Thursday, May 5, 2011

Market Education

Watching thousands of students take to the streets in protest over the rise in tuition fees and the ensuing riot by those that had a heightened sense of anger, the circling media circus and the commentary on Twitter and so forth fascinated me last year. All of it a palpable and heightened energy about education, or is it?

I query whether this is about education because the actual debate about education, university and more importantly learning is not really happening. The focus has so narrowly been on the cost of attending and accessing university and the consequential debt, we don’t seem to be actually analysing, debating and discussing the complexity of future education, it is rapidly becoming what Daniel Pink refers to as the "candle problem".

For over a decade we have been commoditising education into a market economy and changing the role of student from learner to consumer, we have brought such terms as “value for money” and “student/ consumer satisfaction” into the equation which has the natural conclusion of focussing on a tangible result, which is employability and certification. It’s education as “product” and has brought in a culture of “marketing that product” utilising all of the usual psychological tricks of marketing to create desire and aspiration, universities as “brands”, which is probably why all prospectuses look like holiday brochures or Gap adverts. Why did this happen?

It happened because there is a genuine need to increase participation with education and have a more educated workforce as the world has moved from an industrial age into a knowledge age, therefore more educational establishments were created to run more courses in the diverse knowledge range the world needs. The concept of “education as a market” is not that new, in fact the concept of the market as an effective mechanism for the “management” of the education sector dates back to the ideas of Milton Friedman (1962) and Friedrich von Hayek (1976), there has been a steady increase in reviews, research and policy development in this field ever since.

With the expansion of Higher Education institutions, it rapidly became unsustainable to publicly fund, this was known for some time and there have been conferences etc for venture capital investment in higher education long before deficit cuts, this is why large PLC’s bought private education providers with degree awarding powers for large sums of money. This is why reports on how private institutions can take over public universities and the necessary changes in the law have been submitted to politicians. The marketisation of education seed was planted a long time ago and now it’s coming to it’s logical conclusion, the cap on income has been lifted enough to make the market fully viable for exploitation.

All of this is a distraction though, because the discussion and narrative takes us away from the core issue of education and learning. This is true of all involved, principally students, who having been weaned on the outcomes of learning, ie grades or forms of assessment based on pre-determined outcomes, so called performance indicators, which conflict with the well established principles of “Goodhart’s Law” (Elton 2004) that “when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure”; as well as to the additional one of “playing games” – from students concentrating on the examined as opposed to the taught curriculum, via plagiarism and other forms of cheating, to tutors teaching to the test.

There is seldom an evaluation or self reflection on the learning process by the student, as meta-cognition principles tell us, we seldom know what we know and what we don’t know. The narrative needs to change and there needs to be a re-focus on learning and an increased understanding in being able to assess what institutions approach to learning is, rather than glossy prospectuses. I shall return to this point again in the future.