Let Them Eat Cake (Competently)

Competency-based education, the new darling of postsecondary disruption advocates, threatens to further stratify higher education, writes Steven Ward.

February 1, 2016

Among the calls for university reform currently in circulation, competency-based education appears to be the one, at least at the moment, that has gained a bit of traction.

This is due largely to a funding push by the Lumina and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundations, advocacy by groups such as the American Association of Colleges & Universities that have promoted a particular version of CBE, and a somewhat hesitant thumbs-up from the U.S. Department of Education, which has recently put in place a program to encourage experiments with competency-based approaches and other forms of experimentation in its Educational Quality Through Innovative Partnerships (EQUIP) program.

In the presidential campaign, CBE has also gained some limited attention for being one of the central planks of Marco Rubio’s plan to transform higher education.

Resurrected from the archive of failed education experiments, CBE has recently undergone a conceptual makeover to become the poster child for various reform-minded groups seeking to disrupt higher education. Some see it as a way to provide a “more relevant 21st-century general education curriculum” (i.e., to turn universities into soft-skill vocational programs, aka Jebification).

Others want to use CBE as a means to “personalize learning” (i.e., to place all students in front of a screen, aka Zuckerberging). While still others see it as a way to “increase time to degree completion” (i.e., to get students in and out as quickly and cheaply as possible, aka Gatesification or Merisotising).

In some higher education settings, CBE has led to the creation of entirely new degree programs, primarily at online universities such as Capella, Western Governors and Southern New Hampshire’s College for America. In other, more brick-and-mortar locales, it has served as a means to restructure general education, such as found in institutions that are part of the AAC&U’s General Education Maps and Markers (GEMs) project.

However, in the rush to emphasize marketable skills over a deeper liberal knowledge content, proponents of CBE in all forms are forcing students (particularly the underserved in lower-tier institutions, whom they claim to be helping) into a “knowledge-less” version of liberal learning in order to “hurry things along” and not get in the way of their job training.

Despite the rhetoric of “serving the underserved” and “closing the skills gap,” they are responsible for generating new hierarchies between those who receive a cheap, fast food-style or “good enough” education from those who receive a quality one. They are forging new barriers and strata in an already highly stratified higher education system, not removing them as they often claim.

CBE stands in marked contrast to a past emphasis on quality, across-the-board liberal learning to be acquired regardless of the type of student or institution that was at the heart of general liberal education. This was partly what a Dewey-style social democratic vision of liberal arts education was supposed to be about -- general knowledge available to and shared by all -- a kindergarten for adults.

CBE essentially gives up on this dream of democratizing knowledge and promotes a division between those who need a thorough, content-centered liberal education and those who only need a light, fast and vocation-friendly version. It suggests that the big questions, or what the British sociologist Basil Bernstein referred to as powerful or sacred knowledge, where the unimaginable becomes imagined, is not really relevant for most middle- and working-class students who attend community colleges and regional state universities where most of the CBE experiments are being played out.

These students will not need to concern themselves with the bigger questions of theoria -- those can be left up to those with more elite training who will occupy the corridors of power, making laws and running things, but can instead stick to the mundane knowledge and the basics of everyday praxis happening in their assigned cubicles.

In this new model, students in more elite institutions will go on receiving broad liberal training and having access to powerful knowledge as a core part of their university experience, while those at lower-tier public institutions will be loaded up with watered-down, box-checking skills and vague competencies like “critical thinking” or “intercultural understanding” to be provided by standardized, online platforms.

In the market-centered spirit of our times, the move to CBE is presented as simply a matter of the new economic realities of higher education in the age of austerity and state budget constraints, or as a matter of “consumer choice” where wily student consumers and their parents comparison shop at the knowledge mall and select the educational experience that provides “more bang for the buck.”

However, on closer inspection the move to CBE is much more politically scripted than mandated by the inevitability of the economics of higher education. It is, in short, an economically biased political experiment of epic proportions. It creates, as Guy Standing describes it, an education system that is “restructured to stream youth into the flexible labor system, based on a privileged elite, a small technical working class and a growing precariat.”

CBE as a policy only makes sense if we place it in the larger ongoing political project of public realm minimization. Here the activities of public institutions and publicly funded services are reduced to a bare-bones, absolute minimal level of functioning in order to “create efficiencies” and induce “taxpayer savings.”

When this happens public services, such as schools, some hospitals and public transportation, and even the public domain itself, become chronically underfunded and prone to dramatic and often willy-nilly cuts. This minimization generates uncertainty, competition and conflict within the organization servicing the public and produces the inability to provide adequate or even second-rate services.

This often magnifies calls for public sector reforms, such as more businesslike models of new public management, privatization and increased auditing and accountability. As this process continues onward, budget cycle after budget cycle, services may become so reduced that the system either slows to a crawl or breaks down entirely (think of the Department of Motor Vehicles or the Flint, Mich., water supply). In turn those who are serviced by these organizations develop an extreme cynicism and even revulsion toward public services. When politically inflamed, as with Scott Walker in Wisconsin, this cynicism stokes antiunion and antiprofessional sentiments, where public sector unions are blamed for having too much guild-like power and draining away public resources.

What this all means is the CBE is not just a statement about the future of a certain segment of American higher education but one about what opportunities should be there for those who partake of public services. Are these services to be on par with those in the private sector in the social democratic spirit, or are they to be cheap, reduced-rate imitations that can only be avoided by those with the right purchasing power?


Steven C. Ward is professor of sociology at Western Connecticut State University and author of Neoliberalism and the Global Restructuring of Knowledge and Education (Routledge).


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