HESA

Higher Education Strategy Associates

November 14

CASA at 20

The Canadian Alliance of Student Associations (CASA) turns 20 early next year (January or June, depending on what you take as a founding date).  But since the real founding events actually happened the previous November, I thought it would be worth offering some thoughts on it now.

Until the early 1990s, there had never been more than one national student association.  There was a National Federation of Canadian University Students dating from the 30s; this eventually became the Canadian Union of Students, which eventually collapsed in a paroxysm of anarcho-syndicalism in 1969.  It was briefly revived in the 1970s as the National Union of Students, and then again in 1981 as the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS); until the early 1990s, this was the unquestioned “natural” state of affairs.

CFS in the early 1990s was a nightmare of factionalism, but the policy towards non-members was still at least somewhat ecumenical.  The very biggest schools – Toronto, UBC, McGill, Alberta – stayed out because CFS’ one-school, one-vote policy was a turn off.  But they would still go to CFS meetings every year because that’s just what one did – it was the place all student leaders went to meet.  Despite any internal strife, it would all remain pretty good fun unless one side won.  In 1994, one side did.  The left faction, led by Guy Caron (now an NDP MP) and Brad Lavigne (an NDP strategist I profiled back here) took control, and proceeded to purge the opposition.  That led a number of the more moderate schools to start a series of escape referenda to start planning a new organization.

As it happened, a new organization was already being formed.  The 1993 election was the first to be fought after the internet became widespread, and a group led by (amongst others) now-Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi, co-ordinated their own moderately-effective “vote Education” campaign.  This led to continued contacts and – eventually – a determination to create a new organization.

And so, by late 1994, there were three groups of non-CFS student unions circling each other – the ones (mainly from the Maritimes) who were leaving CFS who knew what kind of organization they didn’t want, the ones from Ontario who had just set up the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance in opposition to CFS-Ontario, and wanted an exact copy in Ottawa, and the ones who had never been in a national student organization (Alberta, Calgary, UBC, McGill), and who were just pleased to be doing something new.  Suffice to say, there was a fair bit of mutual suspicion, and they didn’t all get on.  Indeed, in the fall of ’94 – 20 years this month, in fact – there was a moment where it all could have fallen apart when some of the western schools tried to disinvite the on-their-way-out-of-CFS schools from a major preparatory meeting in Edmonton.

Cooler heads prevailed and eventually CASA came to be in early 1995 (though it’s notable that some of the political fault-lines of the mid-90s still exist – culture matters, even in student unions).  And though it’s changed considerably since its inception – it’s significantly more centralized and bureaucratized than anyone thought possible or necessary in the mid-1990s – it has played a significant role in Ottawa over the years, not least by serving as a constant reminder to MPs that CFS’ nonsensically specious policies and methods don’t command unanimous support among Canadian students.

So, L’chaiyim, CASA.  Here’s to 20 more.

November 13

Preparing Students for the Workforce

There’s a line I hear every once in awhile from profs (mainly, but not exclusively, in the humanities) saying something to the effect of: their job is not to prepare students for the world of work; rather, they want to prepare students’ minds to be critical thinkers or better citizens, or something like that.  Actually, it’s usually phrased less delicately, like: “I’m not preparing kids to be cannon fodder for the knowledge economy”; “I don’t give a damn what employers think, I only care about my students”, etc., etc.

Now, this is admirable, in a way.  Universities certainly shouldn’t be training people for specific jobs (and to be fair, I don’t think there are that many people arguing this).  Even where universities are offering professional education, as a rule they should be training people for diverse careers in a profession, not a particular job.

But in a way, it’s also kind of a silly position to take, for two reasons:

First: It’s not either/or.  The insistence that education either has to be “for” the labour market or “for” personal betterment/critical thinking is laughable.  For instance, most of the skills that matter for the humanities – the ability to critically appraise documents and arguments, appreciating complex chains of causation, writing clearly and effectively – are also pretty important in the world of work.  Surely it is not beyond the wit of universities to design programs fit for multiple purposes.  So why is there such a tendency within the academy to strut and preen and claim that never the two shall be one?

