Unbundling the university

My notes on Newfield, C. (2019). Unbundling the knowledge economy. Globalisation, Societies and Education, 1-9.

Far from being distinct institutions at a remove from society, this special issue explores their many interconnections with social and political life. Once we recognise the mutating character of the university, transforming and growing in a way which reflects wider social life, it becomes difficult to see what it means to defend ‘the university’. As Newfield writes, drawing on Jana Bacevic’s contribution to the issue:

In a sense there is no ‘university’ to defend from marketisation and splitting up. Teaching could be handled by online courses supported with course assistants who do not need expensive doctoral training. ‘Coding camps’ are the policy world’s exemple du jour. Research could be moved into the companies that benefit from it, supplemented by hospitals and national laboratories, who could also handle advanced research training. Civic education could be handled peer-to-peer by social media, and cultural education by our wall-to-wall visual media. Perhaps our real motto should be ‘shed no tears for the university. (1-2)

What does the tertiary landscape look like without it? As he writes on pg 2, “if we remove the university from the tertiary landscape, we are left with commercial publishers, ed-tech providers, think tanks, marketing firms, quasi-governmental agencies, ministries, supra-national advisory bodies, and technical service companies”. They have built up around supporting higher education and there is little reason to think they could provide it were universities to gradually dissolve.

Newfield suggests five basic features of university education: autonomy (in opposition to control by state or industry), self-formation, integrated learning, basic research (funded without promise of application) and public service. Each has private and public effects, as well as pecuniary and non-pecuniary dimensions. Unfortunately, discourses of higher education tend to focus on the private benefits and pecuniary dimensions to the exclusion of all else. However it has been estimated that private pecuniary benefits is only about 1/3 of the overall value, though the irony that this relies on placing a monetary value on non-pecuniary aspects is striking. Newfield describes this as ‘dark matter’ which is excluded by the aforementioned discursive narrowness (4). Pickering’s concept of ontological veiling could be usefully applied here.

Could the unbundled university still produce this dark matter? Or does the datafication at the heart of the project mean that a focus on the calculable private and pecuniary aspects would be the sole concern? Could post-university systems increase value in a way that would outweigh these losses? He argues that opening out this debate involves recasting claimed drivers (automation, digitisation etc) as uncertainties with contingent outcomes. Rather than being what Filip Vostal calls ‘mega forces’ which lead ineluctably to their outcome, they are factors which operates amongst others within open systems.

He ends by framing unbundling in terms of austerity. As he writes on pg 7, “every analysis of educational quality has been predetermined by constraints of cost”. The logic of unbundling involves extracting an element in order to maximise incomes and minimises costs, away from the messy interconnections which hinder this process. If I understand him correctly, he’s saying it’s a form of hyper-rationalisation which cuts out chunks out of an organisation in order to work on them in isolation rather than merely reconstructing an organisation piece by piece. He argues on pg 8 that ‘tech isolationism’ is a core problem which points to the sustained relevance of a humanities education:

the failure to integrate technological with sociocultural skills. In rea- lity, the world’s enormous problems require massive numbers of non-routine problem solvers. They must have higher order cognitive skills, be able to cross disciplinary and linguistic barriers, and be capable of continuous improvisation. They need what used to be called humanistic creativity, for the simple reason that every global problem had fused technical issues to extremely difficult socio-cul- tural challenges. You can’t have renewable energy conversion unless you can reduce environmental racism, for example: cultural knowledge workers will need to be seen as essential equal partners with photovoltaic device engineers. STEM education unbundled from the social sciences, arts, and huma- nities is the problem, not the solution.

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