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We’re under fifteen feet of pure white snow

An avalanche is coming. An avalanche of nonsense. David Kernohan reviews the new publication 'An Avalanche is Coming' by Pearson's Michael Barber and finds serious problems with the disease he outlines and even worse problems with his ideas for a cure.
This article is more than 11 years old

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

An avalanche is coming. An avalanche of nonsense. This is not our language, which is fair – which is correct –  because this is not written for us. This is written for the kind of people who are impressed by such language. This is written for people who would not bat an eyelid that the formerly respectable IPPR are now publishing paid advertorials from Pearson.

One of the facets of this new discourse of “disruption” is the use of vaguely connected anecdotes to illustrate a point. Pearson run a college in the UK, who are imaginatively called Pearson College – leveraging their reputation for value for money textbooks into the mass higher education market. Except they don’t really do the mass bit, accepting a cohort of around 40 students, twenty of which had their fees paid for them at the last possible minute.

Norman Davies, the esteemed and often controversial historian, was interviewed recently in the FT, and explained historical change this way:

‘historical change is like an avalanche. The starting point is a snow-covered mountainside that looks solid. All changes take place under the surface and are rather invisible. But something is coming. What is impossible is to say when.’

You may wonder why I cite a Financial Times restaurant review  at this point of the article, without any obvious context. The IPPR/Pearson advertorial does similar, and omits the following paragraph which offers context.

It seems impossible that Giorgio is going to arrive with more food, but he does. There’s a green salad, followed by fish – handsome slices of sea bass and bream, and more of those chunky jumbo prawns. “The older you get, the more large meals become something of an ordeal,” Davies observes.

The education ‘revolution’ that Barber, Donnelly and Rizvi are such keen advocates of is a comfortably fed one. This is not a cry from the barricades – not a populist movement of grass roots activists. The hand-wringing citation of unemployment statistics and rising student fees comes not from the unemployed and poor, but from the new education industry that wants to find a way into the marketplace.

And this is the underlying impression one takes from this report. The citations are shoddy, the proofreading abysmal – it reads like a bad blog post. Or a good Ted talk. It’s a serving of handsome slices of invective which would leave anyone sick to the stomach. Falling graduate wages. The lack of good “quality measures” for universities. A neatly formatted table of annual academic publication rates – in 50 year slices from 1726 onwards – labelled “The Growth of Information over 300 years”. (but “citizens of the world now cry out for synthesis”!!)

Again and again we, as citizens of the world, are encouraged to rail and protest about the broken system that somehow seems to have educated world leaders, scientists, lawyers, engineers and senior staff at academic publishers with pretensions at “thought leadership”. A system which anyone would admit has problems; problems caused by the imposition of a wearying and inapplicable market.

Section 6 of the report, “The Competition is heating up”, retreads familiar grounds concerning the all-conquering world of the MOOC – that well known reheating of early 00s internet education hype flavoured with a rich source of venture capital. But this is situated within a wider spectrum of globalised private for-profit providers – the lot of whom (poor reputation! high drop-out rates! difficulty in gaining degree awarding powers!) is bewailed at some length.

As far as this report has any meat in it (horsemeat, maybe?) this section is it.

The reputations of some of the new for-profit providers have been
tarnished by high dropout rates (a US government report alleges an
average rate of 64 per cent in associate degree programmes) and
high spending on non-education related expenses such as marketing
and profit-sharing. Perhaps the government, through lax regulation
and student loan subsidies, has also contributed to the problem, but
either way it would be a mistake to think that the innovation itself will be
diminished by these abuses.

I’m particularly impressed with the way they decided to blame the government. If only the government had told them to stop lying to prospective students, spend less on flashy marketing and pay themselves less then everything would have been OK. Pearson here are calling for more red tape to constrain and direct the activity of HE institutions.

UK readers will be delighted to note:

In addition to US-founded MOOCs, the UK has responded with FutureLearn, an online university, which builds on the foundations of the Open University but has content from institutions around the UK.

Remember this. FutureLearn is an online university. An e-university, if you will. An e-university based in the UK. And incidentally, did we mention that Pearson run a MOOC platform?

