Thursday, 4 December 2008

The Bologna Declaration : critical notes - Part 2


The Bologna Declaration sustains rhetoric of employability that is central to the redefinition of HE as an economic system. It promotes tools like the Diploma Supplement (a document giving more information about the contents of a qualification earned) aimed at increasing the depth and comparability of degrees across Europe. This is supposed to make the European HE system more internationally competitive.

The rhetoric sounds promising, implying that students in Europe will have a better chance of employment and it is underlined by another positive-sounding vocabulary: meritocracy.

The reality is not so promising because the mechanisms of the free market are left to determine the structure of the economy, the nature and typology of employment and what constitutes merit-worthy achievement.

The result is a technocratic and instrumental conceptualisation of knowledge that is separate from any epistemological basis.

As employability takes precedence, degrees are literally manufactured in accordance with sets of product specifications. Both student and employer expectations and responsibilities in relation to such qualifications reinforce an approach to learning as a competitive individualistic activity whereby student peers are potential opponents in the job market.

This can both obstruct the disinterested exchange of knowledge and result in a struggle for academics to disseminate ideas which either bear a weak connection to the market or which contradicts its ideology.

The situation is complicated further when the HE system allows the market to reward universities which turn out the most employable graduates. In this way, universities gain reputation and market share in much the same way as sausage machines.

The neoliberals justify turning education into a knowable ad exchangeable commodity why pretending that it will ensure greater meritocracy. In other words, employability is supposed to be open to everyone, ‘elitist’ practices of restricting admission are abolished and private sector structures, values and processes are put in place, enabling competition to determine educational quality and individual success. There is little role for the interpretation of meritocracy we are usually sold; of having our hard work and integrity recognised and respected.

This is because the economic priorities of neoliberal ideology set the meaning of meritocracy so that what really matters in being an employable graduate is how readily and absolutely you have embraced that ideology, not how hard you have studied or what good you have contributed to humanity.

In Britain the effects of this are clear as the number of British graduates moving into postgraduate research study . In Britain there is a precarious dependency on overseas students (especially from China) in the postgraduate sector in particular, as home students prefer to move into employment.

As tools aimed at forcing a competitive mentality in HE such as league tables, work to place universities in a scale based on criteria that are often alien to the interests of local populations, student graduation and mobility becomes centred on aspects like prestige and ranking rather than qualitative dimensions of knowledge-based institutional communities.

Those who graduate from the most prestigious universities will gain access to work more easily than those who attend a ‘local’ university. Universities from the local to the internationally prized will promote themselves competitively to attract students from abroad, draining historically disadvantaged regions of capable citizens. Instead of fostering knowledge and capability in a localised context, so that knowledge becomes more evenly distributed across populations and geographies, students are drawn towards the elite and encouraged to learn for profit.

Employability in a mass global education context is about tuning skills and competencies to the demands of a volatile job market. The result is the transformation of many universities into degree mills. They are rewarded financially for supplying usefully qualified graduates and enhancing government statistics on access to education and employability. But the market and employers reap the best benefits, while students (and their parents/families) and expected to foot the bill.

No comments: