not a productivity crisis, not a cost crisis, but a disinvestment crisis

After my exchange a while ago with Yglesias here and here, I’ve continued to mull over Matt Y’s neo-liberal “solutions” to higher ed, which still seem entirely focused on questions of “standardization,” “productivity” and “delivery systems.”

The irony, of course, is that at this point in time, I can’t think of any viable political movement, left or right, that would want to associate itself with “market forces,” “market efficiencies,” or the wisdom of CEOs, besides nominally Democratic economists and soon-to-be-former university system presidents like Mark Yudof.  And, of course, Matt Yglesias, who still believes, for reasons he has never been able to explain, that markets remain a terrific way to think about higher education.

It is in this context, where the conventional wisdom seems never to consult those who actually work in higher education, that I really enjoyed Michael Konczal’s  WaPo article about the “21st Century Retreat from Higher Education.”  Konczal’s point is that the current crisis of higher ed derives not from the behavior of students or faculty, but the mutually reinforcing behavior of politicians and administrators.  Disinvestment and privatization have gone hand in hand to render our educational institutions unrecognizable in terms of their educational missions.

Konczal’s overview, which deserves to be read in full, serves as an antidote to the  conventional wisdom about these issues, because he lays out some of the most salient issues before us:

  • that the events of the last few years represent a worldwide retreat from a goal of universal access to higher ed, or a notion of education as a public good;
  • that privatizing administrators like the UC system’s Mark Yudof represent a large part of the problem, both in terms of the management of those systems, and in their credibility as stewards of the public good in this political climate;
  • that it is politicians’, regents’, and administrators’ initiatives towards disinvestment in, and privatization of, higher ed, and not runaway “costs” (in the form of faculty salary or financial aid) that are shifting the expenses of research universities onto the backs of students and their parents;
  • that these moves disproportionately favor the marketable sciences over the humanities, but only to the extent that their research products can be quickly sold off to insiders for profit;
  • that the liberal arts are currently being redefined under this regime  as a kind of branding device, only this time as a bait-and-switch that uses the language of the liberal arts to lure students into ever-growing debts for lectures or distance ed courses that bear little relation to the ideals of a non-vocational liberal education.

It is the ubiquity of debt that is  undermining the language of the liberal arts nowadays, more surely than any conservative critique, because the long-term burden it creates makes it increasingly difficult to argue that a liberal arts education represents a form of “openness” or “freedom” rather than self-constraint.  But the decision to treat education as a matter of market-based “preference” is itself a “preference” we may wish to rethink, in light of the spectacularly bad decisions and dangerous consequences of market behavior over the last few years.



4 responses to “not a productivity crisis, not a cost crisis, but a disinvestment crisis

  1. Laura Rosenthal

    Hi Dave,
    Thanks for this post and good see that some of the more informed critiques are seeping through to the public.

  2. I am convinced that the steadily declining public investment in higher ed has helped turn higher ed degrees into a “consumer choice.” This operates alongside a system that relies on loans rather than grants to help students pay their rising tuition and fees. Each of these phenomena represents yet another upward “transfer of wealth” to the investor class. But it is nice to see that these kinds of discussions are happening in venues like the WaPo.

  3. Laura Rosenthal

    That would certainly make sense. In my research on the history of assessment, I have also come across the argument that student evaluations were a significant factor in reconceptualizing education on a consumer model. I wonder if these were mutally reinforcing and/or historically linked in any way.

  4. There have been waves of student learning initiatives and management initiatives that have helped introduce various forms of assessment and accountability since the 70s, and some of these were inspired by business management strategies popular at the time (TQM). What I find strange is that at least some of glamor is now gone from the business sector, in the wake of Madoff, bailouts, fraudclosure, etc., but university presidents still use this language. But good assessment would show the _costs_ of a consumer model for students, faculty, and the public.