HESA

Higher Education Strategy Associates

March 31

Quebec’s Student Strikes: Does History Repeat?

So, many of Quebec’s student unions are on strike again (if you’re interested in a running total, check out this site).  Only this time it’s not about tuition or even (mostly) about university funding – it’s about “austerity”.  If I were the government, I would welcome this, because it’s likely to end in defeat for the radicals.

Let’s dial the clock back to 1986. Back then, there were two big pan-Quebec student organizations: the Rassemblement des associations étudiants Universitares (RAEU), roughly the equivalent of the present-day Féderation étudiante universitaire du Quebec (FEUQ), and the Association nationale des étudiants et étudiantes du Quebec (ANEEQ), which roughly represents the same unions as does the present-day Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (ASSÉ), and sometimes goes by CLASSE (the CL standing for “coalition large”).  The Liberals had replaced the PQ late the previous year, and there were rumours that their first budget would remove the freeze on tuition fees that had been in place since the late 1980s.  It’s unclear that the Liberals did in fact intend to do this (in their first budget at least), but ANEEQ led an impressive student mobilization that definitively took this option off the table.  RAEU, which had been more luke-warm about mobilization, lost members and folded soon thereafter.

Flushed with a sense of power, ANEQ called another strike in the fall of 1988 over what were a pretty minor set of revisions to the student loan act.  The strike didn’t go very well: students could see the point in fighting a tuition fee freeze, less so with something that didn’t seem as negative.  The next December, sensing weakness, the Liberals finally broke the tuition freeze and increased fees from about $550/year to $1,300/year (still well below the Canadian average, even then).  RAEU re-invented itself as FEUQ, a more “presentable” option than the communist/syndicalist ANEEQ, but was still unable to stop the tuition hike.

(You think I’m exaggerating about communists?  I vividly remember being at a student “summit” in February 1990 in Quebec City, at which the leaders of ANEEQ kept running to the back of the room every few minutes to get instructions from this dude no one had ever seen before.  He was dressed in fatigues, combat boots, a red beret, and a Che Guevara beard.  Totally surreal.  And this was three months *after* the Berlin wall fell.)

Anyways, you can see where I’m going here in terms of the parallels.  The 2012 student mobilization was superb, the best ever seen in Canada.  But the conditions this spring just aren’t there for a repeat.  The leadership is not as inspired (FEUQ is falling apart, ASSÉ’s Camille Godbout is no Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois), the issue at stake is much vaguer and much less likely to resonate among students, and most importantly the Couillard government has a public legitimacy that the late-stage Charest government, worn out by scandal, fatally lacked.  It’s 1988 again, and the student movement is fighting the wrong fight.

In short, this strike is pure hubris on the part of the syndicalists.  It will likely end in failure, and weaken the student movement.  The door will then be open for the Liberals to finally raise tuition fees.

March 30

Investing in Students

One thing I’ve seen a lot of recently, particularly from the left, are exhortations to “invest in education”, “invest in people”, and “invest in students”.   However, as economist Stephen Gordon noted on twitter this weekend, the actual meaning of the verb “to invest” is “to acquire a productive asset”.  So, in a literal sense, it would appear that a lot of people on the left are interested in a government-led return to slavery.

Of course, this isn’t what the left means when it says “invest”.  In fact, calls for “investment” are a kind of rhetorical sleight of hand, combining one perfectly sensible idea with a much more dubious one.  The sensible bit is that “public spending on higher education has significant positive returns”; the less sensible bit is “if we spent more, we will continue to get similar high returns”.

The problem here – one which the investment crowd isn’t always keen to acknowledge – is that when real investors make investments, they actually measure returns.  And when they do, they measure returns relative to the original amount invested.  If returns do not increase in-line with investments, then this is what we call a bad investment.

To understand what I mean, let’s think about the Klein cuts in Alberta in the early 90s, or the Harris cuts in Ontario in the mid-90s, or the Bouchard cuts in Quebec in the mid-90s.  In all three cases, universities saw double-digit percentage decreases in operating grants.  Did student intake or graduation rates fall?  Was the quality of these graduates materially worse than those of any other era?  No?  Then what we have here is a case of a rise in returns to investment; governments spent less and got the same return.

