A recent article on Slate‘s website came to my attention only because so many academics in my personal Twittersphere were reacting negatively to it. The article caused outrage with its discussion of EdX founder Anant Agarwal’s suggestion that professors who create and present material for (video-based) MOOCs could be replaced by Hollywood stars, who would lure more students to enrol in and complete the courses. This is presented as the logical solution to the problem of needing more camera-savvy and student-friendly presenters, since not all profs are up to the task. Further commentary from Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun is supportive of Agarwal’s approach. I won’t link to the Slate piece here, but you can Google “The new rock-star professor” (if you must).
The article captures our attention by positioning Agarwal’s and Thrun’s comments within a particular frame of speculation, i.e. that professors could be “replaced” by stars who appeal to the “masses” in a system that un-bundles the work of teaching into user interface design, content production, “delivery”, and assessment. It’s not a neutral framing, because it puts forth a vision of education that subjugates the expertise of faculty (and of educators in general) to the logic of markets and to the “big data” that are assumed to generate more important pedagogical insights than experienced professionals can. It also conflates learning with “content delivery”, espousing interaction and personalisation while in practice apparently relying on what Freire called the “banking model” of education.
But to turn back to Slate, they’re certainly not the only publication to realise that anger generates interest, that there are ways of making academics angry, and that this anger leads to pageviews (maybe we should call them “rage-views”). Slate’s a bit late in catching on to a game that’s been played successfully before by the Chronicle of Higher Education, the Washington Post, The Economist, Forbes, the New York Times, and others. Popular articles include those that take on the work-life balance and/or salary of the “average” professor, or that reek of unexamined privilege and spark strong feminist or anti-racist critiques, or of course those that pronounce on the future of higher education, which is conveniently subject to apocalyptic speculation that can continue ad nauseum (because the future is always…the future, right? Fair game!).
This time around the article was written by Jeff R. Young, who’s also the tech editor for the Chronicle. In fact part of the piece is a modified excerpt from his e-book, the title of which contains the words “MOOC”, “high-tech”, and “disruption”. Based on its Amazon.com description, the book looks more like a cram guide for busy senior administrators, to whom I’d recommend instead Audrey Watters’ blog Hack Education. In the meantime, academic rage at Young’s article has probably brought a good deal of attention to his book (I couldn’t tell you if it’s boosted sales).
Taking apart articles like the one Young published in Slate is practically a bore at this point. It so clearly sets out to prod at academic sore spots, taking consumerist logic to extremes while playing on a major theme from recent higher ed reporting (MOOCs can hardly be called “news” by now). Even better is that authors who write on this topic don’t need to make up their own extreme speculations, since the quotes they’re using are taken directly from ed-tech celebs like Agarwal and Thrun whose popularity in turn is strengthened by their edgy proclamations. The excerpt doesn’t address whether stars like Matt Damon would be willing to work for free in the name of a good (educational) cause. But the “logic” reflected both in his comments and in the way they’re framed by Young could be said to assume the insecurity of “Ivory Tower” academics facing impending obsolescence, while playing up the often-self-fulfilling predictions made by ed-tech upstarts – “Casting Damon in a MOOC is just an idea, for now” (emphasis added).
I was thinking of all this during the panel on higher education and the media that I attended last Friday afternoon. I thought the facilitator (Anne McNeilly) and the three journalists on the panel (Léo Charbonneau, Scott Jaschik, and Simone Chiose) did a great job of explaining the context in which coverage of education issues is produced, and how this connects to the kinds of critiques they hear about that coverage. Not only are universities (for example) complex institutions with many facets that aren’t entirely visible even to those who participate in them every day; journalists must also develop ways of “finding” the stories and making them relatable to a much larger audience than the those assumed by most individuals, and they must do this with resources that are limited and not necessarily predictable.
The economic logic of the media, particularly those sources that operate primarily in online territory, tends to be one of attention. Linkbait is linkbait, and even the most offensive article can bring attention and start a “debate” that draws people back to the site repeatedly either through comments, or through a subsequent series of “response” articles. The idea is to gain readers, whereas for some academics, it seems the general goal is the opposite: to shave one’s audience down to the narrowest slice of an expert readership. While academics engaging in this kind of practice could be (and have been) accused of a form of professional solipsism, on the other hand media priorities in some cases encourage particular forms of gleefully narcissistic provocation, which we see in various mainstream publications (here’s an example; and its antidote). These are all dynamics that must be taken into consideration by those working in either higher education or journalism (or both) if coverage of postsecondary issues is going to work for “both sides”, i.e. for both educational and media institutions, as well as for their publics.
In recent months we have seen many controversial issues arising on university campuses and in other academic contexts in Canada and around the world, which have generated a good deal of media coverage. These are issues that in some cases connect the university, academics, and students to actions, behaviours, and attitudes that have been seen as shocking and/or surprising.
For example, take sexism. In September we saw incidents where, on multiple campuses (Memorial, Western, UBC, Saint Mary’s), frosh week activities were marred by expressions of misogyny and rape culture. There have also been sexual assaults on campuses, including York’s string of attacks and the most recent incidents at UBC. Meanwhile, two professors were charged recently with sex-related crimes – including creating child pornography, and luring young women into sexual situations.
