The commodification of education

Today is an auspicious one for my family. My eldest child is graduating with a cum laude Master’s degree. My youngest child has a 14 hour school day. And both these events feed directly into the concept of academic throughput, an issue which is foremost in the mind of nearly everyone involved in the current educational system, especially at the secondary and tertiary levels.

Let’s start with the matric pass rate. The “measure” of a good school is how many robots they can shunt through each year, preferably with excessively high marks. Thus the Youngest must attend school from 7am until 3pm, then attend sport for the rest of the afternoon, and then after an hour or so sit a “mock exam” to “prepare” him for the real McCoy, to collapse after finishing at 8.45pm.

The Eldest, on the other hand, should be receiving a summa cum laude, but the Rules state that this cannot happen unless one completes a full research dissertation at Master’s level in one year. He took two, as a stint teaching in China interrupted.

These are not random examples, but rather exemplify the commodification of education, to the detriment (particularly at tertiary level) of academic excellence. Suffice to say about secondary education at this point, it should be fun. After all, we all have to get through matric, but it shouldn’t necessarily be a bloody misery.

Throughput in tertiary education, however, is different. In order to keep abreast of the global world, one assumes any pedagogical notions of teaching and learning would be driven by academic excellence, but the criteria for grading seems increasingly to depend solely on customer satisfaction, a criterion with its roots in marketing, and underlined in many cases by the pressure of expectation and entitlement.

So, two pressures at play here: the “customer” issues of entitlement, as in “I’ve paid the fees, so where is my degree?”, and the issue of “bums on seats”, or tertiary institutions needing to make (sometimes excessive) amounts of profit. Unfortunately, in South Africa, these two issues overlap.

Successful student throughput can be an extremely dangerous criterion for academic excellence. Enormous pressure is placed on lecturers to pass students. If you have a high failure rate (which is pretty normal across institutions), you are expected to write a report stating why this occurred, as the sub-text is, why are you such a useless lecturer?

Here is one comment from one such university report: “The course was planned with support tutorials in mind but the absence of funding made this impossible: we ended up with ONE self-funded ‘super tutor’ for 147 students! The attempt to use online communications was only partially successful. These high failure rates at first year level are not exceptional at South African tertiary institutions.”

And a comment from another South African university: “Frankly, the bulk of students who fail this course enter university without an adequate secondary education (in some cases, they are basically semi-literate in terms of university standards). We need sufficient tutors on this course…Under-prepared students need bridging or Access courses in order to bring them up to university standards.”

Okay, Houston, we’ve got a problem here. In South Africa in particular, we have for the most part a secondary system which under-prepares students for university, far too many historically disadvantaged schools, under-resourced schools and under-equipped teachers. Universities, for the most part, are battling financially and rely substantially on student throughput – particularly at the postgraduate level – for subsidies to continue operating. And university lecturers are stuck in the middle, under pressure to pass sub-standard students, and under pressure to produce research (articles, books, and so) at a rate of knots, as that also produces government subsidies. Moreover, universities are cutting staff, freezing posts, and enrolling more students, resulting in more pressure on ordinary teaching staff to triple their workloads with less resources than ever.

Tertiary institutions, government and private, across the country, are talking about “condoned passes” for students who have outstanding (failed) courses. What are we teaching future generations? That you don’t have to work hard in order to succeed?

Simply following the “bums on seats” school of thought – in other words, pushing as many students as possible through tertiary education in order to make some ultimate profit – by definition leads to the erosion of standards and an ultimately meaningless education. Perhaps the Youngest’s 14 hour days will pay off.

In my opinion, it is both dishonest and unethical to admit students who simply cannot cope academically, into a tertiary system where they are passed by a lecturing staff under bureaucratic pressure and in fear of losing their jobs.

Teaching and learning are both driven by compelling, relevant and modern research, and feed into each other. Perhaps universities should decide whether they are academic institutions of teaching, learning and research, or profit-driven businesses. To confuse issues simply displays a lack of integrity.

This article first appeared as part in The Witness newspaper as part of The Travelling Supervisor column series, in April 2018.

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