League tables are next in line. Pearson/IPPR complain that league tables are unfairly weighted against new entrants because they include things like research performance. Many would agree that perhaps too much weight is placed on research performance. But university reputations are complex things, and league tables are themselves a radical simplification of the complex criteria that we use when we decided which of two almost indistinguishable middle-ranking universities are the “best” for a particular purpose.

We can skip over the box-ticking enumeration of the neo-liberal university dream that is section two of the report, and move on to where the serious money is. Unbundling.

Research is at risk from… think tanks and government funded centres.

Degrees are at risk from… private colleges. Alternative credentials (yes! they reference my favourite “education is broken” start up DeGreed. Still no venture capital for them, sadly) And also the start-up culture wherein Peter Thiel gives smart teenagers $100,000 to do very little of any consequence. And sites like the (open university supported) Not Going to Uni.

The effects of universities on their surrounding areas are at risk from… government investment in local services. (another deviation from the small government playbook there)

Faculty are at risk from… celebrities. The connected internet age apparently means that people want to learn only from celebrities, without actually being able to communicate with them.

Students are at risk from…. actually it breaks down here, it’s just some more stuff about the connected world. Bob Dylan is cited as a college drop out, though few current undergraduates would cite a need to meet Woody Guthrie as a reason to drop out.

Administrators are at risk from… their own inefficiency. (Despite being described earlier in the advertorial as “top professionals in specialist fields [who] make up the engine that keeps the vast, complex organisation running smoothly.)

Curricula are at risk from… MOOCS! – which are themselves based on university curricula. (from prestigious universities, no less…)

Teaching and learning are at risk from… online teaching and learning. This section also contains a curious digression about the need for “practical” rather than “theoretical” learning – perhaps harking back to a desire to see the government pay for employee training.

Assessment is at risk from…computer games. No, really. There’s one of those asides about some 22 year old who became manager of the Azerbaijan football team FK Baku after 10 years of experience playing Football Manager. Which must be disquieting news for the team’s actual manager, Božidar Bandović. The student in question, Vugar Huseynzade, actually appears to be more of a business manager – though I invite any Baku fans who may read this to correct me. Oh, and Pearson already own a chain of assessment centres.

The experience of attending university is at risk from… clubs and forums.

Vice-chancellors who have read this far will likely be convulsing with laughter at this point. But never fear, as Sir Michael has a prescription for your future success.

You can be an elite, mass, niche, local or lifelong learning institution. All are at risk from the oncoming juggernaut of private sector instruction, so each must respond in different ways.

Elite institutions must share their prestige with (private) partner institutions. Mass institutions must move online, maybe with the capable support of private sector experts. Niche institutions will all be private institutions (College of Law, New College of the Humanities should it ever become an actual institution with degree awarding powers…) so don’t worry about them. Local institutions must add the vocational, employer-supporting finesse to elite content from around the world. And lifelong learning? Well that isn’t institutions at all, that’s young entrepreneurs “hacking” their education with the support of the private sector.

I’m not sure what the key thread is with these recommendations, but there does seem to be a common theme running through them.

So – having sold you the disease, Pearson now attempt to sell the cure. We must all work hard to support the brave and noble entrepreneurs as they seek to disrupt education, moving existing providers out of the way, adding or removing regulation to order.

It is essential to do this because it is essential that we prepare our young people for their lives as cogs in a machine that is already broken, as avatars of a discredited and poisonous ideology. Young people are not seekers after truth, they are consumers and their money must be allowed to flow as directly as possible to Pearson Education.

Unless there is a bigger avalanche coming.

A version of this post originally appeared at Followers of the Apocalypse 

13 responses to “We’re under fifteen feet of pure white snow

  1. The report is clearly guff, but I don’t think that really matters in terms of achieving its purpose.

    Vice-Chancellors might be ‘convulsing with laughter at this point’ but they’re not (I suspect) the desired audience. This report is likely written for Senior Pearson executives who might be getting cold feet at having spent loads on high-salaried experts.

