Higher Education Strategy Associates

Tag Archives: Skills

June 12

The Nordstrom Philologist

People are always nattering on about skills for the new economy, but apart from some truly unhelpful ideas like “everyone should learn to code”, they are usually pretty vague on specifics about what that means.  But I think I have solved that.

What the economy needs – or more accurately, what enterprises (private and public) need – is more Nordstrom Philologists.

Let me explain.

One of the main consequences of the management revolutions of the last couple of decades has been the decline of middle-management.  But, as we are now learning, one of the key – if unacknowledged – functions of middle-management was to act as a buffer between clients and upper management on the one side, and raw new employees on the other.  By doing so, they could bring said new employees along slowly into the culture of the company, show them the ropes and hold their hands a bit as they gained in confidence and ability in dealing with new and unfamiliar situations.

But that’s gone at many companies now.  New employees are now much more likely to be thrown headfirst into challenging situations.  They are more likely to be dealing with clients directly, which of course means they have greater responsibility for the firm’s reputation and its bottom line.  They are also more likely to have to report directly to upper management, which requires a level of communication skills and overall maturity which many don’t have.

When employers say young hires “lack skills”, this is what they are talking about.  Very few complain that the “hard skills” – technical skills related to the specific job – are missing. Rather, what they are saying is they lack the skills to deal with clients and upper management.  And broadly, what that means is, they can’t communicate well and they can’t figure out how to operate independently without being at the (senior) boss’ door every few minutes asking “what should I do now”?

When it comes to customer service, everyone knows Nordstrom is king.  And a large part of that has to do with its staff and its commitment to customer care.  Communications are at the centre of what Nordstrom does, but it’s not communicating to clients; rather, it’s listening to them.  Really listening, I mean: understanding what clients actually want, rather than just what they ask for.  And then finding ways to make sure they get what they need.  That’s what makes clients and/or citizens feel valued.  And it’s what the best employees know how to provide.

And then there’s philology* – the study of written texts.  We don’t talk much about this discipline anymore in North America since its constituent parts have it’s been partitioned into history, linguistics, religious studies and a tiny little bit into art history (in continental Europe it retains a certain independence and credibility as an independent discipline).  The discipline consists essentially in constructing plausible hypotheses from extremely fragmentary information: who wrote the Dead Sea scrolls?  Are those Hitler diaries real?  And so on.   It’s about understanding cultural contexts, piecing together clues.

Which is an awful lot like day-to-day business.  There’s no possible way to learn how to behave in every situation, particularly when the environment is changing rapidly.  Being effective in the workplace is to a large degree about developing modes of understanding and action based on some simple heuristics and a constant re-evaluation of options as new data becomes available.  And philology, the ultimate “figure it out for yourself” discipline, is excellent training for it (history is a reasonably close second).

That’s pretty much it.  Nordstrom for the really-listening-to-client skills, philology for the figuring-it-out-on-your-own-and-getting-stuff-done skills.  Doesn’t matter what line of business you’re in, these are the competencies employers need.  And similarly, it doesn’t matter what field of study is being taught, these are the elements that need to be slipped into the curriculum.

*(On the off-chance you want to know more about philology, you could do a lot worse than James Turner’s Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities.  Quite a useful piece on the history of thought). 

May 10

Why Education in IT Fields is Different

A couple of years ago, an American academic by the name of James Bessen wrote a fascinating book called Learning by Doing: The Real Connection Between Innovation, Wages and Wealth.  (It’s brilliant.  Read it).  It’s an examination of what happened to wages and productivity over the course of the industrial revolution, particularly in the crucial cotton mill industry.  And the answer, it turns out, is that despite all the investment in capital which permitted vast jumps in labour productivity, in fact wages didn’t rise that much at all.  Like, for about fifty years.

Sound familiar?

What Bessen does in this book is to try to get to grips with what happens to skills during a technological revolution.  And the basic problem is that while the revolution is going on, while new machines are being installed, it is really difficult to invest in skills.  It’s not simply that technology changes quickly and so one has to continually retrain (thus lowering returns to any specific bit of training); it’s also that technology is implemented in very non-standard ways, so that (for instance) the looms at one mill are set up completely differently from the looms at another and workers have to learn new sets of skills every time they switch employers.  Human capital was highly firm-specific.

The upshot of all this: In fields where technologies are volatile and skills are highly non-standardized, the only way to reliably increase skills levels is through “learning by doing”.  There’s simply no way to learn the skills in advance.  That meant that workers had lower levels bargaining power because they couldn’t necessarily use the skills acquired at one job at another.  It also meant that, not to put too fine a point on it, that formal education becomes much less important compared to “learning by doing”.

