The economics of learning

I wrote up a few comments about a conference held at OISE in February 2012, where the discussion of potential new universities in Ontario often returned to a recommendation that the province create teaching-focussed institutions. This separation of teaching and research doesn’t take into account – among other things – the lack of prestige attached to teaching work in universities. Here is a link to the original post from February 17, 2012: The economics of learning.

Last week on February 7, a conference was held at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto (OISE) on the subject of the new universities (or campuses) that have been proposed by the Ontario provincial government. The conference included speakers who discussed various issues relating to the creation of the new campuses, and there was also a particular focus on ideas put forth in the book written by Ian D. Clark, David Trick and Richard Van Loon, entitled Academic Reform: Policy Options for Improving the Quality and Cost-Effectiveness of Undergraduate Education in Ontario. Though unable to attend the conference in person, I was able to watch it live from home via OISE’s webcasting system; since I’ve been following this issue for a number of months, I thought I might share some comments.

As conference participants discussed, there are many possibilities for what new “teaching oriented universities” might look like. The question is, what’s the context of their creation and what actual forms and practices will emerge? What kinds of “campuses” will these be, and what logic will drive their governance? For example, will they be like the liberal arts colleges of the United States where prestigious faculty engage in teaching while also producing research? My guess is that the answer is “no”, because this would conflict with the need to save money by significantly increasing teaching assignments per professor, which — as it turns out — is the goal.

One thing I felt was a bit lacking at the conference was discussion of the fact that in the broader “academic economy” teaching is simply considered less prestigious than research, and that means a hierarchy of institutions is likely to emerge. In a differentiated system, universities will tend be different, but not “equal.” What will be the implications of this for the new universities, for the hiring of teaching staff (for example)? Will faculty hires see these institutions as less desirable stops on the road to a “real” university job at a research-oriented university? I believe one speaker, Tricia Seifert of OISE, did address this problem by suggesting (among other things) that we should do more during PhD education to privilege teaching and to build the prestige of pedagogical work in the academic profession.

A related point is that in Drs. Clark, Trick and Van Loon’s model, there seemed to be an assumption that teaching quality operates in a simplistically quantitative way (behaviourism never really goes away, does it). A 4-4 teaching “load” (80% teaching, 10% research, 10% service) is not just about having the same number of students split up into smaller classes; juggling and planning for multiple classes is more work. As Rohan Maitzen pointed out on Twitter, teaching involves more than “just standing there” (many hours of preparation, for example).

To continue with the theme of prestige and the devaluing of teaching, what I noticed when I read the book excerpt is that the word “university” is going to be applied to the new institutions partly as a means of marketing them to squeamish students. The authors state explicitly that “every effort in Ontario to create a label that resides in between colleges and universities – such as “institute of technology,” “polytechnic university,” “university college” and the like – has failed to find acceptance and has led to requests for further changes.” Yet somehow “mission drift” — the tendency of universities to want to climb the ladder to a more research oriented status — must be prevented through government regulation and a strict mandate.

This is one reason why existing institutions may be disappointed if the think they will be sharing in the new expansion. What “new” means is not an extension of other campuses, nor a conversion of an institution of one kind into a different type (i.e. college into university); what’s desired is a “clean slate.” A likely goal is to save money by preventing the duplication of governance structures like unions and tenure, because these reduce “flexibility” and increase costs. This could lead to the 31% cost savings predicted by the authors, who nevertheless expect the new universities’ faculty salaries and benefits will remain competitive (my prediction is that salaries will be lower).

The purposes for building new teaching universities are not just pedagogical but also economic and political. Providing more access to postsecondary education is politically expedient and also matches the economic logic of the day, which is that building human capital for the knowledge economy can only occur through increased PSE acquisition. But as Harvey Weingarten pointed out at the OISE conference, campuses can’t be built unless there is government funding available for the purpose — and now we’re hearing that there isn’t any funding. I suspect that the release of the Drummond Report this week only confirms this, adding pressure to the process of imagining new teaching-intensive universities. It may now be even more difficult to ensure that pedagogical rather than just economic logic is what wins out.

Contemplation of innovation

This post takes a look at the report produced by a government panel led by Tom Jenkins, placing the report in the context of decades of Canadian government policy and critiques about “lack of innovation” and the low level of research done by Canadian industry. Here is a link to the original post from October 31, 2011: Contemplation of innovation.