The argument that a rise in spending will return a better investment is actually a tough one to make.  Will we get more graduates?  Will we get more thoughtful or productive graduates?  Will we get more research?  These are all things you have to measure.  By and large in Canada, our investments of the 2000s bought us more graduates and more research.  On other aspects – who knows?

(At this point in any of my talks, someone always asks something to the effect of: “but what about the other aspects of higher education, like citizenship, or critical thought?”  To which my answer is: if that’s what you think we’re buying with public expenditure: fine.  The issue is: on what basis do you think graduates will have more of those qualities if spending goes up 5%, or 10%, or whatever?)

I suspect some of the “investment” crowd wouldn’t mind actually measuring its investments; but, I also suspect there’s a larger portion of this group that could not care less about return on investments.  For these people, the word “invest” is simply a crude disguise for the word “spend”, and by “spend” they mostly mean transferring spending from the private sector to the public sector, hence raising private returns and lowering public ones (and this is from the left, for God’s sake).

None of this is to argue against public spending on education, of course.  And none of it is to say there aren’t reasons why higher education spending shouldn’t be increased.  But be careful of the language of investment: it doesn’t always lead where you think it will.

March 27

Better Know a Higher Ed System: South Africa (Part 1)

So, I was in South Africa last week talking to people from various ends of the higher education system.  It’s a fascinating place, which is attempting the almost-unimaginably difficult task of creating a single, functional system of education from the wreckage of apartheid.

One key aspect of contemporary South Africa is that genuine political competition is still some ways off.  Opposition parties exist, and the ruling alliance is experiencing some strain due to the increasing unhappiness of the main trade union, COSATU, but the fact of the matter is it’s still almost inconceivable the ANC could lose power before 2024 at the earliest.  Absent competition, quality of service delivery tends to suffer because government simply doesn’t have its feet to the fire very often.  And education is most certainly suffering. In fact, K-12 education is widely pointed to as the file where the ANC has performed the most poorly.  Obviously, the legacy of the apartheid-era Bantu education policies place a terrible burden on the system, but nevertheless when surveying the education system as a whole, words like “abysmal” and “train wreck” do spring to mind.

Only about half of all students finish twelve years of high school (most drop out between year 10 and year 12).  Of those, only about three-quarters pass the matriculation exams.  Of those, only thirty percent achieve a sufficiently good matric that they qualify (on paper at least) to attend university.  The result is that only about one-in-eight youth is actually eligible to attend university.  And of course within that one-eighth, whites and Indians are significantly over-represented.  Participation rates for whites are up around 50%; for Africans, they languish at around 10%.

Dropout rates within university are also a problem.  At best, only about half of students complete their three-year course of studies within six years, meaning that at the end of this very leaky pipeline, one finds an attainment rate of around 6%; nowhere near what is needed to run an advanced economy.  As a result, South Africa’s economy is not advanced in any sort of comprehensive way – what it has is a thin sliver of a developed economy, laid on top of a much larger economy indistinguishable from what you’d see in the rest of Africa.  If you can imagine dropping New Zealand into the middle of Kenya, you’ve more or less got the picture.

New Zealand dropped onto Kenya is a reasonably accurate description of the university system, too.  There are a handful of formerly-white institutions (Witswatersrand University, Stellenbosch University, University of Cape Town, etc.), which are basically research universities (only really badly funded).  However, a majority of institutions are either historically black or recently-merged (more about mergers next week), which often seek to emulate research institutions, but haven’t even vaguely got the human or financial resources to act that way.  Shouldn’t they differentiate, you say?  In theory, perhaps, but here you again run into the apartheid legacy: how can anyone argue with a straight face for a system where the only “top” universities (i.e. research intensive ones) are the ones that are historically white?

