It’ll never happen

By Liz Morrish

A version of this article first appeared on *HE: Policy and markets in higher education, published by Research Fortnight on 23rd October 2017.


As a linguist I appreciate a good metaphor. ‘Future I-86’ was a coded phrase which would always elicit a knowing smirk from my close academic colleagues when I was a subject leader in a post-1992 university. It meant the new idea being touted was probably going to be a blow-through, never to be encountered again, so we wouldn’t be wasting too much time on it. The phrase had its origin for me back in 1989 when I was working in a college in upstate New York. State legislators announced that the main road up to the Catskill Mountains, Route 17, was to become an Interstate – I-86. In just a few weeks, new signs appeared declaring ‘Future I-86’. They are still there 28 years later, with little actual progress achieved towards becoming an interstate highway.

It is always unwise to impose an idea or process on individuals or institutions for which those values are a poor fit. The values of the private sector – competition, market focus and financialized targets have long grated in the synchromesh of knowledge for its own sake, public service and the collective good. But exactly how can we diagnose a drive-by initiative and make sure it stays quarantined in the Dean’s Consultation Group?

A couple of recent stories have provided us with the benefit of hindsight. First, an article condemning The Digital-Humanities Bust. This takedown of what has seemed to many of us a rather grandiose lauding of a ‘discipline’ lacking unity, identity, research questions or methodology was as welcome as it was elegantly argued. Although I fully acknowledge the great benefits to scholarship which accrue from digitised archives and the compilation of massive linguistic corpora, there has been a lot of hype, and in some cases undue pressure to ‘do’ digital humanities. Denouncing an “extravagant rhetoric of exuberance”, the author, Timothy Brennan, writes, “Digital humanities has a signature style: technophilia crossed with a love for its own neologisms. Data are “curated” rather than assessed; information is “leveraged”; facts are “aggregated” rather than interrogated”. Gotcha.

The uncritical celebration of the technological fix has also been a feature of discussions about MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). Another article predicts the swift demise of these. And yet it is only in 2013 we were told An Avalanche is Coming, Not a cluster of snowflake students this time, lacking the resilience that a bit of mindfulness might install.  No, this was about the technological revolution about to transform higher education. Universities were advised they must provide online courses and unbundle their degrees in the form of MOOCS (Massive Open Online Courses). Universities did provide these, and academics, who love a new audience for their work, engaged with the new teaching and learning technology. Unfortunately, for this is the criteria for success in 2017, few have turned a profit, and the completion rates average just 15%. Currently the most successful MOOC in the UK is Edinburgh University’s Equine Nutrition with an enrolment of 23322 students and a completion rate of 36.1%. To date, they have proven most popular with curious retirees or older workers looking to update their knowledge, and sector pioneer Udacity is already threatening to retrench. MOOCs may have seemed a step in the right direction for public service and knowledge transfer, and they may have been the route to accelerated promotion for a few early-adopters, but universities’ income remains tied to their ability to attract residential undergraduates. Perhaps the mistake was to view universities as just platforms for delivery of courses rather than communities of scholars engaged in rather 12th-21st century activities such as teaching, research and critical engagement with democracy.

One of Avalanche’s authors, Sir Michael Barber, is the Head of the Office for Students (OfS), and a persistent complainer that universities are failing to enter the 21st century. He has laid out his vision for a very new approach to regulation in the UKHE sector where new universities may switch validators, the OfS will be entitled to offer its own degrees, and universities must provide a plan to facilitate student continuation of their degrees at another institution in the event of ‘market exit’.  It is a recipe for destabilization, uncertainty and reputational catastrophe for British universities, albeit dressed up in the language of competition, choice and market fundamentalism.

I left the academy just as the personalization agenda was beginning to invade my consciousness, but before puppy rooms and lazy rivers were judged to be an essential part of ‘the student experience’. I may be getting confused at this point with USP – Unique Selling Point, but I think that’s all a bit noughties. The cult of ‘personalization’ seems likely to increase, with its promise of student-pleasing initiatives and instant feedback. Another report indicates this was a word which went down well with the TEF panel, especially if repeated often enough.  However, I can’t help feeling that the boast of customised teaching is likely to be submerged within a rather depersonalizing student dashboard whose judgements reflect ‘engagement’ algorithms generated by cohort norms, rather than the intuition of academics who teach them.

I’m not sure how the government will weigh obligation to personalize courses against the OfS impulse to enforce ‘market exit’ for what I’m sure will be an increasing list of deficiencies. Finding its way to the top is likely to be failure of a sufficient number of graduates to repay student loans (assuming these persist). Now that the government has access to Longitudinal Educational Outcomes data (i.e. graduate incomes), they can assess the apparent value for money to individuals of particular courses and universities. Enforced closure of courses deemed to lack earning power will ensure that higher education in the UK contracts towards the homogeneous. Meanwhile, the stated purpose of TEF information is to enable students to make informed choices. At the same time, bestowing degree awarding powers on ‘alternative providers’ is supposed to expand diversity in the sector. Both assertions are misleading. They serve only to mask the move towards market fundamentalism.

The TEF of course, is another unnecessary, proxy-data-driven solution to an illusory problem. I wish I could be writing its epitaph, but it has just been saved from the extinction that might have been its fate if the Russell Group had walked away. This looked possible, after TEF-for-fees was revealed to be a bait-and switch decoy. In October 2017 we had news that TEF registration will be a condition for charging in excess of £6K fees. There are indications it will extend its scope into subject level scrutiny, and it may demand evidence of learning gain – if a convincing measure can be found. Or perhaps learning gain will be eclipsed by the easier-to-measure value for money/ LEO data.

Unfortunately, not all bad ideas are future I-86s although they often share the characteristics of excitable pronouncements and the scolding of professionals for imagined recalcitrance in the face of ‘modernisation’. We see high-handed judgements from those who have little contact with day to day operations. This is followed by the conceit of innovation driven by a requirement to convince government funders that the institution is in regulatory compliance.

I have seen a few really good ideas gets wasted and squandered for reasons that baffle. Some of these might even qualify as digital humanities or ed-tech. Online Subject Centres flourished in the early 2000s. Their dynamic projects and invaluable resources made a real difference to teaching and learning in universities. The case studies and question banks that informed my academic practice have been inaccessibly interred by the Higher Education Academy into a Knowledge Hub consisting of webinars and employability strategies. I withhold my judgement on the HEA. Let’s just say they’re still way back on Route 17 as far as I’m concerned.


A version of this article first appeared on *HE: Policy and markets in higher education, published by Research Fortnight on 23rd October 2017.





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