A Nightmare Future of Higher-Ed

A favorite trope of science fiction dystopias is a classroom of students wearing metallic skull caps wired to a blinking, monolithic computer, and staring vacantly into space while the propaganda and “facts” that pass for knowledge and education are downloaded directly into their brains. That scenario may be coming soon to a college campus near you, if in a somewhat more refined manner.

Consider the state of higher education today. Since the late 1970s, the total of poorly paid untenured and contingent faculty has far outstripped the number of tenured faculty on college campuses all over the world and now accounts for roughly 76 % of faculty in U.S. higher education.

The shrinking number of tenured academics has been paralleled by a growing number of very well-paid administration positions, filled by MBAs or Educational Administration doctorates who have spent little or no time in the actual educational trenches. The current corporate administrative pattern emphasizes a profit model of efficiency, cost control, and knowledge delivery, which is fundamentally different from the academic and pedagogical model of knowledge creation, a messy, individualistic but often life-changing process. This new emphasis is evident in the constant rise of tuition (going to grandiose building projects and bloated administrative salaries mirroring the corporate world), increasing demands for the quantification and standardization of instruction, larger class sizes, and the devaluing of educators’ professionalism, expertise, mentoring, innovative pedagogy, and the kind of student-centered, highly personalized learning opportunities I had at my small liberal arts college in the 1980s.

If these trends continue unchecked, the educational “opportunities” I and many other educators foresee will look like something out of that science fiction dystopia. For the sake of efficiency and the bottom line, students will be “educated” (although it will be more like indoctrination with facts than true education) en masse, remotely, in MOOCs (massive online open courses) by a few “star” academics who record their lectures and require the purchase of very expensive texts and materials from a few monopolistic academic publishers. Low-salaried “tutors” (today’s adjuncts with Master’s degrees and doctorates) will be standing by at what amounts to a call center with scripted responses to students’ questions. There will be little or no discussion of the material, little opportunity to interact with other students, the professor, or even ideas that are not in the book or online, and virtually no support for struggling students beyond a disembodied voice or image on a screen. This is the logical extension of the model of knowledge delivery vs. knowledge creation, which requires teacher-student interaction, argument, discussion, questioning, practice, and widely varied pedagogical methods—teaching the student, not the material.

If this sounds far-fetched, you should know that one attendee at the recent Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor (COCAL) conference reported that her Canadian college,  Athabasca University, is already in the process of moving its adjunct instructors into that call center, hiring non-academic operators to determine whether student questions are administrative or academic and route them accordingly, and requiring its “tutors” to use a script penned by the textbook publisher. Remember the last time you called tech support and got an offshore technician who insisted on running through the entire customer-service script, even though you’ve already tried everything suggested? Imagine this as your educational experience. Just as bad, MIT and Harvard have already formed a company called EdX to provide machine grading of academic essays. Not for Harvard or MIT, of course. Machine grading, though possibly cost-saving, would lead to a “beating the machine” or “gaming the system” mentality of teaching to the test rather than real learning, the kind of instruction we see in test prep centers for the college boards. I’m sure the testing companies will jump on that opportunity too.

Inevitably, this sets up a two-tier system of education: the intimate, personalized educational experience for those who can afford a “traditional” education, and the cheaper, technology-heavy/professor-light so-called education of the masses. Good pedagogy requires the collaboration of student and instructor and the interaction is often a two-way street, building something entirely new—a new viewpoint, a new technique, a new set of questions. When instruction becomes standardized and rote as it is now becoming in our worst for-profit and online schools, nothing new comes out of it. A massive shift to so-called competency-based education that emphasizes the concrete skill sets that non-educators value over the more abstract and difficult-to-quantify results of “live” higher education would kill rather than nurture new ideas, in both students and faculty. If the drive to standardization and contingency continues, higher education will become a place where innovation, creativity, and open inquiry go to die of exhaustion and active suppression.

