Higher Education Strategy Associates

Category Archives: the state of universities

April 17

An Avalanche of Nonsense

I wasn’t going to write about the ludicrous new higher education paper, released last month by the UK Institute for Public Policy Research, entitled, An Avalanche is ComingI didn’t think it had enough exposure to warrant it.  But, since the Globe has now seen fit to publish an extract, I can go whole hog.

It starts off with bog-standard, “sky-is-falling” stuff: the global economy is a mess (true, but presumably temporary), the cost of higher education is increasing faster than inflation (true since the beginning of time), the value of a degree is falling (in most countries it hasn’t), and “competition is heating up” (MOOCs, basically).  Somehow, these weak propositions add up to the argument that, massive change is inevitable.

The paper goes on to posit that the modern university is essentially a bundling of ten different “features” (in actuality, a weird amalgam of inputs, throughputs, and outputs), to wit: research, degrees, city prosperity, faculty, students, governance/administration, curriculum, teaching & learning, assessment and (student) experience.   The impending “avalanche” will occur because technology and economics are permitting some unbundling of these services, and because in each of those ten areas, universities – allegedly – face growing competition.

For instance, the paper claims that universities’ dominance in research is being challenged by “think tanks” (hilarious – I await the Fraser Institute’s next paper on the Higgs Boson); it also claims – seriously – that the student experience is being challenged because it can be replicated by “meet-ups, youth clubs, and learning communities”.  As for the rest, it’s all basically MOOCs, MOOCs, MOOCs – they’re going to change everything, don’t you know!

There is this fantasy out there – shared by silicon valley types and big money consultants, alike – that just because unbundling can happen that it will happen.  Sure, it happened in the music industry – but that’s not a universal experience.  It hasn’t been the case, for instance, in the real estate industry – mostly because the idea of going DIY on the biggest financial decision of your life scares the bejesus out of most people.  And if you asked me whether higher education is closer in nature to music or housing, my answer would be pretty obvious.

I urge people to read the paper in order to get a sense of just how unhinged the higher education’s self-styled “revolutionaries” can actually get.  Though the paper ends with some sensible points about the need for institutions to sharpen their value propositions, these recommendations in no way flow organically from the wholly evidence-free view that student demand is collapsing in the face of MOOCs.  The notion this paper peddles – that positive change requires massive disruption – isn’t just wrong; it’s dangerous.  It needs to be countered.

June 20

Fall 2012: You’ve Been Warned

As we’re coming to the end of the school year, it’s worth looking ahead a bit to what we can expect next year.  You know, so you can obsess about it all summer before coming home.

Public finances are only going to get worse.  Most provincial governments made their budget forecasts at a time when it looked like the US economy might be reaching take-off speed; that speed has now been firmly downgraded to “stall.” Throw in the non-negligible possibilities of Spanish bank runs, Italian bond crises, Chinese hard landings, and another budget deadlock in congress, and it’s a near certainty that most provincial governments are going to miss their revenue targets.   Cue more public sector restraint.  Cue hiring freezes.  Cue some seriously unhappy post-docs.

As new money becomes scarce, the disputes over how to spend that money will intensify.  This year, we had the OPSEU strike in Ontario Colleges, the McGill support staff strike, the Brandon University strike – and of course the student strike in Quebec.  Next year won’t be any easier; expect at least one knock-down-drag-‘em-out fight at a major university this year.

Governments outside Quebec aren’t quite desperate enough to annoy the middle class by raising tuition significantly – I think we’ve got another year or two before they head down this route.  But I do think this might be the year that one or two provincial governments finally start to cut tuition tax credits.  Not only are they a dumb use of resources, but they also provide governments with very little in the way of political credit, which will make them easier pickings.  In Nova Scotia, for instance, cutting the provincial tuition and education credits in half would increase provincial revenues by an amount roughly equivalent to an 8% rise in tuition.  It should be a no-brainer.

I also think next year might be the year Canadian universities realize this whole internationalization shtick is a lot tougher than it looks.  We’ve had it easy the last few years with the US, UK and Australia all finding ways to shoo away international students.  Now that all three are getting their game back, we’re going to find it a lot tougher – and would do so even if there we hadn’t had two high-profile homicides of Chinese students (our biggest market) in the last fifteen months.   With budgets getting ever tighter, expect a lot more attention on this file.

