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Higher Education Strategy Associates

Tag Archives: Best Books

December 15

Books of the Year

I read a lot of books.  My guess is most of you do, too.  Here are the best ones on related to higher education which I read in 2016.

The year started with a lot of hype about the “4th Industrial Revolution”, a meme propagated by the Davos Crowd and which is meant to get us all in a chin-stroking mood about the future of work (and by extension, education).  There was even a book by Davos CEO Klaus Schwab, called The Fourth Industrial Revolution.  It’s garbage.   A grab-bag of new industries, no matter how gee-whizzy, does not a revolution make.  There is no fourth industrial revolution, and people who use this term should be publicly shamed.

Slightly more interesting on the pop econ side were a bunch of books from 2015: 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 ExpertsOf these, the Susskinds’ book is the only one that  deals with the issue sensibly, as it points out that, strictly speaking, robots replace human tasks not human jobs, and that jobs are going to increasingly be re-designed to focus on tasks that computers cannot do.  For the most part, those jobs are going to be ones requiring understanding of context and empathy (higher education, take note).

It was also a year to read about innovation policies.  I wrote approvingly back here  about The Politics of Innovation, which made the bold statement that countries need to perceive some kind of external threat in order to adopt consistently pro-innovation policies (comfortable, fleece-wearing Canadians, take note).  But there was another, much more technical book on innovation from a Canadian scholar (Jingjing Huo of the University of Waterloo) called How Nations Innovate: The Political Economy of Technological Innovation in Affluent Capitalist Economies.  This book reminded me a lot of Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson’s The Spirit Level, mainly because it uses the same shtick of running a lot of regression analyses on various types of data on OECD countries.  It’s interesting, and I certainly appreciated how Huo handled issues regarding the relationship between varieties of capitalism (co-ordinated v. laissez-faire) and varieties of innovation (process vs. product), but at the end of the day you have to believe that regression on 30 or so observations are meaningful, and I’m not sold on that.  Still, definitely one for innovation policy wonks to read if they haven’t already.

Related to issues of innovation generally were books about economic clusters and emerging industries.  Of these, the two that mattered were The Smartest Place on Earth: Why Rustbelts are Emerging Hotspots of Global Innovation by Antoine van Agtmael, Fred Bakker and Christopher Lane, and Steven Klepper’s Experimental Capitalism: the Nanoeconomics of American High-Tech Industries.  The former is a lot more positive about the role of universities in clusters than the latter, but a lot of the “success” factors for university-based clusters still come down to “there’s a cluster champion with some magic fairy dust”.  Alex Ross’ Industries of the Future is an OK airplane read but I doubt anyone will remember it five years from now.

On the history of education front, there was Rens Bod’s A New History of the Humanities which is an enormous act of scholarship but not exactly a page-turner.  For a somewhat racier read (the term is relative) have a peek at James Turner’s Philology: The Forgotten Origin of the Modern Humanities.  John Axtell’s Wisdom’s Workshop: The Rise of the Modern University was meh (if American higher ed history is your thing, stick to Roger Geiger and John Thelin).   But maybe the best one I read all year was Tamson Pietsch’s Empire of Scholars: Universities, networks and the British academic world 1850-1939 which is a really well-done short (academic authors, take note) history which illuminates the way in which the settler universities of the British Dominions were intimately linked to one another through personal scholarly connections.

I read more books than I care to remember on global access and admissions systems.  The only one I can recommend for a general audience is College Admissions for the 21st Century Admissions, by Cornell University’s Robert J Sternberg, which details his work developing new types of testing to get at students attributes such as creativity and wisdom.  Lesson Plan, by Mike McPherson and (the since-deceased) Bill Bowen is a decent tour d’horizon of current US policy debates.  A.J. Angulo’s Diploma Mills is a very good short (again!) history of US for-profit education.  William Massy’s Re-Engineering the University is a very, very good book about financial management in universities which deserves an awful lot more attention than it has received.  If it had been this book that had gone viral in Canadian university administration five years ago rather than Dickerson’s Prioritizing Academic Programs and Services, we’d probably all be in better shape than we are today.

I do need to give a shout-out to one quite excellent work which almost no one in North America has read or will read, and that is Knowledge Production and Contradictory Functions in African Higher Education, which is hands down the best book to come out of any “developing country” on higher education in the last five years.  It’s a collection of pieces edited by Nico Cloete and Peter Maassen from work in the HERANA project, which is itself a genius project.  And from Routledge, the new book on University Rankings edited by Ellen Hazlekorn entitled Global Rankings and the Geo-politics of Higher Education is genuinely the best book ever written on the subject.  Yes, OK, I have a chapter in it and I would say that – but I genuinely think my co-contributors (including St. FX President Kent MacDonald) put me in the shade and it’s a great volume from start to finish.

But my number one book of the year?  It’s Sara Goldrick Rab’s Paying the Price.  Not because I agree with her conclusions, which involve making public 4-year universities tuition-free (I think that’s defensible for some 2-year programs, but deeply regressive at the 4-year level).  But rather because she has done such an incredible job bringing to life how tiny details of student aid policy can make such an enormous difference to the lives of students who depend on the system for money.   Her blend of research, policy and anecdote is extremely good, the stories of students trying their best to succeed in post-secondary education are inspiring, and her explanations of the minutiae of student aid policy are clear and concise.

Goldrick-Rab’s views on free tuition seem to be driven in part by frustration at all the petty problems inherent in student aid, and there’s a desire here cut through the brambles and do something radical.  What’s interesting though, is to compare her complaints about the US system to the actual reality of the Canadian system which – though far from perfect – has actually addressed many of the problems she confronts.  In particular, her view that universal benefits are preferable to targeted ones because “programs for the poor are usually poor programs” is directly contradicted in the Canadian case by things like the massively pro-low-income overhaul to student aid that we saw in Canada/Ontario earlier this year (see here and here).

But this is a quibble.  Goldrick-Rab wrote a page-turning best-seller about student aid.  I’ve been in the student aid business a long time and never thought this possible.  It’s a great book: read it.