i dream of being possible

the problem with higher ed

On reading a(nother) article this morning about how impact factors and bibliometrics are creating a situation whereby academics engage the ~public~ discourse less often because of something something.1 After reading the article, I suddenly realized that a bunch of different, current critiques about the state of higher ed really boil down to problems with capitalism.

1) Adjunctivication

One of the main (biggest) concerns in higher ed right now is the fact that more and more teaching (and research, btw) is being done by adjunct faculty. Faculty that are in positions that are precarious, poorly paid, without benefits of any kind, and generally shitty working conditions. Tenured positions are fewer and fewer, even as there are more and more PhD graduates.

There are a few different causes usually cited for this. The businification of higher ed (ie, higher ed taking on more and more of a profit driven model). The increase of high paid administrative roles (ie, the growing beauraracy of higher ed). The reduction of public funding for higher ed. The increased (perhaps artificial) demand for higher ed. Etc and so on.

The thing is, is that all of these boil down to issues stemming from capitalism. To a certain extent, the state of higher ed can be seen as likely inevitable withing a capitalist economy. Universities and the like were created and founding in pre-capitalist societies. Yes, the probably did a better job of living up to the ideals of knowledge for the sake of knowledge, but this relied on entrenched classism and elitism. Translate these ideas of classism and elitism to a capitalist economy, and we end up exactly where we currently are.

2) Publish or Perish

Another problem in higher ed is the quantification (or attempts to quantify) stuff that, uultimately, cannot be quantified. Things like ‘impact’ or even ‘knowledge’. Much of what bibliometrics and impact factors and the like really attempt to do is quantify stuff that has not actually quantity. Unfortunately, these units have become increasingly more crucial to success in academia.

What does this sound like? Well, it sounds like academic worth is being judged solely on productivity. Some of the quantification is feeble attempts to measure quality, but they really substitute ‘quality’ for different, complex measures of quantity.2 However, in the end, the tenure file really comes down to productivity. Are you a productive member of the academic community? Do you publish? Serve on commities? And so on.

Again… capitalism is to blame for this. Within a capitalist society the only value that any given individual has is in their productivity.

3) High Costs

High cost, here, refers to all of the really expensive aspects of academia. The high cost of tuition. The high cost of academic publishing. The high cost of research. All of this. In capitalism 101 (oh, sorry, I mean ~economics~) we learn that supply and demand are the basic (and most simplistic) factors in determining cost.3

Academia is in high demand. So it costs a lot. That is really the long and short of it.

Look, the fact that academia has ‘costs’ associated with it at all is a function of capitalism.4

The solution

End capitalism. No, really, dismantle capitalism. I’m not even joking.

Plus, if academics were to work towards dismantling capitalism, there are all sorts of other benifits beyond effectively reforming and reshaping what academia is. Benefits like perhaps reducing a great deal of the current economic and social inequity. You know, small stuff.

  1. Yes, I really ought to have read the article more closely and, very likely, I should put the effort into actually finding said article so I can link to it…. 

  2. For example, one measure for the impact of an article is how many times it has been cited. This, allegedly, is supposed to tell us something about the quality. Except that “how many times it has been cited” is a quantitative measure. It doesn’t tell us whether or not the articles citing the original have only negative, derisive things to say. It doesn’t tell us whether or not the academics doing the citing are qualitatively good. Of course, the ideal would maybe be getting a definitive measurement for knowledge. So then we could be like “Oh, I have contribute 12 knowledge units to humanity” when 10 knowledge units ar sufficient to obtaining tenure. 

  3. Yes, I’m well aware that there are many other factors in determining cost. 

  4. And, no, I’m not saying that without capitalism higher ed is free or that higher ed cannot be free in capitalism. I’m using ‘cost’ here to refer to dollars and cents, rather than other types of cost.