Higher Education Strategy Associates

February 08

(#fake)Tenure, Governance, and Academic Freedom

If you follow higher education news from south of the border, one scrap you’ll probably have noticed over the past year or so is the one over tenure in Wisconsin.  Until recently, tenure provisions at the University of Wisconsin were inscribed in state law.  Last year, Wisconsin Governor and erstwhile presidential candidate Scott Walker decided to remove tenure protection, leaving the University’s Board of Regents to inscribe it in their own rules.  At the same time, the Governor gave university management more power, free from the scrutiny of Senate and other shared-governance arrangements, to close or modify programs.  Put these two things together, add the fact that public sector unions in Wisconsin are legally forbidden from bargaining over anything other than wages, and you have a situation where it’s a lot easier to get rid of professors than it used to be.

So far, so clear.  For obvious reasons, professors at Wisconsin are upset about this, and many are calling this new system #faketenure because they believe that any tenure protection given through new Board of Regents rules is effectively undermined by the new management powers to eliminate or modify programs.  This, they say, means that there will be a form of academic chill at Wisconsin, with people afraid to voice controversial opinions or undertake challenging research for fear of political backlash.

Now, I get why most professors would prefer the old regime to the new, but the idea that challenging or difficult research can only take place in environments where tenure is ironclad and all program modifications can only take place with faculty agreement is simply not true.  If this is genuinely your position, you have to have a good answer to the question: “what about the UK and Australia?”

In the late-1980s, the Thatcher government in the UK simply abolished tenure for anyone hired after 1987.  People were still hired on permanent contracts (though as in the US and Canada, massification also led to an increase in the use of part-time contracts), but there was nothing stopping institutions from making people redundant by chopping whole departments – as is the case in Wisconsin.  Of course, unions can deter this to some degree by insisting on buyouts, redeployments, etc (as indeed Canadian unions do, too – see here for more on this).  But essentially, the conditions in the UK are pretty close to what some in Wisconsin are calling #faketenure, and yet one doesn’t often encounter the claim that UK researchers are doing ideologically cowed, or less daring research.

It’s the same thing in Australia.  Universities give out “permanent” positions somewhat more quickly than our universities – their equivalent of “tenure-track” is maybe half as long as it is here – but academics are much more actively managed (a fall in publications will bring a rise in teaching load relatively quickly), and large-scale institutional restructuring is much more common (La Trobe University, for instance, more or less slashed its entire economics department a couple of years ago).  Again, possibly not a model to follow if you’re a prof, but can anyone really claim that Australian academics are less free, less bold, less daring than their counterparts elsewhere?

To put this simply: people make a lot of universal declaratory statements about tenure and academic freedom.  For the most part, they aren’t true.  There is lots of top-notch research – even in the social sciences and humanities, where a lot of the most controversial stuff is concentrated – that occurs in places without the specific North American context of tenure and shared governance.  This is undeniable.

Now, this isn’t to say that removing those kinds of protections over here in North America wouldn’t have an effect.  One of the reasons the loss of protection in Wisconsin is cause for concern is because Wisconsin’s Board of Regents is increasingly a partisan body, with its members entirely appointed by the Governor, and it’s not that far-fetched to imagine them going after specific programs or even specific professors.

But that’s precisely the point: claims about the effects/benefits/drawbacks of any particular constellation of policies on tenure and academic freedom need to take very close account of the legal and political context in which they are operating.  Claiming that tenure *has* to be inscribed in a collective bargaining agreement, or that it *has* to be inscribed in legislation are equally incorrect; the point is that there are many possible equilibria on tenure, governance, and academic freedom.  Claiming the opposite is simply evidence of a fairly limited imagination about how higher education can be run.

February 05

The Dilemma of Western Education in Saudi Arabia

I see that Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne recently took offense to the fact that Algonquin College is operating a male-only vocational college in Jazan, Saudi Arabia, calling the arrangement “unacceptable”.

What should we make of this?

First of all, let’s be clear about women and higher education in Saudi Arabia.  There are a lot of them; in fact, far more women attend post-secondary education than men in the country.  They just don’t – for the most part – attend the same campuses.  Often campuses get “twinned”, so you get male and female universities quite close to one another – sometimes taking the same courses from the same instructor, only with the women watching via cctv, and so in effect having a distance learning experience.

Aside: I did some work for a bridging-program for an outfit associated with the country’s only undergraduate co-ed university, Al-Faisal University, which was launched a few years ago.  It was “co-ed” in the sense that men were allocated the bottom two floors of the building, while women were allocated the top two floors.  Classrooms were on the second floor, but also had balconies that could be entered from the third.  So men and women could both be in the same room as the teacher, but could not see each other because they were on separate floors (there are some photos here if you want to get a sense of this).  This was deeply weird, but does represent progress in a way.