Science Fiction Grand Master Arthur C. Clarke (one of the inventors of geosynchronous satellites) said in his essay “Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination,” that, “When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.” We have lost a generation of research scholars already, to the perpetual post-doc carousel and the permanently insecure adjunct track. The lack of new blood supported by job security and living wages entrenches old ideas and leads to stagnation. Progress in technology requires risk; so does cultural progress. The current and future corporate university is risk-averse. Negative results get you “not renewed.” Research with no immediate application does too. Controversy is and will continue to be interpreted as “contrary to the best interests of the university” as corporations protect what they see as a brand, rather than a dynamic institution of challenging ideas and knowledge creation.

Treating higher education as though it were a business where students are customers and professors are contract service providers may create future campuses that house only enormous administrative office blocks and computer centers where students sit before screens, running through a series of automated exercises before being awarded a printable certificate of academic completion. Owing tens of thousands of dollars, graduates will then shuffle off into contract positions at the corporate campuses which look—and act—strangely like the academic campus they just left.

Wait—haven’t I seen this movie before?


  • Lee Kottner

    Lee Kottner is a New York City writer, activist, and adjunct faculty member who travels 4 hours a day to teach at three universities in the New York Metro Area.

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27 thoughts on “A Nightmare Future of Higher-Ed

  1. Online courses are a godsend for handicapped students, students with young children, and for students who work full-time or live a long way from campus. You don’t need a car, you don’t need childcare, and you don’t need time off from work.

    I attended a series of third-tier schools as my Air Force officer husband was transferred from base to base. High-quality lectures by native-English speakers would have been a huge step up from what I experienced.

    Why not let all the students listen to great lectures from Oxbridge or the Ivy League, augmented with professionally drawn diagrams and maps, and get rid of the lazy incompetents who give parts of the same lecture twice, because they can’t remember what they talked about in class two days ago.

    Online courses are a fantastic development, and only the Luddites want to keep the old system.

    1. Laura,

      My sympathies are with you. Whose would not be?

      (I see I have been shortchanging Mr. Kottner one of his ‘t’s. I beg his pardon.)

      Mr. Kottner asserts that an online course — and the equivalent on-campus experience, for that matter — is missing much that should be there. (His argument is not with technology.)

      For many colleges, and more every day, my answer is that, *should be* or not, the on-line courses are not missing anything that actually *is* there.

      So, as the young people say, you go, girl.

  2. Scientific and technical training can be injured by Lysenkoism, or by affirmative enough action, but is pretty safe otherwise. It is protected by competition, and real-world testing of the output product. If your school’s physicists or engineers aren’t as good as my school’s, it sticks out a mile.

    There actually are social scientists, but there are not yet any social sciences–well, there’s almost one: economics, which is in about the position of astronomy in 1530. With luck, the scientists will in time completely displace the pseudo-scientists, though the short-term prospects are poor.

    It is to be hoped that Mathematical Properties of Economic Models achieves recognition as a separate field, part of Applied Mathematics. Economics will be much improved by not confusing advances in that field with advances in economics, and (I suppose) vice-versa.

    Right now the ratio of economic scientists to pseudo-scientists is much less than 1. Except for a very few institutions, the student is better off studying it, if at all, from books only, and to retain a critical stance when reading.

    Elementary economics is now the most popular course in college, deriving from the myth that it is useful in business. I hope snopes.com is on the case.

    Other social “sciences” *could* become sciences–Gary Becker has shown how–but will not, for the forseeable future. They have descended into swamps of propaganda, and will become worse before they become better. Even reading must be selected very carefully to avoid a colossal waste of time.

    Humanities courses are very seldom about humanities, the real thing (about which more below). Mostly they are the purest expression of the only important purpose of a modern university: to give comfortable employment to tenured and tenure-track professors who, it so happens, are major money contributors to the ruling Party.

