Education is a complex matter while reducing it to simple soundbites is easy. Ignorance, in the pure sense of not knowing, abounds when it comes to higher education. Alas, ignorance creates memes that are powerful.
Last night Jackie Lavin, an Irish woman famous for being famous and for being the partner of Bill Cullen, appeared on Prime Time (RTE’s flagship current affairs programme), and displayed many of the memes to which higher education in particular is prey. The show is here and the debate on higher education starts about 15m in. She claimed, in effect, that academics and students only work a few hours a week for half the year, and was dismissive of the notion that university education was for anything other than utilitarian reasons. She seemed to urge online education as a mode, and that doing so could halve the cost of education. She further critiqued universities for working only 26 weeks per year.
Pretty much all of these points are, as I noted, the purview of ignorance as in not knowing. The underlying point of contention seems to be a notion that, as I put it, universities are secondary schools for people who can legally drink, and that the entirety of education takes place in class. There is, in LavinWorld, no room for reflection, no room for self guided study, no room for thought, and seemingly no room or need for homework, library work, or anything not scheduled and class bound. What a dull world that is. Meanwhile, for faculty, classes and labs somehow prepare themselves and appear on screens and boards by magic. No work is required to prepare, repair, renew, update and rejig class and module plans. It is a vision, by no means unique to her, of higher education as training, and class bound training at that. The standard rubric is that for both sides of the podium, student and lecturer, to do a really good job takes about 2h of prep for each class hour. So even if we were to take Jackies word that she knows students who only have 12h class per week, they should be doing 36h in total, pretty close to a full working week. I guess
A further contention was, seemingly, that we could (should?) move to speed up the process of undergraduate education from ‘three or four years’. To what pace is unclear, but given her assertion that universities work only 26w per year we can assume that she sees it as at least twice as long as it should be. Several issues arise here. First, it is again predicated on the assumption that undergraduate education is what modern universities are about. And sure they only go to college for a few hours for a few weeks per year, if they bother to get out of bed at all. One might have hoped that going onto the leading current affairs programme to talk about an issue that a panellist would have done some cursory research. That would have shown Jackie that there are 166000 undergraduates, 76000 of whom are in IoTs and 80000 in the university sector. There are 37000 postgraduates, 6000 in the IoTs and 31000 in the university sector. Postgraduates are, believe it or not, year round. But lets not let facts get in the way of a good meme. A second issue is the inherent desirability of accelerated education. Again, the confusion on training and education comes across. Education, if it is to be meaningful, requires cogitation. Some things take time to sink in. I suspect, but only that, that people like Jackie draw a distinction between “real” degrees in things like medicine and engineering, and the Arts. What is most depressing is that the things employers seem to value, critical thinking and the ability to learn and communicate, are or should be at the heart of the Arts and humanities. A third issue, which she did not pick up on, is that the modern university academic juggles three or four tasks. They teach, they research, they administer and they fundraise. Universities are complex organizations and the work they do is complex. Focusing on undergraduate student hours is focusing on one part alone.
A third issue that seemed to exercise Jackie is the issue of online education. She was quite adamant that this was the future, and that it would mean the end of this slacking about as people could take degrees online while working. I guess all those people who could and did take Open University degrees and indeed other distance learning degrees slipped under her gaze. The advent of MOOCs poses a challenge to education as we deliver it. But again, education is not training. There is a fantastic article in the NY Times on how Harvard Business School are responding to MOOCs. In essence the question on MOOCs is whether they are truly disruptive in a stragegy sense. Harvard has some form on thinking about strategy and its business school has done a lot of thinking and debating on this, more so than I and I suspect more so than Jackie Lavin. HBS are getting on board the MOOC train but in an interesting way. They have segmented the market – the flagships they offer are the MBA and exec ed courses which they do not wish to cannabilize. They are therefore offering MOOCs in basic undergraduate business skills – training more than education. The thing Harvard and other elite business schools sell is, whisper it, not skills but networks. No MOOC can replace that. The challenge for Irish universities is to develop the areas that cannot be MOOCd – critical thinking, communication skills, foundations for lifelong learning – via their courses and offerings
It would be nice if the university presidents and the heads of the Institutes of education were to spend some time, and a little cash, on educating the population about what it is they run. This is a sector that has 2.2b in spend per annum, and which touches the lives of every person. Some basic facts should be pushed out front and centre. As it stands the sense from within the sector is of being beleaguered and belittled. Trotting out tired, ignorant, tropes on TV is easy. Education is hard.