With respect to vocational training, what the Saudis did was to set-up 37 of these “community colleges” – 19 for men and 18 for women.  They then sent out tenders to colleges all around the world to run these campuses.  Algonquin won a bid for a men’s college; they bid on, but did not win, the right to run a women’s college.

So, the question is: morally, should Algonquin be running this school, or not?  Is it OK to run single-sex schools in Saudi Arabia?  My feeling is that the debate is between an uncomfortable yes and a mostly hypocritical no.

Obviously, it would be better all around if the education were co-educational.  Other campuses in the region have moved towards a co-ed model.  My understanding is that when College of the North Atlantic started running its campus in Qatar, there were discussions about whether the campus would be co-ed (the eventual saw-off: classes are co-ed, but eating and recreational facilities are single-sex).  But Qatar is Qatar, and the Kingdom is the Kingdom, and the only place where co-ed is allowed are in select private institutions sponsored directly by members of the royal family (i.e. KAUST, Al-Faisal), not in public institutions.  Basically, what you’re left arguing is that these kids are going to get taught in single-sex schools anyway, and if someone is going to teach them, it might as well be a bunch of folks from the Ottawa Valley.

The con case is, essentially: “it’s wrong to teach single-sex, and we shouldn’t muddy our hands with it”.  And fair enough.  But there are two places where this argument is vulnerable to a hypocrisy charge.  First, imagine Algonquin had won a competition for a women’s college but not a male one, or that it had won both competitions.  Would the Ontario government still be upset?  Unlikely.  So the objection is not to working in a segregated single-sex environment, but rather to working in one-half of it.  So should Algonquin have quit its male college contract when it didn’t win the women’s contract?  That’s just silly.

The larger hypocrisy case has simply to do with our attitude towards Gulf States as a whole, and Saudi in particular.  Let’s face it, it’s not education specifically that grates our consciences in dealing with these countries: it’s the whole regimentation of clothing, prohibition on driving, patriarchal she-bang, etc.  But either we’re consistent in our application of disgust, or we’re not.  Premier Wynne specifically chose not to contest the rightness of Canadians selling armoured personnel carriers to the Kingdom (which I suspect may infringe upon quite a few rights if they get used in Yemen); why apply our disgust to some areas of trade policy, but not others?

As you can probably tell, I lean a little bit towards the pro-side here, though I acknowledge it’s complicated and quite messy.  I think an equally important consideration, though, is whether the project is actually a good deal for Algonquin.  Note that, at the moment, they are losing money on the deal.  And although they maintain they’re on-track to make that money back over the course of the contract, my worry would be that the Saudi government starts “re-interpreting” contracts as their budget woes worsen.  I get the impression this may have been on Centennial College’s mind when they recently chose not to re-up their apprenticeship training contract in the Kingdom.

Still, it’s always good to be mindful of the tricky ethics of international education.  The situation is often far from straightforward.

February 04

Lessons from Scandinavia on the Value of Tuition Fees

Whenever you hear somebody complaining about higher education funding in Canada, it’s usually only a matter of time before someone says “why can’t we be more like Scandinavia?”  You know, higher levels of government funding, no tuition, etc., etc.  But today let me tell you a couple of stories that may make you rethink some of your philo-Nordicism.

Let’s start with Denmark.  The government there is trying to rein public spending back in from a walloping 56% of GDP, and bring it back down to an only slightly less-imposing 50% by 2020.  And it’s doing this while the economy is still weak, and while oil prices are falling (Denmark has some North Sea oil so, like Canada, it tends to see low oil prices as a negative).  So cuts are on the way across many services, and higher education is no exception: universities there will see cuts of 2% in their budgets for each of the next four years.  Over to Finland, where it’s the same story in spades.  Nokia as a technological saviour/massive boost to government coffers is long gone, and economic contraction in Russia is hitting Finnish exports hard.  With the economy declining and the government trying to stay out of debt, the government there also laid out cuts to many services, including higher education: there the hit is a cut of roughly 13% out to 2020.

Now, in North America, when you hear about cuts like this you tend to think “oh, well, at least the government will let institutions make some of it back through tuition, either by increasing enrolment, or raising fees, or both”.  And in general, this attenuates the impact of funding cuts (unless of course you’re at Memorial in which case you are plain out of luck).  But remember, these are free-tuition countries.  By definition, there is nothing that can attenuate the cuts.  And so that 2% per year cut for the next four years in Denmark?  The University of Copenhagen has since announced a first round of cuts equaling 300M DKK ($62 million Canadian), equal to about 5.5% of the university’s operating budget, and that will involve cutting 500 staff positions.   Those cuts in Finland?  The University of Helsinki has decided to cut almost 15% of its staff positions.