A new panel on research and development (R&D) and innovation led by Tom Jenkins, executive chairman of OpenText Corp., has produced a report entitled “Innovation Canada: A call to action.” The 6-member panel has recommended “a radical overhaul that includes the creation of a new funding council and transforms the country’s largest research entity, the billion dollar National Research Council.”

I think the report is interesting not only because of its potential influence on changes to the Canadian research landscape, but also because what’s being reiterated is in many ways the same story that has been told about Canadian R&D for over 50 years.

The evident goal of the panel’s proposals is to facilitate the “triple helix” of university-industry-government relations (Benner & Sandström, 2000Etzkowitz & Leydesdorff, 2000). One example is the recommended creation of an Industrial Research and Innovation Council, which “would be an arm’s-length funding agency to help entrepreneurs bring ideas to the marketplace.” So the report fits well with the federal government’s Science and Technology (S&T) policy document from 2007, which takes as its aim the construction of a Canadian knowledge infrastructure that integrates creation of human capital (i.e. a well-trained workforce) with the production of “innovation” through links between academic and business stakeholders.

Of course, the concept of “innovation” is imagined and translated in very specific ways. Peter MacKinnon invokes this logic when he states, “innovation drives productivity growth, which in turn enables Canada to compete globally and maintain our standard of living.” For this reason the “innovation problem” becomes a thorn in Canada’s side, and is by now taken as a given. What’s also a given is that the conversation about innovation continues, even in a self-conscious manner, without policy ever “solving” Canada’s problem. Canada does not “innovate”; its businesses do not invest in R&D, and its research institutes and universities fail to collaborate with industry. Therefore Canada will always fall behind its competitors.

Similar threads of critique have continued through decades of panels, commissions, and reports, some of them government-sponsored and others externally produced by universities, companies, and think-tanks. Past examples include the Glassco Commission of 1962, which criticized the NRC for lack of R&D collaboration with industry (Dufour & de la Mothe, 1993, pp. 12-14), and the Lamontaigne Commission of 1967-1977 which advocated for “permanent steps [to] be taken to bridge the gap between the academic and industrial sectors” (1968-77, vol. 2, p. 521, cited in Atkinson-Grosjean, House & Fisher, 2001, p.13).

To me it seems there’s something of a paradox in the fact that the government is expected to provide a solution to the problem of lack of private-sector innovation. One of the perennial questions from critics is: why do companies not invest in the R&D side in Canada? Could it be the “branch-plant economy,” the historical emphasis on manufacturing and natural resources, or some flaw in the national psyche? Whatever it is, the assumed role for governments is to provide the most hospitable environment possible for private R&D activities. Which leads to another major critique — that government investments in R&D never live up to their imagined potential in Canada. The argument is epitomized in Carol Goar’s comment that “for roughly 30 years, Ottawa has been pouring taxpayers’ dollars into Canada’s “innovation gap” — and achieving precious little.” Perpetual disappointment tends to be blamed on the private sector problem, or on the government for producing poor policy or trying to alter the market.

Every “innovation” is built on incremental discovery, but the notion of “discovery” itself is one we should consider carefully. What does it mean to “discover” something? What does mean for something to be “innovative”? Innovation policy deals with the economics of knowledge, where knowledge is assumed to be something that can and should be “economized” in this way. When the word “knowledge” appears in this context it’s clear that certain kinds of knowledge are (assumed to be) more closely related to “innovation” than others. What then does it mean to “discover” something that cannot be (immediately, obviously) economized? The parallels with critiques of education and its “outcomes” are not coincidental.

These are questions I’m not equipped to answer — but I do believe that “innovation” and “knowledge,” like “creativity,” are slippery words subject to narrow interpretations when convenient. When it comes to implementation, “innovation” will no longer be a rhetorical abstraction; it will be instrumentalized in some particular way. For this reason the language of policy is important; it tells us something about the way these difficult concepts are being implicitly defined, and how they will be realized in practice.

