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.

The value of a degree, part 2

This is the second of two blog posts address the topic of how we understand the “value” of degrees. Here is the link to the original post from December 21, 2010: “What Value for a Degree?” Part 2: Inherent value.

To continue from yesterday’s post about the “relative value” created when education is a scarce commodity, today I’ll write about inherent value–that which we are assumed to obtain simply by completing an educational credential.

Governments are concerned with developing “human capital”, which is the value of the workforce as measured by people’s skills and capacities for economic production. The argument is that the “knowledge economy” requires more and different skills of the workforce. This assumes that everyone should have more education because education will develop these skills (as economic value that resides in people). So by extension, there is an assumption that education has an inherent value—as something that contributes to the economy through the gross increase of human capital—no matter whether there are better jobs waiting for the graduates.

An assumption of inherent value also means that a financial payoff is assumed for the individual—so there is (economic) value in education for the individual student (or graduate, at least). This dovetails with the current (neo-liberal) policy trend of privatising the sources of PSE funding, including through raising tuition fees. Individual value means individual benefit, and therefore individuals should pay for this benefit.

But as discussed in my previous post, education does not benefit every student equally, so taking an “average” increase to earnings over a lifetime—which is the most frequent means used to “prove” the monetary worth of an investment in PSE—is not the best means of assessing the positive effects of higher education for the most vulnerable/least privileged students, who could benefit most significantly from them.


In government policy there seems to be a confusion between an inherent value created by a university education (i.e. skills, training, knowledge) and the relative value of a scarce commodity. But what does this difference in concepts of “value” mean when it comes to public debates about education, and the kinds of policies that generate and are in turn influenced by those debates-?

It tends to mean that we fight for university accessibility primarily in the form of increased enrollments, then wonder why attrition rates are so high and why so many students seem to “fail” at maximizing the resources provided by universities (such as student services). It means that governments create targets for the number of university graduates to be “produced” and for the percentage of the workforce that should possess a degree, assuming the additional human capital will generate returns to national economic success–but that many graduates nonetheless find themselves struggling to get work due to a lack of jobs appropriate to their level of education. Never mind ballooning debt loads, since personal financial “returns” to education should take care of this (unequally distributed) burden.

But if there is no job waiting at the end of an expensive degree, then the personal “investment” made by the student is seen as a failed venture for which s/he takes primary responsibility (particularly if student debt is involved).

In the UK right now we can see a clear example of this logic at work. As the system has expanded continuing to use the elite model of governance, costs have increased while the economy has become increasingly volatile. Government response is to radically reduce funding for teaching and to allow universities to raise tuition. Students are told they must now pay for something that in the past was more or less free (i.e. for their parents), a situation that creates inter-generational resentment, producing as it does a lopsided distribution of payment for the lingering costs of expansion.

Yet students will continue to enroll (if places are provided), since university degrees are considered more necessary now, for more people, than ever in the past. It seems that the cost of education rises, and indeed the value diminishes, with increased demand–the opposite of how markets are supposed to work.

The value of a degree, part 1

This is the first of two blog posts address the topic of how we understand the “value” of degrees. I started thinking about this not just because of the ongoing commentary in the media on this issue, but also because a friend asked me about whether I think “too many people” have degrees, and I think that question gets to the heart of a debate that has significant policy implications. In these posts I reflect on what we mean by “value” and how the different underlying assumptions about this idea have consequences for the imagined purpose of all education (not just PSE). Here is the original link to part 1, from December 20, 2010: “What value for a degree?” Part 1: Relative value.

A friend of mine, who teaches at an English-speaking middle school in Hong Kong, recently asked me if I think too many people are going to college (university).

I think about this a lot, since completion and participation targets are often in the PSE news and in policy. I always find it a hard question to answer—partly because answer means asking ourselves about the purpose of a university education, and what precisely it is about university degrees that they are somehow assumed to equip young people with what it takes to succeed (economically) in the world. What is it that makes a university degree valuable and why is this important?

The focus for students, parents and governments is significantly economic, in policy and in practice—something that has become more the case over time as universities have moved towards “massification” (expansion) and more emphasis on private sources of funding (including tuition).

The benefits of post-secondary (and particularly university) education are expected to increase both the prosperity of individuals and the competitiveness of the national economy. So why is it important to question both the “graduation imperative” as economic policy, and the “accessibility” ideal as progressive social policy?

While in the past it was true that people who earned university degrees then went on to have more economic success, this was partly because university education was an eliteeducation. No more than 5 to 10% of the population had a degree, so it was a valuable thing to have. Higher education usually meant training to be part of an elite; for example, the traditional “liberal education” was training for a small, privileged group who would become the “leaders of society” in law, politics and business.

In a sense, we’re now saying that as many people as possible should have an education of this kind, which means that by definition a university degree ceases to be “elite” in the way described, or to provide any value based on scarcity. This doesn’t mean there is no other kind of value—only that a degree will no longer provide the benefits of a scarce commodity (to the extent that it did in the past). It also means that universities are and will be using more tactics to explicitly demonstrate the value of what they offer (marketing, advertising).

In a system in which we rank and label people, a lack of obvious comparative value creates a problem, since we need to differentiate in order to allocate. If in the past the university degree acted as a filtration mechanism or a stamp of elite approval, it was the case that you had to have money, family/social connections, and/or a lot of smarts and savvy to get one. But how does this “filtering” happen when everyone gets a degree?

The cynical (or perhaps realistic) answer is that a relatively “elite” group will still form, and it does; filtration still happens because our system is driven by a capitalist economic model that works as a hierarchy driven by competition. People are ranked (using grades, for example), and it’s understood that this is more or less a zero-sum game. And some people still start out with far, far more than others when it comes to securing the highest spots in that ranking.

Yet most education systems are premised at least to some extent on the concept of meritocracy, the idea that people succeed based on “merit” or “excellence” alone, rather than through forms of extrinsic (often material) advantage. Though we have plenty of examples to support the idea that meritocracy functions fairly—e.g. working-class kids who “make good”—the wealthier and well-connected students still tend to get the best jobs in the current climate, no matter how many others may have university degrees. And from the inside, it tends look like this is because of differences in cultural, social and economic capital, rather than “merit” alone.



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.