Total reliance on government looks good on the way up; much less so on the way down.  That’s why tuition fees are good.  You know students will pay tuition fees every year, which makes them more dependable than government revenue.  Fees balance the ups and downs of the funding cycle.

Another thing tuition fees do is to provide an incentive for institutions to accept more students; if institutions can’t charge tuition and aren’t funded according to student numbers, their inclination will be to accept fewer students, thus undermining the “access” rationale for free tuition.  And this seems to be the case in allegedly-access-friendly Sweden, where enrolment in first and second degree programs has actually been in decline over the past few years.

Total Bachelor’s/Master’s Enrollment at Swedish Universities, 2007-2014














I know what you’re wondering: is it a demographic thing?  No.  The 2015 version of the annual report, Higher Education in Sweden (which is a great report by the way… one of those documents you wish every country could publish), makes it clear that the ratio of applications-to-acceptances for students with no previous post-secondary education (i.e. 18-19 year olds) has actually been rising for the last few years (from 2:1 to 2.5:1).  And it’s not a financial thing either: between fall 2010 and fall 2014, real expenditures at Swedish universities increased by 12%, or so.

So what’s going on?  Well, a few things, but mainly it seems to be that universities prefer to get more dollars per student than actually increasing access.  And I mean, who can blame them?  We’d all like to get paid more.  But I genuinely cannot imagine any jurisdiction in North America – you know, big, bad North America, with its awful access-crushing neo-liberal tuition regimes – where reducing spaces while government expenditures were increasing wouldn’t be considered an absolute scandal.  Yet this is what is happening in Sweden, and apparently everyone’s OK with it.

Total reliance on government funding can make universities complacent about access.  Fees can incentivize institutions to actually admit more students.  Fees have a role to play in access policy.  The data from Scandinavia says so.

February 03

The Economics of Interdisciplinary Programs at Small Universities

A minor kerfuffle blew up yesterday in Sackville when the coordinator of Mount Allison University’s Women’s and Gender Studies announced that, due to budget cuts, she had been informed that the university would no longer be offering classes in this program, as of next fall.  Cue petitions, angry students, a buzzfeed listicle, etc.

What follows here is a little explainer with respect to the economics of this situation:

Mount Allison is a small school.  Enrolment last year was 2,369, which was down 8.5% from four years earlier.  Not good.  Total projected operating revenue for the university this year and net money from the feds, like Canada Research chairs, is a shade over $44 million, of which very slightly under 50% comes from tuition fees, with domestic students paying $746.50/course.  A similar amount comes from the provincial government in a lump sum, which is not formula-driven.

The Women’s and Gender Study Program is one of those typical interdisciplinary programs you see at Canadian universities.  It does not offer a major, only a minor.  In practice, it consists of four courses (one each at the 100, 200, 300, and 400 levels), plus some fourth-year independent study and “special topic courses”, which in practice don’t get taught much.  In order to obtain the minor, one must take each of the three lower-year courses, plus at least one of the fourth-year courses, and then another 12 credits from a selection of about forty related courses spread across a dozen or so disciplines (see program description here).

For quite a long time, the program seems to have only had a single dedicated academic staff person, who sadly died late last year.  The coordinator role has since passed to a faculty member in the Psychology Department, and all of the teaching responsibilities have passed to an Instructor (i.e. sessional/adjunct) who – if you think RateMyProfessor.com is of any value – gets rave reviews from her students.

Enrolment is reasonably healthy.  There appears to be roughly 190 course-enrolments across all four of the courses – or about 19 FTE students.  Now, how you turn that student count into revenue is a bit tricky.  In a formula-funded system you could just add per-credit tuition, plus per-student grant, and voila!  In a block-funded system it’s trickier.  One could argue that this money simply doesn’t belong to any particular unit because even if one program disappeared, those students (and that money) would still be in the institution.  So, if you only count tuition as revenue, this program earns $145,255; if you choose to count government grant money as being associated with specific enrolments, then you get double that, about $290,510.

Now, I don’t have access to financial expense data at Mount Allison but it’s not hard to do a back-of-the-envelope estimation of program costs.  A sessional with a little bit of experience costs $10,000 per course at Mount Allison, give or take $1K (that’s cost to the institution, including payroll taxes, benefits, etc.); so a 4-course program like this would likely cost $40K a year, or so.  Coordinators usually also get some course-release, which implies another $10K to hire a sessional to cover this.  The program also shares an administrative assistant with two other departments.  I have no idea what the actual cost-sharing arrangement is, but let’s say it’s another $10,000, or so.  Throw in some other direct costs – phone, mail-outs, maybe a wine-and-cheese once a year, plus a guest speaker flown in – and you get to $70,000, give or take.