The equivalent industry today is Information Technology.  Changes in the industry happen so quickly that it’s difficult for institutions to provide relevant training; it’s still to a large extent a “learning by doing” field.  Yet, oddly, the preoccupation among governments and universities is: “how do we make more tech graduates”?

The thing is, it’s not 100% clear the industry even wants more graduates.  It just wants more skills.  If you look at how community colleges and polytechnics interact with the IT industry, it’s often through the creation of single courses which are designed in response to very specific skill needs.  And what’s interesting is that – in the local labour market at least – employers treat these single courses as more or less equivalent to a certificate of competency in a particular field.  That means that these college IT courses these are true “microcredentials” in the sense that they are short, potentially stackable, and have recognized labour market value.  Or at least they do if the individual has some demonstrable work experience in the field as well (so-called coding “bootcamps” attempt to replicate this with varying degrees of success, though since they are usually starting with people from outside the industry, it’s not as clear that the credentials they offer are viewed the same way by industry).

Now, when ed-tech evangelists go around talking about how the world in future is going to be all about competency-based badges, you can kind of see where they are coming from because that’s kind of the way the world already works – if you’re in IT.  The problem is most people are not in IT.  Most employers do not recognize individual skills the same way, in part because work gets divided into tasks in a somewhat different way in IT than it does in most other industries.  You’re never going to get to a point in Nursing (to take a random example) where someone gets hired because they took a specific course on opioid dosages.  There is simply no labour-market value to disaggregating a nursing credential, so why bother?

And so the lesson here is this: IT work is a pretty specific type of work in which much store is put in learning-by-doing and formal credentials like degrees and diplomas are to some degree replaceable by micro-credentials.  But most of the world of work doesn’t work that way.  And as a result, it’s important not to over-generalize future trends in education based on what happens to work in IT.  It’s sui generis.

Let tech be tech.  And let everything else be everything else.  Applying tech “solutions” to non-tech “problems” isn’t likely to end well.

March 22

The Next Big Skills Policy Agenda

So today is budget day.  If the papers are anything to go by, there’s something big-ish in there about “skills” which will no doubt be presented as some massive benefit to the country’s middle class (and those trying to join it). I have difficulty imagining what might be announced since most skills policies are in the hands of the provinces.  But what I do know is that skills policy is an area long overdue a makeover.

The labour force is aging.  Any new burst of productivity – essential for rising incomes – is going to have to come from older workers, not newer ones.  Part of that is going to have to come from firms making greater capital investments – that is, better machines and IT infrastructure for workers to use.  But part of it is going to have to come from more intensive and continuous skills upgrading on the part of workers’ themselves.  And this is a problem, because historically Canada has been uniquely bad at achieving a culture of skills upgrading.  Go back year after year, report after report, and it’s the same story: where continuous upgrading is concerned, it tends to be concentrated among people who already have high levels of skills.  Those that have get, those that do not, do not.

Part of the problem here is funding.  That’s why we sometimes see government get interested in handing money either to individuals or to firms (for example, the Canada Jobs Grant) to subsidize training.  But I’d argue that money is at best a partial barrier to more training.  A larger barrier is time.  And a lot of existing institutional practices are as much a hindrance as a help in this regard.

Workers don’t have a lot of spare time.  They have jobs, kids, parents, families: all of which make time a scarce resource.  We don’t normally think of time as something governments can control, but they actually do have a couple of policy levers they could pull, if they wanted to.  First, they could create incentives or entitlements to time-off for the purpose of training/re-training.  This idea was mooted 35 years ago in the Macdonald Commission report as a “Time Bank” – every year, workers would accrue a certain amount of time off specifically for the purpose of training.  It would no doubt be a colossally unpopular move among employers, but is still probably something worth considering (and might not create that much dissension provided it was fairly applied across all workplaces and didn’t create free-rider problems).

But the other way to make more time available to people is to radically re-consider the nature of the credentials being sought.  Universities, God Bless ‘em, have never seen a labour market problem they couldn’t design a 1- or 2-year Master’s Degree to solve.  The problem is a) not everyone wants to do a year of full-time study (or the part-time equivalent over a longer period of time) and b) who really wants to wait until next September to get started if you just got laid off last week?

From an adult learners’ perspective, the best thing in the world would be credentials that are both shorter and continuously available.  The latter can be solved to some extent simply by throwing money at it.  Continuous intake is relatively easy if you have more instructors to teach more classes at different times of the year.  Putting a greater fraction of classes online could conceivably bring some economies of scale that would assist in the process.

But the bigger problem is reducing the length of credentials.  In theory, there is a pretty clear way forward, which are called “stackable credentials”.  Many institutions use some variant of this: thirty credits equals a certificate and once you bunch three certificates together you get an applied degree, or something along those lines.  But even the notion of thirty credits can be kind of off-putting if what you think you need is just a minor skills upgrade. What is needed is a trusted provider (which usually means a non-profit provider) to come up with a way to come up with smaller-duration credentials which actually convey to employers a sense of competency/mastery in particular fields, and which could also combine over time (i.e. “stack”) into more traditional credentials like diplomas and degrees.

