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Category Archives: news

January 04

Innovation Buzzword Bingo

Morning all.  Regular service will pushed back one week to January 10th, but I couldn’t let the Globe op-ed “Southern Ontario Should be an Innovation Cluster, Not a Farm Team” by three Ontario university presidents (McMaster’s Patrick Deane, Toronto’s Meric Gertler, and Waterloo’s Feridun Hamdullahpur) go without comment.

The article reads like someone set out to fill a buzzword bingo card.  Words like “supercluster”, “resilient”, “enhancing interaction”, “external connectivity”, “cluster-building infrastructure”, and “entrepreneurship ecosystem” all duly make an appearance; hell, there’s even a reference to Michael Porter.  And while none of it is wrong, exactly – clusters are good, infrastructure never hurts, etc. – the six actual policy proposals the presidents lay out in terms of creating an innovation cluster are mighty thin.

1)  Invest in organizations that drive local economic development and quality of life, from civically minded governance bodies to cultural institutions.

In what way does this proposal differ from what governments already do?  Do governments everywhere not invest in cultural institutions and things that drive local economic development?  Are there things governments should stop doing in order to prioritize these things?  And how might one distinguish good from bad investments in cultural institutions?  When should the spending stop?

2)  Co-ordinate investments in research areas with both the highest success rates and strongest growth potential, from regenerative medicine to quantum science; from advanced materials to environmental technologies.

Co-ordinate how?  How is “success rate” measured?  Or “growth potential”?  Is this actually a plea to prioritize CFREF-type programs over granting council funding?  Or perhaps it’s a plea for granting councils to become more focussed in their funding?  A lot more detail should be here before anyone signs on to this principle.

3)  Ensure that our immigration rules make us a destination of choice for high-potential individuals.

think this is a plea for government to streamline immigration procedures, awkwardly phrased.  And, yeah, streamline away.  Can’t hurt.  But generally speaking, being a destination of choice has more to do with economic opportunities in a country than the state of its entry visa system.

4)  Turn taxpayers into equity partners and give the public a share of the upside.

Equity partners in what?  New companies?  Like Mariana Mazzucato wants?  Can anyone name a single successful innovation cluster where this happens?  Try to imagine how the public sector would behave if it had an equity stake in companies.  Imagine what it would do to pick or favour winners in order to maximize share value.  Imagine the pressure to “save” or “bailout” losers.  Imagine the chaos that would surround the decision to ever try to sell shares.  This is a half-baked nightmare of an idea, one which would effectively impose a form of Peronism on any emerging tech sector.  Does anyone truly believe this would make tech companies more successful?  Please.

5)  Support firms that can scale up by connecting them to successful mentors, addressing gaps in our venture financing systems, and leveraging public procurement strategically.

Can anyone point me to a single study that links firm size to quality or quantity of mentorship?  No?  OK, then.

6)  Inculcate a culture of risk-taking that rewards rather than penalizes failure, which fosters adaptability and learning from mistakes.

Can anyone point me to a single instance anywhere of a government successfully inculcating a culture of risk-taking in business?  No? Ok, then.

Like I said before, it’s not so much that these ideas are wrong (well, apart from the taxpayer equity stuff) as that they are painfully unspecific.  It’s great that universities are now at least couching their requests for more research funding in the context of an acknowledgement of innovation ecosystems, and not simply relying on the absurd formula of: $ for university research –> Black Box where miracles occur –> Innovation!

But in practice most of these recommendations either are not particularly workable or vague to the point of  being unhelpful.  Better innovation policy is going to require a lot more than this.

December 10

Reports, Books, and CUDO

It’s getting close to that time of year when I need to sign off for the holidays (tomorrow will be the last blog until January 4th).  So before then, I thought it would be worth quickly catching up on a few things.

