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The box-ticking future of a university education

We got credentialised! climbnh2003, CC BY-NC-SA

Among the many changes currently sweeping through US public universities is a move away from traditional seat-time in class. Known as “competency-based education”, it is often done online, asking students to demonstrate they can meet certain core skills or competencies.

Its proponents offer it up as a cure to the ills that are allegedly facing higher education today, such as underprepared students, the “skills gap” and the general “academic drift” of the university. Those against it are worried the end result will be a university education that will be cheaper in all senses of the word, but also one that is highly stratified and unworthy of the label “higher education”.

Recently the push towards competencies has become linked with a movement called the “college completion agenda, which seeks, in part, to allocate public funding to universities depending on how many students finish college. Advocates, including president Barack Obama, argue it is urgently needed to move more students through higher education.

Quicker through the system

The Gates Foundation and Complete College America claim the completion agenda is urgently needed to get people to finish their degree faster, cheaper and with less student loan debt. It is meant to increase jobs and spur innovation in the intensified competition of the global knowledge economy.

Those in favour include a rather motley amalgamation of edu-metricians in fields such as educational psychology who have been dreaming about rationalising and standardising education since the days of American psychologist E.L. Thorndike.

Joining them are a variety of neoliberal think thanks, such as the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute, who have longed to turn the market loose on one of the last holdouts of the now greatly diminished public realm. Also in favour are philanthropic groups such as the Lumina and Gates Foundations that have essentially become political action committees by another name.

Finally a host of edu-preneurial companies, such as Pearsons, Udacity and others, who are hoping to be on the ground floor of the ”edu-metrics“ and "credentials” market in the making. Alongside them are various business interests groups who want to avoid on-the-job training costs by capturing universities and turning them into large corporate training centres.

They contend that if we could only precisely define what students need to know, it would be possible to accurately measure “learning outcomes” through standardised assessments rather than relying on time spent in class. Students could then move through these at whatever pace they choose.

Cheap and substandard

Those who oppose this model contend that this is not education at all but simply a cheap, substandard means of providing students with credentials.

With these learning outcomes in place, a large data system could be used to move entire degree programs to a competency-based model where each student would be required to meet certain measurable competences as defined by the skills needs of a business. Government would come in to help mandate the partnerships working through the boards of various university systems.

Adopting such an approach would allow education to become “personalised” as students check off various knowledge and skills and receive their credential or badge.

Such a process can even be done with few or no professors, such as at online universities like Western Governors University (WGU), Southern New Hampshire University’s “College for America” or Capella University’s “FlexPath”. Students, or “education pioneers” in Capella’s adventurous sounding euphemism, who “attend” these universities will then be responsible for navigating their way through these standardised competencies.

The new job of professors in this model – or “course mentors” in the eduspeak of WGU – is to develop the standards and competencies and measure students, not necessarily to teach. Indeed, teaching has no real place in this model.

While the completion agenda seems to have burst onto the US higher education scene only in the past few years, the move towards competencies and away from seat-time actually has rather deep roots.

It dates back to the “behavioural objectives” push in teacher training programs in the US and in vocational training reforms the UK and Australia.

Students at risk

While the convergence of these two reforms in the US is relatively new, they have been fuelled by a third process that has been unfolding more slowly over the last few decades – the transformation of the student into the consumer. Because of the unrelenting pressures of market forces, these students will be solely responsible for assuming the risks of their own education.

Here, education is viewed as an individual investment in a person’s own human capital rather than an expenditure by society for the collective good. The result of this transformation is the creation of a “scared straight” student consumer who is forced to live in constant fear of accruing large amounts of debt, selecting the most lucrative major and finding a good job.

From the student’s vantage point anything that appears to “slow down” education is considered a “waste of time and money”.

Today, public higher education in the US seems to be facing the proverbial perfect storm. Those pushing the completion agenda want to crank out new graduates as fast as possible to fill a skills gap that is actually a jobs gap.

Ironically, the very processes that are thought to be finally bringing market discipline to what neoliberal reformers consider to be the much too public, public university will end up pricing those very reforms as “cut-rate merchandise”.

Such a realisation may come too late to preserve public higher education in the US. As higher education systems around the world begin to converge around neoliberal models of reform and open up to more online and private forms of higher education, the US model may soon become a global exemplar.

In the end these reforms may either privatise higher education completely or turn it into a self-funded servant of national economic and business interests that is public in name only.

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