What’s the government role in this?  Well, the problem is really one of co-ordination.  Individual campuses can experiment with short credentials or competency-based credentials all they like: if employers don’t understand the credentials, they will be worthless.  What is needed is collective action – someone has to corral institutions to work together to create new credential standards, and someone needs to corral business to talk about what feature they would find most useful in new, shorter credentials.

That may sound like a job for somebody like the Business-Higher Education Roundtable.  But frankly, some coercion is called for here.  My guess is if BHER floated this you’d probably get a few Polytechnics showing up to play (because it’s the kind of thing they do) and no one else.  But government has the muscle and dollars to make this happen a heck of a lot more quickly and efficiently.

Now, note I say “government” and not “the Government of Canada”.  It would be better all around if provincial governments, who constitutionally are the ones in charge in this area, took the lead.  But one could argue that the feds – provide they stay the hell away from directly funding institutions or getting too far into the curriculum weeds themselves – could at least nudge the key players towards the table.

Bottom line: if we want higher labour productivity we have to get much more serious about creating opportunities for workers to upgrade their skills.  Since the key pressure point for skills upgrading is time, we need to create new, shorter pathways to meaningful credentials.  That means shorter, stackable credentials.  These will need to be designed by employers and institutions together, but the quickest way to start this program runs through governments.  And there’s no time like the present to get started.

February 09

Skills and Youth

What with the Advisory Council on Growth’s paper on skills, and the Expert Panel on Youth Employment wrapping up, public policy is suddenly back to a focus on skills – and in particular what skills youth should have.  So, let’s talk about that.

While some in the federal government will state forcefully that they are not – repeat NOT- going to be like the previous government and tell students what fields they should study (read: welding), literally every time skills come up they start babbling about coding, tech and whatnot.  So as near as I can tell, this government is just as directive about skills as the previous one, it’s just that a) they’re pushing a different set of skills and b) they aren’t actively trashing programs of study they see as less valuable, the way the Tories did with sociology.

The Liberals’ urge to get everyone tech-ing is understandable, if shallow.  What’s the one part of the youth labour market where kids are doing better than ever?  Engineering and computer science.  Are tech-enabled industries the wave of the future?  Well, kinda, depending on your definition of what that means.  But let’s think a little bit more about what that means.

Consider what I would call “hard” tech skills: the people who actually do code or computer science for a living. There’s just not that many of them around.  And here’s a secret: even if Canada becomes some kind of massive tech haven, there still won’t be that many around.  It’s simply not a high-employment industry.  Defining it really ambitiously and assuming high rates of growth, these jobs might equal five percent of the labor force.  So, yeah, let’s increase the size of engineering and CS programs, a bit.  But that’s not a skills solution for the economy as a whole.  We need something for the other 95% of the population.

Now, there’s a broader set of tech skills that matter to a broader subsection of the population.  Some people call these “coding skills” but it’s actually closer to digital literacy.  Basically, people who work with databases all the time – whether they are in accounting or sales or advertising or what have you – can become more productive if they better understand the logic behind databases and have some understanding of how algorithms might improve their use.  Artists and designers can command higher salaries if they have some digital skills.  To be clear – this doesn’t mean we need more credentials in these areas.  It means we need more people in the workforce who possess thee skills as part of their toolkit.  They could learn this stuff through coding schools or “bootcamps”, or maybe more colleges and universities could integrate these skills into existing programs but more likely most people are going to acquire these skills informally.  Which is fine, as long as they have them.

But still, put those two sets of tech skills together and you’re covering maybe a quarter of the labour force.  And that’s not good enough.  What are we going to do for everyone else?

No one has a crystal ball that can help understand what jobs of the future look like.  But it does seem the case that if technology is going to be as disruptive as the tech-boosters think it will be, then a lot of jobs are going to be automated.  In fact, human employment will be increasingly be concentrated in things that computers or robots cannot do.  And in the main, those are either jobs that require a wide variety of physical skills or jobs that involve judgement and empathy.  Last year, Geoff Colvin wrote a book on this subject called Humans are Underrated, which is worth reading if you’re into this topic.

Put it this way.  We’ve got a minority of our future workers who will be working hard to make better robots and algorithms to do things humans can’t do (at least not near the price computers can do it).  But we’re also going to have a majority of our future workers who are going to have to work hard at making themselves unreplaceable by machines by employing very human skills like empathy and narrative.  Why in the name of all that’s holy would we focus our energies just on the first group of workers?  Why not acknowledge what’s actually happening in the labour market and say: we’re going to work on both?

