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Sometimes when I listen to the debates about the future of higher education I think I’m going mad…

May 17, 2011

… I’ve tried to condense what I have gleaned from my investigations into one short blog post.  And now I’m going to lie down in the dark. I may be some time...

It would appear that thousands of students are walking around universities that are teaching them nothing that is relevant to them. And that many students are taught by lecturers who know nothing about the real world. This means that they teach subjects like English, History and Philosophy instead of telling their students how to get jobs.

Some lecturers don’t even provide their students with extensive lecture notes and insist that their students use outdated technology like books, libraries and their imaginations. How are contemporary students supposed to know the answer to anything if it isn’t provided for them on the internet?

The fact is that more students learn on Facebook and Wikipedia these days than anywhere else. There is no actual evidence to support this claim, but it’s a fact all the same, just ask anyone.

What research does show is that the world is changing and as time goes on the rate of change accelerates. So much so, that if you were to draw a graph with time along the bottom and change up the side, after a while you would see that change happens so fast that it doubles back on itself, eventually doing a loop-the-loop.

For example, change has accelerated to such an extent that these days we cannot even anticipate the sort of jobs graduates will do in the future or the skillsets they’ll need. That’s why it’s a waste of time (and money) to teach people anything other than something called ’employability’.

Employability is important because if there is one thing we can say for sure it is that people will have to make themselves ’employable’ over and over again in the future. This is because people will chop and change careers a lot. They will also work longer hours; they will never retire and they won’t have to be any good at anything in particular, except a few basic generic skills, such as how to be ’employable’. This is called ‘flexibility’.

In short, HE has got to accept that there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know

So what will universities do in the future? Well, they will dedicated themselves to helping people adjust to the real world of ‘flexible’ employment. They will not teach students anything that students don’t want to learn or that isn’t relevant to them. No stuffy lectures or lecturers. No stupid old books. Students won’t even have to attend. For just £9000 a year they can do fuck all but sit at home on Facebook.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. CharlieMcMenanin permalink
    May 17, 2011 6:53 pm

    Here’s a thought: ’employability’, whatever that is, depends on, amongst other things, discipline. Specifically, selfdiscipline.

    This why it was once the case that the following three sentences could be thought to mean the same thing when asked of an undergraduate:

    ” What subject are you doing ?”
    “What are you reading?”
    ” What’s your discipline?

    I only mention this because, actually, I think accept about 70% of the currently fashionable guff about ‘not knowing what jobs there are going to be in the future’ (The other 30% is just managerial boosterism put forward by the usual snake-oil salespeople). But I conclude from this not that everyone in academia should tweet their lectures – I mean, what could you possibly know that can’t be put in 140 characters Rab? – but that teaching people ‘structured curiosity ‘ (aka academic discipline) is the way forward. Let people learn how to learn by doing any academic subject they like. It will help them develop self discipline, a key component of ’employability’.

    The bloody employers can train us later if they can’t guarantee what jobs they’re gonig to offer….

  2. patrick permalink
    May 17, 2011 7:03 pm

    This struck a chord with me despite my not being remotely connected with the world of higher education. Because the same thing seems to be happening where I work – in government. From senior management we constantly hear about the need for greater ‘flexibility’ and almost no acknowledgement of the importance of *actually really knowing your policy area* Perhaps because acknowledging that policy development requires expertise – built up over time – gets in the way of flexibility. Perhaps because that’s the nonsense that is being taught in business school these days. Perhaps because people who actually know their stuff are more likely to point out why some hare-brained scheme originating in the adminisphere won’t actually work…

  3. Rab permalink*
    May 17, 2011 10:02 pm

    Hi Charlie, Welcome Patrick.

    The thing about real expertise and knowledge is that these sorts of ‘commodities’ can command a premium price in the job market and, as you point out Patrick, doesn’t sit easily within an employability narrative that insists on flexibility.

    I suspect, therefore, that all the talk about the desirability of highly skilled, university educated workforce is balls. What the market really requires is a source of cheap, mobile labour, capable of reinventing and re-skilling itself whenever the market demands.

    Charlie, for me you hit the nail on the head when you say that employability is a form of self-discipline (Foucault might have referred to it as a ‘technology of the self’) – a mode of thinking about ourselves, acting upon ourselves and conducting ourselves as potentially desirable, marketable commodities.

    I think the irony of the ‘skills agenda’ which pollutes HE these days, is that not only are we told that we can’t predict the skills bases of many jobs in the future but in addition, the logic of capitalism is to try to de-skill work, so making production cheaper and less vulnerable to disruption from the withdrawal of crucial forms of labour when a dispute arises.

    Now I’m off to lie in the dark again…

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