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Nov 27, 2017

The pedagogy of relation and defunding of public higher education

Until relatively recently, defunding of public higher education was caused mainly by economic reasons. States had mandatory and increasing spending on K-12, healthcare, pensions, etc. and reluctant to increase taxation. Now we have a much stronger political component: more conservatives have convinced themselves that universities turn normal kids into flaming liberals. See a recent WP piece for evidence. It is ultimately a self-defeating for the mainstream conservatism illusion. Universities have always been liberal, from their inception, and will remain so. There are a few conservative universities, but unfortunately, none of them can be honestly called great. Those that you will recognize on the list are not that conservative, really. It is not an accident and not a conspiracy; free thought is the essence of the university. You may think liberalism is evil and even a form of totalitarianism, but you cannot deny that without liberal universities, no contemporary society can survive. If you think Trump’s core electorate – men without higher education – is going to sustain American economy, in 21 century, you’re simply in denial. Not one economist will support such a preposterous idea, neither liberal nor conservative. There is no way to turn back to the elitist model of higher education. The mass higher education is here to stay, and starving it of funds will not make universities more conservative.

Only three states have increased their higher ed funding since 2008: Montana, Wyoming, and North Dakota. Arizona has an over 50% cut, which makes it a complete outlier. California is still below 2008 funding, and has allowed an over 60% tuition hike. With all my sympathy for state-level lawmakers, what is it they expect us to do? In theory, there are only two suggestions: one is to learn how to make money, and the other is to become more efficient.

I am somewhat sympathetic to the first suggestion, up to a point. Yes, we could enter some other markets, like online learning, professional development, and consulting, and make up some of the needed revenue there. But It would be irresponsible to think that universities like ours can rely on these additional earnings as a major revenue source. The depths of those markets are not that great.

The industry has given an honest try to the efficiency demand, too. We (the collective we) tried computerized instruction, MOOCs, tried cutting staff and administration, tried to replace many tenure-track faculty with lecturers. None of these things brings major gains in efficiency, and all have hard limits. Regular on-line teaching can be very effective, but it does not save much money in the end (you save on facilities, but lose on faculty support and IT infrastructure). The reason for that is not obvious to the public, and even without our professional community it is still needs explaining. It turns out the core of education is human relation. It is something peculiar to our species: most higher learning is only possible as social learning, and there has to be a teacher-like figure; not to transmit knowledge, but to make someone want to learn. The economic fundamentals of education depend on person-to-person affective labor. We have no relational technology whatsoever, not even in prototypes. Technology is not coming to our rescue any time soon. Although someone is better start working on how to reproduce the relational side of education with technology.

I am not trying to be alarmist; those who foretell a quick demise of American universities does not appreciate the strength of the tradition. Parents of all classes want their kids to attend college, and they are willing to both pay for it and to vote for public funds. No one in the world has quite figured out how to pay for mass higher education without bankrupting the country or eroding the quality; not the free public universities like in Northern Europe, not the tuition-charging private model. In fact, the American model of mixed sources of finance may be better than either of the other two models. In the medium range, state governments would have to find resources, while universities must do their hardest to become more entrepreneurial and efficient. In fact, state funding formulas may be tweaked to reward those universities that show more market shrewdness and innovation.

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