    A glossy, externally-produced report with something or other about every actual and potential trend which might affect higher education globally is exactly what you need to bolster your thought leadership credentials with those who aren’t actually very close to the debate, but are they key to further Pearson investment in private HE where the authors are trying to expand…

  2. Thanks for reading our IPPR essay. We’re pleased to have stimulated a bit of heat, but it’s worth throwing some light on a couple of your assumptions, without getting into a blow by blow debate…

    Although the three authors work for Pearson, we wrote the paper for IPPR precisely in order to step back from Pearson’s commercial interests in higher education. Where we cite Pearson examples in the paper we are open about it, but we cite far more examples from other sectors – including public, not for profit, digital start-ups, and other corporations.

    We don’t presume that private institutions, or MOOCs, are automatically better, and if you’ve read the paper you’ll have seen we definitely don’t say they are the only answer to the issues that higher education will grapple with in the next fifty years. We do think that it’s worth looking at what different organisations are doing in higher education and highlighting the trends and lessons.

    You’re right to say “a bigger avalanche” is coming, and that people may design and build their own education in future, with or without the help of an institution (public or private). That’s a reality that all the big players in the system will have to get used to, whether they are traditional universities, government agencies, or companies like Pearson.

    Anyway – thanks for your comments, and I’m sure there will be many more as people read the paper.

  3. Good blog. The report is very superficial and agree it read like an advertorial; there was very little apparent knowledge or understanding of UK HE or the real economic and social challenges that universities here face.

  4. >>Perhaps the government, through lax regulation
    and student loan subsidies, has also contributed to the problem, but
    either way it would be a mistake to think that the innovation itself will be
    diminished by these abuses.

    I think this is really key. As I understand it, the enormous financial success of institutions like the University of Phoenix (16% graduation rate) is built on the US student loan system, which people are talking about as the next huge bad-credit crisis. The key question is where the funding for this supposed take-off of mass private education is coming from. Is it sustainable? Is it real? Or is it another huge and dangerous bubble?

  5. Saad, you write this:

    “Although the three authors work for Pearson, we wrote the paper for IPPR precisely in order to step back from Pearson’s commercial interests in higher education. Where we cite Pearson examples in the paper we are open about it, but we cite far more examples from other sectors – including public, not for profit, digital start-ups, and other corporations.”

    Declaring the 3 authors’ bias doesn’t remove it. Just because you went to the IPPR office to write this over a week, doesn’t change the fact that Pearson pay your salary.

    This wonkhe review is top notch, especially the line “having sold you the disease, Pearson now attempt to sell the cure”. It truly is such a disappointing piece from the IPPR which only serves the interests of Pearson.

    The stuff blaming the Government in the USA for the problems of the for-profit universities is the sort of tripe you hear from right wing thinktanks in the UK over the financial crisis. That is, blaming the Government for the financial crisis because they under regulated whereas primary responsibility obviously lies with the banks which screwed up.

    So many of the sentences are just empty conjecture with no evidence provided for their claims. For example:
    “The traditional multipurpose university with a combination of a range of degrees and a modestly effective research programme has had its day.”
    “Only universities with real research power (quality times volume equals power) have a future in these fields”

    The piece is filled with complaints that seem more likely to come from Policy Exchange, not the IPPR:

    “The regulatory regimes in many countries still reflect the model of the traditional university and are stacked in favour of incumbents and against newcomers. To take Britain as an example, it remains hard for for-profit providers to gain degree-awarding powers.”

    “While a degree from a top university will be a major asset in getting a first job in one of the world’s leading companies, after that it is increasingly the company’s name – McKinsey, Goldman Sachs, Google or the FT – on your resumé that determines future progress.”
    Name dropping the FT (owned by Pearson) and McKinsey (where Barber has worked) adds to the impression of this being a self-absorbed promotional piece based on limited research.

    The section on employability is a joke with the evidence being a poll: “A recent poll in the UK suggests that just 18 per cent of people think that a university education is a good preparation for today’s labour market.” Forget some actual analysis that examines whether university education does help – like this for example, – instead, let’s just ask a bunch of people and treat that, rather than actual evidence of the impact of higher education on employability, as fact.

    “We freely admit we cannot be sure how the revolution ahead will unfold. This is not uncommon on the brink of radical change.” – Translation, this is an exercise of speculation.