But that’s without overhead.  Now, how you count overhead on an academic department is a bit tricky.  It’s easy enough to simply take all costs like utilities, IT, student services, registrar, physical plant, and admin, and then divide it across all students: according to CAUBO finance statistics, that would give you a number not far off $7,700 per student (or $146,300 total).  But on the other hand, there’s also the argument that this is money the university would pay anyways, even if the unit didn’t exist (i.e. the same argument why you shouldn’t count the government block grant money, only in reverse).

For simplicity’s sake then, let’s not count either the government grant or the overhead costs.  We’ve got a program that appears to cost $65,000, and brings in $145,255.  So, what’s the problem?

The problem is that this fantastic situation only works as long as a sessional is the one doing all the teaching.  If the teaching is done by an Associate Professor (as indeed it was until quite recently), the economics change completely.  The minimum salary this year for associate professors at Mount Allison is $85,568.  Add in the costs of benefits, pension, etc., and you’re looking at something in the range of $110,000 at the absolute minimum for compensation.  Then throw in any costs associated with hiring replacement faculty for research leave, sabbaticals, etc., and of course admin costs on top of that, and you’re very quickly back to about $130,000.  But that’s minimum, assuming the lowest pay rung for an associate professor.  With annual pay rises, top-salary associate professors make almost $50,000 per year more than newbies.  In other words, it might break-even for a couple of years with a full-time prof, but would be unlikely to do so over the long-term.

Let that sink in for a second: at Mount Allison – and many other universities – it takes more than 19 FTEs (or 190 course enrolments) to support a mid-career Associate Professor.   That’s what our combination of faculty salaries and tuition policies have brought us to.

Now, I haven’t spoken to anyone in the Mount Allison administration about this issue: but it seems to me the logic would go something like this:

i)  As an institution we’re on seriously thin ice, financially: our per-student operating income is about $5,000 per head below what it is at U15 universities, and about $3,000 per head lower than Acadia;

ii)  We cannot sensibly run an entire program with nothing but sessional instructors;

iii)  This program will have difficulty breaking-even over the long-run unless it is taught by sessionals;

iv)  Maybe we shouldn’t offer this program anymore.

One could of course make the case that Women’s and Gender Studies is so important that it deserves cross-subsidies from elsewhere in the university.  And at larger and wealthier universities, this would be the case.  But at an institution as small and as cash-strapped as Mount Allison, it’s a tougher argument to make.  Most other departments are only just getting by, too.

Unpalatable choice, to be sure.  But that’s what running a university is all about these days.

February 02

Boards of Governors

One interesting piece of fallout from the UBC imbroglio is a newfound focus on governance.  A new group called Take Back #Tuumest (“Tuum est” being UBC’s Latin motto, meaning “it’s yours”) has started up, with the goal of reviewing how the university’s Board of Governors functions, and reducing the proportion of its government-appointed members (you can read their initial manifesto here).

So what should we make of this?  Is UBC’s Board too subservient to government, not attuned enough to actual campus issues?  To answer that, let’s take a quick tour of external governance around the world.

Board governance in Canada varies quite a bit from province-to-province.  As a general rule of thumb, the presence of government-appointees on Boards increases as you head from East to West.  In many places in eastern Canada, the institution pre-dates the province and so they never had government appointees to begin with (McGill, for example).  These Boards are, in effect, self-perpetuating oligarchies – similar to Boards at private US institutions.

In Canada, government appointments are given to friends of the government of the day.  As a result, Boards usually do not become overly partisan.  When governments change, the Board members appointed under different administrations stay in their positions for awhile, and Governors of different political stripes get along reasonably well, reflecting a fairly wide consensus about how universities should be governed.  In most instances, political appointments are more or less free to act and vote on their best judgement.  In the US, on the other hand, we are increasingly seeing state boards (often entirely made up of government appointees) acting like appendages of the Governor’s office, which makes them hyper-partisan.  This isn’t just bad for governance, it’s ridiculous – why have 100% government appointees when government is paying less than a third of the bill?

If you go further afield – say, to Europe where universities began – the tradition of external boards is not nearly as strong.  Indeed, there are some countries where governing boards are entirely free of external representation.  But the movement in much of Europe towards increased external oversight has intensified over the last two decades, or so: universities in Denmark and the UK are both required to have 50% plus one external governors (note: “external” does not necessarily mean government-appointed).  The reason?  Essentially, governments simply don’t trust universities to spend public money properly without external supervision.

