Changing higher education and the claimed educational paradigm shift – sobering up educational optimism with some sociological scepticism

If there is a consensus on the recognition that higher education governance and organization are being transformed, the same does not occur with regard to the impact of that transformation on the ‘educational’ dimension of higher education.

Under the traveling influence of the diverse versions of New Public Management (NPM), European public sectors are being molded by market-like and client-driven perspectives. Continental higher education is no exception. Austria and Portugal, to mention only these two countries, have recently re-organized their higher education system explicitly under this perspective. The basic assumptions are that the more autonomous institutions are, the more responsive they are to changes in their organizational environment, and that academic collegial governance must be replaced by managerial expertise.

Simultaneously, the EU is enforcing discourses and developing policies based on the competitive advantages of a ‘Europe of knowledge’. ‘Knowledge societies’ appear as depending on the production of new knowledge, its transmission through education and training, its dissemination through ICT, and on its use through new industrial processes and services.

By means of ‘soft instruments’ [such as the European Qualification Framework (EQF) and the Tuning I and II projects (see here and here), the EU is inducing an educational turn or, as some argue, an emergent educational paradigm. The educational concepts of ‘learning’, ‘knowledge’, ‘skills’, ‘competences’, ‘learning outcomes’ and ‘qualifications’, re-emerge in the framework of the EHEA this time as core educational perspectives.

From the analysis of the documents of the European Commission and its diverse agencies and bodies, one can see that a central educational role is now attributed to the concept of ‘learning outcomes’ and to the ‘competences’ students are supposed to possess in the end of the learning process.

In this respect, the EQF is central to advancing the envisaged educational change. It claims to provide common reference levels on how to describe learning, from basic skills up to the PhD level. The 2007 European Parliament recommendation defines “competence” as the proven ability to use knowledge, skills and personal, social and/or methodological abilities, in work or study situations and in professional and personal development”.

The shift from ‘knowledge content’ as the organizer of learning to ‘competences’, with a focus on the capacity to use knowledge(s) to know and to act technically, socially and morally, moves the role of knowledge from one where it is a formative process based on ‘traditional’ approaches to subjects and mastery of content, to one where the primary interest is in the learner achieving as an outcome of the learning process. In this new model, knowledge content is mediated by competences and translated into learning outcomes, linking together ‘understanding’, ‘skills’ and ‘abilities’.

However, the issue of knowledge content is passed over and left aside, as if the educational goal of competence building can be assigned without discussion about the need to develop procedural competencies based more on content rather than on ‘learning styles’. Indeed it can be argued that the knowledge content carried out in the process of competence building is somehow neutralized in its educational role.

In higher education, “where learning outcomes are considered as essential elements of ongoing reforms” (CEC: 8), there are not many data sources available on the educational impact of the implementation of competence-based perspectives in higher education. And while it is too early to draw conclusions about the real impact on higher education students’ experiences of the so called ‘paradigm shift’ in higher education brought by the implementation of the competence-based educational approach, the analysis of the educational concepts is, nonetheless, an interesting starting point.

The founding educational idea of Western higher education was based on the transforming potential of knowledge both at the individual and social level. Educational categories (teaching, learning, students, professors, classes, etc.) were grounded in the formative role attributed to knowledge, and so were the curriculum and the teaching and learning processes. Reconfiguring the educational role of knowledge from its once formative role in mobilizing the potential to act socially (in particular in the world of work), induces important changes in educational categories.

As higher education institutions are held to be sensitive and responsive to social and economic change, the need to design ‘learning outcomes’ on the ‘basis of internal and external stakeholders’ perceptions (as we see with Tuning: 1) grows in proportion. The ‘student’ appears simultaneously as an internal stakeholder, a client of educational services, a person moving from education to labor market and a ‘learner’ of competences. The professor, rather than vanishing, is being reinvented as a provider of learning opportunities. Illuminated by the new educational paradigm and pushed by the diktat of efficiency in a context of mass higher education, he/she is no more the ‘center’ of knowledge flux and delivery but the provider of learning opportunities for ‘learners’. Moreover, as an academic, he/she is giving up his/her ultimate responsibility to exercise quality judgments on teaching-learning processes in favor of managerial expertise on that.

As ‘learning outcomes’ are what a learner is expected to know, understand and/or be able to demonstrate on completion of learning, and given these can be represented by indicators, assessment of the educational process can move from inside to outside higher education institutions to assessment by evaluation technicians. With regard to the lecture theater as the educational locus par excellence, ICT instruments and ideographs de-localize classes to the ether of ‘www’, ‘face-to-face’ teaching-learning being a minor proportion of the ‘learner’ activities. E-learning is not the ‘death’ of the professor but his/her metamorphosis into a ‘learning monitor’. Additionally, the rise of virtual campuses introduce a new kind of academic life whose educational consequences are still to be identified.

The learner-centered model that is emerging has the educational potential foreseen by many educationalists (e.g. John Dewey, Paulo Freire, Ivan Illich, among others) to deal with the needs of post-industrial societies and with new forms of citizenship. The emerging educational paradigm promises a lot: the empowerment of the student, the enhancement of his/her capacity and responsibility to express his/her difference, the enhancement of team work, the mutual help, learning by doing, etc.

One might underline the emancipatory potential that this perspective assumes – and some educationalists are quite optimist about it. However, education does not occur in a social vacuum, as some sociologists rightly point out. In a context where HEIs are increasingly assuming the features of ‘complete organizations’ and where knowledge is indicated as the major competitive factor in the world-wide economy, educational optimism should/must be sobered up with some sociological scepticism.

In fact the risk is that knowledge, by evolving away from a central ‘formative’ input to a series of competencies, may simply pass – like money – through the individuals without transforming them (see the work of Basil Bernstein for an elaboration of this idea). By easing the frontiers between the academic and work competencies, and between education and training, higher education runs the risk of sacrificing too much to the gods of relevance, to (short term) labor market needs. Contemporary labor markets require competencies that are supposed to be easily recognized by the employers and with the potential of being continuously reformed. The educational risk is that of reducing the formation of the ‘critical self’ of the student to the ‘corporate self’ of the learner.

António M. Magalhães

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