The money problems are real, too.  South Africa’s GDP per capita is about the same as China’s ($6,500 US).  But China can support lots of world-class research on that budget because most of its profs don’t speak English that well, and hence have limited mobility.  It can pay them well below world rates, and so there is lots left over for lovely new infrastructure, labs, etc.  South Africa can’t get away with that.  A significant fraction of its academics are quite mobile and liable to leave for Australia, the US, or wherever, at the drop of a hat.  Their pay rates therefore have to be at least marginally competitive with those of much, much richer countries, which leaves very little left over for all the other stuff universities need to be excellent.

No simple answers here, but lots of challenges – and increasingly lots of interesting solutions, too.  I’ll have more on this next week.

March 26

Three Stories to Watch in Europe

Europe’s been reasonably quiet for the last few months as far as higher education is concerned, but there are now a number of interesting stories to watch.

Here’s the lowdown on three of them:

In Hungary, the ruling right wing Fidesz party has announced a wholesale change to the way it would fund higher education.  It’s looking to abolish (within the state system at least) a number of courses deemed to be “non-productive” (e.g. communications), and requiring others to become fully tuition-fee funded.  Tuition fees have a complicated history in Hungary.  Hungary adopted tuition fees in 1996, and applied them in a dual-track fashion (kids with good secondary marks could go for free, others could attend the same courses if they paid a fee).  In 2008, a voter-initiated referendum was held on the abolition of tuition fees, which passed by a 4-to-1 margin.  But this was never implemented: the party that promoted the referendum – Fidesz – promptly attained power and reneged on the deal (much to the relief of the universities who relied on the fees).

It’s fair to say that since attaining power, Fidesz’s policies towards higher education have been pretty nightmarish.  The number of funded places has declined by more than half; an attempt in 2013 to make free places contingent on students signing an agreement to work in Hungary for twice the length of their university course was foiled only by the European Commission (which took a dim view of the attempt to restrict mobility rights).  The attempted 2013 reforms drew sustained opposition from students and faculty – a rare event in a country where the governing party has a massive majority.  We’ll see how this new policy plays out.

In the Netherlands, there is a simply fascinating student uprising going on against “managerialist” universities.  It started when the University of Amsterdam announced that a number of different courses in the humanities would merge into a single liberal arts program.  This led to a two-week student sit-in at the Bungehuis (home of the humanities faculty) that ended in a police action, but students resumed the sit-in at a nearby building shortly thereafter.

The students’ critique is not, interestingly enough, about underfunding (the humanities faculty has done rather well in terms of funding recently, despite a small drop in enrolments), but rather about the secretive and “anti-democratic” nature of the modern university and – echoes for Canada here – universities losing money on property deals.  It’s struck enough of a chord that the university has put forward a ten-point plan to meet the students’ demands.   On the face of it, there are some big steps forward here, though likely not enough to satisfy protesters, who may feel they’re on a roll: copycat protests broke-out last week at the London School of Economics.  My guess is that this peters out in a week or two, but it may be the beginning of some valuable discussions about how universities are managed in Europe.

Finally, one consequence of the economic crisis in Russia is that students are not receiving their government bursaries.  Basically, what appears to have happened is that cash-strapped universities have raided funds received from government to pay for short-term costs (such as making payroll).  This probably isn’t more than a one-week story – eventually bursaries will be sorted out.  But it’s indicative of the kinds of problems Russian higher education – indeed, all Russian institutions – are currently experiencing.

March 25

Budget Denialism

You’ve heard of climate change denialism?  The use of spurious, crap data to try to undermine public acceptance of the well-established phenomenon of climate change?  Well, there’s something sweeping Canadian campuses that’s very similar.  I call it budget denialism.  Let me show you some examples from two universities in particular: Dalhousie and Wilfrid Laurier.

The Dal budget is here.  The focus of complaints at Dalhousie has been the $5.6 million cut to “faculties”.  Now, when you hear the word “faculties”, you think teaching (or instruction and instructional support, more broadly) – so when you hear about a cut to the faculties’ budget, while overall budgets are rising, you’re meant to think: “mean, empire-building administration, taking money away from teaching and giving it to themselves/building new buildings”.  That’s certainly the tenor of this article.