On the up and up – Socioeconomic class and inter-generational change

I wrote this post after watching the Up Series, a group of documentaries begun in 1964 and continued for every 7 years after. The series traces the personal histories of a group of children through their adulthood. I was struck by how much people’s life trajectories seem to have changed within less than 2 generations, particularly with regards to education and employment. The latest instalment of the Up Series – 56 Up – was released in 2012. Here is a link to the original post from September 19, 2011: On the up and up.

“Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man.”

— Jesuit saying

This week I spent a couple of days watching every movie in the Up Series, a set of seven documentary films that follow the lives of a group of English children over a period of about 45 years.

The Up Series is an unusual and fascinating project that began in 1964, when a program was commissioned by Granada Television as part of the World in Action TV series. The first episode, Seven Up, was directed by Paul Almond, and Michael Apted took over for the following six films which were produced in 1970, 1977, 1984, 1991, 1998, and 2005.

The films follow the lives of 14 children who were initially chosen as “representative” of various socio-economic class (SEC) strata. The program was designed to focus on the “determining” role of class in people’s life circumstances. The group of children included was geographically and socially diverse, ranging from one child from the rural Yorkshire Dales to those from London’s East End and suburban Liverpool.

In successive episodes, the participants were asked about various topics including their leisure time activities, educational environment, family, class and money, and race. The project later delved more into participants’ personal lives — choices and relationships, attitudes and motivations, and self-awareness. Several of them bowed out of a number of episodes over time.

Aside from the fascination of watching lives unfold, I was most interested in the role of education, which was a focus in the series because of the association made between education and SEC. There were varied educational experiences within the group, including elite private and prep schools (singing “Waltzing Matilda” in Latin!), state comprehensive and grammar schools, and a charity-based boarding school; several of the children later attended Oxbridge while others didn’t complete high school. Style of education is framed as an early sorting mechanism, as in the first episode where the narrator argues that the “distinction between freedom and discipline is the key to [the children’s] whole future.”

What’s become clearer over time is that this series also provides a small portrait of a generation. Born in 1957, these children were part of the long post-war Baby Boom. They grew up in an era of unprecedented change, both to social values and to economic prospects; and they benefited uniquely from the Keynesian “welfare state”, much of which was built by their parents’ generation.

There was a huge difference in the perception of education between participants, as well as between “then and now”. Those who weren’t from privileged circumstances seemed to see higher education as optional to a full life, including a career and a family, though for some it clearly wasn’t an option presented. This was a contrast to the children from wealthy families who knew from a young age the stepping-stones to professional careers.

The trajectory of life in general was also different, possibly because of the timing of education. Many of the participants had married and had children by 28. Several of the marriages had lasted over 20 years by the time 49 Up was filmed in 2006 (though several others had divorced). Most started full-time work at a younger age than the current average — including the one participant who became an academic.

Within a generation, we’ve already seen this picture change beyond recognition. It’s now uncommon for teens to leave school at the age of 15 or 16 for other prospects, probably because there are no prospects without at least a high school diploma. High school alone is not “enough” anymore; class mobility is practically impossible without a post-secondary credential, and even then, the competition is fierce. These days, the news from the UK indicates that teenagers there (and elsewhere) are thoroughly preoccupied with trying to map our their life choices at earlier ages as they navigate the educational system, suffering increased anxiety over future prospects, and sometimes a sense of lethargic hopelessness in the face of increasing economic inequality.

Class still matters, now as much as ever. Watching the Up Series films made me think about what we might learn about class, culture, and education if we had not only longitudinal, statistical information, but qualitative work that fleshes out the complex processes involved in people’s decisions, the opportunities available to them, and the ways in which education is involved. The larger story of a life in context tells us more than a series of numbers. But with cuts to education research in Canada, it’s hard to imagine that kind of study being pursued in the near future.

The absurdity of numbers

Building on the same themes I discussed in “Proof of the pudding“, this post returns to the “completion agenda” in the United States and the role of for-profit colleges, the question of who is getting what out of higher education, and some issues with the concept of “human capital” as a driver of policy. Here is a link to the original post from February 20, 2011: The absurdity of numbers.

A number of recent posts on Inside Higher Ed have highlighted national (U.S.) debates on post-secondary policy and its relation to Barack Obama’s economic/policy plan. Obama has repeatedly emphasised the importance of education and research funding, even as the Tea Party have lobbied the Republicans to try to reduce funding. Meanwhile legislation has been introduced for the purpose of regulating private, for-profit career colleges, and it’s being battled every step of the way by the lobby groups associated with said colleges and by their political various allies.

