Degrees of certainty

I wrote this post about the way the “skills gap” discussion is informed by the politics of funding and the increased amount of risk that universities are expected to manage. Here is the original post from March 27, 2013: Degrees of Certainty.

recent post by David Naylor, the President of the University of Toronto, has been quite popular with academics and has generated a lot of commentary. Naylor makes the argument that Canadian higher education is dogged by “zombie ideas”, and he describes two of them: the first is that universities “ought to produce more job-ready, skills-focused graduates [and] focus on preparing people for careers”. The second is the idea that research driven by short-term application or commercialization, should be prioritized by universities because it provides a better return on governments’ funding investments.

I focus here on the first point, since in the past few weeks, in the run-up to the federal budget on March 21st, there has been a great deal of coverage of the alleged “skills gap” in in the Canadian workforce. Others have already done the work of summarising this issue, but as a quick recap, the argument goes something like this: business leaders and employers in Canada complain (to the government) that they cannot fill positions because candidates lack the skills. Yet Canada produces more post-secondary graduates than ever, and those grads are having trouble finding employment that matches their qualifications. So why is there an apparent “mismatch” between the education students receive, and the skills employers are demanding?

I don’t have anything to add to the debate about what is needed more–“narrow” skills such as those available from colleges or apprenticeships, or the “broader” education that universities argue they provide–because I don’t have the expertise to make an assessment within those parameters. However, I find the discussion interesting in terms of its context, including who is doing the arguing, and why.

For example, while the “skills gap” is assumed as a dramatic fact by Federal Human Resources Minister Diane Finley, who “recently called the labour and skills shortage “the most significant socio-economic challenge ahead of us in Canada”” (CBC)–other experts, including Naylor, disagree that a skills gap exists at all. University graduates, they argue, are still making better money than those without degrees; and most of them (eventually) find jobs that draw on their skills–so why reduce the number of enrolments? Alex Usher of HESA has been generating a lot of commentary for this side of the argument as well; in the comments of one of his posts, his points are disputed by James Knight of the Association of Canadian Community Colleges.

Clearly the debate is more complex than “BAs vs. welders”, but this is the rhetoric being reproduced in numerous mainstream media articles. The average reader could be forgiven for finding this issue hard to untangle, based on the radically different accounts provided by media and policy pundits. Yet all this is discussed with much urgency, because post-secondary education is now being understood as a stopgap for everything the economy seems to lack–and economic competitiveness is imperative.

The politics of urgent “responsive” decision-making lie behind many of the arguments being brought forth. The skills gap, should it exist, has its political uses; agreeing that a thing exists means having to find ways of dealing with it somehow. In this case, a restructuring of university education is one solution on offer, including steering students away from the corruption of the arts and humanities and towards more suitable areas where demonstrable “skills” are in demand. Those doing the arguing have the means and “voice” to define the problem in a particular way; they can intervene in that debate and someone will listen. Each player has stakes in this game, too–the colleges plump for skills and job training over research investments, while the universities, and their advocates, claim a “broad” education is more appropriate; employers want graduates they don’t have to train, so the concern is with graduates being job-ready (for jobs that may not even exist yet).

Is this a kind of moral panic for Canadian higher education? That’s an important question, because such tactics are used to create a climate in which particular policy changes are favoured over others, both by politicians and policy-makers and by voters.

I think at the heart of the debate there are the problems of risk, certainty, and value (for money). Canadians have more of a “stake” in what universities do–often through directly paying ever increasing amounts of money for it–and so they care more about what universities are for. Governments have more of a claim now too, because of the idea that universities are magic factories where students enter undeveloped and emerge brimming with human capital (but it must be capital of the right kind).

The more we experience instability, the more we desire certainty–or at least some form of guarantee that if things go off the rails, we have other options. Yet there is no certainty about economic (or other) outcomes either from education or from non-commercial, “basic” research. Education and research give us no way to “go back”, either. For those trying to get a good start in life, there’s no tuition refund if we fail our classes or find the job market unfriendly at the end of the degree. We can’t wind back time and have another try. So the question becomes: what will guarantee our ability to cope with the future? A long-term focus on broad learning, which can (it is argued) help us to adapt to the changing structure of careers? Or a short-term focus, on skills designed to prepare students for specific, immediate positions?

This is why Naylor makes the argument that “the best antidote to unemployment–and the best insurance against recession-triggered unemployment–is still a university degree” (added emphasis). The word “insurance” speaks to the risk each person internalises in the current economy. Such risk has many effects, and one of them is heightened fear of the unknown: with so few resources to go around, will we get a “return” on what we invested, will our sacrifices “pay off”? What will happen if they don’t? As Paul Wells has pointed out, university advocacy organizations such as AUCC have pushed for universities to be recognised as providing economic benefits–since this is a logic that validates requests for further government funding. Yet it means universities are held captive by their own argument, since funding comes with the expectation of economic returns for the government. What if they cannot deliver on this promise?

The skills/employment “gap” is being blamed for a lack of national economic competitiveness; and it is a parallel to the ongoing “innovation problem” that Canada has in the research sector. But it’s the outcome, not the process, that’s really driving this debate. Never before have we been compelled to pay so much attention to the purpose and results of university education, and now that it seems to matter so much, we’re finding that “what universities should be doing”–or even what they already do–can’t be pinned down so easily; it can’t be mapped so cleanly onto a specific, measurable result. This is partly because what we now demand of universities is certainty, where serendipity used to be enough.

HASTAC-y goodness

I wrote up a summary of the few days I spent at the HASTAC conference in Toronto.

