There’s been a lot of talk lately about online coursework in higher education. In California, a state plagued by a structural incoherence that makes the proposition of funding our universities adequately extraordinarily difficult, the concept has been embraced with extraordinary enthusiasm. It’s easy to see why partnerships with private course providers might look good to state politicians, who would be thereby absolved of their failure to shore up the already-battered three-tier system which for many people around the world captures much of what is inspiring about the Golden State.
And yet to me, this proposed outsourcing looks a lot like education vouchers through the back door, something California’s public has persistently rejected in the past when it comes to K-12 education. San Jose State faculty developed a critique of the substitution of online courses for campus-based instruction, and they are in a good position to judge, their University having been the site of some early experimentation.
California Senate leader Darrell Steinberg has given teeth to the ambitions of the outsourcers, in the form of SB 520.
But committed faculty on the University campuses are not taking these developments lying down. UC Berkeley history professor and co-chair of the Berkeley Faculty Association, James Vernon, told the East Bay Express that from his perspective, the measure looks like “a back door to the privatization of public education—and an excuse to not hire real faculty”. He and other faculty are right to question the unseemly rush to inject a stream of cost- and profit-oriented thinking into an institution which has a responsibility to do right by its students.
In the same article, Vernon’s co-chair, Colleen Lye, compared the sudden embrace of online coursework to “the FDA approving a drug before it’s been tested and forcing people to take it ... California higher education is still considered a top-notch system. We’re able to offer California residents an equivalent education to the private elites. The legislature is on the verge of throwing in the towel”.
Writing in the Guardian, Vernon (who is British, and my academic supervisor by way of disclosure) suggested that the stakes of California’s debate about massive online open courses will have ramifications over the water, citing our state’s history of pointing the way where global higher education is concerned. This is an interesting turn of events given that until now, the de facto privatization of British universities had gone ahead with dizzying speed, surpassing in a couple of years the journey down that sorry road that California’s universities had been making for decades now.
It’s worth quoting Vernon at length when he explains too-often caricatured faculty opposition to these developments:
“Those who teach in California’s system of higher education are not luddites. Neither were they simply alarmed at the attempts to bypass established mechanisms of peer review and quality control of classes. In the face of the uproar, these [provisions in the Senate bill] have now been dropped. But the stakes are far greater than faculty control and oversight.
“If private providers are allowed to run classes for credit in California’s public system, it will accelerate privatisation ... Private online providers have long been criticised in the US for profiting on the back of federal funded loans to disadvantaged students, who rarely complete their classes”.
Our university systems—the University of California, the California State University, and the California Community Colleges—have suffered both neglect and assault in the past decades. Their degradation has intensified in the past several years as funding continues to fall precipitously, students are faced with fees that would have been unimaginable just a decade ago, academic divisions are cut, course selections fall, and the University is encouraged to adopt a mean-spirited approach that crunches students as numbers and spits the ruthlessly out instead of shepherding them through what is supposed a formative time of their lives, characterised by discovery and inquiry.
We would do well to stop the rush to transform our public’s University from an institution of learning and research into a sordid marketplace. We should question the narrative that suggests that these institutions which continue to draw the most talented students from our own state, as well as from around the world, is broken. We might instead scrutinise the political structure and mentality which cannot see sufficient value in such institutions to be willing or able to give them the support they desperately need, and have certainly earned.