Here's my latest column for the Caledonian Mercury - a mash-up of thoughts about the new movie on the rise of Facebook, The Social Network, and the current crisis about the funding of Higher Education - begun by Lord Browne's English review, but reverberating throughout the Scottish sector (all links on this below). I'm trying to see beyond the "danger to elite university status" argument, by noting that not all US elite universities are the same... All comments welcomed.
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In real life and screen life, the headlines are all about the power of a university education. The new movie charting the founding and rise of Facebook, titled The Social Network, makes an audacious claim: that the 500 million users of a multi-billion dollar company are essentially aping the campus dynamics of elite institutions like Harvard University.
Over the border, Lord Browne's review of higher education in England makes a similar assertion about the transformative power of a university degree. In tight economic times (goes his argument), those who future careers will benefit from it should bear more of the burden of its current cost.
The Scottish dimension gives it all another twist. Deeply held national ideals about easy access to quality education - a tradition of "the democratic intellect" defended and amplified by the current Scottish Nationalist government - are being questioned by some University chiefs. They raise spectres of their institutions being toppled out of "world-class status" by rampantly-fee-raising English counterparts.
It feels to me like we need to step out of the coils of the "deficit discourse" for a second, and allow ourselves to ask some more fundamental questions about what higher (and further) education means - as a personal experience, as an asset to society, as a model for how we should (or shouldn't) live.
The Facebook movie is an interesting place to start looking for answers. I saw a preview the other night; if you're a lover of The West Wing's stylish celebration of American power elites, you'll adore this movie.
But it's worth pausing to think about The Social Network as a cutting-edge environment for innovation. We see here the brutal intellectual and social competition within an Ivy League student body - where the smartest ones are sometimes the most self-consciously privileged ones too; where the cliqueyness and clubby behaviour of late teens and early adulthood becomes a concrete entry ticket (or barrier) into American career elites.
So the movie's makers Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher are claiming that this is the cultural soil in which a mass digital phenomenon like Facebook is formed. We are all poking and friending away with a culturally-shaped web-tool that enables us to become increasingly disciplined about how we rate each others' worth, and how we define in-groups and out-groups (indeed, the latest Facebook feature allows us to do that with even greater precision).
Come to think of it, there's been a lot of social media initiated by groups of friends on major American campuses with easy access to capital, whether from families or VCs (Google, YouTube, LinkedIn, Twitter). This movie invites you to ponder - and it's a question regularly posed - whether the relentless processes of inclusion, exclusion and meritocratic struggle that govern life on an elite campus is shaping our cyber-networks too.
Now for those university grandees in Neo-Scotia who clamour for the defence of "world-class status", I hope this gives them a moment's pause in their thundering. Because even within this elite range of institutions, different educational structures give rise to somewhat different kinds of world-beating innovation.
Just down the road in Cambridge, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) does its bit to shape the internet as a democratic, open medium. Hacking - subverting technology till it breaks, so that better tech can be built - is actively encouraged. MIT Open Courseware puts its extraordinary richness of campus material online for free, useable by anyone in the world. The MIT MediaLab comes up with empowering technologies for the developing world, like One Laptop for Every Child (OLEC).
To top it all, the world's most famous intellectual Noam Chomsky still works and teaches there - in his very person an embodiment of ground-breaking research (as a linguist) and unbendable moral principle (as a writer and activist). And incidentally, a second-to-none admirer of the Scottish Enlightenment.
Of course, with all kinds of state, military and corporate funds pouring in, MIT has the latitude to do all this. The Scotsman's Joan McAlpine makes the correct point that the macro-economics of American education are historically quite different. Yet if we embark on a much more privatised model here, how long would we have to wait before Scottish private endowments proportionately matched American levels - which we know helps those without means (or without much) to attend Harvard or MIT? What turbulence and uneveness would we inflict on students and institutions in the meantime?
But perhaps we need to have a more confident, risky debate about the kinds of world-class educational institutions we want in Scotland - their research interests, the enterprising nature of the students they produce, their ultimate contribution to the commonweal.
Can a sense of national priority about the smarts that Scotland needs in the future - which I argue regularly in this column must be about our shift towards a increasingly self-producing, low-carbon, high-satisfaction society - shape our decisions about the funding status of higher education?
Perhaps there's a link between the principle of free higher education, and the wider freedom of thought and action that might help us get out of one toxic socio-economic model, and into a better, more sustainable one. The US nerds might call it a "hacker ethic", but we might as well in Scotland call it what we've always called it - an "intellectual democracy".
Does that mean more modular pockets of "university-ness" strewn throughout Scottish society: distributed centres of teaching and research, responding to more local aspiration and diverse social, industrial and environmental demands (does our "virtual" National Theatre of Scotland suggest a structural template)?
Rejecting upfront fees, the Principal of Aberdeen University suggested the other day that one possible cost-saving might involve more cooperation between universities and with further education. Can we think innovatively about what the topic areas and agenda might be for those cooperations? Rather than follow the lead of university bosses, clearly pining for the kind of table-thumping authority that Harvard Principal Larry Summers shows in the Facebook film, perhaps we should have the confidence to evolve a different model of higher education?
We seem to have recently managed to set our own course towards a more creative and emergent primary/secondary education system, and away from the Gradgrinds, in the Curriculum for Excellence (and that's another contentious column to come). The "game-changers" we value these days always have to be semi-autistic, atomised nerds, tilting resentfully against their nearest out-groups. Why can't a small, smart, conversational nation (and one which certainly does not reject digital tools) also turn on a dime?
Maybe an "intellectual democracy" is a better model for collective progress than a "social network". But let's not wait for Hollywood to anoint it on the big screen.