Some reports you may have missed.  A number of reports have come out recently that I have been meaning to review.  Two, I think, are of passing note:

i) The Alberta Auditor-general devoted part of his annual report (see pages 21-28) to the subject of risk-management of cost-recovery and for-profit enterprises in the province’s post-secondary institutions, and concluded that the government really has no idea how much risk the provinces’ universities and colleges have taken on in the form of investments, partnerships, joint ventures, etc.  And that’s partly because the institutions themselves frequently don’t do a great job of quantifying this risk.  This issue’s a sleeper – my guess is it will increase in importance as time goes on.

ii) The Ontario auditor general reviewed the issue of University Intellectual Property (unaccountably, this story was overlooked by the media in favour of reporting on the trifling fact that Ontarians have overpaid for energy by $37 billion over the last – wait, what?  How much?).  It was fairly scathing about the province’s current activities in terms of ensuring the public gets value for money for its investments. A lot of the recommendations to universities consisted of fairly nitpicky stuff about documentation of commercialization, but there were solid recommendations on the need to track the impact of technology transfer, and in particular the socio-economic impact.  Again, I suspect similar issues will crop up with increasing frequency for both governments and institutions across the country.

Higher Ed Books of the Year.  For best book, I’m going to go with Lauren Rivera’s Pedigree: How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs, which I reviewed back here.   I’ll give a runner-up to Kevin Carey’s The End of College, about which I wrote a three-part review in March (here, here, and here).  I think the thesis is wrong, and as others have pointed out there are some perspectives missing here, but it put a lot of valuable issues about the future of higher education on the table in a clear and accessible way.

Worst book?  I’m reluctantly having to nominate Mark Ferrara’s Palace of Ashes: China and the Decline of American Higher Education.  I say reluctantly because the two chapters on the development of Chinese higher education is pretty good.  But the thesis as a whole is an utter train wreck.  Basically it amounts to: China is amazing because it is spending more money on higher education, and the US is terrible because it is spending less money on higher education (though he never bothers to actually check how much each is spending, say, as a proportion of GDP, which is a shame, as he would quickly see that US expenditure remains way above China’s even after adjusting for the difference in GDP).  The most hilarious bits are the ones where he talks about the erosion of academic freedom due to budget cuts, whereas in China… (you see the problem?  The author unfortunately doesn’t).  Dreck.

CUDO: You may recall I had some harsh things to say about the stuff that Common University Dataset Ontario was releasing on class sizes.  I offered a right of reply, and COU has kindly provided one, which I reproduce below, unedited:

We have looked into the anomalies that you reported in your blog concerning data in CUDO on class size.  Almost all data elements in CUDO derive from third party sources (for example, audited enrolment data reported to MTCU, NSSE survey responses) or from well-established processes that include data verification (for example, faculty data from the National Faculty Data Pool), and provide accurate and comparable data across universities. The class size data element in CUDO is an exception, however, where data is reported by universities and not validated across universities. We have determined that, over time, COU members have developed inconsistent approaches to reporting of the class size data in CUDO.

 COU will be working with universities towards more consistent reporting of class size for the next release of CUDO.

With respect to data concerning faculty workload:  COU published results of a study of faculty work in August 2014,  based on data collected concerning work performed by full-time tenured faculty, using data from 2010 to 2012. We recognize the need for further data concerning teaching done by contract teaching staff. As promised in the 2014 report, COU is in the process of updating the analysis based on 2014-15 data, and is expanding the data collection to include all teaching done in universities by both full-time tenured/tenure track faculty and contract teaching staff. We expect to release results of this study in 2016.

Buonissimo.  ‘Til tomorrow.

October 01

Golden Liberty or Rapid Collegiality?

Once upon a time, there was a land of liberty known as Poland.  While the rest of Europe was going through the counter-reformation, the Thirty Years’ War, and the beginnings of absolutism, Poland had the world’s most liberal constitution.  Nobles (who formed a rather substantial portion of the population) had the right to elect their king.  Religious freedom existed (though Catholics remained a strong majority).  The king could not declare war or peace without Parliamentary agreement (the Sejm), nor could he raise taxes without them.  That said, he was responsible for maintaining an army, paying state debts, and paying for the education of noble youth.  Parliament had the right to form coalitions to push through certain political aims, and the right to foment an insurrection if the king tried to infringe upon their privileges.  Most astonishing of all was the Sejm’s practice of liberum veto: the right of any individual noble to veto legislation, thus requiring all legislation to have consensus among the nobility.  All of this was known collectively as the “Golden Liberty”.

