Higher education policy-making, stake-holder democracy and the economics of attention

In August (2008), the Beerkens’ Blog carried an interesting report on a new format being mobilized by both the Australian and UK governments respectively; to enable the public to have a say on the future of higher education. The format – a blog – is a new departure for government departments, and it clearly is a promising tool for governments in gathering together new ideas, promoting debates, and opening up spaces for stakeholders to offer perspectives.

However, though the nature of their projects were similar—to generate a Higher Education Debate about where higher education should go over the next decade or so—Beerkens’ comparison suggests that each of the two departments involved, the Australian’ Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEST) and the UK’ Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS), were experiencing rather different levels of engagement with their publics. 

The question of why this should be the case, when the topic is important and widely debated, bears reflecting upon more closely. Is it because DEST commissioned an initial paper from an Expert Panel, with the result that the wider Australian public had something to get their teeth into compared with DIUS’s invitation to articulate a perspective? Or, was it a result of the fact that DIUS, a relatively new Department constructed when Gordon Brown took over from Tony Blair as UK Prime Minister in 2007, has yet to be picked up on wider public’s radar? Is the Australian public more used to having their say using new web-based interactive tools, and therefore not phased when invited to do so? Or is the wider public in UK less willing to participate in a public airing of views?

Put another way, how and why is it that the wider Australian public pay attention to, and act upon, an invitation to participate, when their UK counterparts do not?

Whatever the reasons for the differences, or the merits of each of the initiatives, what is clear is that the deployment of new technologies, in themselves, do not necessarily generate participation by a wider polity. Participation is the outcome of the various players being aware of, and prioritizing, interactions of this kind. In other words, new technologies operate within an ‘economy of attention’ – a point well made by Richard Latham in his influential 2006 book The Economics of Attention: Style and Substance in the Age of Information.

Now the essential point Latham is making is that we live in an information economy, and information is not in short supply. In fact, argues Latham, we are “drowning in it”. What is in short supply is ‘attention’! To grab attention, we need stylistic devices and strategies so that what Latham calls ‘stuff’—like debating the future directions for higher education—moves from the periphery to the center of attention.

This raises the interesting question of what stylistic devices and strategies government departments might use to ensure that they grab attention. In our GlobalHigherEd experience, simply ‘being a blog’ out there in the sea of information is not sufficient to generate attention? Moving ‘stuff’ from the periphery to the center takes thought and time; of how to catch and perhaps ride currents of interest. It means paying attention to the unique economy of attention and attempting to direct it in some way. Tags, categories, inter-textual links, networks and search engines all make up this complex terrain of attention getting/attention receiving. In this way, GlobalHigherEd (as well as the Beerkens’ Blog) has managed to contribute, to a degree, to structuring the field of attention – at least in the field of global higher education debates. This point is exemplified in Eric’s pump priming entry, loaded up today, regarding the Times Higher Education World University Ranking of 2008 that will be released tomorrow, and covered in the Beerkens’ Blog amongst several other outlets.

So, to all of you out there who really do have something to add to DIUS’s invitation to participate in wider public debates about the future of Higher Education in the UK on themes that range from part-time studies, demographic challenges, teaching and student experiences, internationalizing higher education, intellectual property, research careers and institutional performance – the soapbox is yours! DIUS really does want to hear from you.

References

Latham, R. (2006) The Economics of Attention: Style and Substance in the Age of Information, Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

Susan Robertson

One thought on “Higher education policy-making, stake-holder democracy and the economics of attention

  1. Pingback: Seeking new insights on the ‘Evolving Regulatory Context for Private Education in Emerging Economies’ « GlobalHigherEd

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