Second: If you really do want to put the student first, then employability skills need to be front and centre.  Getting better jobs is really why students are there – and that’s been the case for a very long time.

Every three years, since 1998, the Canadian Undergraduate Survey Consortium (CUSC) has been asking freshman why they decided to attend university.  The top two answers have always been “to get a better job” or “to train for a specific job or career”.  The next two answers have always been “to get a good general education” and “to gain knowledge in a certain field” (See?  Students don’t think it’s either/or).  The humanities aren’t exempt from this: 76% of students in these fields say “getting a good job” is “very important” to them.

Figure 1: Importance of Various Factors in First-Year Canadian Students’ Decision to Attend University, 1998-2013 (Percentage Indicating Each Factor is “Very Important”)

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Now, if you actually drill down to what the single most important factor is, the results are even starker.  In 2013, fully 68% picked “getting a good job” or “preparing for a career” as the most important reason to attend university; only 16% picked “increasing knowledge in a specific field” or “getting a good general education”.  That’s not new, either: in 2001 it was 65% and 16%, respectively.

So while it’s legitimate to want to ignore the views of employers (especially in an era when employers are getting simultaneously pushier about wanting job-ready graduates, and stingier with the training dollars), it’s not legitimate to say that higher education shouldn’t be concerned with employability and the labour market.

It’s not for the companies – it’s for the students.  It’s what they want.  It’s what they think they’re paying for.  It’s what they deserve.

November 12

An Update from Australia

Back in our spring (their fall), the Government of Australia announced a new university funding policy, which consisted of:

  • Cutting per-student public funding by about 20%; but,
  • Subsequently allowing funding to rise along with enrolments (this is known in Australia as “demand-driven funding”);
  • Simultaneously de-regulating all tuition; and,
  • Allowing the interest rate on student loans to rise from equal to inflation to equal to the government’s 10-year bond rate (i.e. actually placing a real interest rate on the loan).

Understandably, students opposed the idea, while high-prestige universities loved it.  Other universities were less keen, but figured student dollars are more reliable than government dollars, and so mostly backed the reforms (albeit without much enthusiasm).  The opposition Labour Party opposed the policy and made some substantive critiques of it here, but offered no counter-proposal other than the status quo, which isn’t great for universities either.

From the start, the potential hitch to this plan has been that, while the Liberal/National coalition has a solid majority in the House, the balance of power in the Senate is held by the Palmer United Party (imagine Ford Nation run by a successful self-made businessman rather than a crack-head with the impulse control of a five-year old), and the Motoring Enthusiast Party (yes, really).  That doesn’t matter so much in terms of implementing spending cuts – Australia sets caps on spending, but the government of the day is free to spend less without parliamentary approval – but it does matter for tuition where policy changes require an Act of Parliament.  And so there has always been the possibility that if the budget legislation stalls, government funding to institutions could be cut without institutions being able to raise fees to compensate.

Many insiders (mainly from within universities themselves) have suggested that if the government ditched the interest rate policy, the hard feelings of recalcitrant VCs and disappointed students would be smoothed over enough to allow the policy through.  However, Clive Palmer has, to date, been adamant that he’s in favour of free fees, and no fiddling around with interest rates is going to change his mind.  And while he’s been known to make deals on other issues (notably climate change), he’s not left himself much room for deal-making.

The government will avoid putting the proposals to a Senate vote if there’s a chance of them being rejected.  With the House soon breaking for Christmas, it’s looking likelier than ever that a vote won’t take place until 2015, leaving institutions in a bit of a tizzy.  The big universities wanted the deal done months ago so they could announce their new fee structure (to date, Western Australia is the only institution brave/crazy enough to do so), and start reaping the rewards of a big fee increase; now, they have virtually no basis on which to do any budgeting because they have literally no idea what their income will look like in 2016.

