A neoliberal fetish

Higher education reform shouldn’t be stolen by neoliberal agendas.

Trent M. Kays

The dominant narrative in higher education reform is the disruption of current practices. The idea of reforming higher education is not novel. As long as there’s been  higher education, there have been calls to reform it. Yet, the uptake of uniquely business jargon to describe the catalyst of change is unfortunate and ill conceived.

Higher education does need reform. There’s too much overtly wrong to just let it limp along. However, the reform of higher education is being unfairly corrupted by capitalist market-driven ideology. This should not come as a surprise. The U.S. is a nation wholly consumed by the end product and not the process. But when “disruption” becomes the go-to word to describe how to change higher education, there is a huge problem.

This language does more to complicate than simplify. The problem arises out of the social contract and mandate of higher education. Contemporary higher education must work to uplift and enlighten society. However, finding disruption as the terminology of enlightenment is unacceptable.

Disruption is more at home in the wood paneled halls of a corporation than in the classroom. Indeed, this type of corporate ethos fulfills a certain neoliberal fetish, where higher education becomes beholden to the free market rather than an obligation to society.

The most notable example would be massive open online courses, or MOOCs. These courses are often touted as disrupting higher education. They shake things up, and they change the outlook and access to institutions. But, there’s very little that is disruptive about MOOCs. More often than not, MOOCs are simply the reincarnation of previous — failed or successful — online teaching ventures. They aren’t new nor are they innovative.

Perhaps more damning than seeing incongruity and disruption, reform zealots also see higher education as something to be packaged and delivered. The experience is secondary. By “disruptive,” these evangelists mean to make higher education subservient to market-driven forces, where shareholders are placed above students and educators.

No matter what ridiculous title you want to give these people — disruptors, thought leaders or change agents — one thing is for certain: They want to disrupt only insomuch as it benefits them. The idea and promise of the social contract is lost upon them.

It’s become obvious how little our society truly values education given the budget cuts and rising tuition. If our society valued it, education wouldn’t suffer budgetary cuts at all. The funding allotted to education by government entities is insignificant compared to other allotted programs. Budget slashing is old news and unsurprising. However, it seems that because of these cuts, we have given rise to our own demise.

The disruptors and thought leaders are flourishing because we have given them a bountiful canvas on which to thrive. Our society has failed to live up to its part of the social contract. Instead of securing an equitable higher education system, our society has all but gutted it. Our instant gratification culture — spurred on by capitalistic thinking — has found higher education wanting.

Higher education is not an instant gratification venture; it is a venture of patience and determination. So, as the disruptors work to “shake up” education, it becomes imperative that they answer an exigency, a situation calling for them: the financial gutting of higher education. Many of these so-called thought leaders’ messages are tempting; they will deliver us from the struggling system into the supportive arms of a strong free market utopia.

With rich politicians, professional administrators and venture capitalists creating their vision of higher education, we will be left with nothing more than universities reminiscent of production lines. Students will pay tuition, they will enter, they will be fed information and then they will receive diplomas. This is the terrible future of higher education, and it is a future we have brought upon ourselves.

It’s easy to not think about education when one is not in the midst of it. It’s easy to shave a little money off a budget one isn’t intimately involved with. It’s easy to blame teachers instead of those who control budgets. All of these things are easy to do because they require minimal thought and responsibility.

The rise of state-sponsored MOOCs, for-profit education ventures and shrinking budgets all reinforce one thing: the shirking of state responsibility to educate its citizenry. We are expendable, but the financial driven bottom line is not. Our priorities are most certainly not what they once were.

These business ventures do more to cloud the issue of reform than aid it. Throwing hollow language like “disruption” around doesn’t create a solution. It doesn’t really do anything. Higher education reform is a serious issue and requires serious thought. We need to address the budget cuts and demand reinvigorated state support. We need to work to make education equitable and accessible again.

Finally, we need to show the general public that state-sponsored higher education is imperative to our society and our lives. The value of higher education is defined by lifetimes — not by years. We shouldn’t let such definitions be stolen by those more concerned with profit than with education. It’s time to take back what is rightfully ours.