My safest prediction: a technology-led Great Disruption in higher education will continue to be notable by its complete absence anywhere other than editorial pages.

My boldest prediction: a merger attempt between two universities in different countries in an attempt to create a global education brand.

Interesting times, to be sure.

June 18

Uniquely Universal

Universities are astonishing, unbelievably resilient entities. Clark Kerr once noted that of the 75 Western institutions founded before 1520 (and which have survived intact to the present day), sixty of them are universities.

But universities aren’t merely unique in their reach across time – they are also unique in their reach across space. Few if any institutions are as truly global as a university. The basics of a campus are instantly recognizable whether you are in Nairobi, Tianjin or Regina. Give or take some nomenclature, administrative structures are essentially the same everywhere, and as David John Frank and Jay Gabler put it in their book, Reconstructing the University, they increasingly teach the same subjects and categorize knowledge the same way as well.

I was reminded of this the other day while reading James Fallows’ new book China Airborne, which examines both China’s enormous progress to date and its enormous challenges through the lens of the aviation industry. It’s an interesting book if you’re interested in innovation because it shows how tough it is to compete in so-called “apex” industries (that is, ones in which success requires the mastery of enormous numbers of different technological fields).

What caught my eye was Fallows’s discussion of how the Chinese reacted to having to adapt to new air safety regimes in the 1990s. They couldn’t be told they were adopting “American” standards, because that would have been humiliating. Being told they were adopting “international” standards was better, but what worked best of all was being told they were adopting international standards “with Chinese characteristics.” Being an ancient civilization (and they do genuinely think of themselves as a civilization rather than as a nation-state), it’s important for them to put their own imprimatur on things.

And yet, when it comes to universities, they don’t. China does have its own tradition of higher study dating back almost 1,400 years to the Great Academies of the Tang Dynasty which prepared students for imperial examinations; but while today’s gruelling Gaokao (i.e., university entrance) exams owe something to its imperial predecessor, there’s no pretence that universities are native Chinese or have Chinese characteristics. It’s all “global standards” and “world-classness” – without any modifications.

For all the criticisms and dissatisfaction which universities face in the West, it is in some ways the West’s most successful cultural export. Even the most virulent anti-colonialists never rejected them; indeed, they usually opened more. They have reached every corner of the globe and everywhere have a central place in the formation of the new middle classes. For all their faults, they have become the one universal and indispensable organization.

So if naysayers are getting you down, just remember – we must doing something right.

April 27

New Economies, New University

Yesterday, we looked at how the economy was being increasingly divided into a successful, productive globally-traded goods sector, and a more sheltered mostly public-service focused sector. I also noted how certain parts of the university such as engineering, computer science, biomedicine, and finance/management have tended to adopt the views of people involved in the first group of industries, while arts, education, social work, etc., align with the second.

This matters because, increasingly, governments are getting concerned about productivity. Due to a combination of fiscal and demographic pressures, there is an ever-growing need to increase tax revenues and reduce expenditures. Governments need more companies to succeed in exports and they need to find productivity gains in the public sector. This attitude defines how the public service approaches program reviews, including support for post-secondary education.

In terms of teaching, we’ll probably hear a lot of rhetoric about how STEM subjects need to be funded, at the expense of arts, humanities, etc. I don’t think that’s likely; the sheer cost of teaching STEM subjects will likely act as a deterrent to any significant expansion. There will, however, be a lot of pressure to see graduates from the fields that feed the public sector (primarily arts) contribute to the productivity revolution needed to keep public services affordable. And here, I think, there are some interesting curricular possibilities.

In his new book, The Coming Prosperity, Philip Auerswald argues that the key skills in the new economy are what he calls the “three C’s”: connecting, creating and contributing. Now, it shouldn’t be beyond the wit of university educators – especially in the humanities and social sciences – to create a curriculum designed to teach and promote these values. In fact, many of them claim to foster exactly such skills already.

The problem is that currently, the system of subject majors forces students into subject specializations (e.g., history, philosophy) that require a mastering of skills that are much narrower than what graduates in the labour market actually need unless they are headed to grad school. But why not return to a broader, pre-WWII liberal arts approach (which also happens to be a more financially efficient one), suffused with a program of encouraging the three C’s? It would be a curriculum at once traditional and modern, and more importantly one which could plausibly be described as being productivity-oriented.