All of which makes deciphering what the policy will look like in practice an exercise in pure theory.  Without some idea of institutional pricing strategy, there’s no way to model the program’s effects.  With no model to work from, it’s anyone’s guess  as to how this will play out – a state of affairs that sits just fine with the doom-mongers and headline-writers who enjoy talking about $100,000 degrees.

If I were a betting man, I’d probably put my money against deregulation becoming law in 2015.   But Aussies tend to give their governments second terms even if they are a complete shambles (see: Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard), and a new government might have a better mandate to push this through come 2016.

November 11

An Update from England

In 2012, the UK government allowed tuition in English universities to rise from a little over £3,300 to ($5,500) to about £9,000 ($15,300) in a single year.  Well, technically, they de-regulated tuition up to a maximum of £9,000, but since charging less than the maximum would obviously imply that programs weren’t top-quality, pretty much everyone went to the maximum immediately. Actual average tuition jumped to about £8,600 ($14,620).

So, of course, we’ve all been wondering what the effects of this would be.  I’ve looked at the evidence a few times in the past (see here, here, and here), but now the UK University and College Application Service (UCAS) has issued a summary of the effects of fee increases on student demand.  Why UCAS – the body that processes university applications, but by dint of which is also the body that monitors changes in applications and enrolments by things like age, race, income, etc. – chose to answer these questions on a very short Q+A webpage rather than with a report with corroborating evidence is a bit puzzling; nevertheless, the corroborating evidence can be found in the organization’s own annual analyses of demand, available here.

UCAS’ conclusions were as follows: that the fee increase did cause a small one-time reduction of demand.  But the long-term trend of increasing demand continued, and application rates are now at their highest level ever.  Most importantly, and I quote, “In terms of demand, entry, and type of institution, differences by background have reduced over this period”.

Got that?  Not only did a $9,000 increase in tuition, with only loans and no grants to offset the higher fees, not increase educational disparities by race, income, etc., they actually coincided with a narrowing of educational gaps.

(For clarity here, neither I nor UCAS is implying that the narrowing of the gap is caused by the tuition increase; merely that the trend was unaffected by the increase.)

The English fee policy is still ludicrous, of course.  Charging a huge fee when you know that students can’t pay it back is just idiotic (current estimates suggest that 50% of all fee loans will go unpaid, and that 80% of students will receive some loan forgiveness).  But nevertheless, it is very striking evidence about how resilient demand is in the face of tuition increases.  You’d think that governments around the world would take a look at this and say, “hey, most everything people claim about the negative effects of tuition fees on access didn’t happen here.  Why is that, and should our government re-consider our policies in light of it?”  You might also think that governments that don’t do this might be guilty of deliberately ignoring evidence in order to preserve policies which harm the long-term health of universities, in service of crass short-term political objectives.

You might think that – of course, I couldn’t possibly comment.

November 10

Three Rules for Politicos

So I see that the Government of Ontario has announced what is possibly the most boutique student aid program of all time.  If students volunteer at the 2014-15 PanAm Games, they will be exempted from the pre-study period contribution (a contribution from the money you earn up to 16 weeks prior to the start of your studies) for 2015-16, and will be get a 12-month grace period on their loans (instead of 6-month) before needing to start repayment.

<puts computer away>

<sighs, drinks some Red Bull, looks out the window wistfully>

<slams head against desk violently, yelling “WHY?  WHY MUST THIS PROVINCE BE GOVERNED SO BADLY?  WHY?>

<Breathes deeply.  Opens computer again>

OK, three things here.  Three things every politician in the country desperately needs to understand:

1)     Exploiting Unpaid Labour =/= Encouraging Voluntarism.  If it’s mandatory – as in “mandatory volunteering hours in high school” – it’s not volunteering.  If you pay for it in kind, it’s not volunteering.  This kind of thing demeans the notion of actual volunteering.

