Postscript: open education, cracks and the crisis of higher education

*Originally posted at Learning Exchanges on 29 October 2010

I’ve been pondering the realities and possibilities surrounding cuts and Browne, based on conversations and reading of the comments to my original piece on open education, cracks and the crisis of higher education. This has been spiked by Leigh Blackall’s point that “Richard stops short of describing alternative approaches, pointing instead to a few worthy projects”. Leigh is correct. As is Martin Oliver in noting that in re-imaging the University as social form, as part of a re-imagining of the forms of our communities/societies, “I’m caught between an idealised and a pragmatic response”.

In part we are left with a soft-and-slow response from within HE, as a few questions are worked out within the confines of business-as-usual. These questions include the following.

  1. What does the cuts and fees agenda mean for our allegedly progressive pedagogies and the roles of the student-as-consumer and the student-as-producer? Will students who are paying £1,000s accept pedagogic models and engagement with resources that are about their production of their curriculum? How will this affect their expectations of the curriculum and their experience of HE? This is more so in the face of a hegemonic view, from business and government, of HE as marketised, and increasingly individualised rather than socially-constructed, commodity. All that work we have done on progressive and radical pedagogies needs to be considered in light of the curriculum-as-commodity.
  2. Will, for example, Band D subjects fair better than Band C, in that the HEFCE subsidy plus fee income will be replaced by a top-level of projected fee in the former, but not in the latter. Will there be cross-subsidy? What will this mean for power relations between subjects within the University, when it comes to the student experience or the allocation for resources or approaches to mechanisms like quality? We already hear stories of powerful faculties claiming they subsidise smaller areas of work.
  3. How can institutions differentiate themselves in the face of fees and cuts? Will their current make-up of Band B, C and D subjects impact how they fare post-2012/13?
  4. What does “the student[s] experience[s]” mean in reality, when we don’t have funding letters and we don’t know how Browne will play out in Parliament? What does “the student[s] experience[s]” mean in reality, when we don’t know what the University is for?

In this I feel that there are possibilities to re-imagine our work. From management within the academy lobbying and positioning is already beginning as a form of protest within the model of business-as-usual. There is a form of critique framed around autonomy and complexity, and a focus upon the institution as social enterprise. On his blog, the VC of the University of Sheffield notes that “In a world of global competition and profound change, we want our children to have more than just bread to live on. And to do that, they will also need to appreciate the value of the full range of knowledge, and why our good colleagues do need, and deserve, some bread.” Note the use of our *good* colleagues. Martin Hall, VC at Salford argues that “Re-connecting with local communities leads to academic excellence and international recognition”, and that “partnership working makes more sense than Darwinian selection”.

This view of developing the University as social enterprise is important within the framework of business-as-usual, and it might enable, for example, DMU to develop its strengths in partnership with Leicester as a global, national and regional exemplar of strategies for partnership, inclusion, diversity. The issue of scale, strengths and also values is critical here. However, this assumes that business-as-usual is an option, which given the radicalisation and marketisation agenda of the coalition, and to which opposition political parties offer limited alternatives, seems of limited value.

Elsewhere we have seen a view that protest through demonstrations or occupations might be the way to direct opposition. In the UK, the NUS and UCU are planning a demonstration on 10 November [which I will be attending] with the strap-line “fund our future”. A danger with this approach is that it disempowers – that it waits for the Coalition to agree that they were wrong and to maintain the status quo ante bellum. In short it isn’t resilient in the face of an ideological attack – it plays their game to their rules on their turf. It is about negation. But it is about the negation of the newly-imposed terms of business-as-usual. It is not about the negation of our negation. It is not about re-imagining higher learning. It is not about what HE is for. If we are in this crisis, and wish to move beyond it, then we have to be against it politically. The key here is radical alternatives and transformation.

Martin Oliver goes on to note in a comment to my original posting that:

“we do need to try out these open forms now. If we can’t work out how to do it – and just as importantly, how to tell credible stories about its value, and about what resources it really needs – then we won’t have it in our repertoire when we need it in the future. We also wouldn’t be able to resist inappropriate versions of that path if we couldn’t spot them and understand what made

“So – where can we start sharing stories about this?”

Martin asks us to re-imagine and share. Some of this re-imagining is possible through, as Leigh Blackall indicates, radicalising our practices within the academy. This includes:

  1. Radicalising the curriculum to engage with issues of transformation in political economy, within and across subjects;
  2. Radicalising the forms of engagement with our partners or stakeholders, by working with them to re-imagine, produce and re-produce, decisions, spaces and activities;
  3. Building active connections with radical, alternative groups at local, national, global scale [social centres, reading groups, the WEA, transitions town movements];
  4. Asking questions about what higher education is for, and what social forms best support its outcomes; and
  5. Using funding calls and partnership-working to enable the academy to develop radical alternatives.


The key here is to build and share alternative models, based on negotiated, shared values, that can be realised locally or individually or by communities and which challenge and lay bare the fallacies of the dominant ideology. This testing and sharing of alternatives is oppositional, and is made crucial, not only in the face of economic liberalism, but also in the face of imminent crises like peak oil. Is business-as-usual really viable?

However, this demands that we live the alternative experiences of which we speak in the areas where we exist most fully – those areas where we have expertise or community investment or engagement. These operate at different scales, and in that they might usefully be seen in the context of how to change the world without taking power. This means, for me, in my work with edtech:

  • challenging the views of my institution about its place in the student experience;
  • being critical about pedagogy as a form of life-changing, transformatory production of political economic alternatives, and not just preparation for paying taxes;
  • working with curriculum teams to challenge their views of their pedagogies and the place of technology in that; situating myself against essentialism and techno-colonialism in all its forms;
  • using OERs as a driver for open education and production, co-operation and sharing, against commercialisation and consumption; situating this view of OERs in open education in political economy, against closed, vendor-driven models of education;
  • working to use technology to open the University up as more than a regional, social enterprise, so that it can offer resilient models of organisation and support at scale, against neoliberalism; working with local, regional, national radical partners using technology to develop new models for life;
  • using external bids to develop and share radical ideas with other stakeholders – to frame alternative models; to work in the hope that my decisions and activities challenge dominant positions.

Martin is right that we need to share and make the case for alternatives. That is the next challenge.

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