    The humanities–the real thing–has always been a minority taste for men with some leisure (now open to women with some leisure). Apparently you can still be educated in the humanities on some campuses, if you are determined, stubborn, and know exactly what you need. But if you know exactly what you need, you don’t need to be there.

    At root, the humanities is about how to live–in particular, how to live the life of the mind. There is virtually no hope of reforming our universities so that it is more commonly taught, since few of our humanities faculty now have a clue how to live, and in particular how to live the life of the mind. This is especially true of our younger faculty.

    Fortunately, the technical literature of this subject, known simply as “literature”, is often quite accessible; and the easier works often draw the reader to the deeper, more difficult works. The student is advised to buy rather than rent books, since he will want to annotate, and to re-read–probably over a lifetime.

    It would have been nice had he had a personal relationship with Socrates, or somebody like him; but there seems to be no way to arrange it.

  3. “… this sets up a two-tier system of education…”

    Uh … this is what we have now … under the current system.
    Ivy league type status schools, along with numerous ‘also-ran’ small colleges and large universities.

    What it will actually set up is a MULTI-TIER system.

    A very large percentage of students watching video feeds of instruction presented by the very best lecturers. Testing to be done in proctored exam centers located anywhere convenient and serving multiple institutions.

    With a few (lucky perhaps … or not?) getting ‘traditional’ lecture/lab courses taught by in-the-flesh instructors. And getting to attend all those great ‘on-campus’ parties where the well-connected meet lifelong friends who will do each other – and their progeny – favors.

  4. Given the monolithic worldview that most campuses provide and the dearth of intellectual diversity, your article causes me little concern. It seems more a screed directed on the one hand at the self inflicted wound of increasing administrative costs at the expense of teachers salaries. On the other hand, you seem very concerned that students now have a lower cost alternative to attending one of those pits of drunkenness and rapine known as the modern university, while getting an equal or better education.

    1. Mr. Dunn,

      You forgot “sustainability”, “gender inequity”, “climate change”, “power structure”, “globalization”, and several other buzzwords. Go back and rewrite.

  5. Interestingly, I don’t see much discussion as to why this is happening. For instance, once you begin insisting that [pretty much] everyone get a college education how can you not move to a factory type product? You’re changing a cottage industry into a mass production industry. Then the ‘laborers” go union and the layers of more highly paid middle managers emerges. And we become more concerned with ‘turning out product” as opposed to the quality of individual units, and . . . All perfectly predictable in hindsight.

    When we start paying for the process rather than the value of the output, whether it’s research or ‘education’ I would expect this to be the arc we encounter.

    If we cease separating the gold from the dross while those turning out not much but dross and expecting to get paid as if the dross were gold then we’ll find the problem you cite.

    I apply this to the institutions and not individuals, of course. But where do you think grade inflation and the proliferation of majors that don’t seem to lead to jobs or careers and hiring of ‘labor’ at the lowest possible wage come from if not this process?

    1. I just wanted to say, that was very well put. I have often wondered where the “value” was in, for example, taking an on-site history course. For the amount of money spent on one course to learn one professor’s views, you could purchase and consume multiple materials covering the same topic and written by various experts. In this day and age it is also easy enough to take that information and have good in-depth discussions with people, in various locations and of diverse backgrounds, who share similar interests. The additional exposure should result in a more well-rounded education, rather than a deficient one. Does an adult student really need a single authority to guide his analysis of information? I think it is arrogant to assume that creativity must be taught and nurtured in an academic environment, and that it is endangered outside of that bubble.

      I also disagree with Lee Reynolds. Students are not the product, but they may be consumers of a bad product which affects their well-being. Calling the student the “product” implies that the student has no control over the outcome, which is hardly the case.

      1. I beg your pardon, Miss U. I put my answer to Mr. McKie under your message.

        I believe Mr. Kotner would say–certainly I would say–that in a good history course, you never learn the history professor’s views.

