Saying no to profit-driven education

August 27, 2009

HIGHER ED Holding's representative, Anna Martinez, was quick to respond ("Helping universities be competitive") to my original article ("The business of education") condemning the privatization of higher education in the United States.

While her rapid response may be a testament to the capability her company's public relations department, her arguments concerning online education are largely vacuous when scrutinized beyond the rhetoric. Much like how corporate-driven charter schools emphasize "choice" for underprivileged children, all while making insane profits, Higher Ed Holdings utilizes language of "competition" to reach "underserved populations." This rhetoric falls far short of reality, however, despite the claim to statistical evidence.

Her immediate argument is that the university remains the controller of curriculum and her company simply transfers regular courses to the web. While I never said otherwise, it does very little to distract from the fact that both Higher Ed Holdings, along with the university administration, is converting to online courses not for the benefit of the student or the professor, but to extract larger sums of money from our pockets.

First, the entire situation must be put into context. In the face of $7.8 million in state cuts to higher education, the people who run the University of Toledo (UT) are trying desperately to find ways to cut costs. The immediate response was to notify students that, on top of the 60 percent cut in their Ohio Choice Opportunity Grants awarded by the state, they would be facing a tuition hike next year. At a time when working-class families are suffering from wage cuts, loss of jobs and home foreclosures, this is only one more added worry to those who were subsidized for the prodigious costs of post-secondary education.

The University of Toledo is largely a working-class school and these price increases and funding cuts will inevitably limit those who wish to pursue an education but cannot afford it, or will significantly increase the debt students go into to pay for education.

Online education, however, does absolutely nothing to lessen the problems working-class students face. Despite decreasing the costs for the schools through various cost reductions (no physical space needed, no instructor present, less infrastructure for parking or public transit, etc.), online courses are just as expensive per credit hour as regular courses for students. To top it off, UT charges a "distance-learning fee" for the "travails" the administration suffers under such cost-cutting measures.

While this does not implicate Higher Ed Holdings directly, and I do not lay claim to the idea that they are the root cause of UT's problems, instead of the cost-cutting benefits going to the students by decreasing tuition costs, the money is funneled into the hands of those who own Higher Ed. This represents a furthering of the privatization that inevitably removes democratic control from educators and students. The company and its message play a vital role in maintaining and perpetuating this new discourse, which allows for the privatization of our education.

THUS, THE second problem with Martinez's response is the whole ideological component that is necessarily attached. Higher Ed Holdings claims to "gives state universities a competitive advantage over their rivals."

This emphasis on competition inevitably forces the university to pursue any cost-cutting measures available to them by a variety of means. Online education is simply one tool to pursue this, and Higher Ed Holdings simply the means through which this tool is put into action.

Third, Higher Ed Holdings itself is not known for their legitimacy. The owner, Randy Best, is a right winger who vigorously supported and fundraised for George W. Bush's campaign in 2000. He actively supported No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which has been disastrous for educators and students across the nation. On top of this, ABC news reported that he made "millions of dollars in profits from a federal reading program that critics say favored administration cronies at the expense of schoolchildren."

In return for his service to the Bush campaign, Best received lucrative contracts from NCLB. Best eventually turned around and sold Voyager Expanded Learning, associated with the $6 billion Reading First initiative, for $360 million.

Conversations with Higher Ed Holdings and UT began due to the fact that Scott Scarborough, the university's chief financial officer, has a history with the company, and once sat on its board. Mr. Scarborough, of course, was never elected to his position by faculty nor does he represent their interests. He eventually left DePaul University due to the fact that he, according to president of the 2006-7 Faculty Council, had a "tendency to allow financial concerns to override academic priorities."

He exemplified this concern in a recent statement to the Independent Collegian about the budget cuts, "There will be conversations with the provosts, deans and vice presidents trying to identify non-revenue producing have to start there to ask the question, 'Is it essential; is it strategic, is it mission-critical?" It seems that, for Mr. Scarborough, "mission-critical" means, first and foremost, "Does it make money?"

Even more preposterous is, as the Independent Collegian reported, he plans to make working people pay for the cuts:

"Aside from looking at programs, administrators will be approaching the various unions which received contractually negotiated salary raises and ask them to consider forfeiting them, Scarborough said. According to estimates from last semester, this would free up approximately $6 million annually. Administrators may also consider stopping the previously approved salary raises for those non-union personnel making under $40,000. Personnel making more than that didn't receive a raise."

Scarborough, President Jacobs, and the rest of the administration do not seem willing to fork over their bloated salaries, why should regular working people? Why would they be willing to hand out money to private companies like Higher Ed while they attempt to cut workers' pay?

MY ARGUMENT was not that online education is completely invaluable, or that we should dogmatically dismiss it as a medium of education. That is not the case at all. In fact, I believe online education can be, and should be, implemented and immersed in every learning environment, as web-based skills are absolutely essential in our day.

My criticism was that UT, with the help of Higher Ed Holdings, would transform the Master's degree program from one based in the classroom, with all the dialogue, discussion, and potential for hands on activity which it entails, to one completely online.

Along with this inevitably come the various problems associated with it, such as a separation from educator and students, rote learning with little critical analysis, very few possibilities for engaging dialogue and debate, etc. More importantly, the intent was not to create a symbiotic learning environment which utilizes face-to-face education and online education, as the very study Martinez points us to confirms as "best of all," but to create one where UT could create a degree factory which pumped out titles with as little cost as possible.

In other words, students would be receiving less for their money. They would be paying the same amount, more with the additional distance-learning fee, and receive no face-to-face instruction, no chance for dialogue, debate, or discussion, and even less room for democratic participation in the classroom.

Additionally, I personally have spoken with a number of educators who were quite weary of teaching their classes purely online. The advent of this forced conversion would, it seems, render the alienation of the educator from their work even greater.

My argument is not that online education should be outright opposed, but that private companies hoping to make a quick buck off transferring our courses online in order to cut costs should be. Online education, in the right hands, may prove liberating and helpful, but it can also be used to perpetuate the "banking-style" education dominant in the field at the moment.

Socialist and progressive educators, must combat this. We must also struggle against the continued privatization of our schools. Charter schools and private companies like Higher Ed are waging a war of ideas, dressing their profit-generating schemes with progressive phrases. It is our job to take them up and unveil the reality behind their ostensible rhetoric.
Derek Ide, Toledo, Ohio

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