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.

Lazy higher ed journalism

I started the piece that turned into this essay after reading one too many news items about the same themes in higher education. it’s amusing to read it now, since certain ed-tech themes have come to dominate the discussion so heavily throughout 2012 and 2013. But much of this I’d say is still relevant, including the points about rankings, the obsession with whether higher education is “worth it”, and the concern with competitive recruiting of (the best) international students. Here is a link to the original post from January 17, 2012: Lazy higher ed journalism.

To kick off the New Year, I decided to devote some attention to the important topic of myth-busting. After coming across Tom Bennett’s excellent post, “The Ten Commandments of Lazy Education Journalism,” I felt compelled to compile the following list that addresses a roughly equivalent set of pet peeves from the world of higher ed news.

1. Higher education: Is it “worth it”? Yes. And no.

I’ve combined both sides of this argument and placed them at the top of my list, because I want to make the connection between the recession, the expansion of postsecondary enrollment, increases in tuition and the emphasis on economic “value” derived from education. This line of argument also tends to invoke the need for measurements of institutional “quality” and job market viability. As tuition increases — and government funding is stretched more thinly — the economics of education have become much more of a concern. But ultimately money must be one concern among many, taking into account the non-calculable aspects of education and the apparent mismatch between monetary “investment and return” that these sometimes entail.

2. Surprise: higher education doesn’t guarantee you a job

…and yet we don’t have enough college graduates (or perhaps, as others argue, we have too many). Never mind; higher enrollments (and higher tuition) are the answer, even if that means more students have to go into debt. The problem here is that a degree itself has never been the only thing affecting one’s chances of finding a job. Market scarcity, privilege, individual capacities, and social and economic capital operate among other factors. The oft-cited correlation between higher education and employability doesn’t necessarily imply direct causality.

3. Yearly rankings released; Ivy League and Oxbridge universities hold top spots.

Of course, critiques of ranking methodologies are frequently put forth by low-ranking and yo-yoing universities. But I’d love to see rankings reports as an opportunity to examine the institutional effects of competition in a global higher education “market,” and to consider what’s actually signified by “rank,” given that the same universities consistently dominate (and that most of the world’s students won’t be attending these institutions).

4. Technology will save higher education. Or…

…on the other hand, technology — along with free-market economics — will blow higher education apart, “disrupting” it and making it irrelevant. Too often this involves simplistic and technologically determinist arguments. The pressures of economy, the lure of futurology, and the pressing need for a “fix” to chronic problems make these arguments seductive. From edupreneurs and edupunks to “parseltongues,” we see a proliferation of concepts that aim to capture what may or may not be influential and enduring elements of education’s techno-libertarian future.

5. International students are the answer to intellectual and financial deficits.

Where immigration meets academic recruitment, international students from “developing” and/or BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China) are the latest hot commodity. But does this not seem like an unsustainable, potentially exploitative way to fund education? Which students will be able to participate in this market? It seems there is only a thin stratum of the mobile elite, assuming a certain level of (economic) privilege entailed by the higher tuition and costs of living, and the available slice of academically gifted students is even smaller. Ramped-up recruitment also reinforces the academic dominance of Western institutions. The flip-side of this trend is the appearance of branch campuses, particularly in the Middle East and Asia, which could be viewed as another sign of the valuing of Western education over “local” forms.

6. Research shows: students aren’t as smart now as they were in the past.

Often the culprits are media and/or technology; grade inflation; or the sinking quality of high school education. A similar line of research makes the claim that students learn little that is demonstrable during university. Have we managed, yet, to develop accurate and reliable measures of student learning? That’s another question entirely, one that is seldom addressed, though the need for evaluation is assumed and the haggling over its purpose and method of continues apace (as it has done for over a century).

7. Universities are failing society, the government, and their “customers” (students).

Directly related to #6, this is a parallel to a point from Tom Bennett’s post. We hear that universities don’t contribute enough to the economy in the form of “innovation”. They don’t produce enough human capital to fuel the knowledge economy, the right number of graduates in the right fields for the moment (particularly in the STEM disciplines); and in general, university education doesn’t prepare grads for the job market, for academic careers, or for the “real world”.

8. Universities are inefficient…

…and the solution is [insert overly simplistic idea that’s already been suggested]. Often it’s argued that privatized, marketized education is the answer when it comes to universal accessibility and financial efficiency. And there’s nothing like comparing higher education to industries such as high-end car production, to drive the point home. Of course, since there are no economies of scale in education and nor is it a one-time purchase, the comparison isn’t really a valid one. Knowledge is inefficient. So is learning. Yet the more we “invest” in education, the more we continue to try to pin down its ultimate ingredients and link those in turn to the “outcomes” we desire.