The trade-off is essentially about what kind of relationship publicly-funded universities want to have with government.  Refusing government oversight through external board members just means government will try to re-impose control through other, more intrusive means – audits, budget control, greater control over procurement, you name it.  It is not, to be honest, a productive use of anyone’s time.

Is there a “magic proportion” of external governors – whether appointed by government or not – which is “right” for universities?  Not really.  There’s nothing particularly sacred about 50% plus one, other than it gives governments assurance that the lunatics (from their point of view) can’t start running the asylum.  At the University of Toronto, the proportion of externals on the Governing Board is considerably lower than 50%; though, in part, this is because the University’s anomalous unicameral system means that the Governing Board also acts as Senate.  And there’s nothing saying that external appointments have to be government appointments: McGill has proved a good steward of public money simply by appointing its own external overseers (direct government appointments in Quebec are arguably much less successful at doing this – see UQAM’s half-billion dollar construction fiasco).

But this observation cuts two ways: on one hand, there’s nothing particularly dangerous about #tuumest’s push for fewer government appointees; on the other, there’s nothing saying that altering the proportion of appointees is actually going to change much, either.  Boards are made-up of people: some are good and some are bad.  Nobody gave much thought to the UBC Board’s composition until it made a decision with which many disagreed.  And it’s not clear that moving a board member or two around at the margin would have changed the outcome.

February 01

Questions and Answers about UBC

So, what happened last week?  On Monday, pursuant to a freedom-of-information request submitted last fall, UBC finally released documents – mainly emails – related to the events surrounding the departure of Arvind Gupta.  Much of it was redacted, including a flurry of fairly long exchanges that happened in May and June.  On Wednesday, somebody figured out how to un-redact the document in adobe, and all of a sudden everyone could see the crucial exchanges.  Then on Thursday, in view of the fact that the UBC leak effectively violated the privacy clause of the non-disclosure agreement with the former President, Gupta himself decided to give a couple of interviews to the press.

What did we actually learn from the documents? Apart from the fact that folks at UBC are really bad at electronically redacting documents?  Less than you’d think. 

We do have a better understanding of the timeline of where things went wrong.  A discussion about a proposed strategic plan stemming from the February Board meeting seems to have been the start of the deteriorating relationship between Gupta and at least a portion of the Board.  Clear-the-air talks about weaknesses in Gupta’s performance were held following the April board meeting.  And then downhill from there.  The documents make clear there were a lot of complaints within the Board about Gupta’s leadership: in particular, his relationship with his own leadership team and his handling of relationships with the Board.  Read the May 18th letter from Montalbano to Gupta: it’s rough.

Some of the specifics were new, but frankly there isn’t much surprising in there.  You didn’t need to know the details to realize that the heart of the whole affair was that Gupta lost the backing of the Board, and that this was something that probably happened gradually over time.

What has Gupta said in his interviews?  He has said, first: the released documents provided a one-sided representation of the events of the spring, which is true enough.  Second, that despite having resigned because he had lost the confidence of the full Board, he now regrets not having pushed back hard and wishes he could have fought back, which is puzzling (if you’ve lost the confidence of a body, how would kicking back have aided anything?).  Third, he doesn’t understand why the Board didn’t support him because he had lots of support from professors, which seems to be a major instance of point-missing.  Fourth, that the whole push against him on the Board came from an ad-hoc, possibly self-selected sub-committee of the executive committee.

Wait, what?  There’s a lot of quivering about the fact that much of the Board were bystanders to the interplay between Montalbano and a few other key Board members, and Gupta – look, it’s a cabal, they had it in for him, hid it from the Board, etc.  But some of this is overwrought.  Generally speaking, a CEOs performance review is handled by the Chair of the Board and a few others, rather than by full Board.  The unanswered process question here is: what was the relationship of this group to the executive?  Was it duly constituted, or was it just a few people the Board Chair thought were “sound”?  In the grand scheme of things, this is kind of beside the point.  The fact that not a single other person on the Board has stepped forward and said “yeah, we were wrong about Gupta” suggests substantial unanimity on the key point: that even if something was amiss procedurally, any other procedure would have led to the same result. 

(Similarly for the argument that there wasn’t “due process” for Gupta because he didn’t get the job performance evaluation that was in his contract: once the person/people responsible for evaluating a CEO decide the CEO needs to be replaced, what’s the point of a formal job evaluation?  If you were the CEO in question, wouldn’t you resign rather than go through a formal review where a negative outcome is certain?)

