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Is there life beyond university?


I don’t mean for students – I mean for universities…

I can’t help thinking that many universities (and music colleges) might be sleep walking their way in to obsolescence. Yesterday’s Guardian piece ‘Could a University be the next HMV?’ tied in with a blog post a couple of months ago by the American educational analyst Clay Shirky, ‘Napster, Udacity and the Academy’.  Shirky’s long and fascinating article begins with a parable about the failure of the music industry to wake up to mp3, and goes on to critique the attitude of academia to open online courses:

a new story rearranging people’s sense of the possible, with the incumbents the last to know—you see it everywhere. First, the people running the old system don’t notice the change. When they do, they assume it’s minor. Then that it’s a niche. Then a fad. And by the time they understand that the world has actually changed, they’ve squandered most of the time they had to adapt. (http://www.shirky.com/weblog/2012/11/napster-udacity-and-the-academy/)

(even now, of course, music storage devices that use compression are thought of as the work of the devil in many branches of music education; just how good do your ears have to be to listen to music?). Shirky goes on to suggest  that physical lectures are often pretty well pointless as you can deliver the same material more cheaply and effectively to countless more students online, a simple capitalist formulation. He also points out that critics of online courses have really had the stuffing knocked out of them by the instant response to criticism that the net provides, often enabling problems to be addressed immediately. He does make the point that you can’t educate more string quartets by making them play the same material more quickly, but the main thrust of his post is about how academia responds to change (or rather, fails to do so until it’s too late).

Anna Fazackeley’s Guardian column only spells out actual or potential economic woes without speculating on the reasons behind them, and there’s obviously a much more fundamental debate to be had, especially about subjects thought to be of limited economic value such as music and the arts. I’ve always been conscious of the fact that there are limits to the questions you can ask within a profession otherwise you risk undermining your own means of earning a living. This is not just the case with early music (it’s no good saying a Tesco shelf stacker would make a more historically appropriate sound than a pukka early music singer, even though it’s probably true) but also with research in general: you can’t research opera companies’ outreach programmes if you’re going to discover that they are an end in themselves (with vast amounts of government money in play) rather than a means to produce adult opera goers, and you obviously have to be careful with the Vatican finances, drugs or the arms trade, for instance.  It’s very difficult: academics are unlikely to want to do anything about certain problems even if they perceive them in the first place (and many, I suspect, don’t). Part of the reason for this understandable caution is the top-down nature of the academic institution: there’s always someone above you to remind you what your job is worth, and who doesn’t want to lose his or hers either.

Ironically, the current doom and gloom may actually presage a revolution in higher education in the long-term, as new forms of institution evolve to replace those that are currently sailing along unaware of the iceberg they’ll eventually hit. I’ve found in my own career that these times of economic uncertainly have done me no harm at all, whereas many of my contemporaries who stuck to more conventional paths have not had it so easy. You can’t actually future-proof yourself, but by asking yourself why you do things and finding out what actually works rather than just doing what everyone else does, you stand a much better chance. No software firm (see below) markets the same product for more than a few months – programmes are always in an evolutionary state, works in progress.  It’s no good doing something the same way just because that’s how you’ve always done it, however successful it may seem at the time. Some years ago I asked a room full of students how many had bought CDs in the previous six months (answer: none – they were all downloading) and how many owned an iPod (answer: all of them); I repeated the question at a staff meeting a few weeks later and got exactly the opposite answers. That was the first time I realised that something was up.  It wasn’t just that young people do things differently, but the fact that there’d been a revolutionary shift in music consumption and we who should know about this stuff hadn’t got much of a clue about it. The resistance to the use of online open sources which was happening at about the same time was similarly out of touch with the new reality.  The culture of excellence doesn’t help, concerned as it is with just ticking boxes to prove that you’re ‘very good’ in the present (I won’t bang on about that now, but it really is time the government and its payees came up with a more imaginative cliché for underlings to aim at).  I’m pretty sure that most music institutions won’t become aware of the main problem until it’s too late (conservatoires conserve…), so we’re really looking at a new concept of music higher education altogether that will emerge alongside the existing (by then failing) institutions.

It’s too early to say just what form(s) this will take, but if we look at 21st century enterprises such as  Google, Apple or Facebook – social media in general, in fact – we see a completely different kind of socio-business structure. It’s a long way from the 19th century capitalist model that underpins most universities today. Just when they’ve woken up to the fact that they’re businesses the very nature of business is shifting from under them.  Many of the new model entrepreneurs (many Silicon Valley state-ups, for example) succeeded despite their university education, not because of it. So the new generic model (if there is one) is likely to be a lean, horizontal, network-based admin-light structure, not a top-down institution where the expensive administrative top is completely out of touch with where the value is created on the ground.

How we got to this point is something I’m wrestling with in my current book project (specifically with regard to singing, but the conclusions might well apply across much of arts education in general). Ideally though, this won’t just be a whinge about the lack of progressive thinking in music education; I hope to be able to suggest possible ways forward, and then – who knows – perhaps actually attempt to do something about it if I can find enough like-minded people (and some funding…).

I’ll leave the last word to Clay Shirky as I couldn’t put it any better.  He’s basically saying that there are some lessons some people in education never learn:

We have several advantages over the recording industry, of course. We are decentralized and mostly non-profit. We employ lots of smart people. We have previous examples to learn from, and our core competence is learning from the past. And armed with these advantages, we’re probably going to screw this up as badly as the music people did. (http://www.shirky.com/weblog/2012/11/napster-udacity-and-the-academy/)

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