Our Stories @ ENG: A series in which teaching staff and students share their memories of the ENG Department to coincide with the 60th Anniversary of the department. [Read all entries.] [Revisit the “Pride of Place” series.] [Revisit the “Pet Sounds” series.] [Revisit the “Headspace” series.] [Revisit the “Ongoing” series.] [Revisit the “Interrogative” series.]
Surviving the Age of Academic Corporatism
by Magdalen Ki
A university degree used to signify elitism for baby boomers. But the simple bachelor’s degree has lost its lustre as a status symbol for Generation X, and has depreciated so much that it has become increasingly inadequate for young people nowadays. The demand for higher qualifications is in direct proportion to the desire for higher paying jobs, but it is often in inverse proportion to the love of investigate scholarship. After all, one only desires profitable outcomes, impressive grades, prestigious scholarships and competitive awards. Educators may produce high-sounding principles and slogans, but education is basically an expensive investment for all parties concerned. The government is eager to use taxpayers’ money to maximise human capital. Students are keen to increase their cultural capital and turn that into economic capital. Parents want to protect their investment, and see to it that their children can get good jobs and climb the social ladder. Everybody’s strategy is to secure good results, and play safe in all circumstances.
From an administrative point of view, academic corporatism is a good sign, a positive thing, which enables institutional expansionism. More organisational control means systematic management, and more students mean more funding, more facilities and staff are needed. But the law of supply and demand is not without its dark side. Early universities introduced core subjects such as grammar, logic, rhetoric, moral philosophy, and metaphysics, but these subjects must face a drastic decline in interest in an entrepreneurial academy that emphasises utility, market values, patentable research, and employability.
Given the diverse motives and interest levels in the student population, departments quickly learn how to tweak the curriculum to gauge student interest. Instructors also adapt different course requirements to suit everybody’s learning curve, provide fair assessment and good grades. To keep pace with postmodern pedagogies, the traditional chalk-and-board model is out. Instructional methods are updated to include classroom discussions, group projects, short films and video responses, service learning, forum debates, demonstrative performance, or flipped classroom learning.
Influenced by the marketing logic that “bosses and customers are always right,” educators increasingly play the part of service providers who must satisfy not only the students’ thirst for knowledge and their demand for good returns, but also the university’s expectation that cutting-edge technologies and diverse teaching modes can increase learning effectiveness. A productive result is important because everything will be kept on record: the university has a standard method to rate the instructors. If students are not happy they also voice their grievances on the social media. Collective complaints about educational ideals or policy can be bad publicity, but students may prioritise their interest before corporate image and reputation.
From the students’ point of view, they are conditioned to understand education in terms of investment (of time and efforts) and measurable returns (exam scores, DSE scores, IELTS scores, and cGPA etc). They provide various degrees of academic labour, but their ego is fragile because the numeral figures can fluctuate from year to year, and their moods are unstable from time to time. University life may seem a happy honeymoon at first, but more first degree-holders mean more competition, and they feel the urge to learn faster, perform better, do more, travel more, intern more, and provide more services to the university and society to boost their CV.
Rather than celebrating free choice and enjoyment, they mention lack of choice, depression, performance anxiety, and suicidal angst. Many instructors wonder what is wrong; many counsellors also wonder why more and more cases keep coming. Many departments flag the problem of grade inflation, but students are often dissatisfied and want to appeal their grade the moment they look at their transcripts.
One can easily do a (bad) Marxist critique under the circumstances: the university may or may not be an ideological state apparatus, but everybody is bound to play a role. The faculty may encourage academic “Disneyfication” to satisfy the students, but a lot of quizzes, papers, and assignments must be produced. Everybody feels overworked, overwhelmed, and over-alienated. The surplus profit goes to the university system, if all goes well, our university can have a higher ranking. Next, our smart students and alumni will all be hired by big firms and perpetuate social reproduction.
When Marxists call for revolutionary changes, one does not even know how to begin here. Good university rankings and good jobs are important. Any change of academic, social or business structures must generate endless anxieties and social repercussions. The last thing one wants to see is that all the investments might go into waste, so all members are called to produce more and more to justify their existence and benefit the system. Time has changed. The university has changed. The Founders’ vision is a thing of the past, and one is left to wonder what the future will bring….
Magdalen Ki is Associate Professor at the Department of English. [Click here to read all entries by Magdalen.]