Is any of this going to change anyone’s mind about what happened?  I doubt it.  Gupta’s backers will say “it shows the Board had it in for him for the start”; any evidence that could be read as saying “gosh, maybe relations weren’t going so well” is simply regarded as “a pretext” so the mean old Board could stitch Gupta up.  A new set of rhetorical battle-lines seem to be forming: Gupta as champion of faculty (a point he himself seems keen to make) and the Board as the enemy of faculty.  There is little-to-no evidence this was actually the reason for Gupta’s dismissal, but it’s nevertheless the hill upon which a lot of other people want to believe he died.

That’s unfortunate, because it entirely misses the point about this affair.  Whether Gupta was popular with faculty, or whether he was a good listener and communicator with them, is irrelevant.  Presidents have to run a university to the satisfaction of a Board of Governors – some directly elected, some appointed by an elected government – who are there to maintain and ensure that the public interest is being served.  They have to do a large number of other things as well, but this is the really basic bit.  Whatever other beneficial things Gupta did or might have accomplished – and I think he might have done quite a lot – this wasn’t something he managed to achieve.  However nice or progressive a guy he may have seemed in the other aspect of his job doesn’t change this fact.  And so he and the board parted company.  End of story.

January 29

Asleep at the Switch…

… is the name of a new(ish) book by Bruce Smardon of York University, which looks at the history of federal research & development policies over the last half-century.  It is a book in equal measures fascinating and infuriating, but given that our recent change of government seems to be a time for re-thinking innovation policies, it’s a timely read if nothing else.

Let’s start with the irritating.  It’s fairly clear that Smardon is an unreconstructed Marxist (I suppose structuralist is the preferred term nowadays, but this is York, so anything’s possible), which means he has an annoying habit of dropping words like “Taylorism” and “Fordism” like crazy, until you frankly want to hurl the book through a window.  And it also means that there are certain aspects of Canadian history that don’t get questioned.  In Smardon’s telling, Canada is a branch-plant economy, always was a branch-plant economy, and ever shall be one until the moment where the state (and I’m paraphrasing a bit here) has the cojones to stand up to international capital and throw its weight around, after which it can intervene to decisively and effectively restructure the economy, making it more amenable to being knowledge-intensive and export-oriented.

To put it mildly, this thesis suffers from the lack of a serious counterfactual.  How exactly could the state decisively rearrange the economy so as to make us all more high-tech?  The best examples he gives are the United States (which achieved this feat through massive defense spending) and Korea (which achieved it by handing over effective control of the economy to a half-dozen chaebol).  Since Canada is not going to become a military superpower and is extremely unlikely to warm to the notion of chaebol, even if something like that could be transplanted here (it can’t), it’s not entirely clear to me how Smardon expects something like this to happen, in practice.  Occasionally, you get a glimpse of other solutions (why didn’t we subsidize the bejesus out of the A.V. Roe corporation back in the 1960s?  Surely we’d be an avionics superpower by now if we had!), but most of these seem to rely on some deeply unrealistic notions about the efficiency of government funding and procurement as a way to stimulate growth.  Anyone remember Fast Ferries?  Or Bricklin?

Also – just from the perspective of a higher education guy – Smardon’s near-exclusive focus on industrial research and development is puzzling.  In a 50-year discussion of R&D, Smardon essentially ignores universities until the mid-1990s, which seems to miss quite a bit of relevant policy.  Minor point.  I digress.

But now on to the fascinating bit: whatever you think of Smardon’s views about economic restructuring, his re-counting of what successive Canadian governments have done over the past 50 years to make the Canadian economy more innovative and knowledge-intensive is really quite astounding.  Starting with the Glassco commission in the early 1960s, literally every government drive to make the country more “knowledge-intensive” or “innovative” (the buzzwords change every decade or two) has taken the same view: if only publicly-funded researchers (originally this meant NRC, now it means researchers in university) could get their acts together and talk to industry and see what their problems are, we’d be in high-tech heaven in no time.  But the fact of the matter is, apart from a few years in the 1990s when Nortel was rampant, Canadian industry has never seemed particularly interested in becoming more innovative, and hence why we perennially lag the entire G7 with respect to our record on business investment in R&D.

You don’t need to buy Smardon’s views about the potentially transformative role of the state to recognize that he’s on to something pretty big here.  One is reminded of the dictum about how the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, and expecting a different result.  Clearly, even if better co-ordination of public and private research efforts is a necessary condition for swifter economic growth, it’s not a sufficient one.  Maybe there are other things we need to be doing that don’t fit into the Glassco framework.

At the very least, seems to me that if we’re going to re-cast our R&D policies any time soon, this is a point worth examining quite thoroughly, and Smardon has done us all a favour by pointing this out.

Bon weekend.

