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McUniversity: I’m Learnin’ It!

Today’s universities offer increasing numbers of people a semblance of being in a university without having to engage in the effort, complexity or expenditure of time that once came with a university experience. Rob charts some of the origins and outcomes of these developments and asks just how healthy it all is.

Today’s universities offer large and increasing numbers of people a semblance of being in a university without having to engage in the effort, complexity or expenditure of time that once came with a university experience.

In 1993, American sociologist George Ritzer wrote a best-selling book called The McDonaldization of Society. As Ritzer saw it:

… McDonaldization … is the process by which the principles of the fast-food restaurant are coming to dominate more and more sectors of American society as well as of the rest of the world.

Ritzer’s point was simple. McDonalds provides a basic model for providing goods and services in increasingly ‘rational’ ways. Let’s not worry about the word ‘rational’ right now—it is economic-speak for extracting as much profit or getting as much done for as little outlay of resources, time, labour (or whatever) as possible.

Central to Ritzer’s argument was that all sorts of businesses and organisations have emulated what Ray and Jim Kroc ‘invented’ when they established the McDonalds model in the late 1930s. Think of toy stores (Toys R Us), home hardware stores (Bunnings), taxation accountants (H.R. Block), bookstores (Borders), car repairs (Midas) newspapers (USA Today), child care (ABC Learning Centres) and so on. Each mimics the logic of the McDonalds chain. That is to say, McDonalds is the epitome of efficiency, calculability, predictability, increased managerial control, and the replacement of human skill and ingenuity by rational systems, many of them automated. To spell out precisely what that looks like in practice, let’s consider a number of ways in which McDonalds works.

McDonalds and its Golden Arches are to our time what the Gothic cathedral was to thirteenth-century Europe.

Firstly, McDonalds radically rationalized the choice customers have by cutting back from a large menu of many kinds of food to just a few basic items.

Secondly, rationalisation also delivers low prices, especially when you package up deals like ‘a Big Mac, Coke and fries’. This is achieved partly through cost cutting. One way to do this is to get rid of useless services, so the Kroc boys simply got rid of waiters. The move to self-service literally means customers serve themselves, since there are no waiters to serve them. Designing the food production process so as to remove any need for cooks or chefs who know about food values was another innovation. Managers have designed all of the essential food production processes so they can be carried out more or less by complete idiots, who only need to perform very basic functions. In consequence, the overwhelming majority of staff employed are young, unskilled, don’t need to know much, are paid low wages and largely carry out carefully pre-designed services at high speed by relying on ‘automatic’ or online functions. Customers trust (or at least want to believe) that what they are getting is good quality, because there are no waiters or sommeliers to advise them about what’s good on the menu today or what to drink.

Thirdly, endless glossy advertising (or what Ritzer calls ‘fake fraternization’) assures customers they will get quality food, old-fashioned family-style cooking or healthy food, or whatever). It’s the oldest idea—tell people they are getting something wonderful and they will want to believe it. Hence, the design of the containers for McDonalds fries creates the illusion the customer is getting a lot of fries. So too the oversupply of ice to fill up the drink container suggests great value for money. The truth about the quality and the health benefits of McDonalds food is illuminated by two famous projects. In 2010, artist Sarah Davies started her Happy Meal project: she photographed a Happy Meal daily as it failed to decompose or even smell bad for more than six months. More distressingly, Karen Hanrahan, a nutrition consultant, purchased a McDonalds Big Mac in 1996 and watched it fail to decompose for more than 12 years.

Fourthly, not only was the production of McDonalds food rationalised but so too was our behaviour as customers. We have in consequence all learned to love behaving with maximum efficiency. For example, the seating is purposely designed to move customers in and out rather than linger over their coffee as people tend to do in real coffee joints. McDonalds guarantees there will be none of that long, drawn-out process of flipping through pages of menu items wondering what to choose—the pressure to choose between the remarkably small number of choices available can actually be intense.

We can say, speaking metaphorically, that McDonalds and its Golden Arches are to our time what the Gothic cathedral was to thirteenth-century Europe. They form a temple built to praise and honour the virtues of calculability, efficiency and predictability. The priests are all those managers who believe that the world becomes a better place when it is managed better. As earlier priestly communities believed that they had the power to grant access to eternal life, or could offer credulous believers a brief glimpse of the transcendent reality lurking beyond our five senses (courtesy of touching some holy relic like Christ’s foreskin or a fragment of the True Cross), so today’s McDonalds managers treat each replica of the Happy Meal (triumphantly resisting physical decay) as evidence for this new essential and eternal truth.

