The Virtual University

27 Feb 2016

At a recent symposium held at an unnamed University in regional Victoria, the Vice-Chancellor loudly proclaimed the virtues of the university’s online learning strategy. In doing so, and in emphasising the significance of the University Council’s own endorsement of the strategy to the tune of obscene amounts of university funding (otherwise available for the support of teaching and research), the VC outlined discussions that had taken place at Council in the lead-up to its enthusiastic support of the online learning strategy.

Ultimately, stated the Vice-Chancellor to a room full of academics on the campus in question, the Council’s endorsement rested on the utility of the online strategy in supporting the university’s emergency management plan. As a regional institution, the University Council was required to consider contingencies in case, for example, the campus be devastated in a bushfire, the likes of which were occurring with increasing regularity and intensity in regions in which the University maintains a direct interest.

Under previous emergency management plans, the VC noted somewhat gloomily, the university would have been forced to organise alternative teaching facilities and possibly even transport for its many thousands of students. However, and here there occurred a noticeable upturn in the Vice-Chancellor’s demeanour, the successful implementation of the online learning initiative would mean that in case of devastating bushfire, such measures would no longer be necessary.

Instead, declared the VC proudly, under such circumstances students could simply be shifted into the already existing online learning environment developed under the new strategy. And with that, the University Council determined to direct significant amounts of funding towards the endorsement of a strategy that would, in case of emergency, render those listening to the Vice-Chancellor’s paean to online education entirely redundant, and shift students directly and without consultation into the Virtual University.

It is easy to poke fun at the hubris of senior university management, and the naiveté involved in assuming that a virtual university substitutes for a real one (even if only in case of emergency). Yet the reality is that the bushfire is no longer a necessary prerequisite for the transformation already underway. Most, if not all, universities are already lighting their own metaphorical bushfires – whether it be in the race to develop online spaces, or MOOCs that allow for a reduction in teaching staff and resources and the capturing of ever-wider student markets, quality issues notwithstanding.

The devaluation of teaching, the reduction of students to transferable commodities, the traducing of research to grant-getting and revenue-raising, the desire to rise in global university rankings, and so on, mean that universities are already becoming experts at responding to a scorched earth scenario at least partly of their own creation.

On the one hand, the Vice-Chancellor’s decision to present this particular “benefit” of the online learning option—as a means of rendering staff, even the university itself, redundant in case of emergency, and by implication beyond such circumstances as well—to academic staff in such positive terms signals the disconnect between university management and teaching staff prevailing across the sector. On the other, however, the mandate—and extensive financial investment—endorsed by the University Council points to a wider and more insidious process involving the co-option of academics as agents of their own demise. Many of those present would have perceived the implications of the Vice-Chancellor’s speech; all would have gone on to invest time and energy, above and beyond financial reward or recognition, in enabling the very online learning strategy presented as their virtual contingency and eventual, potential replacement.

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