Except for one thing: the faculties budget doesn’t include salaries.  Salaries are up $9.9 million, 86% of which goes to faculties.  So actual spending on instruction and support within faculties is rising this year by roughly 2.1%.  Indeed, if you read the budget with any kind of care, it’s pretty clear that the main reason faculties are taking a $5.6 million hit to non-salary areas is precisely because this $9.9 million increase in salary needs to be accommodated.  Budget denialists of course see no connection here.

Most inane is the comment from the Dal Faculty Association that there shouldn’t be any cuts because Dal is in perfect financial health.  Her evidence?  That Dal has over a $1.6 billion dollars in assets.  Seriously, that’s what she said.  Like she’s never heard of the difference between an income statement and a balance sheet.  Like assets can magically be turned into income.  I look forward to seeing the DFA elaborating on this point by explaining its approach to liquidating endowments, and how to choose what buildings Dal should sell so as to never ever have to make a tough budget decision ever again.

Wilfrid Laurier University is an even better example of budget denialism in action.  The Laurier budget isn’t even a particularly tough one.  Though it’s predicting a $25 million gap between income and expenditures in three years, it doesn’t do much to close that gap.  In fact, it’s allowing for a 5% increase in the overall salary/compensation budget this year, while revenue will only increase 3%.  The math only works because Laurier is: a) choosing to run a $2 million deficit; and, b) laying off 22 staff.

The response from the academic community?  Well, there’s this guy who basically says budgets are political instruments, and you should only look at financial statements.  And since no previous financial statements show deficits, any talk of deficits in future must be a lie.  And this guy apparently has a Ph.D.  I presume he also thinks this can’t be the year 2015, because no previous year has ever been 2015.

And then there are the folks who just simply can’t understand how increasing salaries by 5% while increasing revenues by only 3% means something has to give.  Running a deficit is part of it; so too are layoffs to reduce salary mass, which Laurier did to 22 people the week before last.  Cue sniffy complaints of Laurier having lost its soul, ruined by management, and – worst of all – being run like a business.

(Running things like a business is, of course, the ultimate sanctimonious academic insult, spat out in disgust by people who by-and-large have never actually balanced an organizational budget.  I’ve always wanted to ask people who say this whether they believe non-profits never fire people, and if their budgets magically balance themselves, regardless of salary commitments.)

There’s room, obviously, for debate about university budgets and what gets prioritized.  But pretending there is no price to pay for hefty (5%!  Who gets 5% these days?) annual compensation increases, which everyone in universities seems to have got used to, simply isn’t on.  As with climate denialists, we should assume that budget denialists have some fairly self-interested reasons for taking the stance they do, and evaluate their evidence accordingly.

March 24

Banning the Term “Underfunding”

Somehow I missed this when the OECD’s Education at a Glance 2014 came out, but apparently Canada’s post-secondary system is now officially the best funded in the entire world.

I know, I know.  It’s a hard idea to accept when Presidents of every student union, faculty association, university, and college have been blaming “underfunding” for virtually every ill in post-secondary education since before Air Farce jokes started taking the bus to get to the punchline.  But the fact is, we’re tops.  Numero uno.  Take a look:

Figure 1: Percentage of GDP Spent on Higher Education Institutions, Select OECD Countries, 2011

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For what I believe is the first time ever, Canada is outstripping both the US (2.7%) and Korea (2.6%).  At 2.8% of GDP, spending on higher education is nearly twice what it is in the European Union.