Oh wait, you’re worried that you’re asking someone to do too much for nothing?  Then PAY THEM, you gibbering moron.  Pay them for their work.  It’s not hard: we’ve been doing it since the end of serfdom.

2)     Stop Using Student Aid as an Indirect Government Policy Tool.  This seems to be in everyone’s playbook these days.  Not enough money in the PanAm kitty because you’ve blown it all on buying out incompetent executives?  Use student aid as a way to attract cheap labour!  Having trouble filling rural nursing or legal aid positions?  Use student loan forgiveness as a recruitment tool!

No.  No, no, no!  Student aid is about giving money to students to complete their studies.  If you want to play labour market games, do so directly.  Problem finding nurses for rural areas?  Have the damn Health Ministry pay them more.  Otherwise, you’re sending the message that you only want nurses from poorer families – the ones whose parents couldn’t give them enough money to keep them off student loans – to work in rural areas.

3)     No More Boutique Programs.  Student aid is already way too complicated.  Governments are collectively throwing $5.6 billion into student subsidies – that is, about 78% of the value of domestic tuition fees (institutions throw in another $1.6 billion on top of that).  And yet everyone thinks the cost of education is sky-high: students and parents simply do not understand the subsidies they are being given.  That is a clear sign of policy failure. 

Basically, if you’re thinking up boutique policy in student aid you’re part of the problem, not part of the solution.  I realise this may come as a shock to the Ontario Liberals, who appear not to know any way to govern other than through policy boutiquery, but it’s true.  The priority for the coming years must be to simplify the system, not to tack on more bells and whistles.  Period.

Got that, politicos?  Pay the kids for their work, keep student aid simple, and tell the other ministries to stop using student aid as a way to backstop their own policy failures.  Stick to those three rules, and you’ll do all right.

November 07

Better Know a Higher Ed System: The Russian Federation

Yesterday I told you a little bit about late-Soviet higher education.  Today, I’ll explain a little bit about how higher education has fared in the Russian Federation since 1991.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about higher education in Russia today is that it exists at all.  Ever wonder how many people would still be at your university or college if pay stopped for months on end?  That actually happened in Russia.  In the chaos of the early 1990s, funding for universities fell by 80% (and could cease altogether for months at a time), and funding for research fell by 95%.  Foreign aid programs – run mainly by the EU and a couple of large American foundations – briefly made up over half of all research dollars available in the mid-90s (donors were interested in preserving Soviet science, but even more so in keeping Russian nuclear physicists too busy to contemplate going to Iran or North Korea).

During the long university freeze, institutions were told to raise their own money.  With decades of co-operation with industry, tapping business was an obvious route to go – or would have been had the Russian economy not been collapsing at the same time.  That left tuition fees as a solution: except that, legally, tuition was supposed to be free.  The solution, as in many post-socialist countries (e.g. Poland, Romania), was to offer dual-track tuition – those who did well on exams got to go for free, while those who did less well were offered full-cost places.

Where the Russians went further than most was in the way they handled the exams.  Basically, institutions discovered they could make even more money if they each set their own exam, and then offered courses on how to pass their exams.  That way, even if they let someone in free for an undergraduate course, they could still make money off them during the pre-university tutorial period.  And since being in university also got males out of military service, the onset of the Chechen crisis also did wonders for the ability to charge fees for this kind of thing.

Under the communists, most higher education institutions were not universities but polytechnics or specialized institutions.  This changed in the early 1990s when, under a new accreditation system, most were allowed to call themselves universities (which they all did, because of prestige).  At about the same time, many institutions began to opens schools of business, social sciences, and humanities, because in the post-Soviet period, that’s where the demand was.  In this, new private universities were not at a prestige disadvantage to the older universities, because the discredit was most discredited in precisely these areas.   A private university sector thus grew as well.  All told, enrolment at universities almost tripled between 1995 and 2007, with virtually all the growth coming in the fee-paying sector.