All these developments relate in some way to the pressure to increase enrollments and “completion” rates—what some have referred to as the “completion agenda”—from post-secondary institutions. And that imperative is about developing a “knowledge economy”, so that the United States can remain competitive in the assumed global zero-sum game in which national prosperity is at stake.

In Canada, federal and provincial governments have taken up precisely the same strategy of pushing for more graduates, both in undergraduate and in graduate education (witness in Ontario the provincial Liberals’ goal to create 14,000 more graduate student spaces from 2002-3 levels, by 2010—see OCUFA, 2007).

Like others, I question the use of these kind of numbers as a means of gauging a nation’s success at, or progress toward, developing a sustainable “knowledge economy”. Human capital may be available, but this doesn’t mean that the “capital” will be put to use (i.e. that people, with their skills, will be able to find employment) in the immediate or near future. Are there sufficient job opportunities for those who make the “individual investment” in PSE, such that the investment will “pay off”?

The numbers conceal a potential over-production of graduates through the assumption that more college/university degrees automatically means more access to gainful employment for all those who graduate, as well as producing a more “innovative” workforce. (I’ve previously written posts about relative value vs. inherent value in education, and the policy implications.)

The focus on these numbers also hides the uneven quality of mass post-secondary education and the unequally shared burden of its increasing cost. For example, in the United States the for-profit career colleges often market to traditionally under-privileged groups who cannot access more prestigious institutions, but who ironically end up paying hefty tuition fees anyway—and finding themselves burdened with debt by the time their studies are over. It’s a debt they have trouble re-paying due to difficulties with obtaining appropriate employment after graduation.

Along with student “completion” comes the imperative to discover its causes, a search that has produced a whole range of new objects for measurement. One example is the project to measure levels of “student engagement” (gauged by the National Survey of Student Engagement, NSSE). Tests of student learning “outcomes”, and the development of standardised curricular goals, are also related to this process of environmental assessment.

Responsibility for failure must also be assigned, such as in this article where the author discusses reports that argue that “many American colleges are failing to graduate their students, at a time when the Obama administration and leading foundations are trying to ramp up the number of Americans earning a postsecondary credential.” So the university/college becomes a new target for critiques and for governmental interventions designed to ensure “quality” and positive “outcomes” for graduates.

In some ways, the obsession with numbers is really just a sign that education and its “products” are considered to be more important than ever—for their economic value—and thus they become, increasingly, sites of scrutiny for a plethora of “publics”, including not only governments but also parents, students, employers, and the media. But focussing on and rewarding outcomes, usually “completion” as either a proportion of the eligible age cohort or of the national adult population overall, means that institutions are more likely to implement “quick” technocratic fixes to what is generally a much deeper structural problem. Do we really need more graduates who are struggling to find work and to alleviate debts? How can we create a situation where these graduates are more likely to be solvent and employed upon, or shortly after, finishing their PSE courses?

A larger number of PSE graduates is only desirable, economically, if it produces the intended effect; but what we see instead could be an increase to the number of young people who are actually unable to participate fully in this economy even though they may technically possess the credentials for doing so. Unless this issue is addressed, the “production” of more PSE graduates is much less likely to benefit either the national economy or the individual graduates themselves.

Reference: OCUFA, 2007. Quality at risk: an assessment of the Ontario government’s plans for graduate education.

Creative thinking

I’m fascinated with the idea of “creativity” and I have been for a long time, probably because I started out in the fine arts (and spent 2 years working on a BFA). However, I find I don’t identify much with the way creativity is so frequently discussed in economic terms. This post was the beginning of some thoughts on the issue. Here is the original link, from November 2, 2010: Creative thinking.

Lately, I’ve been thinking more about the nature of “creativity” or what it means to “be creative”–probably because there’s been an increasing amount of conversation about education and creativity, relating these things to the development of solutions to pressing social, economic and ethical problems.