I mention all of this because of an intriguing line in Julie Cafley’s Globe piece on the subject university governance.  To wit: “Universities are a paradox. While their governance structures are slow and process-driven, professors enjoy a high degree of flexibility and independence”.  Indeed, one could go further: governance structures are slow and process-driven precisely because professors jealously guard their flexibility and independence, and wish to throw obstacles in the path of anything that might threaten them.

The nature of tenure, academic freedom, and prevailing academic management practices do give academics enormous freedom in their working lives.  They do not have a liberum veto over university policy, but they certainly do have freedom over how they do their jobs; there are very few ways an institutions can influence how a professor delivers his or her teaching responsibilities, or research activities.  In the US, faculty at private universities have been denied the right to bargain collectively because the Supreme Court ruled that their working conditions amounted to them being managers, not employees.

Universities – North American ones anyway, less so elsewhere – are, by design, anarchies.  This is mostly to the good: top-level intellectual collaboration is a lot like jazz, and there are few jazz musicians who are free of anarchistic tendencies.  But managing anarchy – even just nudging the enterprise in the right direction – is very tricky, especially when the executive has very little effective power.  But an excess of libertarianism/weak central direction can be damaging.  In the 16th and 17th centuries, the liberum veto was used sparingly.  But as the 18th century wore on, and the need for greater central expenditures became pressing, the Polish nobility was gripped by an anti-tax, anti-central government feeling. Nobles started throwing vetoes around like confetti.  Nothing got done.  The country grew weak.  And eventually, over the course of the final quarter of the eighteenth century, it was dismembered, and its various bits incorporated into Austria, Russia, and Prussia.  It did not reappear as an independent country for 120 years.

There are lessons here for universities.  Jazz is good, but paralysis is not.  In order to succeed, universities need to be effective organizations.  Consultation: yes; freedom: yes – but sometimes decisions need to to be taken quickly, and then actually implemented in a faithful fashion. “Rapid Collegiality”, let’s call it.

I’m not saying it’s easy to achieve; in fact, I can think of few things more difficult.  But when universities start appearing ineffective to the outside world, the outside world wonders why on earth we support them to the tune of, say, 2% of GDP.  And, then, like Poland, a long slow decline could begin.

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.

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.

August 25

Back to School 2014

Morning, all.  Ready for the new school year run-down?

One thing already clear is that pretty much the whole sector has finally come to grips with the reality that annual 4% increases in funding aren’t coming back any time soon. That’s causing institutions to think more strategically than they’ve had to in a long time, which is a Good Thing – the downside is that there appears to be some places where this hard thinking is leading to some fairly ugly clashes between management and labour (hel-lo Windsor!).  Contract negotiations this year could be very interesting.

Federally, the big story will likely be how to make the new Canada First Excellence Research Fund work.  Yeah, remember that?  Will it actually make big investments in big universities, the way its U-15 authors hoped?  Or will the usual Canadian political dynamic intervene and turn it into something that distributes excellence funding more widely?  My money’s on option 2, which means in a few years the U-15 will have to convince people to establish an even newer research fund-distributing body, with even tighter funding award criteria.  Fun times.

The spring budget – the last before the next federal election – will almost certainly be about tax cuts, but it will be interesting to see if the feds think there’s something to be gained politically in more higher education spending.  My guess is no, because CFERF was the Tories’ “big swing” for this mandate.  Provincial budgets, I suspect, will all be status quo, but you never know.  The fact is money’s tight, growth is slow, and almost no one (except possibly Alberta) is looking at good times ahead any time soon.  Frankly, we’re only one good financial crisis away from some more swingeing cuts in public spending.

