Selling a story (pt 1)

I suppose it started when I was reading about the UK government’s plans to withdraw from the European Human Rights Convention. It’s a stupid idea for a number of reasons, but that wasn’t why I noticed it.

All the language used in interviews was about the right to deport terrorists, and how the EHRC was standing in the way. But the European Court of Human Rights has only ruled on around ten (pdf, p16) such decisions. Withdrawing seemed rather disproportionate.

Similarly, the media outrage around a family being “built” a “mansion” by the state to house their eleven children. And the calls for benefit caps to protect against the welfare spending effects of approximately 190 large families.

And all of the measures, including forced labour, aimed at addressing the so called “benefit culure” extending over multiple generations that recent research has found it unable to identify any examples of in one of the UK’s most deprived areas.

And then I started thinking back further, about the bizarre unisnotforme.com site run by a mum who appointed her daughter as an apprentice in her PR company rather than see her take a degree. (all the other employees are, of course, graduates).

It didn’t take much digging around to find that this was a front for a campaign to make ‘A’-levels more closely align to the needs of employers (and also here)

And I’d wager that renegotiation of our adherence to international human rights law (longer working hours, less employee rights), cuts to the value of benefits (making low waged work the only option) and “free” employees” (obviously!) are designed to benefit private employers as well.

Private enterprise is clearly expected to solve all of the worlds problem, armed only with large amounts of taxpayers money and gargantuan levels of media hype. I mean, just because it hasn’t worked in the UK for railways, heavy industry, unemployment..

But what about all this “education is broken” MOOC nonsense? Have we proven that entrepreneurs are better at supporting young people in achieving their dreams?

You might remember Peter “floating cities in the sea” Theil gave 20 people 100k to spend a year doing start-ups rather than go to universities, in 2011. Two years on it appears that journalists can only track down one who is earning any kind of income. Those who have dug deeper have either found very little activity (quora link, needs a sign in) or try to say it is too soon to measure. It is not too soon to measure. These are 20 of the brightest and best, chosen personally by Peter Theil. He predicted, and expected, great things:

“Pundits and hand-wringers love to claim that universities are the only path to a successful life. In truth, an inquisitive mind, rigorously applied to a deep-rooted problem can change the world as readily as the plushest academic lab”

I wonder when he was last in a university lab?

Katy Jordan at the Open University (UK) has put together all of the MOOC student statistics she could find (isn’t it odd that they are not generally made public…) and demonstrated that you can confidently expect more than 80% of people who sign up for a course will not complete it. Some try to justify this by pointing at the thousands that still “graduate” – but these are almost always graduates already, generally rich, western and very well educated. I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to work out how many MOOCs (at a generous 20% success rate) we need to meet the higher education demands of developing countries.

The wonderful David Wiley backed start-up “Degreed” (the “Education is broken, somebody should do something” people) is still looking for evidence of people using “jailbroken” learning to further their careers. If they can’t do better than the wishful thinking and stock photography they currently have, the jig may be up

Even when for-profits are given the so-simple-the public-sector-can-do-it task of running schools and universities, there is little benefit and often great detriment. Both in the UK (and again) and the US, academies and charter schools are not delivering any appreciable gain in student attainment. US for-profit universities are under constant investigation for dubious recruitment practices.

Despite a tsunami (TM) of hype, the new wave of education start-ups has actually delivered surprisingly little of mainstream benefit. They can point to mass access to learning opportunities, but that has been around since the birth of the web, and has been largely led by traditional institutions.

Yet the bandwagon keeps rolling. What are the hidden benefits that allow commercial education leeway to fail so many? Why are the public education sector constantly criticised whilst the corporates and the start-ups can do no wrong?

Is it benefits for the employment market, cross-media ownership, a talent for writing a good press release or something else?

One of my main personal projects for 2013 on this blog is to try to unpick the power behind the reasons for this continued attack on public education, from primary schools to universities, in the UK and beyond.

[see also: “Hacking at Education” by Audrey Watters]

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