IF WE COULD enter into a time machine and fast forward to 2025, we would despair that corner book stores and small publishers have disappeared into the maw of media conglomerates.
We would be angered that deregulation in the name of increased competition rewarded us instead with high prices and massive layoffs.
The principle that public policy should encourage maximal profits no matter what the consequences for the public sphere, will indeed yield positive results in at least one area; in higher education where we would celebrate the ascendancy of the profit motive.
Education will be big business in search of big profits, learning will become a revenue stream not a path towards “enlightenment” customer satisfaction will finally come.
Life will become much easier for every tertiary education student.
Today, if you know where to look, signs of improved efficiency through profit seeking are visible at virtually every campus.
Much of the credit for this progress must go to the pioneering intellectuals who have devised a strategy to promote and implement corporate investment in high education.
The Knight Higher Education Roundtable seminal 1994 essay To dance with change begins by asserting the existence of a seemingly irresistible impulse on the part of policy makers and public agencies to rely on markets and market-like mechanisms to define the public good.
The key word here is “irresistible”. It eases us away from a futile search for so-called options such as churlishly refusing to define the public good in terms of market values or quixotically making the case that higher education has its own values and guides us gently onto the path of progress.
All high education institutes are striving to position themselves into the 21st Century as part of what is now called the “knowledge industry”.
Once we see clearly that high education must submit to the irresistible nature of the profit principle, we can begin to take advantage of the benefits this trend will offer.
The crucial benefit is technology because it demands we reconceive knowledge as information and it is through the sluice of this clarification that the highly efficient forces of the market will be allowed to purge higher education waste and sloth.
No one needs professors to dispense mere information and machines can do the job as well or better.
Also, once the sellers of computer hardware and software supply the means through which education is delivered, they will occupy the critical position for the middleman therefore no one will be able to give or get an education without going through them.
Soon thereafter we will experience the same efficiencies of scale we have witnesses in the telecommunications industry which has learnt that it is much more profitable to own both the product being delivered and the means of delivering it.
Once the purveyors or instructional technology control both the context of instruction (course syllabi, lectures, handouts) and student process to it (computer hardware and software, the Internet) mumbling professors with their mystique of knowledge will have no place in the new university.
This is what it means to “dance with change”.
The traditional classroom tends not to be tailored to the needs of a particular individual whereas with e-learning you can go at your own pace and do training when you need it and when it is convenient for you.
It is obvious that a prepackaged distance learning course that gives you a limited help of options to “click” is more tailored for your needs than a trained teacher standing in the room with you, a person who can misread your expression and ineptly judge whether he or she is effectively communicating.
Many are still reluctant to think of education as an “industry” the quaint societal myth that cultures’ values can be located somewhere apart from its profile has outstanding tenacity.
Reformers understand this too, which is why they tent to avoid using words like “profit” in connection with technology. They wisely assert that the underlying motive of distance learning is not profit or even efficiency but choice and accessibility.
The colleges’ promises to create and deliver complete online campus, including training of faculty to administration in 60 business days, why spend decades or more building an actual university when we can get a virtual equivalent in two months.
Why limit ourselves to revenue gained through tuition at a campus when we can charge fees to everyone, everywhere anytime?
It comes as no surprise that most elite institutions are in the vanguard of the movement to reform higher education.
Universities are now entering into agreements with dotcom companies whereby the schools allow the companies to use their names in marketing jointly conceived online courses and in return, receive royalties.
How you might asking can a computer program or a dvd of a famous professors lectures actually teach students skills? Like how to articulate problems in their own terms, how to devise their own solutions, how to imagine their way outside the box of orthodox thinking? The answer is simple they won’t.
They will not need to. Education reformers have thankfully deemed such “skills” irrelevant.
The whole standards movement after all is about restricting learning to what is actually useful the memorisation of information, the streamlining of knowledge to what can be evaluated by a standardised test.
By curtailing the excessive autonomy of teachers and require them to teach “to the tests” universities are preparing future students for a brand of higher education designed and administered by the savviest segment of our society; for profit corporations soon the hundreds of dollars paid for tuition will go straight to the people who run these companies and not a penny will be wasted on teachers and classrooms.
We have not gotten that efficient yet, but we are getting close. At least we all can agree that learning is a means not an end.
What matters is emerging at the end of the process with a ticket that guarantees you access to a comfortable lifestyle.
For most of the twentieth century, we artificially and expensively subsidised that process, allowing students and teachers inside the system to dabble in all kinds of meaningless and wasteful activities in the name of “learning” now that we have reconceived of education as a process that generate profit we will quickly squeeze the inefficiencies out of it.
Knowledge will be seen for what it truly is, if not a pill you can swallow at least a commodity you can buy.
As we learn to dance with change the time machine brings us back to the present and the words of Emerson echo in our minds “accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events”.