And speaking of swingeing cuts, some of those are on the table Down Under, along with a very radical plan to de-regulate tuition fees.  I spent part of my summer in Australia and New Zealand learning about some of the many interesting policy developments going on there.  Both countries – so similar to our own, yet with intriguing differences – have important lessons for Canadians on the higher education and skills files, and I’ll be talking a lot about them over the next few months, starting Thursday, with a two-part primer on the Australian de-regulation imbroglio.

One of our big summer projects at HESA towers has been following up on our Net Zero Tuition work with a much more detailed look at how students with specific profiles fare in all ten provinces.  It’s possibly the most detailed look ever taken at how student financial assistance plays out on the ground with real students, and we’ll be releasing it tomorrow, and covering it on the blog both Tuesday and Wednesday.  I look forward to the feedback.

But the real event to look forward to this fall is… the Worst Back-to-School Story of the Year Award!  Now in its third year, this award highlights the most ludicrous, under-researched, over-egged story on higher education.  Previous winners include Carol Goar and Gary Mason.  So far this year the back-to-school journalism scene has been pretty quiet, so the field is wide open.  Do send in any nominations to info@higheredstrategy.com.

Back to work!

May 16

Deans and Multiple Personality Disorders

Imagine two scenarios.  In the first, an academic is threatened with termination if he/she speaks out publicly against the university’s proposed strategic plan.  In the second, a manager is fired for disobeying a direct order from a superior about running down the company he/she works for.  For most readers, I’d guess the first scenario is abhorrent, and the second quite understandable (if perhaps somewhat harsh).  Yet both scenarios describe precisely what happened to University of Saskatchewan’s Dean, Robert Buckingham.

The Buckingham incident goes to the heart of a real live issue in Canadian universities: for whom do deans work – the President and Provost, or the faculty?  Are they management’s tool to keep faculty in line, or do they represent the interests of their faculty in the halls of the power?

I don’t think there’s much doubt in a legal sense that Deans answer to senior management rather than faculty.  But the way Deans are chosen usually incorporate a large amount of feedback from professors in that department, who want to make sure that the Dean is – to the extent possible – sympatico with their interests.  And whether the Dean is a likable figure or not, he/she is very much expected to fight for the interests of that faculty and its members when it comes to things like resource allocation.

So, to Saskatoon where, as part of the university’s restructuring process, the 5-year-old School of Public Health Buckingham headed was slated, along with the School of Dentistry and the college of Medicine, to become part of an enlarged Faculty of Medicine.  The School, which at least in its own eyes is pretty hot stuff having just received European accreditation for its program, was less than thrilled with the notion of being under the same roof as the College of Medicine, which has had a rough time with accreditation issues for the past few years.

Buckingham fought his corner spiritedly but quietly for several months.  When Deans were recently told that the time for chat was over, and it was time for all the managers to fall in line, Buckingham chose not to do so.  Instead, he wrote a letter (available here) that wound up in the StarPhoenix in which he effectively implied that: a) the President and Provost lacked courage, and b) that the College of Medicine was sub-standard.  Within the next 24 hours, Buckingham was not only removed as Dean, but was also fired as a tenured professor, and escorted from campus.

Now, given the high level of tension on campus, and that Buckingham was only a few weeks away from retirement, it might have made more sense to let this incident go with a reprimand (and indeed, after much media attention, and an emergency meeting called by Advanced Ed Minister, Rob Norris, the University “reconsidered and reversedparts of its initial decision).  But make no mistake, within a managerial capacity, it was a fire-able offense: you can’t have your Deans going off and running down their colleagues’ departments in public.

Simply put, the freedom of comment that one has as a faculty member doesn’t apply to management.  Buckingham’s line about “I’ve never seen academics be silenced like this” is somewhat disingenuous: Deans are management and held to a different standard.  Saskatchewan was within its rights to ditch him as a Dean; where they overstepped, and have since clawed back on their decision, was in firing him as a professor, because that raises legitimate issues of academic freedom.  As far as I know no professor has been dismissed for speaking out about university management since Norman Strax at UNB in 1968, and that’s not a place we want to go back to.

