Making sense of access: Access to what? At what cost? For whom?

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The last two weeks have been momentous in the context of thinking about access to (higher) education, the cost of access and who benefits the most from having access. On 14 October 2015 Tressie McMillan Cottom delivered the first keynote at the 26th ICDE World Conference hosted by the University of South Africa. The keynote was a tour d’ force and we could not have asked for a more apt and provocative start to an educational conference in a time where inequalities are increasing while the hype around the potential of providing access to higher education continue seemingly unabated.

While the outrage and discourses surrounding the rising cost of higher education has been a relatively permanent feature in the North Atlantic higher education landscape, the last two weeks in South Africa saw an unprecedented, a-political student protest movement (#FeesMustFall), not only questioning the rising costs, but also raising a number of other issues such as the increasing outsourcing of services, etc. (See the article by Ismail Lagardien as well as this overview on how university funding works in the context of South Africa).

In this blog I would like to weave and share my sense-making of Tressie’s keynote in the particular context of the hype, promise and lies about what (higher) education can and cannot do. [Please take note that the below notes and remarks are based on notes I made during her keynote and on watching the video recording. I used quotation marks wherever I used direct quotations from her presentation. In the light of being scared that the blog will morph into a mishmash of her ideas and my own as I tried to make sense of what ‘access’ means, I indicated my own thoughts as “digressions”].

Tressie started her keynote with the questions – “what does access mean?” and “what does it NOT mean?” In these somewhat benign questions lurked the elephant in the room – namely the question “Can educational expansion balance access with equity?” Or in other words, can increasing access really address the legacy and pervasiveness of structural inequalities whether referring to geopolitical, gender, race, social class or cultural inequalities? Providing access may be easy [leaving out the issue of cost] – and much of the discourses and rhetoric of broadening access make it sound like ‘access’ is only a question of “mix, add water and there is your access.” So increasing access is the easy part. The more important questions are “What access can do for equity/equality and justice?” and “Are providing access and increasing equity incompatible goals?”

In her keynote Tressie emphasised that education as an institution is “relational and inter-related to other institutions” and as such structural arrangements. To understand and assess the potential of education to make a difference, we need to understand education as one of many role-players and as embedded in historical and current structural relationships. Often we act and make promises to students that; somehow, education can, on its own, change the world.

 Digression 1: Michael W Apple (2010) states that most of the hype and promises on the potential of (higher) education to make a dent in the inequalities and injustices, pretend as if education as institution and practice exist in a “vacuum.” “The naïveté of these positions is not only ahistorical; but it also acts as a conceptual block that prevents us from focusing on the real social, ideological, and economic conditions to which education has a dialectical and profoundly intricate set of connections” (pp. 7-8). We need to see education, and the rhetoric of broadening access as connected and embedded in “relations of exploitation and domination – and to struggles against such relations – in the larger society” (Apple, 2010, p. 15).

 We also need to be reminded that education has been used through many years to sustain and perpetuate inequality through two main mechanisms, namely exploitation and opportunity hoarding (Tilly, 1999). Not only is education a valuable resource that “powerful, connected people command” but also a resource from which they “draw significantly increased returns by coordinating the effort of outsiders whom they exclude from the full value added by that effort” (Tilly, 1999, p. 10). Opportunity hoarding “operates when members of a categorically bounded network acquire access to a resource that is valuable, renewable, subject to monopoly, supportive of network activities, and enhanced by the network’s modus operandi” (Tilly, 1999, p. 10). In Tilly’s (1999) exploration of some ‘future inequalities’ he suggested that “educational institutions [will continue to] exercise greater and greater influence on the sorting of people into categories and hence into the receipt of differential rewards”, and that exploitation may decrease but that opportunity hoarding will increase with “small, segregated camps of hoarders emerg[ing]”(p. 242).

 The rhetoric about the potential of higher education to, on its own, create a more just and equitable society is often not much more than “hopeful fictions” (Claire Taylor quoting Ron Barnett) in strategy documents and operational plans drowned in “superlatives and meaningless aspiration.” Tressie switched on the light in the room to show us the elephant – the realisation of what education can and cannot do.

 Digression 2: The emptiness of the rhetoric as well as the absence of evidence that higher education will ensure that the benefits attained by the few will, somehow, trickle down, makes me think of the work by Zygmunt Bauman – “Collateral damage” (2011). It would seem as if our marketing documents, visions and missions, contribute to the multiplication and the “infinity of human desires” (p. 36). Higher education is complicit in the (empty) rhetoric that economic growth will translate into the growth of equality (Bauman, 2011). We continue to sell access to education as insurance against the insecurities of the 21st century. Higher education and the discourses on lifelong learning sustain and perpetuate what Bauman (2011) calls “security obsessions [that] are inexhaustible and insatiable: once they take off and are let loose, there is no stopping them. They are self-propelling and self-exacerbating…” (p. 60). Staying skilled (like shopping) “becomes a sort of moral act” (p. 77). The degrees and qualifications we offer are lottery tickets – offering ‘the best chance you have’ on surviving the reality of becoming obsolete and being classified as collateral damage…

 Tressie firstly pointed to the fact that if you “expand education in an unequal society without a redistribution of resources, you will [merely] reproduce inequality.” Without a redistribution of resources and allocation of funding to support and widen access to higher education, we create a situation where for-profit colleges and venture capitalists move in to “fix” education. This may result in a “two-tier system where the most disadvantaged students pay the most for the least quality education.”