    Most embarrassingly, Barber’s role in the Browne review is essentially glossed over. None of the issues of funding within that are actually addressed. Instead, this is the mention: “The 2010 Browne Review of higher education funding in the UK (in which Michael was involved) proved highly controversial”… Actually, a policy making disaster sounds more accurate. Entirely light on research and an empty glossy report – just like the IPPR/Pearson report, funnily enough….

    The huge costs of the new system, the problems of student controls overall (inevitable, when funded by public purse) together with an intention for student number deregulation at the institutional level is not addressed.

    The arguments for and against markets, state provision or a system based more on trust are scarcely considered. Again and again, there is an awful lot of anecdote.

    The report complains that “the various university rankings are another barrier to innovators who want to enter the echelons of the top global universities. These rankings are an influential factor in a student’s choice of a university and carry significant brand value in the sphere of employment and the larger non-academic community.”

    How dare students be concerned with universities actually having some sort of track record rather than simply leaping to give new for profit universities profits with no guarantees that they will actually be getting a decent education? If prospective students knew the abysmal record of for-profits in the USA, they’d steer well clear of them. Of course, paid for by Pearson, this report only tries to play the issues down (the bit I quoted above).

    Lastly, there is a lot of irony in the report saying this: “It also should be noted that universities play an important role in promoting intellectual freedom and in conducting autonomous, non-biased research away from market and government interests.” (34)

    The IPPR report proves why we need research done by academics, away from the pressures of the market and vested interests, is essential. I used to think the IPPR did some decent work. I now have lost almost all of my respect for it.

  6. The report is grim. I know that we have to make everything up-to-date to show its relevance, but the older references show just how little this is grounded in serious thinking about universities:

    Bloom A (1987) The Closing of the American Mind, London: Penguin
    Dos Passos J (1966) USA Trilogy, London: Penguin Books
    Gardner H (1988) In Defence of the Imagination, Oxford University Press
    Gorky M (1979) My Universities, London: Penguin

    One of these being about universities (and not without a controversial reputation), and anyway these books are only cited for fleeting quotes.

    If you trawl for opinion pieces about crisis, and then put them in an opinion piece about crisis, you still only have opinion pieces about crisis. This is why think tanks won’t be able to replace research done in universities.

  7. It seems clear enough that the rise of the commercial MOOC as the next great model for education is a direct response to the challenge to the roles of companies such as Pearson’s created by the Open Access agenda. MOOCs form a simple struggle to find a new business model, as the brokenness of the last one gradually becomes apparent.

    If people were really serious about effective distance learning they would be trawling (and citing) the large body of work reflecting the experience of the Open University and the Unliversty of London External Degree. They are not.

    It may be that Universities need to redefine their role, and re-examine their forms of delivery. I have no doubt that as several very smart people have suggested, universities will be the site of the next ‘affordance’. But commercial MOOCs feel like ridiculous old capitalism, of the sort that is unwilling to interrogate the needs and desires of the people they claim to serve. They clearly want the profits, but seem unwilling to imagine new ways of generating it.

  8. Tom Bailey’s response almost deserves an article of it’s own.

    As a fluff piece, the report is poor. As a piece of research it’s appalling. For people who actually know anything about higher education it is a laughable parody that belongs on the back page of the THE. The text reads like one of those airport business books and the analysis appears to have be conducted in isolation from every known report or data set currently in existence.

    Most of the text has already been quoted on this page for various reasons but here are a few other gems:

    “One evening recently, Michael and his wife were trying to recall the names of the three Karamazov brothers. Needless to say, within minutes they had resorted to Google – much easier than getting the book itself from the next-door room.”

    Because these are the type of questions that academics ask aren’t they?

    “With the rapidly changing world and the pace of new developments in
    industry, a concentrated four-year curriculum may find itself on the path
    to obsolescence. Individuals now need to continuously update their
    skills to stay relevant to the changing market conditions.”

    What is CPD for? Isn’t this already a requirement of most professions? Have the core modules and principles of engineering, law, accounting changed that rapidly? And what about part-time courses and providers like MOL who provide flexible learning approaches. The authors seem unaware of even the most basic innovations in provision that are already commonplace across the sector.

    “A consultancy may provide better business training than a business school
    but, for the moment, it cannot confer a degree.”

    As coincidence would have it, Pearson are also setting up a business college through the FT:

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