January 28

The Future of Work (and What it Means for Higher Education), Part 2

Yesterday we looked at a few of the hypotheses out there about how IT is destroying jobs (particularly: good jobs).  Today we look at how institutions should react to these changes.

If I were running an institution, here’s what I’d do:

First, I’d ask every faculty to come up with a “jobs of the future report”.  This isn’t the kind of analysis that makes sense to do at an institutional level: trends are going to differ from one part of the economy (and hence, one set of fields of study) to another.  More to the point, curriculum gets managed at the faculty level, so it’s best to align the analysis there.

In their reports, all faculties would need to spell out: i) who currently employs their grads, and in what kinds of occupations (an answer of “we don’t know” is unacceptable – go find out); ii) what is the long-term economic outlook for those industries and occupations? iii) what is the outlook for those occupations with respect to tasks being susceptible to computerization (there are various places to look for this information, but this from two scholars at the University of Oxford is a pretty useful guide)? And, iv) talk to senior people in these industries and occupations to get a sense of how they see technology affecting employment in their industry.

This last point is important: although universities and colleges keep in touch with labour market trends through various types of advisory boards, the question that tends to get asked is “how are our grads doing now?  What improvements could we make so that out next set of grads is better than the current one?”  The emphasis is clearly on the very short-term; rarely if ever are questions posed about medium-range changes in the economy and what those might bring.  (Not that this is always front and centre in employers’ minds either – you might be doing them a favour by asking the question.)

The point of this exercise is not to “predict” jobs of the future.  If you could do that you probably wouldn’t be working in a university or college.  The point, rather, is to try to highlight certain trends with respect to how information technology is re-aligning work in different fields over the long-term.  It would be useful for each faculty to present their findings to others in the institution for critical feedback – what has been left out?  What other trends might be considered? Etc.

Then the real work begins: how should curriculum change in order to help graduates prepare for these shifts?  The answer in most fields of study would likely be “not much” in terms of mastery of content – a history program is going to be a history program, no matter what.  But what probably should change are the kinds of knowledge gathering and knowledge presentation activities that occur, and perhaps also the methods of assessment.

For instance, if you believe (as economist Tyler Cowen suggests in his book Average is Over that employment advantage is going to come to those who can most effectively mix human creativity with IT, then in a statistics course (for instance), maybe put more emphasis on imaginative presentation of data, rather than on the data itself.  If health records are going to be electronic, shouldn’t your nursing faculty be developing a lot of new coursework involving the manipulation of information on databases?  If more and more work is being done in teams, shouldn’t every course have at least one group-based component?  If more work is going to happen across multi-national teams, wouldn’t it be advantageous to increase language requirements in many different majors?

There are no “right” answers here.  In fact, some of the conclusions people will come to will almost certainly be dead wrong.  That’s fine.  Don’t sweat it.  Because if we don’t look forward at all, if we don’t change, then we’ll definitely be wrong.  And that won’t serve students at all.

January 27

The Future of Work (and What it Means for Higher Education), Part 1

Back in the 1990s when we were in a recession, Jeremy Rifkin wrote a book called The End of Work, which argued that unemployment would remain high forever because of robots, information technology, yadda yadda, whatever.  Cue the longest peacetime economic expansion of the century.

Now, we have a seemingly endless parade of books prattling on about how work is going to disappear: Brynjolfsson and McAfee’s The Second Machine Age, Martin Ford’s Rise of the RobotsJerry Kaplan’s Humans Need not Apply, Susskind and Susskind’s The Future of the Professions: How Technology will Transform the Work of Human Experts (which deals specifically with how info tech and robotics will affect occupations such as law, medicine, architecture, etc.), and from the Davos Foundation,  Klaus Schwab’s The Fourth Industrial Revolution. Some of these are insightful (such as the Susskinds’ effort, though their style leaves a bit to be desired); others are hysterical (Ford); while others are simply dreadful (Schwab: seriously, if this is what rich people find insightful we are all in deep trouble).

So how should we evaluate claims about the imminent implosion of the labour market?  Well first, as Martin Wolf says in this quite sober little piece in Foreign Affairs, we shouldn’t buy into the hype that “everything is different this time”.  Technology has been changing the shape of the labour market for centuries, sometimes quite rapidly.  We will go on changing.  The pace may accelerate a bit, but the idea that things are suddenly going to “go exponential” are simply wrong.  Just because we can imagine technology creating loads of radical disruption doesn’t mean it’s going to happen.  Remember the MOOC revolution, which was going to wipe out universities?  Exactly.

But just because the wilder versions of these stories are wrong doesn’t mean important things aren’t happening.  The key is to be able to lose the hype.  And to my mind, the surest way to get past the hype is to clear your mind of the idea that advances in robotics or information technology “replace jobs”.  This is simply wrong; what they replace are tasks.

