business-izing higher ed: I’m not scared

A few days back, this post about higher ed in the UK appeared over on one of my favorite blogs, Feminist Philosophers. Here’s the big quote: “Business secretary wants students and parents to be treated more like customers in proposals to overhaul higher education.”

The original poster worries that “universities get put under a great deal of pressure to produce a product that can be recognized by the consumer, and that tends to lead to, among other things, massive grade  inflation and all that entails, which is a sense  that money is just about enough to entitle a student to be called educated.” Other commentors worry about capitalism in general, the commodification of education, taking the spirituality out of educational practices, etc etc.

Maybe my thinking on this matter is too simplistic / idealistic / naive / uninformed by experience working in academia / or something. But I tend to see things this way:

If you are trying to sell something, and people don’t want it, the answer is not to make them buy it, but to sell something else.

People with academic credentials are going to have to get more creative in selling their labor to universities, and perhaps more and more to other entities like non-profits, political groups, private schools, etc. This will not be wholly successful, and some academics will be unemployed. But guess what, that’s already the case, particularly in the humanities where the job markets have been dismal for some time and have lately only been getting worse. The face of academia will change, in some ways we can predict and in other ways we can’t. If a degree really can just be bought outright, it will no longer have much value in tracking who is qualified to work in what field, and the system will change again.

Change will, of course, continue to occur across all sectors of society, and I am consistent in my belief that responsibility falls upon workers to adapt accordingly. Providing support to factory workers or administrative assistants whose skills are no longer relevant only postpones beneficial improvements in technology and productivity at sometimes great cost (I suggest that you read Economics in One Lesson by Henry Hazlitt if you don’t understand why). Producing sound social policy is a balancing act, and other concerns, such as those for the unemployed’s immediate welfare, might sometimes take precedence. But we ought not to speak or act as if maintaining endangered jobs or industries is an unequivocal moral or economic good.

It’s one thing to engage in some consciousness raising to show others why one’s work is valuable. In the case of philosophy, for instance, this might involve efforts to get people to recognize that it is not just mind games and has practical value (hello, business ethics and bioethics!) But that is very different from trying to get the government to prop up one’s way of life using the money of others. Academics have the right to study whatever they wish, but they don’t have a right to be paid by others for it. If people don’t want what you’re selling, and you’re somehow still receiving a paycheck, it’s time to question whether something has gone morally awry.

So, the only fear I have regarding changes to higher ed is a generic one, shared by those who work in many fields, that someday what I have to offer will no longer be in demand. This is an unfortunate yet persistent and ineradicable feature of the human condition. So I say develop your skills in accordance with your best judgments, get whatever experiences you can, and keep your eyes open for opportunity wherever it might exist. This is probably better for your wallet and your soul than lamenting the inexorable march of time and change.

P.S. – None of this is meant to suggest that the kind people over at Feminist Philosophers would support a new tax to pay philosophers, or anything of the sort. In this case, it is actually the government itself which is pushing for the undesired change in education.  I’m just sayin’ that often, when people are scared or unsure about the future, they do call upon the government to make it right. And I think there are reasons not to do that.

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