Hashima, Foucault and the state of higher education

HashimaAs 2012 winds to a close, many beg for a reprieve in the daily onslaught of changes, and reports of changes facing higher and distance education. Looking back at the end of 2011 and the start of 2012, nothing could have prepared us for the rapid and extensive changes that ambushed us on a daily basis (see the excellent overview and critique by Audrey Watters). A lot is written about these changes – ranging from the impact of changing funding regimes, the increasing privatization of higher education and tentacles of Pearsons and other for-profit organizations spreading, the MOOCification of higher education and the hype, lies and promises accompanying these. Somehow the pace and scope of these changes have overtaken us and prevented us to reflect not on necessarily on the scope, nature and permanency of these changes, but on the changes in the discourses surrounding higher and distance education which made these changes possible. What made these changes possible?

In this blog, I explore some of the thoughts of Foucault (1980) who seemed to imply that when reflecting on “sudden takeoffs” and changes in discourses, we need to examine changes in the hidden and embedded epistemologies and power relations underpinning these changes. In exploring some of this proposal of Foucault, I would like to use as backdrop the ghost island of Hashima, recently used as backdrop in the latest James Bond movie, “Skyfall.” The scenes from the movie show the dilapidated remains of what once was a densely populated island becoming desolate in a question of hours. Coffee cups were left on the tables of a coffee shop, bicycles were left standing against walls, windows with billowing curtains were left open. The changes that overcame Hashima were sudden, devastating and permanent. Hashima was a modernist dream of reclaiming land from the sea through the building of a wall, designing a densely populated island in the heyday of the coal industry in Japan. No one could have foreseen that the coal bubble would burst. It did and the island was dramatically depopulated within a short period of time.

The rapidness and extent of the changes that overtook higher and distance education in 2012 reminds me of the questions posed by Foucault (1980) reflecting on the raptures and sudden changes which sometimes occur in knowledge production, and the structures of disciplines. These disruptive changes cannot be explained by biological images of “progressive maturation” (Foucault, 1980, p. 112), but calls for a deeper analysis. Foucault writes: “How is it that at certain moments, and in certain orders of knowledge, there are these sudden take-offs, these hastenings of evolution, these transformations which fail to correspond to the calm, continuist image that is normally accredited?” (1980, p. 112). He continues to say that though the suddenness of such instances is peculiar, these changes are “are only the sign of something else: a modification in the rules of formation of statements which are accepted as scientifically true” (p. 112).

Thinking about the inherent and historically shaped traditional rules in higher education sustained by regimes, networks and mechanics of power, we therefore need to ask ‘what changed in these inherent regimes of Truth that made these exponential changes possible?” If higher education is comparable to Foucault’s analysis of the State as “superstructural in relation to a whole series of power networks that invest the body, sexuality, the family, kinship, knowledge, technology and so forth,” then higher education as “meta-power… can only take hold and secure its footing where it is rooted in a whole series of multiple and indefinite power relations” that forms the necessary basis for its existence (Foucault, 1980, p. 122). What changed in the “multiple and indefinite power relations” which form the foundation of higher education that provided a fertile ground for the changes and the accompanying hype that swept over the higher education landscape? This reminds me of the fact that the assumptions and epistemologies as regimes of power on which Hashima was built, became obsolete overnight, leaving a deserted island.

If the changes we faced in 2012 “are only the sign of something else: a modification in the rules of formation of statements which are accepted as scientifically true” (Foucault, 1980, p. 112), what rules changed? The following is anything but a definite list, but points to some of the rules that have changed (for now):