Ah, you say, that’s probably because so much of our funding comes from private sources.  After all, don’t we always hear that tuition is at, or approaching, 50% of total funding in universities?  Well, no.  That stat only applies to operating expenditures (not total expenditures), and is only valid in Nova Scotia and Ontario.  Here’s what happens if we look only at public spending in all those countries:

Figure 2: Percentage of GDP Spent on Higher Education Institutions from Public Sources, Select OECD Countries, 2011

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While it’s true that Canada does have a high proportion of funds coming from private sources, public sector support to higher education still amounts to 1.6% of GDP, which is substantially above the OECD average.  In fact, our public expenditure on higher education is the same as in Norway and Sweden; among all OECD countries, only Finland and Denmark (not included in graph) are higher.

And this doesn’t even consider the fact that Statscan and CMEC don’t include expenditures like Canada Education Savings Grants and tax credits, which together are worth another 0.2% of GDP, because OECD doesn’t really have a reporting category for oddball expenditures like that.  The omission doesn’t change our total expenditure, but it does affect the public/private balance.  Instead of being 1.6% of GDP public, and 1.2% of GDP private, it’s probably more like 1.8% or 1.9% public, which again would put us at the absolute top of the world ranking.

So it’s worth asking: when people say we are “underfunded”, what do they mean?  Underfunded compared to who?  Underfunded for what?  If we have more money than anyone else, and we still feel there isn’t enough to go around, maybe we should be looking a lot more closely at *how* we spend the money rather than at *how much* we spend.

Meantime, I think there should be a public shaming campaign against use of the term “underfunding” in Canada.  It’s embarrassing, once you know the facts.

March 23

Getting Mugged By Your Own Government

Good morning from Maputo, where word has reached me regarding a truly awful piece of government policy emanating from Regina.

Page 14 of the provincial budget briefly suggests that something miraculous has occurred in provincial funding policy:

This budget provides 1.0 per cent operating increases for universities, affiliated colleges and regional colleges and 2.0 per cent operating increases for technical institutes and federated colleges.  Overall, the 2015-16 Budget includes $661.2 million in post-secondary operating and targeted funding, a reduction of $8.17 million from last year’s budget.

Got that?  The budget for operating funding is going up, yet provincial funding is going down.  That’s like magic!  Unfortunately, the finance minister ruined things in the next sentence by explaining the illusion:

That decrease is mitigated by the University of Saskatchewan supporting the 2015-16 expense growth capacity by using $20.0 million from its reserve funds.

“Supporting the expense growth capacity” is an interesting euphemism.  Next time someone mugs you and takes your money, just remember you’re supporting the mugger’s expense growth capacity.

Now, let’s be clear about what happened here.  In the six years between 06/07 and 12/13, operating revenue and expenses at U Sask both grew by about 50%.

Yes, really, they were growing by 7% a year.  In 2012, the university realized this wasn’t likely to continue indefinitely and decided to rein-in the rate of expenditure growth so that it matched the institution’s projected rate of revenue growth (roughly 3.5%).  This is what TransformUS and all those cuts were about, but even with the cuts, U Sask’s budget in 2015 was still projected to be 66% larger in nominal terms than it was back in 2006.

(Go ahead, someone tell me about underfunding.  I dare you.)

Anyways, come 2013-14, U of S came up trumps with its budgeting.  A year or so ahead of schedule, the university hit all its net revenue targets and ended up with a surplus of $21 million – a figure not unadjacent to the $20 million the government just decided to boost from U Sask’s coffers.  Since USask temporarily has the cooties due to the whole Buckingham fiasco last year, it’s an easy mark for a government needing a few bucks to plug holes in its budget.

U Sask should, by rights, be screaming blue murder.  Absent new cuts, its own figures show it will be back in deficit in a year or so (see page 27 here).  Which is why USask’s post-budget statement, which suggested at worst mild disappointment, was so completely baffling.  That $20 million came from a scarring round of buyouts and layoffs.  For the university to shrug and say, “well we didn’t really need that money anyway” is puzzling in the extreme.

But the worst thing here is the precedent being set.  After this, no responsible Canadian university President should ever budget for a surplus.  Only by running deficits can institutions be sure of not getting mugged by their own governments.  Indeed, the new model of responsibility might be UQAM, whose debts briefly touched $380 million a few years ago (they have since come down to a “manageable” $150 million).

