Access denied? – Considering SOPA and higher ed

This post addresses the potential implications of US SOPA and PIPA bills for the larger higher ed landscape. Here is a link to the original post, from January 23, 2012: Access denied? Considering SOPA & higher ed.

Unless you’ve been offline and away from your computer for the past week, you have probably seen or read something about the many Internet site “blackouts” in protest of the U.S. bills SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (Protect IP Act), with high profile demonstrations and shutdowns from Wikipedia, Google, Reddit, BoingBoingand others.

In the course of my various degrees I’ve never had a class on intellectual property (IP) issues, and though I find it difficult at times to keep up with the details of the policies, I think it’s important that we all learn something about these issues given their increasing relevance to education.

As academic librarians stepped up via Twitter to help out those panicked undergrads who couldn’t function without a Wikipedia page to steer them in the right direction, I wondered in what ways my own research process is (or is not) entangled with the political, legal and technical issues raised by SOPA/PIPA. Revising, adding to, and sharing research materials is an ongoing process, one that I couldn’t have developed even 10 years ago because the tools — many of them online — simply weren’t available. At the same time, the information “field” is now so huge that it’s hard to know where and how to begin our searches, and the search is in no way restricted to library databases or to academically sanctioned channels of information seeking (Google Scholar is generally my first stop these days). What exactly is “content” now and how do we find it?

For example one problem is that SOPA/PIPA could affect content on social media sites like YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, as discussed in this TED talk by Clay Shirky. Shirky discusses how we not only discover, but also share and create content using the Internet. This is an important point — as students, teachers and researchers, we’re now using the Internet for much more than just straightforward searches for academic content. As well as the more popular sites, specialty tools such as and more are examples of how social networking and online information sharing have started to change what educators do and how we connect with others.

Though the example isn’t a parallel, Canada’s PSE institutions have already had copyright problems related to the increasing digitization of research and teaching materials. Many of us experienced first-hand the effects of changes to Access Copyright when a number of universities decided not to use the service anymore, after the tariff per student was to be more than doubled. This past September was, as I recall, more hectic than usual as we waited for course readings to be approved, assembled and copied so students could purchase and read them for class.

As others have pointed out, it was also during the past week that Apple unveiled its new online textbook project. Sadly, but unsurprisingly, it sounds like Apple wants to link the use of its textbook apps directly to expansion of the market for iPads by creating a new technological territory and governing it solo. At worst, this buys in to the notion of technology as academic panacea while also cynically making the play to generate the technology on which education will come to rely. In other words, it’s a tidy business move; but will it work — and what will be the implications for knowledge and for already-stratified education systems, if it does? It may be nice to see education “front and centre” but not, in my opinion, when the goal is to create a closed economy.

While SOPA/PIPA has been postponed indefinitely, the issues it raises will not disappear. Even as we find ourselves with a new freedom to find research materials and share these with others, our new relationships and sources of information are dependent on systems that are beyond many people’s reach and understanding. Even if we learn how to code, to make our own apps, are we not still using infrastructure that is controlled elsewhere and could be policed or shut down without our consent? We need to pay attention to the changing information infrastructure (its physical, legal, and political economic aspects), since the changes made today can and will affect our capacities as researchers and teachers in the future.

Market Fail – UK attempts at marketisation bring a cascade of trouble

This post is about the ongoing attempts to reconfigure the higher education “sector” in England, using a quasi-market as the mechanism. This involved a significant increase to the tuition cap, as well as reductions to funding for teaching in some subject areas. To treat universities like other kinds of products in a market is to ignore some specific institutional and organizational differences that make universities (and students) “act” differently in this context. Here is the original post, from May 7, 2011: Market fail – UK attempts at marketisation bring a cascade of trouble.

