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Painting by numbers: The problem with HE.

I read a report the other week about concern over the number of 1st degrees that are being achieved within higher education in the UK (Richmond, 2018) and the fact that the volume of such achievements is devaluing university degrees.  I juxtapose this with another report that states that 32% of students do not think they get value for money (Neves and Hillman, 2018) and the result is some soul searching about what it is I’m trying to achieve as a lecturer, aside from survival, and what higher education (HE) is about.  A conversation with a friend who works in Information Technology muddies the water even more.  He’s a high flyer, jetting backwards and forwards to the USA, solving problems, advising on, and implementing major change projects within large corporations and generally making a lot of money along the way.  For him a degree is not as important as the ability to ‘think outside the box’, find solutions to problems and show leadership that enables change or fixes.  If you have a degree then you ought to be able to do all these things to some extent, experience will then build on it. He lets on that his company will not touch graduates from certain universities, simply because they do not have the requisite skills or abilities, their degrees are effectively meaningless.  A sad generalisation but one that is becoming increasingly prominent amongst employers. One other thing that he was quick to point out is that the ‘real world’ is highly competitive and his company are looking for the best potential.

So, what is higher education all about, higher than what?  What is the benchmark and what is the end goal? I have always believed that higher education is about taking students beyond what can be read in books or can be followed in manuals. It is about enhancing the understanding of the world in which we operate, either professionally or socially and being able to redesign or reimagine that world.  It is about leadership in its many guises, problem solving and the ability to use initiative and autonomy. It is about moving a student from being able to paint by numbers under supervision to a student that can paint free hand, understanding light and colours, understanding how to capture moods or how to be evocative, a student who uses materials that they want to use, and they are not frightened to do so.  It stands to reason that not every student can achieve excellence.  If the starting point is the ability to paint by numbers, then some will move only slightly beyond this and some will excel, but only a few will warrant a 1st degree. What is clear though is that the students really ought to be able to paint by numbers before they enter HE otherwise they will need to be taught that skill before they can move on.  That then is no longer higher education but further education (FE) and more importantly, it sets students up to fail, if they are being measured against HE standards.  An alternative to avoid this potential failure requires HE standards to be lowered to those of FE.  In which case what is the point of HE?

So why would I be confused about HE?  Well, when students are seen as cash cows, each being worth £9250 a year to an institution, being able to paint by numbers becomes a barrier to recruitment in a highly competitive market.  Institutions can help students that do not have the requisite skills, but this requires either extra time before joining the HE course, this has funding implications, or a lot of extra work by the student during the HE course, and this means that students with limited academic ability struggle. A need to retain students over the three-year period of a degree, to ensure institutional financial stability or even viability, becomes problematic.  Struggling students have a double whammy, they have to catch up to the starting point for each year, whilst also progressing through the year.  The choices are stark for HE institutions, progress students by lowering standards or lose them.

HE institutions are measured on the number of good degrees and it makes for good advertising. There is enough literature around to suggest that such unsophisticated quantitative measures are never a good thing.  The complexity of higher education, where there is a heavy reliance on students engaging in their studies (there is something to be said about reading for a degree), puts much of the achievement of grades beyond the control of lecturers or even institutions.  The resultant solution appears to be the lowering of assessment standards and teaching to assessments.  In effect, HE is falling in line with FE and teaching students to paint by numbers.  It is easy to see why there is disquiet then about an increase in 1st degrees and more importantly, in a competitive world, why employers are becoming increasingly concerned about the value of a degree.  As for value for money for students, for many, it’s a bit like being charged a fortune to race a Maserati round a track for a day but not being able to drive.

Neves, J. and Hillman, N. (2018) Student Academic Experience Survey report 2018 [online] available at https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/knowledge-hub/student-academic-experience-survey-report-2018 [accessed 20 June 2018]

Richmond, T. (2018) A degree of uncertainty: An investigation into grade inflation in universities. [online] available at, http://www.reform.uk/publication/a-degree-of-uncertainty-an-investigation-into-grade-inflation-in-universities/ [accessed 20 June 2018].

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The true message of Christmas

Xmas Card

One of the seasonal discussions we have at social fora is how early the Christmas celebrations start in the streets, shops and the media.  An image of snowy landscapes and joyful renditions of festive themes that appear sometime in October and intensify as the weeks unforld.  It seems that every year the preparations for the festive season start a little bit earlier, making some of us to wonder why make this fuss?  Employees in shops wearing festive antlers and jumpers add to the general merriment and fun usually “enforced” by insistent management whose only wish is to enhance our celebratory mood.  Even in my classes some of the students decided to chip in the holiday fun wearing oversized festive jumpers (you know who you are!).  In one of those classes I pointed out that this phenomenon panders to the commercialisation of festivals only to be called a “grinch” by one of the gobby ones.  Of course all in good humour, I thought.  