Both sides stepped over the line here, but it’s easy to see how it happened, and how it is likely to happen again.  At the end of the day, deans’ identities and allegiances are split between their role as academics and their role as administrators.  It’s a thankless and occasionally dangerous position.

April 25

Nova Scotia Ditches a Bad Subsidy

About a decade ago, a really bad policy idea started making its way across the country’s “have-not” provinces.  I can’t remember if it started in Saskatchewan or New Brunswick, but within a couple of years it had spread to Manitoba and Nova Scotia, as well.  The details (and generosity) of this policy varied somewhat, but the gist of it was this: “let’s pay our graduates not to leave the province by refunding a portion of their tuition, via tax reductions, once they graduate”.  Sometimes this was dressed up as a “talent attraction policy”, in the sense that it would benefit people coming in from outside the province; in the main, however, it was understood that this money was mainly about keeping “our” kids at home.

Now this was a dumb idea from almost any policy perspective you can imagine, but the two most obvious ones are:

1)      Effectiveness.  Most youth, even in the most economically depressed provinces, tend to stay where they are: in the provinces where these programs were introduced, the “stay” rate ranged from about 75-85%.  So even if you bring the stay-rate up by 10 percentage points, that still means that for every student you successfully keep, eight others will get to keep cash for doing exactly what they were going to do anyway.

2)      Horizontal equity.  If you have a couple of tens of millions in cash that you want to devote to youth – and lord knows there isn’t much of that around – why in the name of all that’s holy would you hand that money over to the group of youth who are the most employable, and have the best prospects?  Especially if you’re not actually changing their behaviour, all this does is reduce the cost of education and make it easier for tomorrow’s upper-middle class to start accumulating assets.

Anyways, though it wasn’t much noticed outside the province, Nova Scotia dropped the tax rebate, largely because it was ineffective – young people continued to leave the province.  While it drained a lot of money, it simply wasn’t big enough to change many people’s minds about leaving.  And this makes sense: if the reason someone moves from Halifax to Toronto is a $10K/year difference in pay, a $2k tax rebate isn’t going to change their mind.

Of course, it would have been a lot better if the Nova Scotia Government had actually put that money back into some other youth-serving purpose – the community college, say, or student assistance (a category in which Nova Scotia remains among the most miserly in the country).  But with the province hemorrhaging money, it’s not exactly a surprise that this money is going straight to deficit-reduction, no matter how unfortunate that might be.

Interesting trend, though: first Quebec and now Nova Scotia have started dialling back on tax credits – with no apparent backlash.  Hopefully, this is the start of a trend that allows us to restore some sanity to the way we subsidise higher education.

April 17

The Changing Face of Student Protest

You may have missed this story, what with disappearing airliners, annexations in Crimea, and whatnot, but there has been a major and quite unique student uprising going on in Taipei over the past month.

The “Sunflower Student Movement” was born in mid-March when the Kuomintang government decided to try to ram a new trade treaty with China through the legislature, without permitting a clause-by-clause review or substantive public hearings.  Since the KMT are known to favour (eventual) reunification with China, many in the opposition saw the reluctance to face any oversight as evidence of a potential sell-out.  The result was a student-led occupation of Parliament for a little over three weeks, which eventually ended in a partial climbdown by the KMT.

Historically, this kind of student protest is pretty common.  When you look at the phenomenon of student protests in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, what you mostly see are political movements.  In South Korea, the dictatorship of Syngman Rhee was overthrown by students (the next military dictator prudently relocated Seoul National University across the river from the centre of government); in conjunction with the military, students did similar things in Bolivia, South Vietnam, Sudan, and Ghana.  Even in the developed world, student movements of the 60s had broad political aims – protesting the war in America, for social revolution in France, and for the “nationalist” cause in Quebec.