A final point about skills and youth.  As I noted back here something really does seem to have changed in the labour market after 2008.  Full-time enrolment rates in particular have shifted downwards – but this is much more pronounced among the younger age groups (15-19) than it is among older ones (25-29).  This is consistent with a theory of skills-biased technological change: younger people have fewer skills than older ones.  But be careful here in equating the acquisition of skills with obtaining an education.  Employers want people who can get a job done: by and large when they talk about “skills shortages” what they actually mean is “experienced worker shortages”, because to them acquired tacit knowledge matter at least as much formally-acquired knowledge.   To put that a little more concisely: it’s not just that education is more important than ever, but experience is also more important than ever, especially for young people.

I know the Expert Panel will be thinking about these issues, because they kindly invited me to a roundtable event last week and we talked about all this (thanks, Vass!).  But the people who really need to be thinking about these issues are colleges and universities – perhaps more the latter than the former.  Study after study for the last two decades have shown that the number one reason students attend university is to get a god job.

As I’ve just run through, jobs are about experience and skills.  Could be tech skills, could be empathy/narrative skills: either is fine.  Slowly, institutions are coming around to the idea that experience matters and so work-integrated learning is expanding.  Great.  Hard tech skills?  We’ve got a lot of that covered.  Integrating second-level tech skills into other programs in Arts, Science and business.  Getting there (in some places, anyway).  But the narrative/empathy stuff?  I know some people blather on about how humanities give you these skills somehow by osmosis, but do they really?  Who’s checking?  How is it being measured?  And why on earth would we want to limit that stuff to the Liberal Arts anyway?

If I were a university President, these are the kinds of things I’d be asking my Deans to think about.

February 07

Innovation and Skills Redux

So, yesterday Federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s Advisory Council on Economic Growth released five (!) papers on innovation, skills, and a bunch of other things.  I’m sure there’s a lot of ink on these in today’s papers, mainly around proposals to raise the retirement age (which we actually did two years ago, except the Trudeau government reversed it, but now evidence-based policy FTW, as the kids say).  I’ll restrict myself to some brief thoughts about two areas in particular: innovation and skills

On Innovation:   I must admit I got a bit of a thrill reading page 9 of the report, in which the Council body-slams the innovation Minister’s ideas about geographically-based innovation “clusters”.  They’re polite about it, “applauding” the Minister for coming up with such a great idea, but then go on to say that they’ve actually read the literature and know what works, and it ain’t clusters.  Hilarious.

What do they propose instead?  Well, it’s something called “innovation marketplaces”.  What are those you ask?  Well, to quote the report they’re “centers of technology and industry activity that are developed and driven by the private sector. An innovation marketplace brings together researchers and entrepreneurs with public and private customers around a common business challenge. These marketplaces match innovation demand from corporations and governments with innovation supply from researchers and entrepreneurs. This matchmaking strengthens supply-chain relationships and the flow of information, thereby fueling further innovation.”

If you think that sounds super hand-wavy, you are not alone.  In practice, there’s some overlap with the ideas Minister Bains has been peddling for months (Artificial Intelligence!  Cleantech!) but these idea are more focussed on industry and less geographically-based, both of which are Good Things.  However, it still equates innovation with new product development, specifically in gee-whizzy tech areas, which is a Bad Thing.  (Non-gee-whizzy sectors get their due in a separate paper on growth; a Good Thing to the extent that at least the Council conceptually understands the difference between Growth Policy and Innovation Policy.  I’m yet to be convinced the Minister has such an understanding.)  So there’s some overlap in ideas but considerable differences in the kinds of programs that are supposed to get us there.

But the budget’s only a couple of weeks away.  How does this circle get squared?   Messily, I suspect.  But we’ll have to wait and see.

On Skills:  According to the report, everything is going to be solved by a new agency going by the godawful name “Futureskills Lab”.  As near as I can tell, this agency is going to be a lot like the Canadian Council on Learning was, only: i) more focused on skills than education (by “skills” they seem to mean tech skills – eight of the ten examples of skills used in the report are tech), ii) more focused on (industry-led) experimentation and dissemination and “what works” and iii) it’s also going to be handed the prize of finally sorting out all that Labour Market Information stuff that Don Drummond has been yelling about for years and no one trusts Statscan to get right.  (I kid….Don Drummond would never raise his voice).

OK, so…there’s nothing wrong with funding lots of experimentation on skills and training.  In fact, it’s a great idea.  Fantastic.  The over-focus on tech skills is <headdesk> inducing, but my guess is that reality will kick in after a year or two and we’ll get a broader and more sensible set of skills priorities.  And there’s nothing wrong with better Labour Market Information, though I’m not particularly convinced that adopting all of Drummond’s recommendations will bring us to some kind of Labour Market Nirvana. (Short version, which maybe I should elaborate in a future blog: what Drummond mostly wants is backward-looking, which is great for economic analysis, not especially helpful for job-seekers or students looking to specialize).