Nonetheless it was strange considering that we live in a consumerist society that the festive season is marred with the pressure to buy as much food as possible so much so, that those who cannot (according to a number of charities) feel embarrassed to go shopping;  or the promotion of new toys, cosmetics and other trendy items that people have to have badly wrapped ready for the big day.  The emphasis on consumption is not something that happened overnight.  There have been years of making the special season into a family event of Olympic proportions.  Personal and family budgets will dwindle in the need to buy parcels of goods, consume volumes of food and alcohol so that we can rejoice.       

Many of us by the end of the festive season will look back with regret, for the pounds we put on, the pounds we spent and the things we wanted to do but deferred them until next Christmas.  Which poses the question; What is the point of the holiday or even better, why celebrate Christmas anymore?  Maybe a secular society needs to move away from religious festivities and instead concentrate on civic matters alone.  Why does religion get to dictate the “season to be jolly” and not people’s own desire to be with the ones they want to be with?  If there is a message within the religious symbolism this is not reflected in the shop-windows that promote a round-shaped old man in red, non-existent (pagan) creatures and polar animals.  

According to the religious message about 2000 years ago a refugee family gave birth to a child on their way to exile.  The child would live for about 33 years but will change the face of modern religion.  He promised to come back and millions of people still wait for his second coming but in the meantime millions of refugee children are piling up in detention centers and hundreds of others are dying in the journey of the damned.  “A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children, because her children are no more” (Jeremiah 31:15).  This is the true message of Christmas today.

Happy Holidays to our students and colleagues.  
FYI: Ramah is a town in war torn Middle East

 

The commodification of youth: waiting to grow up

struggle-1271657_960_720I find myself reflecting on the problems of youth as I watch my two lads growing up and preparing to leave school. Well I think they’ll leave school and I think they’ll grow up.  The latter begs the question, when is a young person grown up, when does a young person embark on that journey into adulthood?

In the eyes of the law an adult is 18 or over and yet in certain aspects, young people are treated differently until they are 25, for example, state benefits are not equitably distributed between those that are under 25 and those that are over.  Young people cannot buy alcohol or cigarettes until they are 18 and yet they can legally have sex, get married, with parental consent, and sign up to a near enough £30,000 debt as part of their commitment to higher education, a commitment that derives many a time from external social and economic pressures and expectation rather than personal choice.

At the age of 16 I left school and went to work with 5 O’ levels to my name.  I had a choice and looking back, it was a good job I did; education at that time was not for me.  What choice do 16 year olds have now? Stay at home and be funded by parents, an extension of childhood and then at 18 a debt that hangs over them like a Sword of Damocles, waiting to be sold off to the highest commercial bidder later on? Or simply stay at home with parents and then at 18 seek work in low paid zero hours contract jobs that belie the true state of unemployment in this country.  A somewhat limited choice, I would suggest.

I have watched the manufacturing industries of the past disappear and with them the hope of jobs for many a youngster, perhaps not academically inclined to go through higher education.  So the choice for young people is stark, low paid, irregular work usually in a service industry, resulting in a need to stay in the parental home, or a massive debt and some offer of freedom, albeit perhaps temporary.

Unemployment is at its lowest level and there are more people accessing higher education than ever before. On the surface a success story but delve a little deeper and it is the young that are a paying the price for the elongation and commercialisation of education.  They are prevented from growing up by the restriction on school leaving age and the socio-economic pressures that seem to abound. But if the young cannot get jobs, are not allowed to grow up and develop into adults that contribute to the treasury’s coffers, then in the not too distant future they will not be the only ones to suffer as various services slowly disintegrate due to the lack of funding.  It is time government rethought education but more importantly thought about the future of the young, they are after all our future and deserve better than a lifetime of debt, poverty and insecurity.

Fighting the Tide or Following the Current?

This week’s blog is a reflective piece that will, I think, resonate with some of my ‘Outsiders’ students and perhaps with criminologists more broadly. It concerns the nagging tension between being a reluctant capitalist subject and a critical criminologist, more specifically between the roles of consumer and critic. Whilst criminology undoubtedly possesses transformative potential, particularly in its critical and ultra-realist forms, some sections of the discipline and arguably some, but certainly not all, of its proponents sit comfortably within the very structures subject to criticism during the ‘working day’. Indeed, we (and I include myself in this) hold the world to rights from 9-5 Monday to Friday then disavow the many harms we so vehemently lecture/write about whilst indulging in conspicuous consumption on weekends; fitting neatly into the circuitry of consumer capitalism.