For the millions of customers who daily bow down before the Golden Arches, the requirement to believe is no less pressing. That is, to believe that a McDonalds is still a restaurant, even if in name only—a faith rendered imperative and necessary in the absence of any credible alternative.

How far can we push the idea that today’s universities are McUniversities? The answer in short is that while the trends are in place, they are far from being fully or exclusively so. Here I should acknowledge that the McUniversity idea was alive and well even back in 1995 when two British academics floated the idea. The warning signs they pointed to still have some way to go.

But what I think cannot be doubted is that whatever I mean by a ‘McUniversity’ is defined by a radical shift in the sources of authority which once defined a university.

By ‘authority’ I mean simply to refer to the ways we identify either the people or the institutions held to be responsible for designing or justifying the ways of living found in a given community. In a semantic sense we could say that ‘author-ity’ is all about who authors our inner lives as well as our collective life. Humans have typically located authority variously in real or imagined persons—‘God’, our parents, the Prime Minister or the policeman—or else in institutions like holy books, the Constitution, tradition, ‘the law’ or ‘natural science’.

For a long time, authority in universities was deemed to be vested collegially in the academic community itself. That authority was grounded in daily practice. Those who worked in universities understood the locus of authority to be instantiated in various intellectual practices like reading skilfully, criticising texts, proving equations, writing, lecturing and making ‘discoveries’. Newcomers were introduced via a lengthy process of teaching and apprenticeship which was managed and accredited by masters, employing the vocabulary of the crafts and sciences to comprise ‘disciplines’ like physics, mathematics, medicine, history, law, philosophy and so forth.

Then, for reasons which would take a shelf of books to fully spell out (or several issues of a magazine -Ed), a managerial revolution began to roll through Australia’s universities in the late 1980s. In effect, that managerial revolution insisted that academics could not be trusted anymore to manage universities or indeed to do any of the things they used to do.

As I have suggested already, the theological faith at the heart of modern managerialism is the claim that the world becomes a better place when it is managed better. Who better to manage than managers? The McDonalds ‘restaurant’ deploys a mix of automated functions and cultural forms of control over its young and naive workforce. Other places rely on sophisticated versions of ‘change management’ and ‘innovation management’. Managerial fashions and instruments have changed since the origins of Taylorism and Henry Ford’s assembly line factory of circa 1912, but it is always the managers who know best and who take the initiative.

In the university context a new breed—the university manager—has taken over academics’ responsibility for saying what gets taught and to what standard. Simon Leys recalls a British education minister who began a speech at one of that country’s venerable universities by addressing its ‘employees’. A professor interrupted—”Excuse me, Mr Minister, we are not employees of the university, we are the university!”. Contrary to this sentiment, academics are now defined as ‘human resources’. All sorts of management systems and models have been imported directly from the private sector. Academics are increasingly being made ‘accountable’ in respect to numerical indicators. Academics are required to actively implement ‘strategies’ chosen by the managers. Managers strive to use these resources instrumentally in securing the ‘world class status’, ‘competitiveness’ and ‘excellence’ of the university in ‘global’ educational and research ‘markets’. Resistance is useless—recalcitrant academics should not and cannot prevent ‘positive’ change. Any subsequent ‘resistance to change’ will be dealt with by proper means including ‘culture change’ workshops or requiring the ‘human resources’ to ‘participate’ actively and enthusiastically in workplace change. One particularly egregious example of this sort of thing and the positivity culture that sponsors it is RMIT University’s Behavioural Capability Framework. Meanwhile the public costs of the sector are being reduced by adopting self-service models for administrative services, outsourcing all sorts of other services (e.g. IT) and moving curriculum online.

The idea of establishing accurately what students actually know, think or can do at the end of their degree is unthinkable.