This is an awful piece of policy, which incentivizes institutions to make their finances as brittle as possible.  God forbid it become policy anywhere else.

March 13

The Alternative to the End of College (Part 3)

So, if Kevin Carey is pretty much dead on about the weaknesses of current universities, and mostly wrong about where things go from here, how else might universities change over the next couple of decades?

Let’s start with the key points:

  • Money pressures aren’t going to ease up.  The cost disease will always be with us;
  • Professors want to research, and they don’t want to do it in soviet-style academies, divorced from teaching.  They’ll fight hard for present system;
  • Higher education is, to a significant extent, a Veblen Good.  It is thus, to a considerable degree, impervious to disruption;
  • Students don’t go to school just for the teaching.  They go for the experience.  And the networks.  And the personal contact.  And occasional piece of praise.  Some of this can be had online; but it tends to be more meaningful and lasting if accompanied by something face-to-face;
  • The value of an established credential is that it relieves employers of the need to think too hard about the worth of an applicant.  For this reason, it’s really hard for a new credential to displace an established credential;
  • Employers are looking for universities to produce graduates who have more soft skills – mainly relating to teamwork and customer-facing skills.  Students know this – and they want an education that will help provide this.

Any future one can imagine will need to meet these parameters.  So, let’s extrapolate a little bit from here.

  • Students will pay more for university if asked.  They may not like it, but they will do it.  This will eventually ease some of the cost pressure.  As a result, the status quo re: day-to-day practices will be easier to maintain.  A blow-out event;
  • That said, absent a frontal assault by government (which I think unlikely), tenured research track faculty are likely to hang around and get more expensive.  So there will still be cost-pressure for change;
  • Professional pressures around research output means professors by and large will abandon lower-year courses (to the extent they already haven’t).  Something has to replace them;
  • MOOCs – or something like them – are an obvious way to cut costs here.  Carey notes that although there are hundreds of thousands of different courses offered across the United States, the majority of credits actually awarded come from just 5,000 or so courses, which are pretty standard across institutions (e.g. American History 100, Accounting 200, etc.).  To some significant degree, these can be standardized.  That’s not to say there need only be a single course in each of these 5,000 areas: monocultures are bad.  But in the words of one Harvard professor Carey interviewed, there probably doesn’t need to be more than half a dozen, either.  Delivered at sufficient volume, these future-MOOCs will not just feature top lecturers, but also will have massively better support packages and learning design.  Institutions could still localize and personalize them by offering their own tutorial support and testing of the material covered in these future-MOOCs, and then award their own credit for them.  It’s not obvious the outcomes of this kind of arrangements would be worse than they are now: the lectures will likely be better, the scope for improvements for inter-institutional mobility and credit transfer are enormous, and the more nightmarish scenarios around MOOCS could be avoided;
  • Pressure from students and employers is going to lead to significant re-designs of programs around learning outcomes – and specifically around issues of teamwork and problem-solving.  The key change is going to come around how to integrate credible assessments of these qualities into existing structures of courses and degrees.  There will likely be a lot of experimentation; certainly, I think we’re on the verge of the most serious re-think of the structure of credits and degrees since the 1960s;
  • In tandem, various forms of work-based learning are going to keep expanding.  Co-ops and internships will grow.  Practical upper-year courses where students get to tackle real-world problems will become much more common.  Some new types of validation – maybe not badges but something different from a simple diploma – will arise to help document achievement in these areas.

In other words, there will likely some big changes in undergraduate programming, some due to technology, some due to cost pressures, and some due to demands from students and employers.   These changes will weaken the importance of the credit hour and reduce the centrality of academic discipline in academic life.  It will make university-based learning less reliant on classroom teaching as we currently know it.

But it will not be the End of College.

*Note: I’ll be in South Africa next week, and to keep myself sane, I’ll be taking a one-week hiatus from the blog.  See you all again on March 23rd.

