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Failure, crisis, disruption: The (perpetual) end of higher ed

By MELONIE FULLICK | September 11, 2012

Last week Leo Charbonneau over at Margin Notes blog wrote about an article in the most recent issue of Canadian magazine The Walrus, “The uses and abuses of university”. The article isn’t online yet, but my print copy arrived last week, so I was able to take a look at it. The authors, Drs. Ken Coates and Bill Morrison, argue at length that there is a “mismatch” between the kinds of degree programs that students are choosing, and the real needs of the economy. The solutions they discuss include increasing the number of STEM graduates (not a new idea), and “directing students into fields with the greatest need” through various mechanisms, including subsidizing some fields (those in economic demand) but not others.

I think it’s interesting to compare the piece to another recent article, “How the invisible hand points students to a job”, in which Miles Corak took a similar approach yet came to a very different conclusion. Corak discusses a study by Morley Gunderson and Harry Krashinsky (here is a similar one by the same authors, from 2009, in PDF format). Contrary to Coates and Morrison, The researchers found that “the higher the expected earnings in a field of study, the greater the enrollment”, with “one big exception: students choosing the social sciences”, who chose “irrationally” (i.e., they selected fields with low economic returns). Though the authors couldn’t explain the latter “anomaly”, overall it was concluded that the market is functioning effectively, since students are paying attention to “price signals”.

Clearly “crisis”, invoked in the Walrus article, is a popular trope in education discourses of all kinds. So rather than trying to pin down (again) the latest definition of the term, I think it’s more interesting to ask: what we can learn about society and education by looking at the use of the term “crisis”–what does its use signify, or alert us to, in our current context?

It seems that universities have been in “crisis” for, not just decades, but centuries. More recently we have a “crisis literature” in higher education, a whole series of texts that take up this trope from various viewpoints. It seems as if the power to define what the crisis is enables one party or another to offer the solution, to offer a line of reasoning that supports particular actions. The word has an urgency to it, and it calls out for an immediate resolution, one that must not be delayed lest the situation deteriorate to some theoretical point of no return.

In the examples I’ve shown here, the (potential) crisis is an economic one, a crisis of the market, a matter of the right levels of “human capital” production in the right areas. What is lacking is a match between graduates “produced”, and skills in demand. This is why, in both articles, the burden of appropriate choice is placed on young students: as when Corak states, “make a wrong turn in these hallways and you will pay for years. But so will the rest of us”.

The argument about a skills/jobs “mismatch”, as shown by Coates and Morrison, is part of what may be characteristic of more recent critiques: universities are being responsibilized for economic failures of the nation, on one hand, and for entrenched socio-economic inequality, on the other. I think this is why we have the bizarre spectacle of Harvard professor Niall Ferguson claiming that American universities support a “caste system”.

In a way this makes sense, given that this most recent “crisis” involves the massification of the university and a concomitant shift of expectations. Such demands are being projected onto the university at this moment not because universities are necessarily failing in some inherent way, but because in the larger context, these are the terms of assessment (i.e. those of the market, of national economic competitiveness). For example the entire concept of “disruption” — so popular now — is tied to the idea of an education market and the creation of new technology-enabled “business models” for it.

Instead of questioning the latest version of “crisis”, perhaps we should ask whether a central characteristic of universities over time has been the tension between social context and the desire/demand to create “new” knowledge, and that it’s somehow understood the university should be both of this context and also outside of it. The focus on universities’ slowness to adapt to external change is a part of this tension as well, especially if we consider the simultaneous obsession with universities as centres of “innovation”.

As always, there are no simple answers here–at least none that rely on the university as the means of resolving deeper societal contradictions. But I think it might help if we start asking different questions when we hear those words, “crisis”, “failure”, “disruption”.

Melonie Fullick
Melonie Fullick is a PhD candidate at York University. The topic of her dissertation is Canadian post-secondary education policy and its effects on the institutional environment in universities.
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  1. JoVE / September 11, 2012 at 4:52 pm

    Hear! Hear! Great question. If you want to do a whole series teasing out some of the particulars of this line of questioning, I’d be happy to read it. Would make a nice addition to the myriad articles proclaiming the crisis.

  2. M-H / September 11, 2012 at 9:01 pm

    In Australia, the government department tasked with the funding and (thus direction) of Higher Education is the Department of Innovation, Industry, Science, Research and Tertiary Education (DIISRTE). Their website is And the policy (especially for research degrees) is strongly focused on Innovation & Industry.

  3. Todd / September 13, 2012 at 6:10 pm

    A valid point about defining the problem but that works both ways. When one person defines the situation one way, another person defines it another way, argue back and forth, never agree so never get an increase in funding nor a decrease just keep the status quo. Great technique to prevent any kind of change. Crisis? There is no crisis, your are looking at things the wrong way. Crisis? Yes there is one so we have to change things. Bicker, bicker, bicker but no change in funding so it is all good, at least from one person’s perspective.

  4. Dave / September 18, 2012 at 3:42 pm

    Ken Coates visited Estonia, and did some research on their unique system of funding post-secondary education. It is briefly mentioned in the article, but I find the system to be worth investigating.

    The government with encourage students to take programs deemed to be necessary in the economy, so most likely the the STEM courses. If students wish to take courses not deemed as necessary or high in demand, they have to pay full tuition. The option to attend university and take whatever you want is still there, but barriers are removed to PSE if students choose programs in high demand.

  5. Liza Potvin / September 19, 2012 at 9:35 pm

    Say it like it is.

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