that for both the culture industry and the education industry, there is an overwhelming imperative to question who benefits most from declining standards and expanding revenues.
Despite protestations from governments and politicians to allay criticisms of standards and effectiveness, accompanied usually by affirmations of improved benefits for all, institutionalised learning offers students few options but to acquiesce to the strictures of an inflexible, subject delineated, curriculum-focussed (content) educational bureaucracy. In place of teaching students how to learn, think, and construct knowledge, a culture of corporatisation and financial accountability overshadows the fervent efforts of teachers to deliver quality education and superimposes educative professionalism and expertise with a mandate of national standards, grade recording, and report production to justify the (pre-empted) benefits of ‘education’. The corporate priority is to accumulate quantified evidence, a goal drawn directly out of the profit-driven mindset, which in turn is reinforced through government statutes, funding regulations, and grant conditions. Instead of enabling all students to maximise their cognitive efforts in order to realise their innate learning potential, the administrative mission is to collate the ‘evidence’ it requires to perpetuate the myth of improving standards and so lay claim to the delivery of a quality education to all.
We draw “closer to the facts if we explain these phenomena to be inherent in the technical and personnel apparatus, which down to its last cog, in itself, forms part of the economic mechanism of selection. Moreover, there is the (tacit) agreement – or at least the determination – of all executive authorities not to produce or sanction anything that in any way differs from their own rules, their own ideas on consumers, or above all themselves”. None of this reasoning alters in the slightest simply because the audience (or consumers) are in reality, staff and students.
Even where university IT departments are concerned, rarely is there a concerted effort to understand core ‘business’ needs, namely teaching, learning, and research. IT departments display remarkable proclivity in establishing infrastructure to service financial control, personnel records, student record systems, and general record management facilities. Such systems incorporate stringent security and risk management protocols and more often than not incur expenditures of $25 million and upward for each system. In contrast, a standard learning management system (LMS) for online teaching and learning seldom incurs more than $1 million to install and maintain.
Such a pronounced imbalance in funding priorities points to where the real interests reside, both from a management perspective as well as that of the IT department. Without entering into a lengthy discussion around the difficulties academic staff and students experience in exerting even partial influence over the choice of technologies for teaching and learning, there are the many restrictive practices imposed by IT departments that prohibit basic upgrades, installations, or modification to the mandatory standard operating environment (SOE). It is simply not possible to reconfigure any software so that it is made more effective and efficient for education purposes without first arranging intervention from an IT expert. It is for the reasons outlined here (along with many others) that I employ the term “‘the sanctity of the IT priesthood”.
Moreover, it should not be assumed that technology is the culprit – it is a contemporary strategy for the realisation of power. Consider the address delivered by Albert Einstein at a celebration of Max Plank’s sixtieth birthday (1918) before the Physical Society in Berlin. Published in Mein Weltbild, Amsterdam: Querido Verlag, 1934, the speech clearly shows that the path to mediocrity was in preparation well before technology presented a means to institute administrative suppression of academic scholarship and intellectual freedom.
In the temple of science are many mansions, and various indeed are they that dwell therein and the motives that have led them there. Many take to science out of a joyful sense of superior intellectual power; science is their own special sport to which they look for vivid experience and the satisfaction of ambition; many others are to be found in the temple who have offered the products of their brains on this altar for pure utilitarian purposes. Were an angel of the Lord to come and drive all the people belonging to these two categories out of the temple, the assemblage would be seriously depleted, but there would still be some [men], of both present and past times, left inside.
I am quite aware that we have just now light-heartedly expelled in imagination many excellent men who are largely, perhaps chiefly, responsible for the building of the temple of science; and in many cases our angel would find it a pretty ticklish job to decide. But of one thing I feel sure: if the types we have just expelled were the only types there were, the temple would never have come to be, any more than a forest can grow which consists of nothing but creepers. For these people any sphere of human activity will do, if it comes to a point; whether they become engineers, officers, tradesmen, or scientists depends on circumstances.
Now let us have another look at those who have found favour with the angel. Most of them are somewhat odd, uncommunicative, solitary fellows, really less like each other, in spite of these common characteristics, than the hosts of the rejected. What has brought them to the temple? That is a difficult question and no single answer will cover it.
To begin with, I believe with Schopenhauer that one of the strongest motives that leads [men] to art and science is escape from everyday life with its painful crudity and hopeless dreariness, from the fetters of one’s own shifting desires. A finely tempered nature longs to escape from personal life into the world of objective perception and thought; this desire may be compared with the townsman’s irresistible longing to escape from his noisy, cramped surroundings into the silence of high mountains, where the eye ranges freely through the still, pure air and fondly traces out the restful contours apparently built for eternity.
Jump forward to the present and it is not an arduous task to recognise that mediocrity in academia has become the norm. Through corporate ‘sleight of hand’ and refined ‘smoke and mirror’ tricks enshrouded and concealed in bureaucratic doublespeak, the notion of academic ‘standards’ is repeatedly lowered to new levels and so perpetuates the illusion of improved quality.
Extend further in thought beyond the erosion and diminution of academic standards and consider instead how a renaissance of what constitutes quality in teaching and learning and scholarship can be employed as an effective counter to the subversive nature of administrative use of technology. The only way forward is to establish learning as the basis upon which decisions are made – that management of any part of the University should first and foremost be committed to education. Synergistically speaking, technology can be a powerful tool to enhance learning and teaching and scholarship. The aim is not only to deflect further attempts to devalue scholarly behaviour and pursuits, but also to point the way to regaining the status and control that is clearly needed if genuine learning and innovative knowledge creation is to be cultivated in the manner that is alluded to in the rhetoric of improving quality and standards so often espoused by administrators, bureaucrats, and politicians.
However, even these encouraging thoughts require the need to exercise caution as the old maxim “the more things change, the more they stay the same” remains true to this day. The words of Schopenhauer, from his work “On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason”, attest precisely to this claim:
The chief drawback of formal education is that it reverses the proper order of experiences and concepts. Concepts have content and significance in so far as they derive from experience and can be cashed back into it. And the trouble with formal education is that it pre-empts experience in this regard by giving us our first knowledge of many of the most important aspects of life not through experience, from which we then abstract and generalise, but through concepts based on other people’s abstractions and generalisations to which nothing in our own experience corresponds or can be opposed. So for all of us, reality is bound to be to some extent impeded by the observations and perceptions and of others; and so, therefore, is truly original thinking and insight.
This paper does not seek to expose the many reasons academic standards are caught in a spiral of ever diminishing benchmarks and frequently realigned standards. Gathering evidence for such unwelcome degradation is not a difficult exercise. Several gigabytes on my personal harddrive attest to the validity of this claim. More important, and thereby the focus of this paper, is to underscore the roles of technology and cultural mediocrity in effecting diminishing educational standards and so begin to explore the strategies that academics can apply to reverse the downward trend in standards and rebuild the esteem and inestimable value of genuine scholarship and academic excellence.
The article, “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception” authored by Adorno and Horkheimer (2005) provides the foundation on which this paper is given its inspiration and dimension. For the purposes of this article, elements of their insights and interpretations on the culture industry have been enclosed in double quote marks.
Adorno, Theodor W. and Horkheimer, Max. (2005). Dialectic of Enlightenment The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception. Available from: http://libcom.org/library/dialectic-of-enlightenment-theodor-adorno-max-horkheimer
Schopenhauer (1788-1860, from his work “On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason”, 1814 -15, p 6, published in The Philosophy of Schopenhauer by Bryan Magee. Clarendon Press: Oxford, UK. 1997)