 Digression 3: I am not a conspiracy theorist but somehow I am deeply suspicious of the decreasing government funding for higher education and the increases in for-profit higher education (see this 2010 report by Robin Wilson. It smells of ‘disaster capitalism’ as discussed in the book The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein (2008). [See Steve Fraser’s overview of the history of disaster capitalism]. As this report shows, the South African government’s funding of higher education has, over the last ten years, declined with 9% to only 40%, and student fees has risen from 24% to 31%. Global standards show that government funding of higher education should be in the vicinity of 2.5% of GDP, while currently South Africa’s investment in higher education stand at 0.76%. [See William Deresiewicz’s (2012) reflection on how disaster capitalism plays out in American public education and Jon Marcus on the role of for-profits in Brazil].

Secondly, according to Tressie “educational expansion does not result in more and better jobs.” Yes, there is a correlation, but not a causal relationship. “Access to education without investment and changes to the job market structures [and rules of engagement], does not result in social mobility. Investment in education on its own does not produce the job structures and relationships that facilitate upward social mobility.”

 Digression 4 #FeesMustFall: In the light of decreasing government funding and support for higher education (see Bauman, 2011 for an overview of the impact of the withdrawal of the state of the commons…), blatant academic capitalism (Slaughter and Rhoades, 2009), and ill-conceived and costly student support strategies based on shooting at hearing noises in the dark – the costs of higher education are a matter of huge concern. Granted.

What scares me more, however, is the mistaken and continued empty rhetoric that having access to higher education (even free higher education) will necessarily result in upward mobility, employment and the good life you see in the marketing materials of higher education institutions… When will we tell the truth?

And lastly, as higher education institutions are as under-prepared for students coming into higher education than they are, governments underestimate the cost of providing appropriate and cost-effective student support.

 Thirdly, “public and private job markets must be linked for upward social mobility to happen. Upward social mobility does not happen in a vacuum or incidentally.” Any intervention trying to address historical structural inequalities “has to be affirmative and deliberate.” Tressie raised the question – “what purpose does it serve to broaden access to education and not access to the labor market? What (and who) will we be serving in doing that?”

There is therefore a really danger that we create a “permanently disadvantaged overeducated and unemployed group of people who are also disproportionally black, female and low-income.”

Fourthly, “access to high quality higher education must be affirmative for disadvantaged groups.” There is no doubt that through deliberate policy development and implementation resource allocation needs to be differentiated if we “don’t want to just reproduce disadvantage.”

Tressie also pointed to the “fragile points of transition” in students’ higher education trajectories – referring to students moving between vocational and academic tracks in the broader context of self-actualisation. In this respect we need to remember that learning is, per se, social and much more than the provision of content.

Towards the end of her talk Tressie pointed to a number of roadblocks such as the fact that the unequal structure of opportunity is defined by wealth (or the lack of). Those that benefit the most from various strategies to broaden access are whites already at the top end of socioeconomic pyramid. This results in the tragic situation where the benefits of many of the broadening access and opportunity strategies “accrue to those who need it the least.” So the real question actually is “how do we move from access to justice?”

“Can open, accessible, high quality, low cost instruction provide pathways to upward social, economic and political mobility for the most disadvantaged?” and “Can we design such a system? Can we build/design platforms, tools and governance [regimes] without leaving behind those who has already been left behind?”

With specific reference to the potential offered by open, distance and e-learning (ODeL) Tressie said that, in the context of the US, ODeL “reinforces the salience of wealth, parental income, race, gender and educational attainment.” Even developments such as the open educational resources (OER) movement seem to perpetuate and reinforce unequal relationships. “Schools with the most resources use OER the most, while the least resourced schools use propriety systems.” [Also see this brilliant 2011 post by Audrey Watters].

The notion of ‘open’ is therefore deeply political…

In closing: Can broadening access lessen the pervasive inequality and injustice in the world? Yes, but “only if we understand that education cannot do it alone.” Tools, platforms and technologies cannot contribute to a more just and equitable society on their own. We therefore cannot think education, on its own, can redress decades of unjust structural arrangements and relationships. We need partnerships. We need investment not only in education but also in opening up job markets. We need high quality, affirmative hiring.

“Who among us will be keepers not only of openness and distance education, but also of justice?”

Tressie McMillan Cottom, like the other keynotes at ICDE2015, (in one way or another) embodies what Apple (2010) calls the “activist-in-residence” (p. 18)…

Image credit

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Apple, M.W. (Ed.). (2010). Global crises, social justice and education. New York, NY: Routlegde.

Bauman, Z. (2011). Collateral damage. Social inequalities in a global age. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Slaughter, S., & Rhoades, J. (2009). Academic capitalism and the new economy: Markets, state, and higher education. Maryland, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Tilly, C. (1999). Durable inequality. London, UK: University of California Press.


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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