9. It’s all the fault of the faculty.

Naturally, one of the reasons why universities are struggling financially is because professors are overpaidfor the work they do; another criticism is that professors prefer research over teaching undergraduates,which is why high tuition is “not worth it.” Sometimes we see examples provided of the outrageous pedagogical practices and academic ideas of professors protected by academic freedom (and high pay). A “solution”? Tenure should be abolished and a free market established for academic work. Tenure is also critiqued for entrenching academic orthodoxy whilst preventing the diversification of academe. Whatever grains of truth they may contain, these arguments personalize systemic issues, they project and individualize, blaming professors for what is really the outcome of decades of social, economic, and political change as well as myriad policy decisions made at various levels.

10. Higher education has lost its way; here’s the real purpose of the university.

Almost everyone seems to have had a go at this issue. I’ve often wished I could feel the certainty that so many commentators seem to enjoy about the role of the university. It’s surprising (or is it?) that we often see the same or similar criticisms and prescriptions being rearticulated regularly in public debates. The nature of critiques, and the prescriptions that tend to accompany them, is important because we must agree on an idea of what is “good” before we can change the university and make it a “better” institution. Changes tend to be based upon a logic that justifies their implementation. Thus most other assumptions about higher education hinge on the notion of its (assumed) purpose.

All the issues listed above are key themes concerning higher education, and universities more specifically. Because of their importance, I think the discussion needs to be made broader and deeper, and also more nuanced. There is still a major role for the media in shaping public debates over political issues, and universities can be deeply affected by this. The more the public has a concern with higher education and its institutions, the more the stakes are raised for institutions in helping to frame the great debate about our academic future.

Universities and the media, part 2: Why the media matter.

This is the second of two posts that I wrote following the Worldviews conference in June 2011. Here is a link to the original post, from June 23, 2011: Universities and the media, part 2: Why the media matter.

Yesterday I wrote about some of the main themes we find in current media coverage of post-secondary education, and of universities in particular. Much of this coverage is highly critical of various aspects of university education and in many cases these criticisms are entirely justified, particularly from the perspective of students and parents, who represent a large audience for education coverage.

In spite of highlighting relevant issues, the critical arguments made in the media and in the “crisis literature” (and even in the comment sections of news websites) often seem ill informed. So while there are serious problems with some of the changes happening in universities, the debates that happen in the media don’t necessarily contribute to public debate in a productive way.

This is why one of the themes throughout the WorldViews conference was the presence or absence of “trust” in the university-media relationship and the ways in which the university can be “mis-represented” when it does not actively seek to inform publics about the nature of its role, its functioning, and its usefulness to society.

The assumptions underlying many critiques of post-secondary education tend to be the same assumptions that then frame suggestions for the reform, or renewal, of universities. It’s often argued that we must either return to (the best aspects of ) the university of the past, or destroy the institution utterly and begin again with a lighter, cheaper, more innovative and adaptable model, one that can somehow resolve the weighty tension between democratic and meritocratic that has become so much more evident in recent years; all the while becoming financially self-sustaining.

By some commentators, the techno-futuristic (and somewhat libertarian) argument is made that the introduction of new disruptive technologies, particularly the Internet and digital media, will force universities to change themselves and offer “value beyond content” as it were–since all “knowledge” will be available to students on the Web.

I think these arguments often ignore or discount the relational nature of education and conflate information with knowledge, assuming that education is the “delivery” of a product. They also reflect commitment to technological determinism, the idea that technologies drive social and cultural change; and they seem to assume that a high degree of individualism is necessary/desirable.

One issue I did not hear discussed at the WorldViews conference was whether post-secondary education earns more media attention now than in the past, and whether the nature of the coverage has changed over time. Because this question informs a part of my dissertation, I had it in my mind throughout the conference. I became interested in the question through having done media discourse analysis in the past, and through analysing universities’ public relations materials for my MA project.

The small amount of preliminary research I’ve done shows an increase to the amount of coverage universities receive, over a 30-year period. I’ll need a much more exhaustive corpus of news coverage from the 1970s and 1980s before I can say for sure, but I think the coverage has probably changed quantitatively as well as qualitatively, and that that’s the case then there are plenty of reasonable explanations for the change. (I was focussing only on one university, as well; I’d love to expand that and study the issue in more depth for a larger project.)