Another hangover from the communist period was the separation of research and teaching.  Most research in Soviet times was done in research institutes and academies, away from universities – and though there was a lively discussion about whether or not to ditch this system in the early 90s, inertia prevailed and the university/academy bifurcation remained.  Just as Russian science returned to something approaching health in the mid-2000s, global rankings like the Shanghai and Times Rankings began to show how poor Russian university scientific production was compared to the rest of the world.  At best, Moscow State (Lomonosov) University and St. Petersburg State are capable of making a top 500 of global research universities – no one else is close.   Unfortunately the major investments the Russian government is putting forward through the Project 5/100, which aims to put five Russian universities in the global top 100 by 2020 aren’t going to make a lick of difference to this unless the government bridges the university/academy divide.  Unfortunately, that seems as far distant as ever.

November 06

Higher Education Reform Paradise on the Volga

I was recently in Moscow working on a small project, and so spent a couple of weeks mugging up on Russian higher education and its history.  My main takeaway is that there has never been a higher education system anywhere in the world that was more at the service of industry than that of the Soviet Union.

One of the very first Bolshevik documents on higher education (“On the work of the Higher School”, 1925), states this very clearly: “the basic task of higher educational establishments should be the training of workers for practical activity and production in the wide sense of the word in all its branches”.   Institutional entrance targets and curricula were all set centrally, in accordance with the needs of industry as set out in the National Plan.

Being at the service of industry led to significant institutional specialization.  Of the more than 700 post-secondary institutions in the Soviet Union in 1970, only 40 or so were actually “universities”.  The university appellation implied being top of the higher education prestige ladder (which in turn implied being one of the country’s older institutions, like St. Petersburg State University or Moscow State [Lomonosov] University, but which was only applied to institutions that taught humanities).  The rest were “polytechnics” (still relatively broad in terms of science and technology, but not full universities) or “specialist institutions”.  The specialist institutions were actually so specialized that they weren’t even under the control of the higher education ministry – institutions that trained doctors and nurses were under the Health Ministry, those dealing with veterinary or agricultural sciences were under the Agriculture Ministry, etc., etc.

For the most part, research was (and still is) handled outside universities, through many specialized academies were run centrally from Moscow and generally did not report to the Education Ministry.  The Soviets believed that researchers would be more productive in such institutes, and would be relieved of the burden of dealing with students every day (we do the same thing of course – we just label the practice differently).  Of the research conducted in higher education, roughly half came from the 40 universities, and the rest from the other 700 or so institutions.  This of course does not include what we today would call “applied research”, where the specialized institutes excelled – in many cases, they had experimental equipment directly incorporated into the factory floor to make knowledge transfer speedier.

Because institutions were so applied in their focus, graduates never had a problem finding jobs afterwards.  In fact, jobs for graduates were guaranteed – sometimes at the very factories where the students had done their applied research.  Towards the end of the Gorbachev period, the Soviet government tried to create a quasi-market in graduates, asking companies to pay universities 3,000 roubles per student rather than order them up for nothing from a central agency.  This failed miserably, though whether it was due to companies’ inherent cheapness or the fact that the Soviet economy was starting to tank at the time is unknowable.

It’s also worth noting that the late Soviet higher education system had something called “People’s Universities”, though the “university” in question was just any local group (and there were thousands of them) that decided to put on a free adult education class.  Though the classes were organized locally, there was a national infrastructure behind the course curricula, financed through the sale of pedagogical materials (mainly books used as course texts).  Some of these were professionally oriented (e.g courses on car manufacturing, targeted at industrial workers), and could count towards other certifications, but mainly the courses were personal interest affairs.  If that’s not a system of proto-MOOCs, I’m not sure what is.

MOOCs, differentiation, specialization, applied research, industry focus… sounds like a right-wing higher ed reformer’s paradise, doesn’t it?  Gwyn Morgan would have loved it.