But why do we need a new institution to do all this?  ESDC could fund experiments and analyses thereof.  Statscan could do the LMI stuff.  What advantage does a new institution necessarily have?  I’m not saying there are no advantages: the Millennium Scholarship Foundation is an example of an arguably unnecessary institution which nonetheless was responsible for some pretty interesting policy and delivery innovations.  But the advantages are uncertain and not well-argued in the report.

And there’s another issue.  The Council is keen that FutureSkills Lab be collaborative.  Super collaborative.  Especially with the provinces.  They really like the whole Canada Institute for Health Information (CIHI) model.  Well, the thing is, the federal government did try something similar a decade ago.  It was called the Canadian Council on Learning (CCL) – remember that? It was well-intentioned, but a political disaster because the feds set it up before actually talking to the provinces, leading the latter to essentially boycott it.  More to the point, CIHI works because it is responsible (in part) to the provinces, not just the feds.  If the Council recognizes the importance of this point, it is not evident in the report, which dances back and forth between saying it should “collaborate with” the Forum of Labour Market Ministers (i.e. with provincial governments) and saying it should be “accountable” to them.

I’ll stick my neck out on this one: “accountable to” will fly, “collaborate with” will not.  If the federal government is going to take up this idea from the council, it needs to make clear to the provinces within the next few days if not hours that this is going to be 100% CIHI clone, accountable to provinces and feds and not a federal creature collaborating with provinces.  If that doesn’t happen, regardless of the merits of more experimentation and better LMI data, this idea is going to be an expensive repeat of the CCL failure.  Federalism still matters.

January 26

An Amazing Statscan Skills Study

I’ve been hard on Statscan lately because of their mostly-inexcusable data collection practices.  But every once in awhile the organization redeems itself.  This week, that redemption takes the form of an Analytical Studies Branch research paper by Marc Frenette and Kristyn Frank entitled Do Postsecondary Graduates Land High-Skilled Jobs?  The implications of this paper are pretty significant, but also nuanced and susceptible to over-interpretation.  So let’s go over in detail what this paper’s about.

The key question Frenette & Frank are answering is “what kinds of skills are required in the jobs in which recent graduates (defined operationally here as Canadians aged 25-34 with post-secondary credentials) find themselves”.  This is not, to be clear, an attempt to measure what skills these students possess; rather it is an attempt to see what skills their jobs require.  Two different things.  People might end up in jobs requiring skills they don’t have; alternatively, they may end up in jobs which demand fewer skills than the ones they possess.  Keep that definition in mind as you read.

The data source Frenette & Frank use is something called the Occupational Information Network (O*NET), which was developed by the US Department of Labour.  Basically, they spend ages interviewing employees, employers, and occupational analysts to work out skill levels typically required in hundreds of different occupations.  For the purpose of this paper, the skills analyzed and rated include reading, writing, math, science, problem solving, social, technical operation, technical design and analysis and resource management (i.e. management of money and people).  They then take all that data and transpose it onto Canadian occupational definitions.  So now they can assign skill levels to nine different dimensions of skills to each Canadian occupation.  Then they use National Household Survey data (yes, yes, I know), to look at post-secondary graduates and what kind of occupations they have.  On the basis of this, at the level of the individual, they can link highest credential received to the skills required in their occupation.  Multiply that over a couple of million Canadians and Frenette and Frank have themselves one heck of a database.

So, the first swing at analysis is to look at occupational skill requirements by level of education.   With only a couple of exceptions – technical operations being the most obvious one – these more or less all rise according to the level of education. The other really amusing exception is that apparently PhDs do not occupy/are not offered jobs which require management skills.  But it’s when they get away from level of education and move to field of study that things get really interesting.  To what extent are graduates from various fields of study employed in jobs that require,  for instance, high levels of reading comprehension or writing ability?  I reproduce Frenette & Frank’s results below.


Yep.  You read that right.  Higher reading comprehension skill requirements are for jobs occupied by Engineers.  Humanities?  Not so much.


It’s pretty much the same story with writing, though business types tend to do better on that measure.


…and critical thinking rounds out the set.

So what’s going on here?  How is it that that humanities (“We teach people to think!“) get such weak scores and “mere” professional degrees like business and engineering do so well?  Well, let’s be careful about interpretation.  These charts are not saying that BEng and BCom grads are necessarily better than BA grads at reading, writing and critical thinking, though one shouldn’t rule that out.  They’re saying that BEng and BCom grads get jobs with higher reading, writing and critical thinking requirements than do BAs.  Arguably, it’s a measure of underemployment rather than a measure of skill.  I’m not sure I personally would argue that, but it is at least arguable.