However, something very strange has happened to student politics over the past thirty years.  During this time, as higher education massified, student movements and organizations became less political.  Today, these movements have become much more concerned with “student” issues, such as student welfare, tuition fees, etc  (in the literature, these are known as “etudialist” issues).

Back in the 60s, when big names in Political Science like Seymour Martin Lipset thought it worth their time to edit books on student politics, this would have seemed unlikely.  The expansion of educational opportunity to poorer students was widely seen as being likely to further radicalize the student body. Yet, in fact, what massification seems mostly to have done is to make the student body more like the world at large: big, diverse, and anything but homogeneous in political thought.  And while that makes them less likely to be vanguards for social or political revolutions, it doesn’t preclude them from uniting to fight defensive battles when they feel their interests are threatened (for example, on tuition fees).

Thus, most of the really large student protest movements in the past three years – Chile, South Korea, and Quebec – have all fundamentally been about fees.  Conversely, while there have been some enormous social and political protests in places like Cairo, Kiev, and Athens, students have rarely played the leading roles that their counterparts did 40-50 years ago.  Only in Taiwan and – to a lesser extent – Venezuela, where student groups have been at the forefront of protests against the chavista government of Nicolas Maduro, have we seen students in the kinds of political confrontations that were the norm only half a century ago.

March 27

Coursera Continues to Confuse

The big news Monday was that Coursera, MOOC provider extraordinaire, had a bit of a re-shuffle at the top.  Founders Daphne Koller and Andre Ng, and erstwhile President Laila Ibrahim, were joined by former Yale President Rick Levin, who is now the company’s CEO.  This, needless to say, got everyone quite excited.  A Big Name Has Joined Coursera!  It must mean… well, what does it mean, exactly?

Coursera is a company which – from a growth point-of-view – has two huge positives and two huge negatives.  The positives are an attractive portal that makes it easy to find and register in classes, and a set of partnership deals with many of the world’s top universities.  The latter is particularly important because quality in online education is often seen as pretty sketchy, and so having a ton of brand name schools as content providers is all to the good.

The first negative is Coursera’s partner universities don’t want to devalue their own brands by making their degrees, or even credits, widely available over the internet.  They don’t mind giving away content – MIT has had its entire curriculum up on the web for about a decade now – but they aren’t going to give away certification.  This leads to the second problem: it’s not clear how willing people are to pay for MOOCs without that kind of credit/certification.

Coursera’s whole business plan to date rests on testing the limits of that second negative.  Their bet is that lots of people are willing to pay $40 a pop for “certificates of completion” for individual courses. But it’s not clear how much money Coursera’s making from this.  In the first 9 months after certifications were issued, they earned a million dollars from them.  At about the same time, they completed a second round of venture capital funding, which in total has netted them about $65 million.  Since then, they’ve been very quiet about how much they are bringing in, and ed-tech journalists for some reason don’t ask tough questions about this.  I tend to view this as likely indicative of bad news for the company – Silicon Valley start-ups usually aren’t shy when it comes to talking about big revenue milestones.

And this is what makes this Levin deal so puzzling.  At this stage of the game, Coursera needs to be demonstrating it can actually earn its own income.  Why bring in a University President rather than someone with a background in business and technology (significantly, EdX also announced a new President on Monday: Wendy Cebula of Vistaprint )?  What does Levin bring Coursera other than closer relations with a group of partners who aren’t going to give you what you want in terms of granting credit anyway?

And what’s the logic behind the rest of the moves? Why demote the previous President – Ibrahim, who was hand-picked by Coursera investor Kleiner Perkins – to Chief Business Officer, when she was the only one in the place who has actual business experience?  Why give Andrew Ng a total grab-bag of titles and responsibilities (he’s now Board Chair, “Chief Evangelist”, and “in charge of pedagogy”, which could easily challenge for the biggest governance nightmare trifecta in history)?

Puzzling.

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