March 12

The End of College? (Part 2)

As discussed yesterday, Kevin Carey’s The End of College pinpoints higher education’s key ills in its inability (or unwillingness) to provide students with any real signal about the quality of their work.  This serves students badly in a number of ways.  First, it makes finding job matches harder, and second, it means institutions can mis-sell themselves by investing in the accoutrements of excellence (ivy, quads, expensive residences) without its substance.

Essentially, Carey believes that technology will solve these problems.  He’s not a blind MOOC-hypester; in fact, his chapter on Coursera is reasonably astute as to the reasons the current generation of MOOCs have yet to set the world alight.  But he is utterly certain that the forces of technology will eventually provide high-quality, low-price solutions, which will overwhelm the current model.  The ability to learn without the need for physical classrooms or libraries, the ability to get tutorial and peer assistance online, and the ability to test and certify at a distance will largely do away with the need for current (expensive) physical universities, and usher in the age of “The University of Everywhere”.  Cue the usual stuff about “disruption”.

Carey provides readers with a useful overview of some of the ed tech companies whose products are trying to provide the basis of this revolution, with a particular emphasis on technologies that can capture and measure learning progress, and use that information both to immediately improve student performance, and to provide feedback to instructors and institutions to improve courses.  He also spends a chapter looking at the issue of credentials.  He correctly recognizes that the main reason universities have been able to maintain their position for so long is the strength of the Bachelor’s degree, a credential over which they maintain a near-monopoly.  And yet, he notes, credentials don’t actually tell much about what a graduate’s capabilities are.  And so he spends an entire chapter talking about alternatives to Bachelor’s degrees, such as Digital “badges” – open-sourced, machine-readable competency-based credentials which, in theory at least, are better at communicating actual skills to potential employers.

The problem is that this argument misses the mark, somewhat.  To measure learning in the way techno-optimists wish, the “learning” has to be machine-readable.  That is to say, student capabilities at a point in time have to be captured via clicks or keystrokes, and those keystrokes have to be interpretable as capabilities.  The first is trivially easy (although implementing into a classroom setting in a disciplined way may end up being a form of torture); the second will vary from easy to unimaginably difficult depending on the discipline.

A lot of the promise people see in machine learning is based on things like Sebastian Thrun’s early MOOCs, which were in some ways quite intriguing.  But these were in computer science, where answering a question rightly or wrongly is a pretty good indication of a mastery of underlying concepts, which in turn is probably a reasonable measure of “competence” in a field.  But extrapolating from computer science is less helpful; most disciplines – and indeed, all of business and the social sciences – are not susceptible to capture this way.  The fact that a history student might not know a “correct” answer to a question (e.g. “in what year was the Magna Carta signed”?) doesn’t tell you how well that student has mastered skills like how to interpret sources.  In the humanities and social sciences (here including Law, Education, and Business), you can capture information, but it tells you very little about underlying skills.

With badges, the problem is roughly the same.  Provided you are in a field of study where discrete skills are what matters, badges make sense.  But by and large, those fields of study aren’t where the problem is in higher education.  What problems do badges solve in humanities and social sciences?  If the skills you want to signal to employers are integrative thinking or teamwork (i.e. skills the majority of employers say they most desperately need), how do badges solve any of the problems associated with the current Bachelor’s degree?

Two final points.  First, I think Carey is too optimistic about learners, and insufficiently mindful that universities have roles beyond teaching.  One justified criticism of much of the “disruption” crowd is that their alternative vision implies a high degree of autodidacticism among learners: if you put all these resources online for people, they will take advantage of them on their own.  But in fact, that’s likely the case only for a minority of learners: a University of Everywhere will – in the early years at least, and quite possibly much longer – likely impose significant penalties on learners who need a bit more assistance.  They need a level of human contact and interaction higher than that which can be provided over the internet.

Finally, one of the main reasons people go to universities is the social aspect.  They meet people who will remain friends, and with whom they’ll associate for the rest of their lives.  They learn many skills from each other via extra-curricular activities.  Basically, they learn to become adults – and that’s a hugely important function.  And sure, most universities do a half-assed job (at best) of communicating and executing this function, but Carey’s alternative is not an improvement on this.  It is why I’m fairly sure that even if most students could go to the University of Everywhere, they would still choose not to.  Even if it were practical, I’m not sure it passes the market test.