But whatever field of study you’re from, there’s a lot of food for thought here.  If reading and writing are such a big deal for BEngs, should universities wanting to give their BEngs a job boost spend more time giving them communication skills?  If you’re in social sciences or humanities, what implications do these results have for curriculum design?

I know if I were a university President, these are the kinds of questions I’d be asking my deans after reading this report.

January 11

Why Class Size Matters (Up to a Point)

At the outset of the MOOC debate about four years ago, there was a line of argument that went something like this:

MOOC Enthusiast:  These MOOCs are great.  Now the classroom is not a barrier.  Now we can teach hundreds of thousands of students at a time!  Quel efficiency!

Not MOOC Enthusiast:  They’re just videos.  They can’t give you the same human touch as an in-class experience with a professor.

MOOC Enthusiast: How’s that human touch going for you in the 1,000-person intro class?

To which there was never really a particularly good reply, just a lot of sputtering about underfunding, etc. The fact is, from a student’s point of view, there probably isn’t a lot of difference between a 1,000 person classroom and an online course, at least as far as personal touch from a professor is concerned.  There are some other differences, of course, mainly in terms of the kinds of study supports available, but if your argument is that direct exposure to tenured faculty is what matters, then this is kind of beside the point.

There was a period of time during which it was fashionable to say that class size didn’t matter, and that it was what happened in the class, not how big it was, etc., etc.  I am ever less convinced by some of these arguments.  Small classes matter for two reasons.  One is the ability – in science, health ,and engineering disciplines in any case – to be in contact with advanced equipment.  If classes are too large, students don’t get enough time with the top equipment and hence aren’t as prepared for careers in their fields as they might be.  Obviously this matters more in places like Africa than in North America, but you’d be surprised at how often this issue pops up here.  I know of at least one “world-class” university in Canada that, faced with budget cuts in the late 1990s, instituted a policy of not offering lab courses to science majors until third year (yes, really).

The second reason is perhaps more universal: the larger the class, the less interaction there is, not just between professors and students but also between students.  And this interaction matters because it is the key to developing many of the soft skills required for employability.  Work that is presented in class and argued among colleagues – whether assigned to teams or individuals – is pretty much the only place where students actually come to understand in real time how arguments are made and broken, how to interact with colleagues and experts, how to deal with (hopefully constructive) criticism, among other skills. When I go to developing countries (where I am currently doing a lot of work) and I hear about how students don’t have labour force skills, this is exactly what employers are talking about, and there’s simply no way to provide them those skills at the scale of classes currently being offered.  So, small classes are good, but not primarily for disciplinary reasons (though those may benefit as well).  It’s mostly about employability.

Canadian polytechnics actually worked this out awhile ago.  One of the most notable differences between degree programs at polytechnics and universities is that class sizes are relatively constant over four years in polytechnics, whereas universities (apart from the smallest of liberal arts colleges) employ a pyramid model, with huge classes in first year and many more smaller ones in upper years (CUDO data – flawed as it is – suggests that there are more classes with 30 students or less for 4th year students than there are classes of all sizes for first year students).  Students at polytechnics are getting the benefits of smaller classes all the way through, while for most university students, these benefits aren’t seen until third year at the earliest.

By this, I don’t mean to suggest that class size is destiny.  The point that what happens in a class is a function of more than its size is a relevant one (although a slightly trickier one to make today than in pre-MOOC times).  But interaction matters.  If institutions are going to increase class sizes (as they have done repeatedly over the past two decades, both through admitting more students and reducing professors’ undergraduate course loads), there needs to be a strategy to work out how interaction can be maintained or improved.  Otherwise, it’s very hard to say that quality isn’t being impaired.

November 19

Stories Arts Faculties Tell Themselves

Here at HESA towers, we’ve been doing some work on how students make decisions about choosing a university (if you’re interested: the Student Decisions Project was a multi-wave, qualitative, year-long longitudinal study that tracked several hundred Grade 12 students as they went through the PSE research, application, and enrolment process.  We also took a more targeted qualitative look, specifically at Arts, with the national Prospective Arts Students Survey).  We’ve been trying to do the same for colleges, but it’s a much trickier demographic to survey.

In both studies, one of the questions we asked is what students really want from their education.

Now at one level, this question is kind of trite.  We know from 15 years of surveys from the Canadian Undergraduate Survey Consortium that students go to university: i) to get better jobs; ii) because they like learning about a particular field; and also, iii) to make friends, and enjoy the “university experience”.

Where it gets a little trickier, however, is when you break this down by particular fields of study.  With most faculties, there tends to be a positive reason to attend.  However, when it comes to Arts, enrolment is often seen as a fall-back option – it’s something you do if you don’t have concrete goals, or if you can’t do anything else.  Now, Arts faculties tend to take the positive here, and spin this as students wanting to “find themselves”. But in deploying this bit of spin, Arts faculties often end up heading in the wrong direction.

