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Tag Archives: Ferdinand von Prondzynski

Arguments over the commercialisation of university education are part of two wider controversies. Firstly, there is a familiar dispute between extreme liberals and the rest of us. Liberals think that businesslike approaches and the imposition of markets will solve all or most problems. The rest hold that such thinking has limited application and that there are products and services which ought not be traded or subjected to competition and markets. There is, however, a second, less obvious and usually neglected controversy, and in this the universities represent one site in which a wider struggle over the future of management is being played out.

The ease with which this second controversy can be neglected is plain in a recent piece by Fintan O’Toole. http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/culture-shock-stark-lesson-of-imposing-market-values-on-third-level-1.1766771 It is also evident in a university manager’s attempt to get off the hook for what was done to universities in order to create a match with similar inefficiencies in other organisations. http://www.irishtimes.com/news/education/change-one-thing-bureaucracy-is-strangling-third-level-education-1.1708345

The fundamental mistake in analysing the damaging process of commercialisation is to view it as merely a clash of market or business management values with those of public service. It is very definitely at odds with public service but it is also at odds with good management – even management whose focus is entirely business oriented. When Fintan points out that the apparently market driven university is failing in market terms, he gets close but misses the entrance to the more labyrinthine truth. That a commercial approach is failing in commercial terms should prompt a doubt that market success is the objective. What Fintan misses is that it has little to do with market success and a lot to do with turning the objective of a university into the objectives of a new elite.

Attention must turn to what is usually termed managerialism as opposed to management. Many of those made fat by the former deflect criticism by characterising all questioning as some kind of worker opposition to management. It is nothing of the sort; assaults on managerialism tend to be a defence of management in the face of a hostile, destructive takeover.

When the objective of managers has little to do with their institution/organisation/company and more to do with common cause of similarly placed managers in other organisations, management as traditionally understood has been usurped.

The bloated salaries are in evidence across companies and in both the private and state sectors. The same is true of bizarre new job titles, the creation of new structures which duplicate management and facilitate high level appointments, expanding the numbers in what were once very senior – perhaps unique – well paid positions (e.g. “Director”), reliance on a lexicon which is silly and frequently derided but which gives to waste the impression of being businesslike and efficient. Above all this is a shared change of “product” so that the creation of management information becomes an end in itself.

The production of management information is both essential and costly. It diverts people from their work and requires support staff. Each and every management report has to be accurately costed before a decision can be made to begin producing it. In short, management information has to be kept to the minimum necessary to achieving an objective. In the absence of rigorous costing and an eye to the bare essentials, it is very easy for measurement, data collection and the manufacture of reports to get out of hand. Professionals in management information have been aware of the paradox for decades: management information is part of a control system but its production needs to be tightly controlled.

Universities fell to the parasite as inflated salaries, new titles, changes in structures, a bogus business approach and way of speaking, and a drive to measure rather than produce became the predictable course. It is simply untrue to say that the HEA or any other external pressure caused this. The HEA is similarly troubled and is as keen to demand information as the new “industry” is to produce it.

The change was complex, thorough and involved a large number of staff. However, if one development were to be selected as typical and demonstrative of a university parting company with its age old objective, it might be the demand for stated “learning objectives”. While “learning” itself suggests the thoughtful, critical, creative aspect of a university education, a “learning objective” suggests the acquisition of a skill. At that point the desire to measure, to gather information was changing the role of the university.

Depressing as it is to consider, there may be no way back. It is worth bearing in mind that quite large numbers of people earn a living from all this and any attempt by one organisation to reform will be resisted, characterised as backward and eccentric. On the other hand, as a whole it is unsustainable. What an organisation (in this case a university) might seek to do is return salaries, staffing, structures etc. to those pertaining at a chosen time in the past. Apart from the shock to the system, the pay cuts and the numbers made redundant or demoted, the choice of date would be difficult and critical. Choose too late a date and the roots of the problem might be left intact. Choose too early a date and there’s a risk of going back too far in the history of ICT, thereby stripping a university of its ability to operate legitimate, up-to-date systems. One thing is certain: there can be no reform if the problem is understood as simple commercialism.

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Ferdinand Von Prondzynski is at it again in  The Irish Times of Tuesday, November 9, 2010. He argues that there is no way adequately to fund universities without the reintroduction of fees. That may be so but it is long past time to hear his argument stripped of nonsense.

Something needs to be said at the outset: There is no connection between fees and the fact that poor people don’t go to college. Poverty determines one’s level of ambition and educational attainment, and keeps the poor away from third level education in any significant numbers. Apart from, let’s call them, access interventions which seek to increase the number of exceptions who get to college from poor backgrounds, any real change will require a systematic assault on poverty.  

