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.

Cracking the code for employment

I wrote this post after reading one too many articles about how coding is the skill that leads to a job. It’s a skill all right, and a useful one, but will it definitely lead to a job? We return again to the “purpose” of learning, or of education – and because of context so many people are fixated on seeking the magic formula for employment, and other factors are diminished. We also lose sight of the process by which people actually do end up with meaningful employment. Here is a link to the original post, from January 13, 2012:Cracking the code for unemployment .

The question of whether postsecondary education is a good investment, of whether the “risk” is too much or if it is “worth it,” is one generally framed in terms of economic value now that PSE credentials have become ever more expensive and necessary for larger numbers of people.

Of course the correlation is there — I’d be the last one to deny it; graduates of PSE programs earn more over their lifetimes and are more likely to advance in their careers than those without such credentials. But how exactly does the correlation map out in practice? How do postsecondary graduates actually find and obtain jobs? How do they build their careers? And what image of this journey are we projecting, in the media and in classrooms? How are students being encouraged to make the connection between education and employment, and what are the consequences of that?

These are difficult questions because they relate to process: what happens between the point at which a student begins a degree and the time it is completed, such that somehow a student can obtain employment later?

Heavily emphasizing or highlighting certain skill sets, courses and degree programs because they are more highly correlated with employment is a bad idea because job markets can shift rapidly, and also because it places the skill or knowledge base outside of its larger context. As a small example, in this article the skill of computer coding is described as something that can “get you a job.” But stating this, alongside average hourly wages for computer programmers, is to present what looks like an overly simplistic equation. Who finds work that involves coding, and what is its use? How much experience, and of what kind, is required? How does coding fit into a larger skill set in a way that would help a candidate to “stand out” in a large pool of applicants?

Focusing on the university-to-job correlation without a balance of attention to process can mean that we place less value and emphasis on looking for other ways to build careers. And it means reducing the attention we pay to extra-educational factors, not only the enthusiasm, energy, talent, and work ethic that one may or may not bring to one’s education but also the privilege or lack of it, the social and cultural capital, and the many other factors that can be beyond the scope of one’s education-to-career planning.

There are no short cuts and no easy plans — no easy mapping of knowledge to employment, now that overcrowding plagues even formerly stable professions such as teaching and law. To imply that there is ever really a “guarantee” from a degree is to lead students down the garden path; it raises unrealistic expectations and re-inscribes unhelpful assumptions.

Even the availability of a degree-related job doesn’t guarantee one’s career pick. I recall about two years ago I met a young Belgian man at the hostel where I was staying in Picton, New Zealand, and by coincidence we ended up taking the same early morning ferry back to Wellington together. He came from a well-educated family, and had gone to university at 18 to become a doctor, as his parents expected. But now in his early 20s, having just completed his medical training, he seemed at a loss. He didn’t want to practice medicine, though he’d earned the credential; he’d done it not because he desired to use his time and talents in that field, but because it was just the next thing to do. I thought it was interesting that he had obtained a desirable professional degree but was now at loose ends, not even because of the job market but because of his own lack of direction outside of the university program.

Among other things, knowing yourself — your own capacity, your predilections, strengths and weaknesses and how you learn and think and function in different environments — is extremely important for making the decisions that lead to a career. There is little point in cobbling together a random kit of recommended skills if you have no real interest in those skills or in the things they enable you to do; you might find a job, but I think it’s unlikely that the recipe for employment will turn out the way you planned. Even an economic assessment of a possible career path must take non-economic, less tangible factors into account if it is to prove of any worth.

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.

Decisions, decisions, part 2: tenure and what else?

This as the second of two posts, written in 2010 and published at Speculative Diction blog. Link to the original post from September 6, 2010: Decisions, decisions, part 2: Tenure and what else?

As I discussed in my last post, the “vanishing tenure” problem is partly a simple matter of numbers, but it is also something more. There are now (not coincidentally) many, many more graduate students than there ever were in the past–both in terms of gross enrolments and also by proportion. In Ontario this is by design, as is evident from recent government policy. But does the government intent to expand graduate programs in order to create more tenured professors? No. Their primary goal is to develop self-sustaining “human capital” and to boost the provincial (and ultimately, national) capacity for constructing a competitive “knowledge economy”.

So according to that logic, most of us should be looking to build careers in other, “knowledge-intensive” fields. But how many of us currently in grad school (especially on the PhD track) know what those fields are, and how to access them? Can professors (our supervisors) help or not? How can we find appropriate mentorship for this kind of transition? What is this alternate path we’re expected to take, and where does it lead? Was this what we were encouraged to expect when we applied to graduate school?

Here we hit upon a cultural snag that is not being addressed by government policy: in many PhD programs, there is a perpetual assumption (or implication) made that non-academic jobs are inherently less desirable and somehow not “pure” or good, since in the academic system, designed to replicate itself, graduate education has historically been a process of “socialisation” to the professoriate. This ethic is still being inculcated in graduate school, and it’s one that goes directly against the exhortations of government policymakers and professional pundits alike. This is why there are so many articles and blog posts dedicated to the subject of “escaping” academe, and why graduate school has been characterised as a “ponzi scheme” and even a cult.