One of the problems here is that the notion of students “finding themselves” (not a term students themselves use) is not as straightforward as many think. Broadly, there are three possible definitions.  The first situates “finding yourself” in academic terms: by exploring a lot of different academic options, a student finds something that interests her/him, and becomes academically engaged.  This is one of the reasons that Arts faculties are built around a smorgasbord model, which lets students “taste” as many things as possible, and hence “discover” themselves.

But that’s not the only possible definition of “finding oneself”.  There is another option, in which students essentially view PSE as a cooling out period where they can “find” what they want to do, in a vocational sense.  Yes, they are taking courses, but since they recognize that Arts courses don’t lead directly to employment, they are more or less marking time while they discover how to make their way in the employment world, and think about how and where they want to live.  Then there is a third, slightly different take, in which students view “finding themselves” as the process by which they acquire transversal skills, and the skills of personal effectiveness needed to be successful adults.  School is something they do while they are learning these skills, often for little reason other than that going to school is something they have always done, and in many cases are expected to do.

Though all of these interpretations of “finding yourself” have some currency among students, it probably shouldn’t come as a surprise to learn that the one about “finding yourself” being a voyage of academic discovery is, in fact, the least frequently mentioned by incoming students.  Now, maybe they come around to this view later on, but it is not high on the list of reasons they attend in the first place.  To the extent that they have specific academic interests as a reason for enrolling in Arts, they tend to be just that: specific – they want to study Drama, or History, or whatever.

Which raises two questions: if this is true, what’s the benefit of Arts faculties maintaining such a wide breadth of requirements?  And second, why aren’t Arts faculties explicitly building-in more transversal skills elements into their programs?  Presumably, there would be a significant advantage in terms of recruitment for doing so.  Someone should give it a whirl.

September 29

Liberal Arts Deserves Better Arguments

You may have noticed that I failed to award a “worst back-to-school” piece for the second year running.  This is because the bad stuff took a while to come out.  Rest assured, it came, and I now present two of them.

First is Heather Mallick’s little missive on Liberal Arts in the Star last week.  The utterly lazy premise is this: advances in ICT have changed the world dramatically, so what matters now is synthesis.  And by God, Liberal Arts gives you synthesis, even if it doesn’t give you science.  So, yay Liberal Arts.

Leaving aside Mallick’s utterly preposterous statement that ISIS would be a kinder and more humane organization if it took more Liberal Arts courses, there are at least three things wrong with her defence of “Liberal Arts”.

1)  The idea that Liberal Arts doesn’t include sciences.  This is a peculiarly Canadian definition of “Liberal Arts”.  Historically, Math and Astronomy are part of the Liberal Arts.  In the United States, the term usually encompasses the basic natural sciences.  For some reason, Canadians choose to use “Liberal Arts” as a synonym for “humanities”.  I have no idea why this is the case, but it bugs me.  Mallick’s hardly alone in this, though, so maybe I should cut her some slack here.

2)  The idea that Liberal Arts lets you “range widely”.  This is not a necessary outcome of Liberal Arts.  It’s true that an awful lot of Arts programs take a smorgasbord approach to curriculum, rather than present something with a smaller and more coherent offering, but there remain programs that are pretty prescriptive about the courses one must take (Concordia’s Liberal Arts program, for instance, has a pretty large set of core mandatory courses, which precludes much).   

3)  The idea that only Liberal Arts/humanities teaches synthesis.  First, it may well be true that Liberal Arts/humanities teaches synthesis (personally, I think it’s part of what my History degree taught me), but the actual evidence in favour of this proposition is fairly slim, partly because humanities profs are so reluctant to see outcomes such as this tested.  In fact, it’s arguable that there are many humanities disciplines (certain areas of postmodernist studies come to mind) where synthesis is about the last thing going on.  Second, for the umpteenth time, the argument that synthesis is not happening elsewhere in the academy is not only irritating and arrogant, but also it’s not grounded in evidence.

The thing is, as silly as these “defending the liberal arts” pieces are, they’re still miles better than the anti-liberal arts pieces.  The worst of which this year, indubitably, is Rex Murphy’s bilious take on the Alex Johnstone affair.  Johnstone, a federal NDP candidate in Hamilton, gained mild notoriety last week for claiming that she – possessor of a BA and MSW in Peace Studies – had no idea what Auschwitz was because if she did, she wouldn’t have made some slightly off-colour remarks on Facebook seven years ago.

