University leaders have to put up with a lot of crap from politicians and business people. There’s a lot of genuflecting to whatever the fads and feelings of the day are, just so they can appear “relevant” and “in tune”. Superclusters? Oh yeah, superclusters are a great idea, Minister, really terrific, why has no one thought of them before? When you are after public money, saying soothing things about the delusions of the powerful is just part of the game.
But, to me, there’s a line between playing the game, and actively contributing to bullshit. Let’s take a look at a couple of recent examples.
Earlier this week, Universities Canada, along with the Rideau Hall Foundation, hosted a meeting called Univation, the tagline for which was “Universities innovating to prepare students for a disrupted world” (and the phrases “disrupted economy” and “future-proofing” show up a coupe of times, too). Now, on the one hand, it is inherently funny that Universities Canada would so liberally use a word that most serious people abandoned due to overuse in 2012 and employ it over and over and over again, like some teenager who has just found out about One Direction and OMG squeee! A giggle like that now and again is good for the soul. But at a deeper level, there is something quite wrong with this.
Concepts like “disruption” (as applied outside the very narrow confines Clay Christensen gave it back in the late 90s) are vacuous. To my knowledge, there are no serious economists or economic historians who give much credence to concepts like “The Fourth Industrial Revolution”. There is very little evidence that job loss from technological change is increasing; in fact, as Mattias Oschinski and Rosalie Wyonch note in a recent CD Howe piece on automation, ever-fewer Canadians are in jobs which are at risk from technological change, suggesting that much of the adjustment to the newest wave of technological change has already taken place. If anything, the new challenge graduates face in the workplace has to do with new forms of corporate organization (such as the elimination of middle management, which among other things eased new recruits into the work world) than they do with changing technology.
What does it say about our universities when their peak organization is actually seen to endorse concepts of dubious academic validity? I understand the impulse to show “relevance.” It’s the run up to a federal election and universities want to show they are “with it” to the federal Liberals, whose economic policies sometimes seem to consist of shouting the word “innovation” a lot. But after a certain point, pandering becomes abetting. And then people (for instance, current BMO honcho and former cabinet secretary Kevin Lynch, who was a conference keynote) not only start saying nonsense like “education has to innovate at an uncomfortable pace and a disruptive scale” but also “how do universities disrupt themselves to be at the leading edge of what Canadians and students need for the future”?
Two questions here: first, why is using “to disrupt” as a reflexive verb not punishable by lengthy incarceration. And second: why would Universities Canada give credibility to this level of discourse?
Well, one uncomfortable possibility is that some university leaders actually believe this nonsense. Take, for instance, Suzanne Fortier, whose recent op-ed in the Jan 22 Globe and Mail, entitled “How universities can prepare universities for the coming technological tsunami”, suggests that her head has been occupied by some kind of Deloitte-bot. She talks about “technology-driven” disruptions to which the universities must respond: these include blockchain (worldwide market size = $500 million, or about the size of Memorial University’s operating budget), cryptocurrencies (bitcoin fell 45% since she wrote the article), and, God help us, Uberization (Uber had net losses of $1.5B in the third quarter of 2017 alone).
In response to this, says Fortier, universities must….respond! More adults, she claims, are taking part-time courses (they aren’t: part-time enrolments in universities are currently 23% of total enrolments, lowest level in 20 years), and what is needed are shiny new offerings like “nanocredentials” (not actually a thing) or “stackable credentials” (Quebec universities have been offering various bac par cumul for something like 35 years).
This is all quite embarrassing. Sure, higher education needs to change – I don’t take a backseat to anyone in urging that. But it needs to change for the right reasons. And in many cases, it is already doing so: the heartening thing about the Univation Forum, once you got past the eye-rolling stuff, was that it highlighted how many great experiments are currently taking place in universities to make them more responsive and accessible. We can and should celebrate this without making dubious claims about technological change just so a few people can better fit in with the cool kids at Davos. Universities, of all institutions, need to stop feeding the bullshit industry.