  • No matter how permanent the changes are, the MOOCification and Pearsonification of knowledge production and accreditation questioned and disrupted the traditional role of higher education as the only legitimate producers and evaluators of knowledge claims. The primacy of higher education as knowledge producers have changed, possibly permanently. Why did this happen? Is it because higher education rested on its laurels thinking that their pedagogies and four-year degrees are the only way to a fulfilled and good life?
  • The idea that higher education’s main value proposition is the generation of content has been disrupted, permanently. Higher education was caught with their pants down oblivious to the fact that content (albeit of varying quality, like the quality found in higher education…) has gone viral. For years distance education treasured and rewarded faculty for the development of content (however un-original). We protected our ‘content’ with claiming Intellectual Property (IP) rights on content that was as original as opening up another burger outlet…
  • The historically embedded roles of faculty (meticulously documented in detailed job descriptions and performance assessments) remind me of stuffed dodos in museums. The workers on Hashima went looking for jobs after the coal industry went bust.
  • The traditional assumptions and links between Bildung, graduation and employment have been jettisoned for just-in-time, competency-based curriculum development, assessment and accreditation.
  • Curriculum development, teaching, assessment and accreditation have become unbundled, and re-bundled (Watters, 2012).
  • The traditional monopoly of distance education providers to reach out to the unreached has changed forever. The convergence between traditional face-to-face and distance education is irreversible. How this will unfold will be one of the interesting trends to watch in 2013.
  • The traditional sponsorship provided by national governments have irrevocably changed, leaving many higher education institutions looking for new masters who will, in return, shape curricula and assessment, at a price (as always). The commercialization of higher education will increase with venture capitalists moving in like hyenas to capitalize (literally) on the confusion and paralysis in the higher education sector.

In closing: The changes higher and distance education saw in 2012 are but the visible changes of deeper changes in the power and truth regimes on which higher and distance education was built. While I agree with Audrey Watters (2012) that many of these new movements may turn out to resemble a depopulated Hashima in future, I have no doubt that these changes are symbolic of deeper epistemological and even ontological changes in the DNA of higher education. Despite the hype, lies, convoluted promises and claims, higher education as we have come to know it, may become another Hashima, with coffee cups left on tables in empty staff rooms…


Foucault, M. (1980). Power/Knowledge. Selected interviews and other writings 1972-1977. Edited by Colin Gordon. New York, NY: Vintage Books.

Watters, A. (2012, December 3). Top Ed-Tech trends of 2012: MOOCs [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://www.hackeducation.com/2012/12/03/top-ed-tech-trends-of-2012-moocs/



About opendistanceteachingandlearning

Research professor in Open Distance and E-Learning (ODeL) at the University of South Africa (Unisa). Interested in teaching and learning in networked and open distance and e-learning environments. I blog in my personal capacity and the views expressed in the blog does not reflect or represent the views of my employer, the University of South Africa (Unisa).
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7 Responses to Hashima, Foucault and the state of higher education

  1. Pamela Ryan says:

    Splendid blog Paul. A fitting goodbye to 2012 and to HE as we knew it.

  2. Shana says:

    Very interesting post. MOOCs and flexible, competency-based qualifications are attracting a lot of attention in the US as a means to increase access and reduce costs. I attended a very interesting presentation by the Washington, DC-based Education Advisory Board (EAB) on the changing higher education landscape in the US this afternoon. EAB groups the pressure on traditional higher ed’s operating model as (1) potential for quality at scale, (2) competing on convenience, (3) integration of academic and career preparation, and (4) funding problem-focused rather than discipline-focused research. From a teaching point of view higher ed needs to transform from a product-focused approach (any Ford as long as it’s black, build it and they will come, etc.) to a customer-focused approach (mass customization, personalization, etc.). Research funding is increasingly being channeled into private research institutes and organizations. IMHO, a perfect storm is brewing…

    • mgozaydin says:

      People go after marketing gimmicks very easily . That is just human weakness .
      And many reporters also unfortunately help these weaknesses .
      There is no such a thing MOOC called by you and people like you. ( There is one cMOOC in 2008 by Siemens and Downes )

      There are only 2 organisation providing NEW ONLINE Courses .
      Coursera :
      A for profit company provides on line courses of 35 universities now free, later at a fee, some of the universities are elite , quality of courses are being questioned by many people , but they are a marketing genius. They offer now 200 or so courses . Initial enrollment is somehow 100,000 after first assigment it drops to 8-10,000 enrollments.