Whilst I resolutely resist the drive to mask the fallout of free-market capitalism by not giving to charity, which is, as Žižek (2009:19) notes, the quintessential “humanitarian mask hiding the face of economic exploitation”, I am guilty of indulging a range of consumer impulses. It would be nice if this dilemma was as simple as being a hypocrite, something I could rectify by having a strong word with myself. Unfortunately, the reality is that this reflects a tension that emerges from occupying a social terrain that requires a dual identity and one within which the risks of protesting too ardently are severe.

Yet rather than serving as a vestigial port from which to take critical aim at pressing issues the university sector, as an industry, compounds this tension further. For criminology in particular the irony is painful. We occupy positions in what is now a heavily marketised sector; one that dictates the state of play based on the logic of the market, on catering for elusive customers rather than educating students. The irony of course is that, as criminologists, we are employed to research, write and lecture about criminalised and un-criminalised harms that pervade the social world by a sector whose neoliberal institutions have no qualms about inflicting severe harm on those who work and study within them. Universities seem to have become marketised, profit seeking institutions that pay lip service to helping communities whilst adopting the very structures that cause severe harm to society.

Perhaps the university can no longer be seen as a place from which to do some good. Or perhaps there is still a great deal of good that can be done from under the neoliberals’ nose. Either way, we cannot retain a blind and baseless optimism that refuses to acknowledge and tackle the many harms of neoliberalism, including those inflicted by the university sector. Rather, we should maintain an ultra-realist commitment to “explaining the world as it is, warts and all” (Winlow and Hall 2013:175).

 

Justin Kotzé, July 2017

References

Winlow, S. and Hall, S. (2013) Rethinking Social Exclusion: The End of the Social? London: Sage Publications Ltd.

Žižek, S. (2009) Violence: Six Sideways Reflections. London: Profile Books Ltd.

The Commodification of Abstinence

 

rebel grafitti

The inspiration for this short blog post comes from an incredibly stimulating discussion with some of my second year students studying the criminology module ‘Outsiders’. In class we were discussing how rather than constituting active forms of rebellion that resist the mainstream, various ‘trendy’ acts of so-called deviance, such as graffiti, parkour and ‘rooftopping’, have actually become absorbed into the mainstream consumer culture. Following this we began to discuss ‘new’ ways of resisting. Amongst the ideas offered was the notion of somehow disconnecting ourselves from the now ever-present network of social media and its frequent and avid advertisement of consumer items. Interestingly, having already discussed the tendency for social media’s ‘revolutionary potential’ to be integrated within rather than threaten capitalism (Crary 2013), this proposed disconnect would also require avoiding the latest online driven micro-revolution. The result of this discussion was the idea of ‘going mobile free for a week’.

The problem with this proposed ‘period of abstinence’ is that it becomes another micro-revolution that simply represents a new opportunity for commodification. This is because capitalism has the uncanny ability “to incorporate every attack by integrating the attack into the system” (McGowan 2016:12). It does this by taking the seemingly revolutionary practice and transforming it into a marketable commodity. With this in mind, we started to consider how such periods of abstinence would be integrated and commodified. It was suggested that a number of high-street retailers such as Game and HMV would perhaps have preparatory sales the week before to help us cope with the inevitable upset of ‘going mobile free for a week’. Similar offers would no doubt be made by a range of other providers; why not get into cycling, mountain climbing, or Zumba? That is after buying all the essential gear and merchandise of course. Then, once this period of abstinence is over, what better way to show how ‘resistant’ you were than by posting pictures of, or tweeting about, all the things you got up to during this ‘rebellious’ period; thereby further contributing to the marketing of consumer items.

Rather than representing some form of resistance then, this period of abstinence becomes commodified and successfully integrated into contemporary consumer capitalism. This does not mean that there is no alternative to capitalism, it simply means that if we wish to make a genuine attempt at resistance we should avoid being absorbed or forced into the next ‘trendy’ micro-revolution or simulated rebellion (Hall et al. 2008). Precisely how we do this is of course another matter entirely.

Justin Kotzé, March 2017

References

Crary, J. (2013) 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep. London: Verso.

Hall, S., Winlow, S. and Ancrum, C. (2008) Criminal Identities and Consumer Culture: Crime, Exclusion and the New Culture of Narcissism. Cullompton: Willan Publishing.

McGowan, T. (2016) Capitalism and Desire: The Psychic Cost of Free Markets. New York: Columbia University Press.

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