November 05

The Future of Transcripts

In theory, transcripts are a way to communicate a student or graduate’s academic achievement in higher education.  The problem is, they only really communicate achievements to other people in academia.  Outside academia, they’re fairly useless.

They say nothing about the skills a student may or may not have acquired at school.  They say nothing about what extra-curricular activities a student has engaged in.  At best, they communicate the lists of classes that a student took (though without curricula, it’s difficult to see what that means).  And if the credential is from another country, it might not even convey that much, since employers will be unlikely to interpret it properly (hence the multi-million dollar credential evaluation industry).

People have come up with all sorts of ways to overcome these problems – diploma supplements, badges, and whatnot.  But these sorts of initiatives suffer from a really basic collective action problem: employers only value what they understand, and new transcripts and credentials are, by definition, unfamiliar.  They only become familiar if a lot of institutions adopt the same standards on diploma supplements/badges/whatever, and start pumping out transcripts based on them.  And of course, that’s not easy to arrange.  Institutions won’t put in the collective effort unless they know businesses will use the new system, and businesses can’t commit to using the new system until they see it and understand it.

That sounds like a recipe for paralysis, and so it has been for many years.  But now there is new player on the scene who might be able to genuinely revolutionize the system.  And that player is LinkedIn.

Think about it: a LinkedIn profile is about the closest thing the world has to a common CV.  Employers all over the world know how to read it.  So whatever LinkedIn puts into its template becomes the de facto global standard.  So if LinkedIn starts to allow various forms of Open Badges onto the site (you can do it now, but it’s through a patch), vastly more employers will be exposed to this type of credential, badges will start to gain currency, and hence employer demand for badges will rise.

Now think a little bit ahead to when paper degrees die out entirely.  Already, schools in North America can link directly with the Ministry of Education in China to verify academic records.  At some point in the next 20 years, someone will come along and digitize academic records at every school in the world  (that someone may or not be LinkedIn – individual players come and go in tech – but there’s almost certainly going to be a single player that ends up dominating this CV/transcript market).  And while doing so, they will inevitably have to create some sort of standard template for the transcripts.  And just like that, you will have a global electronic standard for academic information for CVs, which will not just have courses and grades, but also will have access to data regarding the curriculum of each specific course.

All of which is to say, change is coming to this little corner of student business processes.  It’s time for institutions to start thinking how they’ll react.

November 04

Yet More Reasons Free Tuition is a Bad Idea

The easy case to be made against free tuition is that it benefits students from richer backgrounds.  That’s because they are more numerous in higher education than students from poorer backgrounds and so, on aggregate, would receive more aid.  But that misses a more important point: because of the interaction between student aid and tuition, students from wealthier backgrounds would also receive a bigger benefit on an individual level.

Let’s take a really simple example from Ontario.  Take two students, Adele and Diana.  Both live with their parents and attend university in the same Arts program, but Adele’s family’s income is $40,000, while Diana’s is $160,000.  Currently, both pay $6,957 in tuition.  Both also receive $2,163 in tax credits.  But Adele receives $5,000 in grant money, meaning her all-inclusive net tuition is -$206, while Diana’s is $4,794.

Now imagine the province gets rid of tuition entirely.  Diana, the rich kid, sees her sticker price go to zero, and her all-inclusive sticker price fall to -$768 (that’s the value of the monthly “education amount” tax credits, which would presumably still remain even if the tuition fee tax credit disappeared).  In this scenario, Adele’s sticker price falls to zero; she would also retain the education amount tax credit, and would keep her $2,000 Canada Student Grant.  But she would lose all her provincial grant funding, which is based on tuition.  Her net tuition would thus fall to -$2,768.

Think about that: adopting free tuition means that the kid from the poor family would benefit by about $2,500, while the kid from the richer family would be better off by $5,562.  And, of course, as we noted earlier, higher education enrolments tilt towards the better-off (this is true both in free-tuition and positive tuition countries) – meaning free tuition is a double give-away to the rich.  There’s more of them, and they get more back from a free tuition policy.