One of the reasons I find it hard to imagine “teaching creativity” is that I’ve never notbeen “creative” myself. I’ve always been one of those people who was labelled as such fairly early in life, and in some ways that’s made it harder for me to form an impression of creativity beyond the ways in which people tend to apply the term to me. I think the labelling also highlights the way that some talents (such as my ability to draw and paint) are associated with creativity, while others (a gift for numbers) might not be.

Another reason I find it hard to think about teaching creativity is that I still haven’t seen a convincing working definition of the term. My own definition, as far as I can think of one, would involve primarily three things:

Critical questions: It’s hard to be creative if you just accept what is already “there”, without thinking. Being critical is not just about identifying problems (for example), it’s also a process of questioning the assumptions underlying the problems and assessing the worth of various potential solutions.

Imagination: Criticism turns to nihilism or stagnation when one cannot “imagine” a solution. We need to be able to see the possibility of another way of doing things, beyond what’s immediately evident.

Knowledge and understanding: You cannot do something new and inventive and helpful, or imagine a possibility and bring it to fruition, or make reasonable judgments, when you don’t have a good knowledge base and an understanding of the tools available. This is the case whether you’re a ceramicist trying to determine the appropriate kiln temperature for a glaze firing or a policy-maker analysing the various options available for financing social services.

It matters how these terms are used, how words like “creativity” are defined, because of the salience of the concept in current political and economic discourse–in particular its perceived relevance to the much-theorised “knowledge economy”. What kind of policy proposals will be put forth in an effort to increase “creativity”? On what assumptions will these suggestions be based?

Much of the time “creativity” being slotted into a kind of ideal trajectory of (economic) development, one that involves innovation, entrepreneurialism, economic efficiency and productivity, and national competitiveness (a good example of this is the analysis from Richard Florida, who has popularised the term “creative class” and whose work focusses on the economic benefits of creative work).

This means that there’s likely to be a preferred definition of creativity, one that fits with the trajectory–an ideal “creativity” that produces economic competitiveness as its ultimate outcome. In this case, what comes first?–policy or the definition of “creativity”?

All this is important for education policy because creativity is often linked to the public discussion about the “failure” of schools. Education, which has so often been treated as social engineering, is imagined as the best way to retool the workforce (human capital) for an “innovative” economy.

A useful example of this approach is that of Sir Ken Robinson, a prominent lecturer and consultant whose well-known talk for TED is a celebration of the inherent creativity of small children and an analysis of how the school system destroys said innate creativity.

In another video, Robinson argues that creativity can be assessed. How? By assuming a particular definition. Creativity is “not an abstraction–to be creative you have to be doing something.” So Robinson defines creativity as “a practical process of making something”, the “process of having original ideas that have value.” Originality points to the emphasis on newness and innovation, while value assumes the possibility of assessment; creativity can be assessed through determining the field and employing clear criteria that are relevant to that field. Robinson also stresses that assessment is both a description and a comparison of creative work.

I wrote out my own definition before listening to Robinson’s talk. I think it’s interesting that while he describes creativity as a “process”, he seems to be concerned primarily with the outcome of the process (“ideas that have value”). He also doesn’t delve into the ways in which different kinds of knowledge are valued differently, and how even within fields, ideas do not exist within a kind of meritocratic marketplace. Comparison and assessment are fundamental to the market as a mechanism of governance, so one could argue that Robinson’s emphasis reflects an economic basis for the concern with what children “produce” at school. It also feeds into a decades-old discourse of criticism of public school systems, one that has been notoriously unhelpful in producing better schools.

In coming up with a definition for “creativity”, I think we need to ask within what system of valuation “creativity” exists–and the ways that system affects how creativity is thought about and defined. What kinds of “creativity” are seen as appropriate, productive? And what does it mean for education when a constant public discourse of critique takes up such nebulous, catchy/catchall terms, which are in turn mobilised and reified in specific forms through policy debates (such as those occurring currently in the United States)?

The proof of the pudding

Link to the original post from September 21, 2010: The proof of the pudding.

Throughout the first few weeks of September, we’ve seen a number of reports released, both in the U.S. and Canada, discussing and describing (quantitatively) the positive outcomes that students generate from obtaining university credentials. These reports have appeared at roughly the same time as the international university “rankings“, which were unleashed around the middle of the month–along with OECD education indicators and Statistics Canada reports on tuition fees and national education.

