Product and process in higher ed

Science Fiction by Gaslight (1968 HB)

When I was a young man I harboured dreams of being a novelist (instead I became the next best thing, an ed tech blogger). Recently by way of entertaining myself I have taken to writing fiction again. But I do so without any intention of ever publishing, sharing or doing anything with it. This was quite a liberating decision, it means I can just enjoy the process. And this set me thinking about tasks we do for the joy of the process itself, and those we do for the end result, the product.

Fiction writing is quite odd in this respect, and different from many other leisure pursuits. If you tell someone you are writing fiction, they will often ask (or assume) that you intend to get published. That you harbour dreams of doing a JK Rowling (and this is indeed true of many people who take up writing). In that respect it seems a pursuit that tends more (although not exclusively) towards the product side. Contrast it with other past-times people may take up, such as painting, or pottery. One would probably not ask of someone who is doing an evening class in painting “are you planning on holding an exhibition?” the way you might ask a writer “are you going to publish?”. It is understood that painting is something most people do for the joy of the process itself.

Exercise or sport is also similar in this respect. While people may have a product, a goal, in mind such as entering a race, or losing weight, exercise is usually undertaken for engagement in the process. You do not assume that your friend who has started running is planning on becoming a professional athlete.

And this brought me round to thinking about how we view higher education. It used to be firmly in the process camp. People went to university because the act of learning, critical thinking, engagement with peers and time away from the pressures of career were seen as valuable in themselves. There were undoubtedly vocational degrees which were more product centred – you did an accountancy degree usually because you wanted to become an accountant – but largely it was the process that mattered. Over the past twenty years we have seen a shift where the dominant rhetoric and mindset around higher education is one of product. When I did a degree in Psychology I would be asked by people of the older generation who hadn’t been to uni “what job are you going to do with that?”. They didn’t mean it unkindly, it was just that they had a more pragmatic mindset. But it was understood by most that in some ways the degree subject didn’t really matter. I was the first generation at uni and that was significant.

But the “what job are you going to do with that?” question now dominates, and is even the one students often have uppermost in their minds. I hesitate to use the term neo-liberal but I think this change in mindset did coincide with the rise of the neo-liberal dominance during the 00s. And it has become solidified with the introduction of high student fees. Fees make the conversation all about product. And a product focus is not necessarily wrong, I’m glad a surgeon had one, for example. But I’m pleased that some countries have resisted this product centric view of higher ed, and still understand that, like painting, and for me, fiction writing, there is value in the process that shouldn’t be underestimated.

7 Comments

  1. I don’t think you should hesitate to use the term neoliberal here! in my dissertation I make an explicit link between product-centric approaches to curriculum (corresponding to Habermas’ technical knowledge-constitutive interests in accountability, measurement and control) and neoliberalism.
    I love the examples you use here. I too write fiction for my own self and did a lot of it while working on my PhD that no one ever saw but it nurtured my soul and helped me be a better writer (not really a product i guess? Maybe a long-term side effect of process). I did start publishing some of my new stuff (not fiction but poetry) on my blog though, and it’s rewarding in a different way.
    But back again to emphasis on process _ yes! RON Barnett calls for a curriculum as engagement i think he called it.
    Curious which countries are resisting the product orientation?

    1. Yes, I hesitated to use the term because I’m not sure I know what it means anymore. It seems to be bandied around the way people used to use the term “fascist” to just mean “stuff I really don’t like”. So using it gets you into a messy area. This was one of those half-thoughts (which usually occur while running or walking the dogs) – you have a much better grasp on it than I.
      I know what you mean about writing ‘on the side’ while doing other writing – it’s a great release. You don’t have to worry about audience there, or research, or even decent writing, and that is liberating – and it helps the other formal writing I’m sure.

    2. Oh, and I was thinking of European countries, France, maybe Germany and Italy, where there is still a sense of the public intellectual, and the university as a social good.

  2. Making me think of the debate around the proposed TEF – is teaching a product or a process? Probably the later to Govt. But what about the process of designing effective teaching how do you measure that? I may have to blog about this . . .

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