Students & The Cost of Higher Education

The news of the government announcing an end to the demand driven higher education system shouldn’t come as a surprise. For one, this government’s oligarchy driven ideology likes to veil their policies in the concept of the “free-market”, but in reality they are anything but. This is a party based around favours for the rich, of keeping the status quo and a naive sense of regressionism to the “good old days” (when white men were in charge and everyone else knew their place was under their rule). So something like a demand driven system, you know something that resembles democratic choice, was bound to be pulled back because it didn’t fit their ideology. This time it was done as a budget measure to pay for tax cuts for the rich (who don’t seem to pay much tax… so not sure why they need another one).

The other reason that this was inevitable was that it was getting increasingly expensive for the government. Universities were under no obligation to reduce the cost of their courses as student numbers increased and economies of scale arguments could have easily been invoked. Instead most of universities spent big to attract more students with little thought of the long term consequences of scaling up their enterprises. The government could have been proactive in this and sought to undertake some real reform in the area, but instead of attempting to tackle some of the underlying issues in the current funding model but instead they simply sort to cut funding and magically all the problems will resolve themselves.

The silence around some of the key problems in higher education is deafening:

  • No one seems willing to discuss the fact that students are being forced to prop up the higher education system as the government slowly defunds it.
  • No one seems to willing to discuss the impact of students having to bear a vast amount of debt right from the outset of their careers.
  • No one seems willing to discuss how much of the fees students pay goes to cross subsidise research and if that is a justifiable expense to be shifted to students.
  • No one seems willing to discuss the massive casualisation of the teaching workforce and the lack of time and permanent staff allocated to teach students.
  • No one seems willing to discuss if higher education will retain its value for students going into the future.

No one seems willing to discuss students.

The language around higher education seems to ignore them completely, despite the fact that our future literally depends on them. Higher Education seems fine with de-humanising itself and in being discussed purely in economic or industrial terms. We love talking about money and value, and industry sectors and exports, and economic contributions and growth, and standards and rankings.

We don’t seem to want to spend any time talking about the people.

We don’t want to talk about the stress we place on staff through precarious employment. How we don’t pay them over summer. How they can’t get a loan because they’re not permanent. How our last minute hiring practices creates a heart in the mouth event every single session, or how they aren’t allocated enough time to actually engage with student in any other way than the delivery of content.

We don’t want to talk about the stress we place on students to perform. How this course is costing them $2000 a pop so the cost of failure has huge financial costs associated with it. How there is no financial support to study. How they are forced to work menial jobs to feed and cloth themselves most of the time. How we just cut penalty rates and took $100 a week from their pay check. How we fail to even acknowledge the mental anguish our student go through in order to study. How we belittle them with bureaucratic paperwork and arbitrary penalties. How we have removed sympathy from the system of education which would acknowledge it’s very human connection. How we are silent about suicide, even when it’s attempted our own campuses, in our dorm rooms.

What worries me about the coming debate about these budget cuts is that there won’t be a sliver of acknowledgement of staff or students or the predicament they find themselves in now, let alone the state we are forcing them into. We are forgetting that Education is an essentially human pursuit, and removing the humanity is not a cost we should be willing to bear.

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An Introduction to UCI

So today was my first day at the Medical School of University of California Irvine. I don’t know if it was the weather but everyone was so friendly. I finally got to meet in person my contact at UCI, Mary Frances, and have a quick tour of their teaching spaces and be introduced to her team. We then chatted about the program they are running, my trip and the my proposed research outcomes. It was really great to get that level of insight from their actual experiences through the implementation of the iMedEd program. Then it was time to chat to some students.

For me this was a really fantastic experience. Finding out how the students are using these devices – their experiences, thoughts and feelings – is key to the understanding of the motivations behind any mobile learning project. In my opinion this is a project that is student centred, because the physical technology is so user centred. Sure the funding, leadership and implementation may have an academic or teaching motivation, but it’s success completely depends on how the students respond. In terms of the iMedEd program it seems overwhelmingly positive. In less than a year the iPad has established itself as a key tool for the vast majority of students, fully integrated into their classroom, study and practical components. In many instances it has replaced notebooks, textbooks and desktop machines and augmented study patterns and behaviours. In a problem based learning class I sat in on students used the iPad to bring up the task, research options on the web, read case notes, find journal articles as well as write notes and email their responses back to the lecturer.

The issues that arose from my discussions with Mary Frances and the students really extend from the immaturity of the product. When the iMedEd program was implemented the iPad had been on the market for only a couple of days. There was no guide book on how to implement this kind of technology, there was no training or initial support. The team behind the program and the students themselves were learning it all on the fly – adapting to change and problem solving as they went. To this end those that were more tech savvy were able to get more out of the iPad and integrate it more fully into their studies and routines (using Evernote and Dropbox for example) – those that weren’t as knowledgable were still able to use many features but lacked a clear understanding of how to take it to another level. In these cases many students resorted back to their laptops – technology they were comfortable with. It has to be added that as one student pointed out – the medical program isn’t a walk in the park – and many students just couldn’t risk their studies to try out the new technology – so fell back to things that they were comfortable and used to working with. Spending more time on induction for students on the iPad is planned for the next session and there is an expectation that perhaps the iPad will actually attract a different type of student that is willing to experiment and is not as daunted by the technology.

A general opinion is that the iPad isn’t a ‘saviour’ piece of technology – it will not ‘save’ curriculum or rescue bad teaching. It won’t replace the laptop or desktop in many key areas… but there are cases where the iPad does provide an improved, functional and featured experience than print or other available technology.

For some students the experience truly has been worthwhile because out of their own pocket they have already upgraded to the iPad2. To me, when the students are willing to go to that kind of effort (to actually get one of the devices as well as the financial commitment) then there is obviously something to it. It is early days and it hasn’t all been smooth sailing, but the path that UCI has laid down really demonstrate the potential of the tablet and mobile computing in general to revolutionise the way we educate and how our students learn.