For-profits – the revenge of teaching?

Dawkins and Darwin

<Image by Kaptain Kobold>

There is some anxiety in the UK at the moment at the threat posed from for-profit universities. The concern is that with high student fees, cost becomes an issue, and so the market is ripe for commercial providers to enter and undercut the incumbents.

We can all think why this might be detrimental to higher education and society in general. Courses would be stripped back to only the profitable elements, other functions of universities might disappear, it increases the notion of education as commodity, etc.

I wouldn't disagree with any of these concerns, and this should not be read as a defence of for-profits. But there is also a part of me that wonders if this isn't a result of universities and academics undervaluing teaching as a scholarly function. When Boyer performed his analysis of scholarly practice in 1990, it was partly to combat the perception that research was more highly valued. He argued that all four functions were of equal value. He stated then that

"Almost all colleges pay lip service to the triology of research, teaching and service, but… the three rarely are assigned equal merit.
Today, when we speak of being scholarly, it usually means having academic rank in a college or university and being engaged in research and publication."

However not much has changed. When it comes to promotion it is still research that is seen as carrying the most weight. As Harley et al put it put it:

"Tenure is a three-legged stool: service,teaching, and research, and the latter leg of the stool is much thicker and stronger than the other two." (pg 222)

But the income of teaching usually far outweighs that of research to a university – even a research intensive university. So in some respects the arrival of purely teaching focused universities and providers on these shores can be interpreted as an act of revenge after years of neglect. The trouble is the unis who really have prioritised teaching over the past 20 years may well be the ones most affected by the arrival of the for-profits, and the research focused Russell group unis will probably carry on regardless.

But maybe the moral is hell hath no fury like a scholarly function scorned.

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