Friday, September 23, 2011

For-Profit Education?

In the United States, a recent phenomenon in higher education has gained steam – the increasing number of for-profit colleges/universities. Typically, universities are state-subsidized institutions or private non-profit institutions. As such, the traditional university is not centrally driven on the supposition of making money; instead education remains the centrepiece of the university, where students and staff produce and disseminate knowledge.

Under the growing for-profit, private enterprise model, universities are emerging that are characterized by a number of values that are antithetical to educational excellence:

  • A desire to enrol as many students as possible
  • Targeting of under-prepared young people from low-income communities who will rely on expensive federal student loans
  • An increasing number of courses offered online without in-person instruction, tutoring or assistance
  • A standardization of curriculum, overseen by university management

In essence, this model of education is comparable to fast-food restaurants, with one key caveat. At a fast-food restaurant like McDonalds for example, a Big Mac is relatively cheap and produced the exact same way at virtually any McDonalds across the globe. Its production is standardized, available for anyone to purchase who has a fairly small amount of money.

Likewise at for-profit colleges/universities, education is readily available to anyone who can pay, who has online computer access, and who is willing to receive a standardized education that is exactly the same, irrespective of the instructor or campus location. The caveat is that unlike a Big Mac at McDonalds, tuition at for-profit colleges/universities is quite expensive relative to traditional universities.

These conditions at for-profit educational institutions are established and enforced by institutional management. I have friends and colleagues who have taught at some of these institutions. They have told me that the textbooks and PowerPoint lectures they use are set ahead of time by the management, and that a managerial assessor is present in their classroom to insure that they are not deviating from the set curriculum.

This rigid and policed educational model is one that has three critical ramifications. One, the degrees students attain (if they attain them) are not valued in society. Thus, if a student graduates, s/he exits the university often times with a massive student debt and near worthless degree. Two, innovation is completely stifled. University staff and students are not encouraged to creatively investigate the many dimensions of our local and global communities. A uniform “cookie cutter” curricula devalues innovation and the production of knowledge through research, something no university should desire.

Three, the strict managerial surveillance of university staff discourages dissent, both of the curricula and of anything happening in society at large. Obviously, this is a crucial problem, as historically universities have been vital stimulators of social movements against oppressive conditions in society. The for-profit model of education eradicates all modes of a collective critical consciousness; students and staff are denied academic freedom and freedom of expression.

So what does all this have to do with the University of Auckland? Nobody is suggesting our university be completely transformed into a for-profit institution, are they? Probably not. However, it is absolutely essential that our university does not move in the direction of the for-profit model where management makes unobstructed universal decisions, rendering staff and students completely powerless in the university’s daily operations. As we see student tuition and debt rise, while our university’s international ranking simultaneously goes down, it is imperative that we at least make connections and ask the relevant questions.

There is no reason that university management should be privileged to such a degree that staff and students are excluded from major decision making processes. The for-profit model values students as dollars and staff as static informational cogs. Is the University of Auckland moving towards the for-profit model? If so, we need to turn things around now as this would certainly not be in the students’ best interests.

See also here: For-Profit Colleges: Targeting People Who Can't Pay

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