Here are the Storify pieces I made for each of the four days of the conference:

Day 1 – Day 2 – Day 3 – Day 4

And here is a link to the original post published on May 1, 2013: HASTAC-y goodness.

This past weekend I attended HASTAC 2013, held at York University in Toronto. This was the first HASTAC conference held in Canada, and about half the participants were Canadian. In fact, it was the first time the conference had (physically) happened outside the United States. The HASTAC (“haystack”) acronym stands for Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory; it’s a “virtual organization” co-founded by David Theo Goldberg and Cathy Davidson in 2002, which functions as a kind of user-driven platform, a support system and a place of meeting and collaboration for scholars interested in technology, creativity, pedagogy and educational change. I became interested in learning more about the organization because I seemed to know a lot of people who were involved in one way or another. When I discovered that the 2013 conference would happen at York University, I realized I had a perfect opportunity to find out first-hand what kind of work was being created by affiliated scholars.

HASTAC isn’t the usual academic conference featuring a menu of panels packed with academic talks. It’s a bit of a smörgåsbord of goodies: alongside regular keynote talks, panels and posters, there were “lightning talks”, demos, performances, multimedia art and even a Maker Space. I decided to attend fewer panels and spend more of my time looking at exhibits, taking photos, and interacting with participants – I managed to see some fascinating things and meet many new friends and colleagues, some of whom I’d chatted with online but hadn’t yet met in person.

At the Maker Space, a 3D scanner and printer could be used to create tiny 3D portraits.

The conference kicked off last Thursday evening at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in downtown Toronto with a keynote from Cathy Davidson, which started a lively debate on the Twitter backchannel.

Friday’s schedule included one event I’d determined to check out, the Global Women Wikipedia Write-In, sponsored by the Rewriting Wikipedia Project. The idea for this event was sparked partly by research on the gender imbalance in Wikipedia editors and in the content on the website itself. One participant at the conference (Ruby Sinreich) was editing the HASTAC entry itself, and another (Michael Widner) worked on an entry for Caribbean writer Karen Lord – who then turned out to be on Twitter and started chatting with him. Though I hadn’t prepared myself adequately to write or edit a Wikipedia article, I did a search for noted higher ed scholar Sheila Slaughter and discovered that she didn’t yet have a page. I felt the urge to remedy this immediately, but didn’t have the time to dig in to the task (of course, others did – here is a report of what they achieved).

Wikipedia editing with Ruby Sinreich, Michael Widner, and Amanda Phillips.

Near the Wikipedia room, like buried treasure, there was a distractingly entertaining Kinect demo happening. I’m not at all familiar with the technical terms and I couldn’t find the names of the creator/s (they were from OCAD, and the group included prof Paula Gardner), but I still wanted to mention this piece because I loved the idea: it involved generating different kinds of sounds through movement, for example if you walked forwards or backwards within a specific area, the music became louder or softer; if you moved left or right, the notes moved from low and “bassy” to high, tinkly sounds. I made sure to capture a video so the effect could be conveyed more directly.

On Saturday, in spite of missing the early bus to York I managed to catch most of the morning panel “Building an Academic Community for the Digital Age” with Fiona BarnettAmanda Phillips, and Viola Lasmana. Each of the panel members made strong points about the need for mutual scholarly and personal support, the importance of the emotional/affective side of building connections and doing work as a community (not just as individuals), and the role of HASTAC in facilitating and working on/with these things. I won’t paraphrase too much because the presenters’ own words are far more articulate than mine on these issues (their posts are linked, above).

By Saturday afternoon it was our panel’s turn to present, and in a sense our theme was “community” as well. My co-panelist Bonnie Stewart introduced us as “the most ironic panel” at the conference: our session was called “Cohorts without Borders” (my slides are here), and indeed two of our panel members were unable to attend in person because of borders and barriers of various kinds. Our colleague sava saheli singh, an Indian citizen living in the U.S., couldn’t get a visa in time from Citizenship and Immigration Canada (she did her talk through Skype); and Trent M. Kays, who contributed a video of his talk and then tuned in via Skype, was unable to get funding for his conference trip (a special shout-out goes to Daniel Lynds, who provided crucial technical support for our presentations). This highlights a “missing piece” from the rhetoric about the international “talent market” and mobility of students, scholars and “knowledge workers” around the globe, i.e. that some can be mobile while plenty of others have their movements (and contributions) restricted by a lack of resources and/or by policies that treat people differently according to their citizenship status. This is also a crucial issue in any discussion about internationalization and access to the professoriate.

Later on Saturday evening, York’s Scott Library was the venue for an after-hours reception that featured a performance piece called Digitize and/or Destroy, by York librarians William DentonAdam Lauder, and Lisa Sloniowski. The piece was designed to highlight the process of digitization (and the work of librarians) and the kinds of decisions that have to be made during it. Each participant was invited to select a book from a trolley, and the choice of either destroying it (several pages would be cut out and shredded), or digitizing it (the book’s cover would be scanned, meta-data recorded and posted to a Tumblr), or both – in whatever order we preferred. Some of the books participants chose to have shredded included “Wife in Training”, various Weight Watchers books, and (my pick) “The Tipping Point”.

This post is just a small taste of this year’s HASTAC conference menu. If you’re interested in reading more about the conference panelists and talks, HASTAC Scholars Director Fiona Barnett has created a roundup of blog posts about the conference, available here.

Adam Lauder, W.P. Scott Chair for Research in e-Librarianship at York University, “destroys” part of a copy of “The Tipping Point”.