There could be big first mover advantages to the institution that is the first to work out how to do this well. Who’s up for it?

April 26

Two Economies, Two Universities

There’s an interesting debate going on in American policy circles based on arguments Tyler Cowen advanced in his recent book The Great Stagnation, one with enormous relevance for thinking about the future of the university.

The argument is that there are two economies in America today. The first (call it “Economy I”) is composed of the sectors dealing in globally traded goods, which are required to be extremely inventive and dynamic because of the pressure of foreign competition. It is producing a lot of cash, but precisely because it is under relentless pressure to produce productivity gains, it’s not adding a lot of new jobs. The second economy (“Economy II”) is the stuff you can’t easily move around – government, health care, education and some non-government sectors like construction. Not being subject to competition, productivity gains are lower, job creation is higher, but these costs are passed on to the end-user and so they are taking up an increasing fraction of our collective consumption, both public and private.

In a recent article David Brooks pointed out that political coalitions in the United States are increasingly coalescing around these two economies. Republicans think they can improve public services in Economy II by importing the values Economy I, while Democrats want to tame the excesses of Economy I by importing the values of Economy II.

It seems to me that there is a parallel here within universities. To generalize a bit, the parts of the university that have closest links to Economy I (basically: engineering, computer science, biomedicine and finance/management) tend to favour an interpretation of the “mission of the university” which involves lots of research and close links with industry. The parts of the university that are more closely linked to Economy II (arts, education, social work) tend to be much more hostile to that outlook and talk much more about education as a public good, its benefits to citizenship, etc.

On the whole, the tension between these two views is a healthy one. But there’s no doubt about where new money is going; the university’s paymasters in the public sector have been fairly clear that they want universities to concentrate on Economy I. Some have interpreted that as a slap in the face to the values embodied in the rest of the university. But that’s pretty defensive; another way to look at it is that governments are satisfied with how universities are supporting Economy II, but want that level of excellence applied to Economy I, please.

That’s not a crazy request – it’s actually very much in the Humboldtian tradition. And tomorrow, we’ll see how this trend is likely to play out over the decade ahead.

October 27

It Was 20 Years Ago Today*

…that the Report of the Commission of Inquiry on Canadian University Education was released.

In 1990, in the midst of deficit crises, national unity crises, etc., AUCC members decided that the only way to focus public attention on education was to appoint an independent commissioner, Dr. Stuart Smith, to shine a spotlight on their own activities. It worked, but probably not in the way they intended.

The first few pages of the report deal in the banalities used by every university president since Jesus was born: essentially, “the system is strong and healthy but could use more money.” That taken care of, Smith then took a vicious left turn from the script and laid into universities for neglecting their teaching mission and spending too much time on scientific research.

To say university presidents felt betrayed would be an understatement. They were not amused by the rather strong implication that their research mission was interfering with their teaching mission (now where have we heard that before?), and weren’t shy about saying so.

Reading the report today, one is struck both by what has changed and what hasn’t. It’s hard not to read the recommendations around credit transfer, the lack of data on faculty teaching loads or the imbalance of incentives around teaching and research and think “plus ça change.” But on the other hand, one can also read the recommendations around access, student assistance, teaching-track faculty research into higher education and performance indicators and think, “actually, we’ve come a really long way.”

(My favourite recommendation is the one suggesting that all institutions be required to publish the percentage of their budget devoted to helping faculty improve teaching or fund curricular innovation. Yeah it’s unworkable in practice, but it would be deliciously cruel – and probably highly motivational – to have institutions publish numbers that need to be measured in hundredths of percentage points.)

So, lots of progress, but frankly not enough. No one can read the section on teaching and learning and seriously think that the situation has improved in the last twenty years. It’s fair to say that Smith wasn’t providing a balanced picture of universities and their activities in his report. But I think it’s equally fair to say that wasn’t his brief.

Many people speak on behalf of research. Distressingly few, including student leaders, speak to the substance of education itself. The Smith Commission was by some distance the best manifesto for undergraduate education this country has ever produced. We could use another one like it soon.

*I think. It’s hard to tell about things that came out in the pre-Internet era.