Many articles over the past little while have been looking at the failure of government marketisation efforts in England. Following last year’s Browne Review (which recommended that university fee limits be lifted), the UK government dropped the policy bomb that universities had long feared—massive funding cuts (including 40% cuts to teaching), a drop from £7.1 billion to £4.2 billion, and a marketisation scheme to be implemented through raising the “cap” on tuition fees to £9,000 from £3,290. The idea was that universities would voluntarily differentiate their fee levels in order to capture different student demographics/groups, creating a quasi-market. However, when faced with the option of setting fees of “up to” £9,000, the majority of universities opted to charge the highest possible price. They did this in spite of the government’s threats to penalise them in various ways for inhibiting accessibility.

Why has the UK government’s marketisation scheme failed so dramatically with regards to fee levels? Surely the less well-known universities knew that in claiming the maximum possible tuition, they would now be charging the same fee as heavyweights such as Oxford and Cambridge. The government assumed that universities would naturally want to compete for various student “markets”, relying on institutions to create an appropriate distribution. However, such a tactic doesn’t ensure that a market will emerge. That outcome still depends on the behaviour of individual institutions. Since universities operate in competition for prestige at least as much as for revenue (the two are closely connected), their “behaviour” as actors in a market is unlikely to mirror that of (e.g.) a pet food company or an automotive corporation. So the relationship between price and prestige is undoubtedly one factor in the equation; no-one wants to be a “low-cost provider”.

In keeping with this logic, students do not behave like regular consumers when “shopping” for a university degree. They don’t necessarily seek out what’s affordable or reasonable in terms of cost; they are making an estimate on the future returns from their short-term investment, and education is not something that can be traded for a “better model” later on when one has more money to spend. Students are in a bind of their own, with those lacking present income being encouraged to take on debt in order to finance their future employability.

Lastly, it’s very difficult to create “economies of scale” in education (in my opinion it can’t be done, but that’s a whole other blog post). Thus universities cannot easily expand enrolment while also keeping tuition low, offering “discount education”–though this has happened to a certain extent with for-profit, online providers, mostly in the United States.

Another important aspect of the UK government’s plan was to remove funding from teaching, already an under-valued aspect of university work (international rankings are based on research); and from what I understand, this funding was taken only from the arts, social sciences, and humanities. But it seems that that the very universities that depend most on those enrollments will now have to raise tuition even more to make up for the significant loss of revenue–more so than, say, a university focussed heavily on the sciences. Is the UK government asking students to pay more for degrees that they (the government) have demonstrably judged to be less valuable-? (NB, I don’t personally believe that degrees outside STEM areas are less inherently valuable; but they are certainly less marketable according to the logic being employed.)

As it turns out, in most cases students will pay the same (increased) price for their degrees no matter where they choose to enroll; but clearly they won’t all be getting a better “product”. One reason is that the tuition money is replacing government funding that had been cut, rather than augmenting current income in order to increase “quality”. If the funding estimate of cost per student was considered insufficient to begin with, then it makes sense that universities would raise the level of tuition to the maximum possible (£9,000). So it seems there might be a fundamental disagreement between universities and government about the “cost” of educating a student in a certain discipline or area of study (not a surprise).

On a more theoretical level, I don’t believe it’s possible for students to “receive” a uniform education since every person brings something different to, and takes something unique from, their educational experience.

Overall I think this is a good example of some of the problems with trying to marketise education as a “product” with an inherent economic/monetary value. Universities in Britain are now stuck between the proverbial rock and hard place: if they charge higher fees (i.e. above £6,000), they are more likely to be penalised by the government for inhibiting accessibility. The necessity for this stop-gap measure demonstrates the failure of the initial policy to establish the desired equilibrium. Such radical policy change within a short period is likely to have deep effects on the British universities, including changes to student decision-making and to the faculty workforce.

Who will hire all the PhDs?

The latest article I’ve written for the Globe & Mail looks at the question of whether Canada produces “too many” PhDs. This is something I’ve also discussed in past blog posts and presentations. I still think there is a huge disconnect in the way the government imagines PhDs as “skilled workers”, and the reality of their apparent job options. In the future I’d really like to do more research on how people come to see themselves as “successful” or not in a PhD programme, and how that affects their career decisions. The full text of the article is below.