For one thing, universities now receive far more “exposure” to different publics; more people come into contact with universities than in the past. This is a process that began decades ago and has waxed and waned over time, but at the moment PSE enrolments are higher than ever before and so the student exposure alone has increased significantly. This process of massification (which I’ve also discussed here) was mentioned by Philip Altbach at a panel on the second day of the conference, but that was the only time I saw the issue raised explicitly.

Not only are there more students in the universities, but these students are paying more for their education. Tuition tends to be on the rise in the U.S. (e.g. in the collapsing California system), in Canada, and most notably of late, in the U.K. where the government has raised the tuition cap from about £3,000 to £9,000. The cost of education is being transferred onto the individual even as the value of education to the individual is seen to be in decline.

This form of privatisation tends to encourage a consumerist attitude towards education, and changes the dynamic between universities, students, parents and also the media. Rankings tables create comparisons between institutions that allow for informed consumer “choice” (among other things); Macleans magazine designs its yearly university rankings issue as a guide for student/family stakeholders. Because students are assumed to rely on their parents or families for this money, parents too become increasingly invested in the “quality” of university education.

Universities have responded to marketisation, and to the privatisation/diversification of their funding sources, by investing more in strategic communication including advertising and branding, various forms of public relations, and reputation building efforts aimed at different key stakeholder audiences (public/taxpayers, students, parents, the government, granting agencies, donors, alumni and so on). These efforts tend to affect media coverage as well.

Why does media coverage matter? With all the trends taken into account, it’s clear that government policy, not only in post-secondary education but also in science and technology, intellectual property, and other knowledge policy areas, affects more people than ever. It’s therefore more likely to be the subject of heated public debate.

Universities need to pay closer attention the ways in which universities and PSE in general are discussed in newspapers, on TV, in magazines, and on the Internet, because these media have a strong hand in setting the terms of that important discussion. This is also where the terms of policy may be set out openly, where members of the voting public begin to make choices about what they support politically.

Attitudes and beliefs are circulated, reinforced, and re-formed both in the news and in the discussions that happen that are based on or triggered by media coverage. And what people believe, they tend to act (or vote) on. Universities have ramped up their efforts to present themselves positively, yet coverage of university education has been dominated by overwhelmingly negative discourses.

What is the disconnect happening here, and what can universities do to better inform the debate about them that ultimately happens beyond their walls, and beyond their control? How do universities adapt to this fast-paced communicative context wherein critiques and problems are amplified so rapidly? I think this is one of the major challenges not just for universities but for all organisations, at a time when negative messages can easily “go viral” through social media.* Universities, with their deep institutional roots and their immediate connection to young people, may feel this pressure even more. They’ll also need to find an answer to it, since the (real and mediated) experiences of today’s students will eventually shape the decisions they make about the educational systems of tomorrow.

[*I’m interested to see whether universities begin to engage differently with students who already attend, and to enlist them in ongoing efforts to build reputation and shape expectations of future students and their parents.]

Worldviews 2011 – “Liveblogged” (June 16 – 18, 2011)

The blog posts listed below, from the first Worldviews conference in 2011, are very long and more in the form of notes than actual posts. I created these posts before I moved to the practice of live-tweeting and then making Storify archives of the tweets. At this point I don’t really use Storify, though there are others who use Twitter’s Moments for a similar purpose.

Worldviews – Day 1

Worldviews – Day 2

Worldviews – Day 3

Most excellent dudes – Gender, meritocracy, & media coverage of the Canada Excellence Research Chairs

This is the first Prezi I ever tried using for a conference presentation. Thankfully both the Prezi interface and my skills at using it have improved since 2011. The presentation is about the media coverage of the announcement about the Canada Excellence Research Chairs in 2010. There were protests that no women were even shortlisted for these prestigious and lucrative awards, and the ensuing debate reflected some of the major themes in the arguments about women and (their absence from) science. I discuss two of those themes, the one being “meritocracy” with as idea of excellence as transparent, and the other being essentialist and binary notions of gender.

Worldviews Pre-conference Event – War on Knowledge?

This Tuesday, April 16th, I’ll be on a panel at the pre-conference event for the Worldviews Conference on Media and Higher Education, in Toronto. This should be an interesting event; the other members of the panel are: Tony Burman, Janice Gross Stein, Clifford Orwin, and Scott Jaschik, and the moderator will be Rick Salutin.