      EDX .
      MIT + Harvard + Berkeley elite schools of the world consorsium. NOT FOR PROFIT at all .
      MIT has a very long range plan for online . MIT has realised in December 2011 a large global enrollment online course can be at a very low cost and can be sold at very small fee. Plus they can learn a lot from that million students ” how people learn ” .
      Later MIT were joined by Harvard and Berkeley . edx does not provide degrees yet, since there are only 8 courses offerred yet . Within 4-5 years when 50-60 courses are offerred online then degree programs are possible and they will award degrees as well . Then it is a revolution . When edx sells courses at $ 10 and a degree costing 40 courses x $ 10 = $ 400 nobody will go other schools . Imagine results.

      Paul please do not mislead people saying there are some thing like MOOC etc . There are only 1 top schools consorsium now free EDX + one company providing online courses now free COURSERA .. Udacity has nothing to do with universities .

      • Shana says:

        Udacity is not aligned with any university but saying it has nothing to do with universities may imply that universities can safely ignore Udacity and companies like it. Universities with “brand power” and so-called “celebrity professors” like Sebastian Thrun (ex-Stanford prof who started Udacity after his wildly successful MOOC ‘Introduction to AI’ that attracted 160,000 students from 195 countries of which 26,000 finished) are utilizing their name recognition to attract students/customers. Although the MOOCs received much attention in the media after this AI course it isn’t yet a major threat to traditional higher education institutions (HEI). But given that Udacity is partnering to place its top students with big-name employers in Silicon Valley there is certainly an attraction to enroll in their courses.

        Whilst, neither Coursera nor EdX offer degrees, only independent courses that aren’t transferable for credit to traditional HEI, there are other institutions and initiatives affiliated with universities that are offering or planning to offer courses in the near future that can earn credit at traditional HEIs. Take for example, 2U, “which has previously focused on online graduate degree programs, … announced a partnership with a consortium of 10 universities to offer undergraduate courses online. The company’s new program, Semester Online, will launch in September 2013 with a catalog of about 30 courses offered by Brandeis, Duke, Emory, Northwestern, University of North Carolina, Notre Dame, University of Rochester, Vanderbilt, Wake Forest, and Washington University in St. Louis [these are amongst the top universities in the US]. … Unlike 2U’s existing programs, Semester Online, as the name implies, will not be a full degree program. But students enrolled in undergraduate programs at many universities will be able to earn transferable credit for the courses. That provision puts 2U a step ahead of other education start-ups, such as Coursera, whose courses are not currently eligible for credit.” (URL: http://www.inc.com/april-joyner/2u-semester-online-education-race-heats-up.html). These organizations represent attempts by these HEI to stave of competition and to secure a pipeline of students for the traditional programs.

        Traditional higher education institutions can no simply longer rely on students to enroll. Cost pressures, lack of graduate employment, competition from educational start-ups and initiatives like Coursera and 2U, flexibility, ease of accessing global courses, etc. is increasing the range of choices. When there is economic pressure, education is a route to a (better) job. If enough employers recognize these initiatives then it will have everything to do with universities, particularly public universities who are already under pressure from decreased governmental funding and increasingly competitive research funding from a shrinking pool.

      • mgozaydin says:

        You repeat what I have said . I am glad you agree with me except Udacity .
        Udacity has training programs for corporations . And they have courses in only Computer Science
        I know Thrun very well as well . I am a Stanford alumni dedicated to online for 20 years .
        2U was my idea 15 years ago .
        ONLINE must have a scale , that is high demand . So I suggested every colleges should get online courses from any school they want. So that number of choice is increased + number of students taking onkline eincreased . Then cost decreased .
        As I said people are weak . They always ask for some smarter men to help them . 2U is that .
        2U is a intermediary . Weak people need that . They could not organise among themselves they ask someone to organise themselves at a cost .
        But I am very happy. My target has been achieved .
        If one online course is shared by 10 colleges then cost is 1/10, if shared by 20 colleges cost is reduced to 1/20 . We will see how much they will drop fees . .
        And I said Udacity has nothing to do with universities. University students do not take couırses from Udacity but professional people do .

  3. Shana says:

    An interesting article in The New York Times reporting on prospective and current students choosing to drop out: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/02/fashion/saying-no-to-college.html?_r=0

  4. Pingback: ODL, the social contract and the economic crisis. | About Education, Economics and Policy

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