So if Carey’s diagnosis about universities’ weaknesses are accurate but his predictions incorrect, what are the real alternatives?  I’ll tackle that tomorrow.

March 11

The End of College? (Part 1)

Over the next couple of days, I want to talk a bit about a new book called The End of College, written by the New America Foundation’s Kevin Carey.  It’s an important book not just because it’s been excerpted repeatedly in some major publications, or because the conclusions are correct (in my view: they’re not), but because it has an unerringly precise diagnosis of how higher education came to its present malaise, and the nature of the economic and institutional reasons that impede change in higher education.

Carey’s narrative starts by tracing the origins of universities’ current problems back to the 19the century, when America had three competing types of universities.  First were the small liberal arts colleges devoted either to Cardinal Newman’s ideals, or training clergy, or both; second were the Land Grant institutions, created by the Morrill Act and devoted to the “practical arts”; and a third was a group that wanted to emulate German universities and become what we now call “research universities”.  Faced with three different types of institutions from which to choose, America chose not choose at all – in effect, it asked universities to embody all three ideals at once.

On top of that, American universities made another fateful decision, which was to adopt what is known as the Elective model (I prefer the term “Smorgasbord model”, and wrote about it back here).  Starting at Harvard under President Charles Eliot, this move did away with programs consisting of a standardized set of courses in a standard curriculum, and replaced it with professors teaching more or less what they felt like, and students getting to choose the courses they liked.  This mix of specialization and scholarly freedom was one of the things that allowed institutions to accommodate both liberal and practical arts within the same faculties.  In Carey’s words: “the American university emerged as an institution that was designed like a research university, charged with practical training and immersed in the spirit of liberal education”.

The problem is that this hybrid university simply didn’t work very well as far as teaching was concerned.  The research end of the university began demanding PhDs – research degrees – as minimum criteria for hiring.  So hiring came to center on research expertise even though this was no guarantee of either teaching quality or ability in practical arts. And over time, universities largely abandoned responsibility for teaching to those people who were experts in research but amateurs at teaching.  No one checked up on teaching effectiveness or learning outcomes.  Degrees came to be a function of time spent in seats rather than actual measures of competence, proficiency, or mastery of a subject.

Because no one could check up on actual outputs or outcomes – not only are our research-crazy institutions remarkably incurious about applying their talents to the actual process of learning, they actively resist outsiders attempts to measure, too (see: AHELO) – competition between universities was fought solely on prestige.  Older universities had a head start on prestige; unless lavishly funded by the public (as the University of California was, for a time), the only way to complete with age was with money – often students’ money.  Hence, George Washington University, New York University, the University of Southern California, and (to a lesser extent) Washington U St. Louis all rose in the rankings by charging students exorbitant fees and ploughing that money into the areas that bring prestige: research, ivy, nicer quads, etc.  (Similarly, Canadian institutions devoted an unholy percentage of all the extra billions they got in tuition and government grants since the late 90s into becoming more research-intensive; in Australia, G-8 universities are shameless in saying that the proceeds of deregulated tuition are going to be ploughed into research.)  The idea that all those student dollars might actually be used to – you know – improve instruction rarely gets much of a look-in.

Maybe if we were cruising along at full employment, no one would care much about all this.  But the last six years have seen slow growth and (in the US at least) unprecedented declines in disposable middle-class incomes, as well as graduates’ post-school incomes.  So now you’ve got a system that is increasingly expensive (again, more so in the US than Canada), doesn’t attempt to set outcomes standards or impose standards on its professors, or do much in terms of working out “what works”.

Carey – rightly, I think – sees this as unsustainable: something has to give.  The question is, what? Tomorrow, I’ll discuss Carey’s views on the subject, and on Friday I’ll provide some thoughts of my own.

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