Why the press believed this line is a bit beyond me: seems to me this was a transparent ploy to avoid taking responsibility for having said something stupid.  My guess is they did so partly because it would be difficult to prove the opposite, but also partly also because if it was true, then they could run chinstrokers about how terrible her education must have been.  Colby Cosh took an intellectually respectable shot at it here.  Murphy, on the other hand, went further, and in the process completely went down the rabbit hole.

Murphy’s is a bog-standard hit piece on the humanities: conjure up a few random stories about things that sound (and perhaps are) inane – trigger warnings on Paradise Losta goofy thesis title or two about Madonna and Beyoncé – and then claim, with no evidence whatsoever, that this is representative of all humanities, across all of higher education.  Then promise that the classics – apparently the only place where eternal truths can be found – shall be avenged, preferably by force-feeding Jane Austen to undergraduates.  It would be utter tripe even if he hadn’t gone to the trouble of not only calling a rape survivor at an American Ivy League school a liar, but also an airhead who also probably doesn’t know anything about Auschwitz (yes, really).

I wouldn’t worry so much about crap like Murphy’s if humanities had better defenders.  The problem is that true believers think that arguments like Mallick’s are actually convincing.  But to anyone outside the tribe, they look pretty weak.  Time for better arguments.

September 10

Improving the Discourse on Skills and Education

Recently, I did a fascinating set of roundtable discussions with employers and employer associations, and it brought home to me how one-dimensional much of our talk is regarding skills.

Broadly speaking, there are four sets of skills employers care about.  The first are job- or occupation-related skills: can a mechanic actually fix a car? Can an architect design buildings? And so on.  By and large, if you ask employers whether universities and colleges are successfully providing their graduates with this skill set, they say yes (in some fields, in some parts of the country, there are complaints that there aren’t enough graduates, but that’s a different story).  And that’s true more or less across blue-collar and white-collar occupations.

Then there’s a set of skills that, in Canada, go by the name: “essential skills” or “foundational skills”.  Most of this is basic literacy/numeracy stuff, but with communication, basic teamwork, and (increasingly) IT skills in there as well.  Here, Canada has a problem, and employers are not shy when it comes to talking about this.  Secondary school dropouts and recent immigrants who have yet to fully master one of our official languages tend to have the most problems with these skills, and the issue is concentrated in certain industries and occupations.  This tends to affect blue-collar jobs more than white-collar ones, but it’s also an issue in lower-level health and social service occupations (especially IT skills).

The third set of skills often gets called “soft-skills” or “integrative skills”.  This involves workplace savvy, primarily in white-collar industries: knowing how to act with clients, basic business and financial skills, how to operate in a multi-disciplinary/multi-functional team, and those somewhat nebulous qualities of critical thinking and problem-solving.  Basically, this is the stuff that Arts faculties claim to give you: the integrative thinking skills that keep businesses running.  They’re not the skills that get you hired, but they’re the skills that get you promoted.  Again, this is an area where employers who need these skills voice frustration with new graduates.

Finally, there are what get termed “leadership skills”.  It’s not always 100% clear what employers mean by this, but it usually is thought of as being different (and of a higher order) than the integrative thinking skills.  Again, this isn’t desired across the board: companies are hierarchies, and not everyone is at the top, so it’s actually a set of traits necessary in only a few.  But again, companies see these as lacking in young people, though, to be honest, young grads don’t have the experience to be put in leadership roles, and so it’s actually something they’ll need to a few years into their careers.

Now, when someone in business starts talking about a skills crisis, we mostly assume they mean that their new hires are lacking some set of skills, and lots of people (some of them inside the system itself) therefore use this as a stick with which to beat educational institutions for not doing their jobs.  But usually, when business says it needs skills, what it actually means is that it needs experienced workers with lots of on-the-job skills.  As such, what educational institutions can contribute in the short-term is pretty marginal.

But even to the extent that institutions can contribute – say, over the medium-to-long term – a simple desire for “more skills” doesn’t help very much.  Skills profiles vary enormously from occupation-to-occupation, and so too do perceptions of which skills are missing in each one.  Even within a single company, needs may vary substantially from one job to the next.  Getting business to be more specific about needs is a huge and urgent task.

Exacerbating this problem is our insistence that programs at different levels of education have to be of common length (mostly 4-year Bachelor’s degrees outside Quebec, mostly 2-year college programs outside Ontario).  For some occupations, this might be too much time in-class; for others it might not be enough.  If you’re running a 2-year program and someone tells you that grads need “more skills”, then the biggest question is: what should be dropped from the existing curriculum?  Forget competency-based education; we’d be a lot better-off if we could just get competency-adjusted curriculum lengths.  But here, governments tend to (unhelpfully) prefer standardized solutions.

Anyways, this is stuff that institutions – particularly community colleges – deal with all the time.  It’s a thankless but necessary job; getting it right is literally the foundation of the nation’s prosperity.

Page 1 of 212