The strategy here seems straightforward enough; after all, at the beginning of the school year, it’s not primarily students but rather their parents–in many cases–who are concerned about whether the college or university experience is going to be “worth the investment“. (I would argue that the parents should also look to their own departing children if they want to know the answer to that question-!) It’s a great time to capture an audience for the debate, since students beginning their last year of high school at this time (most of them still living at home) will also be searching for relevant information about possible PSE options.

These articles are reports stir up the debate about public vs. private funding of PSE, about the rising proportion of university revenue generated by tuition from students and families, and the cost to the state of educational expansion. They also pitch university education primarily in terms of its economic value–not only to individuals, but also to the state (since educated people are “human capital”). Education correlates with increased income over one’s lifetime, with better health (saving taxpayer dollars), and with inter-generational class mobility. These arguments, along with those citing tough times for the government purse, are frequently used to support a pro-tuition-increase position both in the media and in policy debates.

All these points may seem valid enough until we consider the fact that while students may all technically pay the same amount in tuition (say, at a given university or in a particular program), they don’t all receive the same “product”. And universities generally advertise to them as if the same product is really on offer to everyone. Which it certainly isn’t–the costs alone (which exceed tuition) are borne in entirely different ways by different students, a point briefly raised by Charles Miller as quoted in this article. If my parents pay for my tuition and living expenses, then what costs am I absorbing over the period of a 4-year undergraduate degree? How does this compare to a situation without parental support? Low-income students are less likely to have family help and more likely to take on a large debt burden; they are less likely to have savings accounts and personal investments, less likely to be able to purchase cars and condos when their student days are done.

Aside from the variation in economic circumstance, students also bring differences in academic ability and social and cultural capital to their degrees, which means that development differs for each person and so does their overall capacity for career-building.

Not only does university have different “costs” for different people; it also has highly variable outcomes. Some students will land solid jobs and find themselves upwardly mobile after completing a bachelor’s degree. Others may continue to a Master’s or even a PhD and discover that gainful employment impossible to find, for a variety of reasons. There’s also the question of whether students obtain jobs in their chosen fields–or within a particular income range, for that matter. And once they do find employment, earnings differences by gender (for example) still persist to the extent that women in Canada still earn significantly less than what male employees take home for equivalent work.

Another form of quantitative justification, the rankings game is an attempt to make the intangible–the “quality” of education, or of the institution–into a measurable, manipulable object. Part of the yearly ritual is the predictable squabble over methodology, which generates much commentary and debate, particularly from those institutions that have found themselves dropping in the international league tables. This quibbling seems ironic given that all the rankings are embedded in the same general global system of numeric calculation, one that feeds international competition and now constitutes and entire industry that rides on the backs of already overburdened and under-funded university systems. While the public may rail against the supposed over-compensation of tenured professors (salaries represent the universities’ biggest cost), institutions continue to engage in the international numbers game, pumping money into the yearly production of “free” data that are then made inaccessible by the ranking organizations (who profit from their use).

Education reports, with their quantitative indicators of the economics “benefits” of higher education, are a part of the same overall tendency to assess, to compare, to normalize and standardize. Earnings-related numbers often provide rhetorical support for policy agendas that involve higher tuition fees, since proving the “private” benefits of education means that we can charge the user or “consumer” of education for access to these (eventual) benefits.

Rankings and statistics serve as a means of informing risk assessment–for governments, when funding is increasingly based on “performance”, and for students, when it’s about choosing the “better” university. But no numbers can truly gauge or alter the inherent risk of education and knowledge, the ineffability of the paths we take to discovery, the serendipities of fortune and temperament that can lead one person to the gutter while another may hit the heights of achievement. Students have moments of inspiration, they meet undistinguished professors who never publish but turn lives around. They form unexpected friendships and stumble on opportunities, skewer themselves on pitfalls both obvious and unseen.

In other words we cannot ac/count for this most joyful and painful side of our educative experience–the unknown element which is frequently the most formative one; and the more we attempt to inject certainty into this process, the more we set ourselves up for disappointment. This doesn’t mean there’s no use for numbers, for evaluations and assessments, for attempts to improve our universities. But sensible decision-making, whether by students or by governments, will always involve more than a measurement.