A persistent theme in current discussions about graduate education and its outcomes is the question of whether Canada is “producing too many PhDs.” While enrollments (and numbers of PhD graduates) have increased with the encouragement of policy, more of these grads now struggle to find employment that matches the level and nature of their education – particularly employment in universities, as tenure-track faculty. The situation in Canada is not as dire as in the States where just this week it was reported that three quarters of faculty work as adjuncts, but accounts of under-employed PhDs working as waiters and cab drivers have become more common.

The question of precisely how many PhDs we “need” is one that’s directly tied to our ideas about the purpose of doctoral education. Debates about the ideal number of PhDs tend to be framed in terms of the academic job market, more specifically the demand for tenure-track professors at universities, because of the assumption that the PhD is intended primarily for those who want a career in academe. This assumption permeates doctoral education, partly because a doctorate is required in order to become a professor – professors are the primary educators of new PhDs.

Yet for 30 years or more, the availability of these jobs has been declining. The traditional academic career has become a focus of debate and critique because while PhD programmes have grown, tenure-track hiring has not kept pace. Universities have seen their resources reduced relative to the number of students enrolled, and they’ve coped partly by hiring contract faculty for undergraduate teaching. Meanwhile, we hear reports of hundreds of applications per tenure-track position, and of increasingly inflated expectations for applicants. Each cohort faces competition from the unemployed grads of previous years, as well as applicants from other jurisdictions such as the United States, Australia, and the U.K. Those who don’t find long-term faculty jobs may end up working in low-paid, unstable contract teaching and postdoctoral positions. This is why a now-infamous article in the Economist claimed the PhD is a “waste of time.”

In the past, there has never been a 100 per cent correlation between getting a PhD and becoming a professor, but the situation now seems more acute. With all the un/under-employment horror stories circulating, why do governments want to keep raising the number of PhDs? One reason is that they don’t view the PhD as a route exclusively to the professoriate. The logic of the “knowledge economy” suggests that increasing the number of people with advanced degrees – known as “highly qualified personnel” – leads to more innovation, and thus more economic development. What governments want are not more professors, but more well-educated people in many areas of the workforce. What governments can’t do is ensure that some students are keen to graduate with plans to enter those other areas, as opposed to academe.

Can there really be a purpose for the PhD other than as preparation for the tenure track? For more academics and students the answer is now “yes,” but in many doctoral programmes outcomes other than permanent academic employment are not viewed positively. Those who pursue them may receive less institutional support and faculty mentorship, because PhD supervisors are usually faculty who have primarily worked within the university, and they’re less likely to have cultivated professional relationships elsewhere.

Canada is only “producing too many PhDs” if every student is being encouraged to pursue an academic career and nothing else. In that case, there certainly aren’t enough positions to go around. One solution is that universities should increase tenure-track hiring so that more full-time permanent work is available. Yet even if this happened, it’s unlikely there would be enough jobs to “absorb” all those currently under– and unemployed, who are still on the academic job market. Should PhD programmes be reduced in size? Perhaps, but the problem with simply reducing enrollments is that it’s likely to restrict doctoral education to those who can most easily access the right resources. This lowers the chances that traditionally underprivileged groups will be represented among faculty at Canadian universities.

What’s most important is for prospective PhDs to have a clear understanding not only of the competitive conditions for academic jobs, but also the range of possibilities opened up by doctoral education, which are far more diverse than those generally presented in graduate programmes. Those possibilities must also be developed actively through collaboration between universities, governments, other non-academic organizations and students, so that the promise of advanced education isn’t lost due to lack of mentorship, guidance and opportunity.

Viewing every doctoral candidate solely as a future tenure-track prof is no more helpful than assuming each of us should calculate our own value only in terms of clear economic benefit to the nation. The assumptions in each case conflate students’ needs with the competing agendas of governments, which view PhDs as bearers of “human capital,” and of the graduate programmes that gain prestige by educating successful professors. But PhD grads have personal contexts to consider and lives to live, and we need to make sure they’re informed and prepared enough to make decisions that will work for them. Only then will we start to see a change in the way doctoral education works, not just for the economy and for the government but for graduates themselves.