Ferdinand offers a strange view that ‘free fees’ has undermined public understanding of inequality. Firstly, he seems to think that “many people” are beguiled by the absence of university fees into thinking “that we live in an egalitarian society in which access to this vital stage of personal formation is free and available to everyone, regardless of background or means.” I have never come across anyone who has so lost their grip on reality as to think like this. Secondly, he argues that the position of the deprived has “in some ways” been made worse “because some well-meaning people thought that ‘free fees’ had solved all social disadvantage problems and that no further resources were needed.” As before, I doubt that anyone thinks like this.

“What changed in the 1990s”, he says, “was that the rich no longer needed to pay and, to be fair, that some middle income groups now found it easier to afford college.” This is partially true but distracts attention from the fundamental improvement that has been ‘free fees’. Certainly rich people, even fabulously rich people, no longer pay fees. However, truth disappears in draining the word, “afford” of all meaning. My recollection of the days of paying fees has as typical, say, a technician on or slightly above the average industrial wage struggling hard to find fees to send a son or daughter to college. In some cases there was a need to find the money for fees for more than one family member. It is downright wrong to speak of such people being able to afford fees. The truth is that the removal of fees relieved many families of a dreadful burden.

Finally, Ferdinand says, “It is maybe a harsh thing to say, but “free fees” have amounted to a major redistribution of resources from the poor to the rich.” This is a plainly bizarre claim. I assume that it is based on the hope or possibility that the fees money which the rich and the likes of the struggling technician would have paid might have gone to the poor.

In the Irish blogosphere I’ve pursued Ferdinand on this issue. He steadfastly refuses to confer meaning on his notion of “afford”, to say who should pay fees. His is an argument of an all too familiar type which offers that simple solution: the rich will pay and all will be well for everyone else. The truth is that unless the majority of students pay fees, the income will be small and, no matter who pays what, the poor will still be excluded.

Ferdinand’s blog is here:  http://universitydiary.wordpress.com/

I was posting over at Ferdinand von Prondzynski’s blog   ( http://universitydiary.wordpress.com/) when I thought that I should make the point on my own blog. Ferdinand was saying in support of changing university education that, “we simply cannot run a university system that now admits a large percentage of the population as if we were running small elite institutions. The elite students of former times generally had very un-specific expectations of their education. For them it was all part of assuming the knowledge and the style of privilege, not about undergoing specific vocational training.” I disagreed. Of course increased numbers and different times mean change but the whole purpose of increased access is to make higher learning available to all who can benefit. Moreover, that’s what the world of work now requires.

More vocational training rather than education is the demand of people – including students – who fail to appreciate what has happened to work and yet are aware that too many graduates complete their education lacking important skills.

The “information society” has consequences for university education. As a term, it is often reduced to meaningless guff but it should not be dismissed by thoughtful people. In careless use it becomes fused with “knowledge society” and provides a justification for a pretty daft approach to education: an increased emphasis on mere training for the majority and an increase in the number of PhDs. I don’t want to talk right now about the latter but training in preference to education is precisely what, let’s call it, industry doesn’t need right now.

Anyone who has given serious thought to the concept of an “information society” either from a political or a business perspective realises pretty quickly that such a society depends not merely on skilled people but on educated, thinking, and – yes – innovative people. In short, the humanities graduate’s time has come! (I recall commenting during a discussion with a group of lecturers that innovation is what separates a 2.1 from a 2.2.)

There are however “employability” problems with some graduates and the problems have nothing to do with the traditional university approach to learning. Too many students lack the skills necessary to making the best use of their education. Too many are not fully literate, cannot cope with the mathematics essential to a full life today, have no real understanding of technology or economics, have poor general knowledge and cannot present themselves or their work in public. These are mere skills and could never figure in a university education. However, it should not be possible to achieve the status of graduate without these skills. They are essential and they should be mastered while in primary and secondary school. Most lecturers are aware of the literacy and the general knowledge problem. Many may be aware that perhaps the majority of students are poor communicators and that work today demands effective participation at meetings and making presentations. Some lecturers may not have noticed the mathematics problem. What do I mean by this? Here are a few examples that I’ve come across. Students frequently have no grasp of the magnitude of numbers. They would find the creation of mathematical expressions for, say, a spreadsheet very difficult. The concept of random distribution would be new to them. I won’t labour this on into basic science, technology and economics. The point is that today effective citizenship – never mind a job – requires these skills. While someone without them should not be at university, most certainly a graduate must have them.

A university is not the place for teaching skills. However, until such time as the rest of the educational system addresses the problem, universities in order to maintain standards and credibility should test for them. There can be no question of awarding grades, let alone making it part of the degree programme. This is about finding competence; it is pass or fail. I realize that suggesting such tests – and I’m not talking about labour intensive exams. – seems impractical or extreme for institutes of higher learning but I can’t come up with another short term remedy.