That revolution, sponsored by a new generation of managers, has reshaped all aspects of academic work and the identity of both teachers and students around an imagined image of ‘corporate efficiency’, a ‘strong managerial culture’ and an ‘enterprise culture’. Michael Gallagher, who directed Federal Government higher education policy between 1990-94 and 2000-02 (and who is now Executive Director of the Go8 universities), wrote an important OECD paper in 2000. In it, Gallagher laid out the rationale for the managerial revolution. He argued that until the late 1980s, Australia’s universities had been both elitist and ‘wasteful’. Universities had failed to align academic activity with ‘university goals’, or else were presiding over ‘declining productivity’—that is, staff were lazy and not doing enough teaching or research. Worse, they were wasting government investment in education by failing to prepare students adequately to compete successfully in the labour market. Finally, they were wasting opportunities by failing to turn the intellectual capital of academics into commercially valuable products. In effect, universities needed to be turned into ‘businesses’ servicing an ‘educational market’. In consequence and under his direction, Australian governments ‘encouraged’ universities to increase the power of managers and increase the emphasis on marketing and income generation. New efficiencies were to be pursued by digitising administrative structures, improving work process management, more student self-service and new styles of online ‘learning’.

My own experience as a student in the late 1960s could not have been more removed from that of a McUniversity. (The sceptical reader might have their doubts assuaged by Graham Little’s book The University Experience (1970).

In the late 1960s I enrolled in a new, small university. It took hours for me to get to the campus by public transport from my home in one of Melbourne’s western suburbs. I usually got to the campus by 9am and stayed all day (usually till 5pm), most of which was spent in the library. From a working class family myself, I noticed that students were overwhelmingly and homogeneously middle class. This meant that for a long while I didn’t believe that I really ‘belonged‘ and sooner or later I’d be found to be the fraud I really was. Although universities then charged fees, most of us did not need to worry—I was fully funded by my prospective employer to get a three year degree and to do so on a full-time fully waged basis.

In that first year I came to identify deeply with the teachers who taught history, philosophy, literature and the like. These departments were run by small numbers of academics—administrative staff were few and far between. David Myers, the Vice-Chancellor, walked about at lunchtime every day for an hour introducing himself to all and sundry. I think he greeted me at least four times that year, each time as if for the first time. (At least nothing much has changed—Vice-Chancellors then as now seem to have the memory span attributed to goldfish.)

Class sizes were small, so they were always run in the academic’s book-lined office. Teachers were passionate about their teaching. I remember the very first lecture in a course on twentieth-century revolutions given by a short, boisterous Russian who leaped Cossack-style from a standing start onto the desk in the lecture hall. He had a friend in New York called Alexander Kerensky. I recall offices thick with pipe smoke swirling around a teacher who had himself been taught by Wittgenstein. I recall a sparse, anally-retentive room inhabited by a fastidious man who had been taught by F.R. Leavis. We were expected to (and for the most part did) read several books per subject per week, as well as several journal articles per subject per week. Students had plenty of choice in terms of the range of subjects. Teachers were freely available for talk, coffee, dope or alcohol. Derek Marsh, who taught me how to write, was a Professor of English (whose Ph.D was written while in a South African jail for his anti-apartheid activism). He simply asked me to write dozens of non-assessed essays for him so I might learn how to write well. A year later and almost in love with an exotic New York academic who taught imperial Chinese history and sold me her VW, I wrote a love poem of sorts—a long essay written over the Christmas break about a small coterie of Ming intellectuals influenced by European Platonism. None of this was uncommon. Staff and students went to the same pubs and parties. Some became friends, or even lovers.

It was all very small scale and utterly engaging. There was no possibility of my ever approaching the place as I would a fast food outlet like McDonalds. Back then, the thick and rich menu of dishes was way more than I could handle.

Today I work in a very large university whose campus is in the downtown part of a very big Australian city. A few weeks back, I was in the university café having my morning coffee with a colleague. We were talking about the latest—unsuccessful—attempts to engage our students in some basic activities like reading, thinking, or even talking about the latest film they’d seen, or simply talking about anything other than the footy or the weather. We wondered aloud about what kind of university experience they were having.

Looking around, I saw along one wall were the fast food stalls. Over there were the by now commonplace agitprop advertisements announcing that this university was committed to ‘Transforming the Future’. All around were the students (how long before we call them customers?) either expressionless or else wearing faintly harassed-looking expressions, scurrying about, heading to somewhere else. Many were wired up to earphones, phones and tablets—they were probably really somewhere else already.

