Class Act: Top-down approach fails to meet need

Time to think: University students should improve their cognitive skills while they are learning.

Time to think: University students should improve their cognitive skills while they are learning.

Like any business in this economic rationalist world of ours, universities are expected to operate efficiently and students, paying large dollars for their education, want to ensure they get value for money.

For some time, it has been assumed that the best way to achieve efficiencies is to increase top-down accountability: to create accrediting bodies who oversee the way universities operate, judge their performance against supposed quality standards, and regulate course content so that what students learn is tightly controlled.

Unfortunately, there is growing evidence that such an approach does not work. For example, one recent study in the US showed that 46 per cent of students showed absolutely no gain in their cognitive skills during their university studies and there were some courses where students actually demonstrated a decline in their capacity to think.

This reduction in the capacity to think for oneself is reflected in what Alvesson and Spicer identify in many employees – functional stupidity. This is the “organised attempt to stop people thinking seriously about what they do at work” by stopping them from thinking critically but instead, focusing on an obsession with superficial appearances.

Because employees are not required to think for themselves, consultation processes have decayed to the point where communication is more often than not one-way...

Busywork has grown as has empty activities such as compliance with audits and ranking activities. We see this when we are presented with decisions that are not justified (in a recent case the justification provided was that the recommendations came from well-esteemed and experienced colleagues who read a range of relevant documents and talked to a selected number of people – what more evidence was needed!).  We see this when questions are answered with bland and meaningless platitudes and jargon (this decision will improve operational efficiency / support the strategic plan / improve communication etc without any explanation as to how this will happen) rather than reasoned argument.

Basically, functional stupidity is evident when we see: (1) no thinking about decisions – no reflection; (2) an acceptance of  ways of doing things without any justification as to why these ways are appropriate; and (3) no thinking about the consequences or the wider meaning of actions.

Because employees are not required to think for themselves, consultation processes have decayed to the point where communication is more often than not one-way: senior management pass on decisions and staff are expected to listen and accept. Visioning, debating alternatives and sharing different expertise is not only unwelcome, it is often punished. Those who attempt to ask questions or to request more information as to the evidence underpinning decisions are positioned as troublemakers, people who do not “fit in” to the workplace culture, and ultimately identified as incompetent because they do not follow the required ways of doing things.

In the university context, such a position is toxic; contrary to the historical purpose of higher education and is responsible, according to Deem for “unravelling the fabric of academe”. Springer argues we need to begin to challenge this through “a renewed commitment to the practices of mutual aid, fellowship, reciprocity, and non-hierarchical forms of organisation that reconvene democracy in its etymological sense of power to the people”.

Note the term democracy: a process we seem to be losing as neoliberalism continues its hold on our society.

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