The two horsemen of the higher education ‘apocalypse’

Headless horseman
Headless horseman – Some rights reserved by cgc76

It was fabulous to attend the Festival of Dangerous Ideas in Melbourne yesterday. I managed to see four of the five speakers and all of them were excellent. Starting with Dan Savage talking about the perils of expecting too much from monogamy we had then had Arlie Hochschild talking about outsourcing ourselves, Kirby Ferguson talking about conspiracy theories and patterns and finally Hanna Rosin, talking about “the end of men”. I’m sorry to say I missed David Simon talking about why some people are more equal than others but hopefully his video will be available on the Wheeler Centre web site soon.

It was thought provoking from start to finish and each presenter talked about their topic with enthusiasm, passion and great expertise. Although none of them focussed on education I did think that Arlie Hochschild’s presentation had lots that was relevant to higher education. Her new book is entitled “The Outsourced Self” and it examines the way that individuals increasingly outsource aspects of their life to paid strangers; from children’s parties to love coaches, wedding planners to surrogate mothers. I think you can probably see where I’m going with this already.

The outsourcing of services by higher education institutions has been going on for a long time but has accelerated over the last few years.  Institutions may now have third parties providing services for staff employment, student accommodation, knowledge management, email, web applications, learning management, synchronous web classrooms, student counselling to name just a few. In fact it may soon be rarer to find an information service provided by the institution itself rather than outsourced to a third party. An interesting development for entities that purport to be knowledge centres. But that sounds as though I’m against the idea of outsourcing and I’m not necessarily. I think there many good reasons to outsource some services.

What I thought was most interesting was when Hochschild was asked how we could reverse the trend to outsourcing by individuals, to which she replied that there were two headless horsemen that had been released over the last few years; the market and technology. They were headless in that there were/are no controls on each of them and that we were seeing the results of that in the rise of the outsourced self. She said that they had galloped far ahead leaving culture at the starting gate (forgive the analogy, the Melbourne Cup runs tomorrow and I have racing on my mind).

The market and technology as two headless horsemen; a compelling image and one that conjures up so many visions of human endeavours struggling with these uncontrolled beasts over recent years; not least higher education. The question is, how do we tame them and direct them?

Will they be part of the so called higher education apocalypse? Or will they help bring about a better version of higher education in the future?

I don’t have an answer but it’s certainly something that I’ll bear in mind as I think about change in higher education and it’s an image that I felt worth sharing. If you have an answer then please share below.

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