We are not human capital

I’ve heard a lot of blog chatter recently from people irked by
the term, ‘human capital’. This is good news: it shows people are, more
than ever – maybe finally – front and centre of the post GFC agenda.
Personally I like ‘human potential’ – it’s the apparently dehumanising
word ‘capital’ that is suddenly so un PC.

But is it revolution lite?I’ve
also heard a lot about human capital and education: mostly that now is
precisely the time to increase rather than cut access to and the quality
of education. Children are the future, for businesses and countries.
Look at what they’re doing in China. Universities flying up all over the
shop. We need to compete!

True, but what’s sadly missing from the UK student protests over fees
is a 1968 style protest about the long-term relevance and currency of
what they’re actually being taught, not to mention the way it’s being
taught (which is the real reason why it costs so much).

My view is that what we’re currently trying to do is prop up
Universities by saddling students with debt for knowledge (text books)
that is out of date before it’s printed, courses to which
students have no active say, interventions delivered by professors who’d
rather be writing windy journal articles that no one reads, drip fed in
a ridiculously slow timetable (3 yrs, at 8hrs per week) and in a
broadcast format (lectures) that simply doesn’t work (it never did, but
we didn’t have the two-way collaborative always on alternatives until

I’ll give you an example. A few years ago my cousin took a
multimedia degree at Leeds. He had, before going, started to design
websites. He was a natural nerd. Half way through his course, I asked
what he was being taught, what languages, what sites he was looking at.
And I was shocked. I’m no tech, but being responsible for working with
our tech team on HubCap,
I knew we were looking at platforms and open source software that my
cousin, when I listed a few (PHP, Rails, Ajax etc), hadn’t even heard
of. My cousin was set to graduate without knowing anything about the
technologies that real world designers were using – and getting
handsomely paid for. Thankfully, he bought the books that should have
been on the curriculum and taught himself on tech forums and networks.
Adding this extra curricula stuff to his CV, he walked into a job at a
top agency.

Yes, this is an extreme example. Software is changing at light speed,
so no wonder text books and teachers can’t keep up. But take any
subject and you can quickly and easily unveil the inbuilt slowness of
the education system. (Students are not the only ones being short
changed by the education system – businesses have to do – and pay for –
re-educating students to catch up.)

In their defence, some universities are trying to get into the
virtually real world. But even then, they’re going about it the wrong

In the US, students and faculty in Southern California
have just kicked back – under the banner of ‘We are not human capital’ –
against a policy to cut out of the curriculum those courses and
subjects considered ‘soft’ – humanities, arts and philosophy – in favour
of using the limited budgets to focus on business and science.  The
idea is sound: these subjects are what business apparently wants the
next generation of employees to know – not Fante or Foucault. No doubt
calculating that parents will agree that little Johnny will get a much
better – higher paid – job with a degree in accounting than one in
postmodernism, given the funding choice, the University has decided to
drop the soft subjects.

But what the students (and to their
credit, though you can see why given that they’re facing redundancy, the
humanities staff) are arguing is that now, more than ever, business
needs people who can think for themselves, who bring knowledge and ideas
from left and right field into the workplace. After all, it was the
‘hard’ subjects and narrow ideas that got us in this place to start
with, right?

Right. But this misses the point too: we’re still
tinkering around the edges of a system of education that is dead. It’s
only value (and it’s ace) lies in the degree itself – that is what we
pay for. But the price to keep the status quo going isn’t worth paying –
there is no bang for our buck here – and it’s not only unsustainable,
it doesn’t work.

So what would you do? Here’s a revolutionary scenario for a beleaguered younger Ed to consider:

all degree courses to one year, 5 full days per week (real world
working hours). Make the learning 90% online using learning networks and
Skype and video conferencing – one professor to hundreds of fee paying
students.  Don’t build anymore lecture halls and dorms (turn them into
hotels or hospitals). End the budget for print books and buy only online
versions with open licences. Open text books and journals onto wikis
and get business involved in working with academia to constantly and
collaboratively create courses that teach things graduates need to
really know as employees (thereby slashing business training budgets as
well as keeping academics and students up to speed). Make curricula open
to rapid yearly change, with students able to mix and match options
beforehand.  Make the degree cost a lost less, take a lot less time, but
be more relevant (whether it’s philosophy or finance).  

this would probably be more hotly protested. What about student life!
But if pensioners can’t retire anymore, why should students retire to
university for three years before they’ve even started work?

Unless they want to save up for that retirement, of course.

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