        You might discuss certain points with him, but he will point you to knowledge within his subject field that you will want to consider in formulating your own: not to give you his.

        It is not abstract “how to think”–it is content-filled–but it is not “what to think” either.

        It is this, in large part, that is so conspicuously missing that the university can automate its “teaching” activities, and is doing so.

        It is not the automation that is the loss–that is after the fact, and by then makes sense, pace Mr. Dunn (*infra*). If you’re going to get a cheap education, it might as well be inexpensive.

        Some students couldn’t care less. Others know they are much the poorer for it.

    2. Mr. McKie,

      You are mixing your metaphors a bit. Perhaps I can help. I think there’s one that fits.

      There the shamefully exploited adjuncts are the un-unionized or weakly-unionized unskilled labor. (Remember: the degree of skill is judged by whether you are hired for a “skilled” occupation.)

      The tenured faculty are the most extreme example (other than major sports leagues) of feather-beaded unionized skilled labor. With them, the dignity of labor achieves a certain hauteur. “Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer,/We’ll keep the red flag flying here,” indeed.

      The students are the raw material, work in progress, and finished product of teaching. Teaching itself is an annoying distraction (and the finished students a byproduct) of the professors’ main efforts, which are directed to research, writing, and grant-chasing.

      The customers are:
      (1) the tuition-payers (that is, usually, the government-guarantee lenders and, on default, the government),
      (2) the grant-providers (again, often the government),
      (3) the subsidizers (usually the government, but sometimes gifts from alumni or other nations, usually to purchase respectability or influence), and
      (4) (only at the moment that they select a college and sign a promissory note) students.

      The university has no interest in you getting a job. None. Unless it affects whether students come in the first place, which it hasn’t (except for law schools) and probably won’t.

      College applicants are high school kids full of “follow your dream” and “everyone should go to college” from their high school counselors. They have no judgment yet. Their parents are usually afraid to give them contrary advice, and often would have it angrily rejected.

      The university’s only interest in grade inflation is whether it brings more students or fewer, and more money or less. Right now it brings more students and doesn’t affect the money.

  6. Sad, but true. My little (so called) liberal arts college has become a technical, vocational institution dedicated to online courses. Learning is not only secondary but optional.

    1. Learning is always optional. That is one reason I disagree with your assertion that the student is a product rather than a consumer. The product is the content of the course, and the student who consumes it can do what he wishes with it: marinate in it, selectively retain some aspects of it, or reject it entirely.

      I believe this conflict of views lies at the heart of Mr. Kottner’s angst. If the student is the product, and if the student is allowed any autonomy of thought, then the product must be inconsistent at best. As a consumer, the student exercises individuality and freedom of choice. Mr. Kottner seems to feel threatened by this possibility; he would rather blame trends in education on the intrusion of corporate administrative practices than acknowledge the role of free will in the evolution of mass instruction.

  7. “Low-salaried “tutors” (today’s adjuncts with Master’s degrees and doctorates) will be standing by at what amounts to a call center with scripted responses to students’ questions.”

    So you say that nothing much will be changing in higher academia then, right? Because that’s all students have gotten for the last fifty years – scripted responses from liberal teaching drones who’ve been weeded, cultivated and lobotomized to provide only the answers the instructor wants to hear.

    Students have long recognized the power structure in the classroom, and most are not willing to rock the boat because execution (public humiliation and/or a failing grade for failure to toe the party line) it far too likely. You’re just angry because you’re afraid your kind won’t be in control anymore.

    So spare us your histrionics, you salad-brained tweedy twit. We aren’t your imprisoned undergrads.

    1. Mr. Kellmeyer! There is no call for animadversions! shame on you!

      As to your charge that “nothing much will be changing in higher academia then, right?” you are correct as to some colleges, except that automation will make it more efficient.

      Oh, and Mr. Kellmer, lose the cant about “power structure”. You obviously know how to game your way past the demagogues. I’m sorry you have to do so instead of being educated, but grow up.