Remind me why this is a good idea, again?

Poor students from colleges receive even less of a benefit.  Students there have tuition of $4,032.  But if tuition were eliminated, that $4,032 savings would be offset by a loss of $2,016 in tuition-related grants, and a little over $800 in tax credits.  Net gain: less than $1,200.  While the kid from the $160,000 per year family in university gets an extra $5,562.

But where it gets really gets crazy is with respect to single parents.  Take Joe, a college student with one child, living on student aid.  In the current system, Joe would receive a little over $7,000 in pure loans, and about $10,000 in remissible loans (i.e. loans that are forgiven each year).  If tuition were eliminated, however, he’d lose the remissible loan (i.e. a delayed grant) almost dollar-for-dollar.  Plus, on top of that, he’d lose $825 in tuition tax credits (the lower tax credits for college are because of lower tuition, in case you’re wondering).  So Joe would actually pay more, in net terms, after a reduction in tuition.  While the kid from the $160,000 per year family in university would get an extra $5,562.

How is this fair?  How is it progressive?  How is it in any way a good use of money?

If you substitute in different students or different provinces you’ll get slightly different results, but the basic point remains: net tuition is already free (or close to it) for many people in this country – particularly, poor dependent students and single parents.  Reducing nominal tuition does little or nothing to help these people, and in some cases can actually hurt them.  Our student aid debate would be much better if more people understood this.

November 03

Cockroaches

One of the most maddening things about higher education journalism is the widespread assumption of fragility.

Take the notion of vulnerability to technological disruption.  The most recent example of this is a piece from University World News (which really should know better) entitled “Can Universities Survive the Digital Age?”  It’s an absolutely ridiculous question that could only be posed by someone who knew virtually nothing of the history of universities.

Every time there’s a technological innovation, somebody thinks the university must be in trouble.  Only 24 months ago MOOCs were going to kill universities.  In the mid-1990s there was loads of techno-fetishist nonsense about the Death of Distance, and what it would do to education.  Before that it was computers (check out this cute piece from the 1950s), and in the 1960s and 1970 it was television (remember the University of the Air?) – although the earliest predictions about the effects of TV on education date back to the 1930s.  And before that, it was radio that was going to revolutionize education.  And before that, as Gavin Moodie reminds is in this fine article (longer version available here), Gutenberg and the printing press had the potential to “disrupt” higher education (why go through all that oral disputation in Latin if you could just read a book in the vernacular?).

The fact is, every time there has been a change, universities have found a way to incorporate the new technology.  New technologies never replace previous channels of knowledge transmission – rather, new channels are just added to existing ones (this is of course is a major reason why technology is usually a source of university cost inflation, rather than a cost savings).  Universities adapt.  Because the point of a university is simply that it’s a place where people gather to learn and discover using all sorts of tools, not just (as some reformers seem to think) via oral communication.

But it’s not just the techno-fetishists who think universities are fragile.  People are always worrying about whether institutions can survive “cutbacks” (a term people use even though operating grants have been increasing continuously for over 15 years at a rate well above inflation).  Of course they can.  You can cut universities forever, and they will still function.  Look at universities in Africa, operating in conditions of unimaginable penury. Look at universities like Beijing or Tsinghua, which moved their operations thousands of km (on foot) in order to stay open during the Japanese occupation.  Or look back at Canadian universities in the 1930s, when most universities lost half of their funding (or more in the case of the University of Manitoba, where the bursar made off with the endowment).  They survive.

They survive because communities have pride in even the tiniest universities, and sustain them as best they can.  They survive because at least part of the academy will remain to the bitter end, wanting to continue in the mission of transmitting knowledge.  In the midst of wars and famines, universities have survived, sometimes in the most treacherous circumstances imaginable.

Universities are like cockroaches: they are almost impossible to kill.  They’ll be here after the apocalypse.  The idea that a temporary loss of income or some minor technological advance will do them in is simply laughable.

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