[title to be read in the style of a cheerleader’s chant]
On Thursday 17 October London’s Olympia will host The Higher Education Expo 2013. I know this because I have now received several pieces of direct marketing advising me of the event, including brochures and emails; and because of the prominent full-page adverts in recent editions of Times Higher Education. Although this publicity onslaught has partially done its job in alerting me to the event, it hasn’t convinced me in the slightest that there would be any point in me attending. Quite the opposite in fact.
‘Expo’ is not a word I’ve come across in relation to higher education before and I had to check to be certain what it meant. It’s a trade fair essentially, one of those things where a hangar-shaped space is filled up with flimsy-looking stands staffed by good-looking and slightly over-friendly sales staff, possibly wearing matching t-shirts and giving out binfuls of freebies. There’s nothing inherently wrong with trade fairs, in the right context. They’re not really my sort of thing, but companies offering goods and services and individuals, companies and organisations needing goods and services clearly have an interest in being introduced to each other. New developments need to be showcased. However the format for that introduction should be appropriate to the context of the activity it represents. A trade fair might work for the Ideal Home Exibition or the motor trade, but the clothing industry plays it differently, through the fashion week (London/Milan/Paris). For researchers it is the academic conference: new ideas are showcased in the form of conference papers, publishers exhibit their books, professional associations and special interest groups promote themselves to potential members. Money and glitz are unwelcome guests.
For me, the Higher Education Expo is in no way sensitive to its context. It is a crass attempt to import the commercial trade fair approach to higher education and push further the monetisation and privatisation of public education. It presents the issues facing higher education in entirely consumerist terms, amenable to handy solutions through application of the right product or service. A series of seminars covers issues such as procurement, the achievement of ‘efficiency’, student choice and the student ‘experience’. Inevitably, the unsubstantiated, over-hyped fads of the moment, MOOCs and ‘alternative provision’ get a plug too. Teaching, learning and research are barely mentioned in the main conference programme. A couple of side events, in the ‘Teaching and Learning Theatre’ and ‘Research and Innovation Theatre’ give a semblance of connection to what I thought higher education was actually about, although reading the programmes for each I found it hard to recognise anything which said much to me about either teaching or research. The very strong impression is of a breathless futurism, a la Tomorrow’s World (for those of you old enough to remember it). This fetish for the new is coupled with a contrived millenarianism which shouts: “embrace the market; change or die; don’t be a dinosaur” and so on, ad nauseum. Nothing like a good bit of crisis and fear to make those universities reach for their chequebooks, eh?
This is epitomised by the session scheduled for 9.45am in the main conference programme: “Oligarchs, Innovators and Zombies – Which HEI Will You Become?”. Supported by a sensationalist full-page advert on the inside cover of THE, this talks purports to be a discussion of a potential future typology of higher education institutions. It looks to me much more like a 15-minute advert for PA Consulting, a management consultancy firm with a HE/FE division. (The company appears regularly in Times Higher Education using what seems to be a similar tactic, promoting its latest ‘research’ report which is usually based on a survey of unnamed vice chancellors’ views of the sector). The typology itself comprises three sorts of institutions:
The oligarchs, a small super league of large, research-intensive universities such as Cambridge, Oxford, Imperial, UCL and Manchester […] The innovators, those institutions that are developing enterprising ways of doing business [sic] […] The zombies, those institutions that are unable or unwilling to invest in change and hence risk finding themselves in a spiral of decline, characterised by continuous cost-cutting and retrenchment.
Forgive my cynicism, but to me these three categories could just as easily be read as: those institutions which are doing well and won’t spend money on strategy consultants; those institutions which do buy our services and so will be fine; those institutions which don’t buy our services, bad things await them.
At their worst, events like the Higher Education Expo risk eroding the public mission of the university, subverting sober, critical and impartial inquiry by presenting an adulterated imitation of academic research to hide commercial exploitation and the pursuit of private profit. Mary Madden has written persuasively about the dangers of the colonisation of medical conferences by medi-business (such as the big pharma companies and the medical device industry). Her point is that increasingly such events marry the ‘hospitality’ of corporate sales with a veneer of academic respectability through presentations of findings, many of which do not stand critical scrutiny. We should resist the same processes being applied to our universities.