As I mentioned in my last post, this socialisation/enculturation model worked well in the past, when very few students went on to complete PhDs and then filled the professorial positions available. But it is directly at odds with the form of systemic expansion we’re now experiencing. In another previous post I discussed a breakdown of graduate mentorship; now not only are mentors becoming scarce, they may not possess the knowledge, social capital, or indeed even the motivation to help graduate students find non-academic work. What’s worse is that after years of graduate study, many students remain in denial even when faced with the reality of the academic job market.

For current graduate students, I think the important question to ask in the face of all this is not “why did you really go to graduate school?” but more fundamentally, “will you make a decision about why you’re there?” rather than continuing to assume that your PhD will (and should) lead to a job as a tenured professor. In suggesting these kinds of questions, I don’t mean to imply that we should take an entirely instrumental view of graduate education or discount the joy of serendipity. But we do need to learn to think twice before counting on that desirable academic position waiting somewhere down the line (or thinking that once we obtain such a position everything will be fine).

And this isn’t a negative thing. We do have options: the choice is not between “tenure-track professordom” and “failure”. The choice is not between an endless cycle of job applications and contract positions while waiting for that elusive permanent academic position to appear–and “giving up”; it is not a choice between intellectual martyrdom and “selling out”. And while the question of “alternative” careers is addressed more or less and differently across disciplines and programs, there is still a strong culture of replication in PhD education, one that is bolstered by increased competition for scarce resources.

As graduate students or prospective grad students we need to think about why we’re being encouraged to go to graduate school and what will become of our lives because of it. I don’t believe that we should accept the sacrifice of balanced and healthy lives in order to realise the Academic Dream. Nor should we feel that achieving this Dream is the only form of sanctioned success.

Among those who have made the decision to follow the academic trajectory, there will have to be more consideration and awareness (in all disciplines) of the fact that while the traditional tenure arrangement worked in the past, the current system–stressed with undergraduate and now graduate expansion, limping by with proportionally less government funding than ever, and increasingly reliant on exploited contingent faculty and rising tuition fees–cannot be what it was even 50 years ago, and what it is in so many people’s minds still.

This is not a matter of ideological positioning, but one of recognition: universities have changed, for good or ill. But while we face certain contextual realities, our actions in the present and our choices for the future will reflect principals and values, and it’s those choices to which we now need to look, and to those principles we’ll have to rally.

Our systems can no longer afford to bear those who in the past sought tenure for its security and financial rewards – nor those who seek to contain their knowledge within the mythical Ivory Tower. In my opinion we need to resist the purely bottom-line oriented, economic model of governance that frequently predominates, the one that treats knowledge as an object and education as a commodity; but resistance will be a matter of principle as well. And in order to have other, better options we’ll need to be ready to participate and collaborate, to help think of new solutions for sustaining this oldest of institutions, to contribute to its re-invigoration with all that our fertile brains have to offer.

The inculcative ethos of the academic PhD sets up the question – should we “abandon” the academy, or is it more ethical to tough it out and fight for the old ways? I think the answer to these questions is both yes and no. Tenure as we know it is not the solution to the need for more teachers at universities. But neither is the exploitation of thousands of young (potential) scholars who have the desire to build fully-rounded academic careers. On the other hand, the features of tenure – academic freedom and job security, fostering long-term commitment to the institution and to students – still have a definite purpose and should be incorporated into/cultivated by whatever model we create. Academic freedom is now more important than ever and still under threat, as somerecent cases in the United States show.

A related point: just as the academic career shouldn’t be a sacrifice, teaching shouldn’t have to be a labour of love. We need to come up with a way to change the distribution of work in universities such that those who are happy to teach and good at it are offered long-term stability and rewards , just as tenured, research-oriented faculty are now. And we should strive to allow for more movement between academic work and other kinds of engagement and research, with recognition of that “other” activity in the promotions process. These kinds of changes will help to overcome the problems with inequity and faculty diversity, as well as opening up more options for students, allowing them to develop the necessary social capital to move to positions outside the university. This could also help to dispel the misconceptions and negative stereotypes that abound in public discourse about university education and professors specifically.

And of course, all this will entail a different understanding and practice of graduate education, one that can encompass preparation for academic careers but also for other applications of graduate-level skills and expertise.

I’ve been lucky to have a lot of good guidance on my own journey. I have role models who work or have worked both within academe and outside it (often simultaneously), so I have something to look to when it comes to “imagining” a different kind of career or even a different “way of being” as a professor. These people have helped me to acquire the explicit and tacit knowledge I needed to understand and participate in academic life, and they’ve provided invaluable support and encouragement.

But they’ve also taught me to consider other possibilities, to think reasonably about my goals and how best to achieve them. Now I’m asking not only “is there a tenure-track job for me?” but also “would I do a really good job as a professor? Would I be happy?”. For me this is important, partly because I want a mantra of feet-on-the-ground guidance in my attempt navigate the murky bog of dissertation-writing, “professional development”, fellowship applications and the post-grad-school job search. I’m hoping the combination of keeping informed, building social capital and cultivating self-awareness will be enough to keep me afloat through all this chaos. I’ve learned to plan and prepare, and to make decisions in stages.

Perhaps, after all, these are the skills we should cultivate in our graduate programs: self-knowledge, adaptability, independence, creativity, and the ability to question our own assumptions, as well as the resilience to deal with the outcomes of that questioning.