Today’s universities are mass enterprises. In 2010 some 857,384 domestic students, made up the majority of 1,192,000 local and international students enrolled in over forty universities. They are to be found in classes often numbering hundreds. Subject choice is now constantly under review using the market model of student demand to chop out ‘niche’ courses while flooding high demand courses. While the devotees of marketisation imagine the market model is the acme of rationality, it is nothing of the sort—thousands of students fall for the ‘CSI effect’ and enrol in law courses or forensic psychology courses where the actual level of demand for graduates is small or nonexistent.

Large numbers of students will increasingly be taught entirely by sessional staff who comprised about 60 percent of the academic staff in 2009-10. In the US, over 80 percent of staff are sessional, low-paid teachers. Students will rarely be able to see their teachers outside the class when they need to clarify something. Some students will never meet their teacher, or will be told that substantial amounts of the curriculum will be delivered online. Some students are encouraged to enrol in online only courses. Assessment will be done online too, which goes some way to explaining why plagiarism has been hitting astronomical levels. This has in turn helped in the creation of another market—for anti-plagiarism tools like Turnitin which are in widespread use.

Curriculum is now relentlessly ‘vocational’ and much of it is based on a new model of ‘student-centred’ or ‘enquiry-based learning’. This is too often a weasel word for ‘self-service’ and chiefly means that the bulk of students (i.e. those enrolled in non-science based programs which enrol students with ATAR scores of under 85%) are asked to read or learn as little as possible about anything of permanent importance or value.

Universities now also routinely allow students to enrol in courses with little real vocational value. This is because a university which believes in the rhetoric of ‘student directed learning’ will allow students to enrol in subjects from a menu without any academic advice or counselling about the value of their choice. As with McDonalds, the idea of servicing those who come in with expert advice is dead and buried. Perhaps most alarmingly, universities commonly allow students to graduate who are effectively sub-literate. That is, they may not be able to read or write clearly or effectively, or even understand very much of anything.

The idea of establishing accurately what students actually know, think or can do at the end of their degree is unthinkable. Yet what we know about this matter is as scary in educational terms as Sarah Davies’ Happy Meal project.

Given the absence of any robust research on this for Australia, some American research will have to stand in. One recent (2011) American book (Academically Adrift) followed some 2,300 American students and used a battery of assessments to assess their basic intellectual skills. The authors conclude that after two years, fully 45 percent of these students—that is, nearly half—had not added any real intellectual abilities or skills to what they had started with. Given that many were functionally illiterate and innumerate to start with, the scale of this catastrophe should provide food for thought.

These American universities, like most Australian universities, are places where the managers have taken over the university and now drive the move to ‘enquiry based learning’, ‘online curriculum’, ‘quality assurance’ and all the rest of it. In other words, they are becoming McUniversities.

The McUniversity is one which spends millions of dollars on TV advertisements and billboards which will promote the idea that you can come to x university and have a ‘university experience’. It is also a university which talks about itself as a ‘business’ in a ‘market’. It is a university which will offer reduced curriculum choice by cutting out courses which don’t have high market demand (which it might call something posh like the ‘Melbourne Model’).

It is a university which will employ more and more of the already 68,000-strong workforce of unskilled, sessional teachers who get paid an effective hourly rate not dissimilar to what people working in McDonalds get paid, but who will rarely if ever be available to see students or spend time with them. (It doesn’t help much that of the 34,000 full-time staff in our universities, only a minority say they actually like teaching students. That may have something to do with the sheer volume of students.)

The very existence of McDonalds reminds us it sometimes suits us to indulge in a Big Mac. McDonalds removes all the needful effort, regard for complexity, cost and exercise of judgment required of anyone wanting to eat seriously good and complex food in a restaurant worthy of that name. Indeed, there may even be a certain guilty pleasure to be had. Equally, deep down most of us know that it isn’t the real deal.

As Theodor Adorno put it in 1947, ours is a ‘fully enlightened earth’, one which ‘radiates disaster triumphant’. And that is why we have to take seriously the idea that modern universities, like the one I work in, are becoming McUniversities.

At least in most big cities there are real restaurants to remind us what the alternatives look and taste like. Let us hope that the same continues to be true for universities. ◾

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