      You have little to be bitter about. You are a privileged person even to be in college. You’ll get your degree and put it all behind you and live as happily ever after as your disposition allows.

  8. That is but one vision of a educational future. There can be others.

    I recently took a MOOC course on the EDX platform. Was it stellar? No. But did the instructor deliver on the promise of effective delivery of the material? Yes. Mr. Kottner does not point out the positive aspects of a MOOC based course —

    * Unlike a in-person lecture a online lecture can be repeated as necessary by the student till they comprehend the points presented. No longer a mad scribble to take notes like the mad hatter and hope you got it right. Just rewind and get it right.
    * No more realigning your life around some stupid administrators or instructors preference for `their` time slot.
    * The `I don’t want to look stupid in front of the instructor` questions disappear. Probably one of the most effective tools in the course I took was the peer forums where one could tap into other students for certain aspects of material I just didn’t `get`. Responses were quick and to the point.
    * Not to bust Mr. Kottner’s bubble but not every adjunct is a good instructor. Better to have a course delivered by a good instructor online than a poor one face to face. I am an adjunct myself and there are certain courses where even though I know the material professionally, I refuse to teach it. So how does one justify a student sitting thru a course, burn money and not learn anything?
    * There is also class dynamics to consider. I am sure many a reader sat in a large hall, in row 88 listening to a professor deliver a lecture reading from a script he had written years ago droning on an on. You might as well been listening to a recording. Well that is a MOOC `live`. Would it not be better to see a video of Dr. Lewin — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=97oTDANuZco&hl=en&fs=1& instead?

    As a closing remark, adjunct instruction was never meant to be a profession. Fact adjuncts were/are instructors who had a full time position in the industry to which they provide instruction and insight for those prospective students entering the workforce. Technology like the Internet has morphed entire industries. Why should the educational establishment be any different?

    1. Mr. McC,

      You are quite correct. If the student’s goal in class is to learn the material, principally for the test to get the grade to get the degree to get a job (or the next school)–admittedly most students’ goal in most classes–a MOOC is better than the lecture he would otherwise get, in precisely the ways you say, and others besides.

      Mr. Kotner has in mind, first, a student with other goals. That student is a statistical anomaly. You are, perhaps, correct to ignore him (the student, not Mr. Kotner).

      Mr. Kotner also has in mind the many students whose predecessors college used to imbue with other goals. I think you may want to consider them. It may not be possible to serve them, of course; but it might.

  9. Perhaps it’s time to shed the costly idea that EVERYONE needs to go to college. In an age where people are starting to have their social security checks garnished to pay off student loans, the plumber or electrician with a good sized home and a boat in the driveway making $100K looks a little brighter than the masters degree holder who is limited to working in the service industry. There is a solid case for higher education for certain professions, but in hindsight the past forty years of higher ed for the middle class has amounted to an enormous wealth transfer to academia. I would consider it parental malpractice to insist that my children “need” to go to college to be successful. There are many paths to success, and many that do not require crippling student loans. Not to mention that the past forty years have not exactly left a legacy of providing a better educational value for all the increases in tuition, as you allude to. Good article.

    1. I think you’ll find that the loudest voices calling for everyone to get an education are either funded, staffed, or have an intimate revolving door relationships with the for-profit student lending industry. That includes everyone from Lumina to the DOE to ACE to Gates and the American Securitization Forum.

    2. I agree. Though the problems raised by this article are important and, if anything, should inform the development of non-traditional alternative methods of delivering education, it is increasingly obvious that the current imperative that holds everyone must seek higher education if they are to succeed is overdue for a rethink. Although the problem is not so simple. The statistics clearly show that absent a undergraduate degree, a person’s earning potential is severely reduced.

  10. The good news is that this education along the lines of a tech company’s call center will be so dreadful, quite a few students—particularly those not playing the game for just credentials—will hate it and rebel.

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