The biggest threat those of us working in colleges and universities face isn’t video lectures or online tests.
“And then the 1970s happened…”, and clearly human nature changed entirely at this point. Because before 1975 we lived in the golden age. Then it stopped. Shirky is unclear why this happened. Sure he says that the Vietnam War ended, and the GI Bill became less generous, oil got expensive – but not only is this very US-centric, it also omits the equally salient and relevant point that David Bowie released “Golden Years” in 1975.
Driven by this pivotal turn that marked the beginning of the transition between Bowie’s “Thin White Duke” persona and the synth-driven “Berlin” albums, we as a society decided that education was not something we wanted to spend money on for the wider good. Instead, support for students and institutions began to fall, and learners were expected to contribute more. The tasteful guitar stylings of Carlos Alomar led us to stop seeing education as benefiting us all, and started seeing it as primarily benefiting the individual in question.
This headlong dash into a more stratified, less equal society had the secondary effect of driving up enrolment. As wages began to stagnate even as productivity grew a generation of Americans decided that the only path to earning enough to live like their parents used to was to go to college.
An army of adjunct professors, growing from less than 45% of faculty in 1975 to more than 60% in 2009, evolved to keep institutional costs down. The percentage of full-time and part-time tenure posts both nearly halved during this time, which is a shame as this inconvenient fact rather undermines the latter part of Shirky’s post. Actually, to be entirely correct – it is a shame because less academics have the security of a long-term paid role.
Elvis Presley reportedly turned down the chance to sing Golden Years, instead releasing his 1975 album “Today”, his final studio recording. And “the bulk of students today are in their mid-20s or older” says Shirky (coincidentally – not coincidentally – this is true in many parts of the world where tuition fees are charged). And just like Elvis in the 70s, these students are supposedly in some danger of dropping out.
“One obvious way to improve life for the new student majority is to raise the quality of the education without raising the price. This is clearly the ideal, whose principal obstacle is not conceptual but practical: no one knows how. The value of our core product—the Bachelor’s degree—has fallen in every year since 2000, while tuition continues to increase faster than inflation.”
And we’re back with the old saw of Baumol’s cost disease – where apparently education cannot be made more efficient. As usual with economists, you have to query what is meant by “efficiency”, especially where something complex like education is under discussion. And “value”, for that matter.
Fundamentally, the thing that is broken has very little to do with what Higher Education actually is, and everything to do with the cultural value of the status that higher education qualifications has in a world where the very idea of waged labour as an organising principle is breaking down. But don’t let me hear you say life’s taking you nowhere…