We get a bit confused by this because we remember all the jobs that were lost to technology in manufacturing.  But what we forget is that the century-old technology of the assembly line had long turned jobs into tasks, with each individual performing a single task, repetitively.  So in manufacturing, replacing tasks looked like replacing jobs.  But the same is not true of the service sector (which covers everything from shop assistants to lawyers).  This work is not, for the most part, systematic and routinized, and so while IT can replace tasks, it cannot replace “jobs”  per se.  Jobs will change as certain tasks get automated, but they don’t necessarily get wiped out.  Recall, for instance, the story I told about ATMs a few months ago: that although ATMs had become ubiquitous over the previous forty years, the number of bank tellers not only hadn’t decreased, but had actually increased slightly.  It’s just that, mainly, they were now doing a different set of tasks.

Where I think there are some real reasons for concern is that a lot of the tasks that are being routinized are precisely the ones we used to give to new employees.  Take law, for instance, where automation is really taking over document analysis – that is, precisely the stuff they used to get articling students to do.  So now what do we do for an apprenticeship path?

Working conditions always change over time in every industry, of course, but it seems reasonable to argue that job change in white-collar industries – that is, the ones for which university education is effectively an entry-requirement – are going to change substantially over the next couple of decades.  Again, it’s not job losses; rather, it is job change.  And the question is: how are universities thinking through what this will mean for the way students are taught?  Too often, the answer is some variation on “well, we’ll muddle through the way we always do”.  Which is a pretty crap answer, if you ask me.  A lot more thought needs to go into this.  Tomorrow, I’ll talk about how to do that.

January 26

Tenure and Aboriginal Culture

You may or may not have noticed a story in the National Post over the weekend relating to a scholar at the University of British Columbia named Lorna June McCue, who has brought a human rights tribunal case against UBC for denying her tenure.  The basics of the story are that UBC didn’t think she’d produced enough – or indeed, any – peer-reviewed research to be awarded tenure in the Faculty of Law; Ms. McCue argues that since she adheres to an indigenous oral tradition (she is also a hereditary chief of the Ned’u’ten at Lake Babine, a few hundred kilometres northeast of Vancouver), she needs to be judged by a different standard.

Actually, Ms. Mcue brought the case in the fall of 2012; UBC moved to have it dismissed; the hearing last week was on the motion to dismiss, which failed.  So now, 39 months later, the hearing can proceed (justice in Canada, Ladies and Gentlemen!  A big round of applause!).  Anyways, I have a feeling this story is going to run and run (and not just because of the glacial pace of the legal system), so I thought I would get some thoughts in early on this.

A couple of obvious points:

The spread of the university around the world, mainly in the 19th century, eliminated a lot of different types of knowledge preservation/communication traditions.  They basically wiped out the academy tradition in East Asia, and did a serious number on the madrassas of the Indian subcontinent and the middle-east (though as we have seen, these are making a comeback in recent years in some fairly unfortunate ways).  And though universities do exhibit a lot of differences around the world in terms of finance and management, and to some extent around mission, there is no question that due to the strengths of the disciplines it houses, it has had some extraordinarily isomorphic effects on the way we think and talk about knowledge.  So it’s not crazy for non-western cultures to once in awhile say: look, there are other ways to construct and transmit knowledge, and we’d like a bit of space for them.  Maoris have done this successfully with their Wānanga, or Maori Polytechnics as they’re sometimes called.  Why not in Canada?

And there’s nothing immutable about the need for research as a professor.  Hell, 40 years ago in the humanities, research certainly wasn’t a hard pre-requisite for tenure; even today in the newer professional schools (I’m thinking journalism, specifically), people often get a pass on publication if they are sufficiently distinguished prior to arriving at the university.  Different strokes, etc.

But of course, all that said, the fact is that accommodation for different knowledge paradigms is the kind of thing you work out with your employer before you start the tenure process, not afterwards.  It’s not as though McCue’s views render her incapable of writing; the university hired her on the basis of her 1998 L.L.M. dissertation, which was a good 250 pages long, and presumably expected they’d get more work of similar quality.  And yes, it’s probably a good idea to have and fund institutions that more fully value Aboriginal ways of knowing, and are prepared to take a broader view of what scholarship means (the relevant tenure criteria at First Nations University, for instance, is “consistently high achievement in research and scholarship useful to First Nations’ communities”).  But even if it is located on unceded Musqueam land, UBC ain’t that institution.

I have a hard time imagining this will go anywhere, but Human Rights cases are funny things.  Keep an eye on this case, anyway.

Page 30 of 119« First...1020...2829303132...405060...Last »