Lately in the United States, we’ve also seen gender-based harassment in the science blogging community, where biologist Danielle N. Lee was called an “urban whore” for refusing to write a blog post for free. Even as the science community reacted in outrage, further revelations about a prominent science blog editor led to his resignation. The comments directed at Lee also revealed deeply-ingrained racist attitudes and serve as a reminder of the intersectional experience of abuse and harassment. When we hear questions about why there are “still” so few women in prominent positions in science, and even fewer women of colour, we don’t have to look far for the answers.
For another, more historical example relating to race and racism, there’s also fascinating research that’s been coming out recently about the relationships of U.S. universities to the slave trade. It turns out – surprise! – that universities have long been tied to the economic context in which they operate, and in the era of slavery this was no different. From this, we should also be reminded of the historical role of academics in constructing and legitimizing scientific racism. The IQ test itself is part of the legacy of attempts to “prove” differences in intelligence between people of different races.
It’s not just gender and race that are factors in this equation. Other forms of discrimination are also rampant – against people with disabilities, and LGBTQ folks, and those dealing with mental health issues, and of course there’s fatphobia, which is so rarely discussed that you could almost believe it doesn’t exist (with this past summer providing an exceptional case). It’s just a shame we only notice microaggressions when they turn into macroaggressions.
Then there’s the related problem of workplace harassment and abuse. It turns out that academics can behave badly in the workplace too, and there’s a small and growing body of research showing how it happens. We have at least one recent case of this occurring in a Canadian university (McMaster), but this example is quite exceptional in the level of public attention it has gained.
Lastly, I refer you to the global report on corruption in universities, which shows the many ways that campuses are home to embezzling, corporate influence on research, sketchy student recruitment practices, and more. There are also forms of research fraud that have occurred such as falsification of results – or the gaming of the citation system in order to increase rankings.
Of course, none of this should be a surprise. We have high expectations of our universities as institutions of learning and knowledge, but all these examples merely serve to remind us that there is nothing inherently moral or good about the university and its task, and in particular, that the context of knowledge creation is in no way separate from the social world in which such knowledge will come to circulate and be put to use. The assumption that the university is somehow outside of the problems we see in the rest of society is part of what underlies the shock people express when abuses are uncovered, when sexism is still rampant, and when corruption is still endemic.
This is why the description of academe as somehow not the “real world” is so errant and potentially destructive. The “ivory tower” metaphor is inappropriate in that it invokes an idea of academe as not only apart from the world but also above it. This is, I believe, directly related to the need to prove the “objectivity” of knowledge and thus its authority. By this logic, it begins to make sense that Danielle Lee’s blog post describing the racism and sexism she experienced was removed by editors at Scientific American, who argued that it was not about “discovering science”. But what could be more crucial to “discovery” and to knowledge than the factors that shape who is allowed to discover things, and how?
In a context where universities are relying more on private funds, where they are encouraged to compete with each other for resources and students, and where being “the best” not just nationally but internationally is an imperative, these issues may be downplayed or treated as momentary “crises” to be managed rather than long-term problems based on entrenched systemic patterns. That latter angle doesn’t make for good public relations fodder.
But we do have an opportunity here, an opportunity to shine a light on these things in ways that may not happen so easily in other institutions. Does the university have a dirty past, and a grubby present? Yes. But that isn’t all it has, and it doesn’t mean we should lose hope in the university as an institution. It just means we need to realise there’s no real separation between what goes on in the ivied halls, and what’s happening “outside” in society at large. As much as we dislike having to admit it, the university is of the world – not above it; but it’s the task of a knowledge institution that is special, meaning that perhaps we do have the tools to address these problems in ways that other institutions can’t. In order to do this, though, the university must address itself and have knowledge of itself – as painful as that might be.
The current Ontario government has been formulating ideas for systemic change in higher education since at least 2005, when the Rae Review was released. Some of the issues raised in that review are still with us now – and one of those issues is university differentiation, which has come up yet again via a data set (PDF) from the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO) and most recently in the provincial government’s draft (PDF) of a framework for differentiation (here’s a good summary by Gavin Moodie).
Differentiation refers to the idea that universities should each take on a distinct “mission”, one that sets them apart from other institutions, and that their activities and priorities should flow from the mission so chosen. The point of differentiation (PDF) in this way is to curtail or reduce costs through the elimination of activity that does not contribute to the university’s “mission”, and to increase quality by having institutions focus their various resources on a reduced range of programs and/or functions. Past discussions of teaching-focused universities (which already exist in some other provinces) were borne of the same logic.
Earlier in this process, the Ontario government required universities to produce Strategic Mandate Agreements outlining how they would take on specific roles in a larger provincial system. However, an “expert panel” who reviewed the results of this exercise concluded that universities had failed to generate mandates that show significant diversity. Since they haven’t been able to implement differentiation “from the bottom up”, universities are now haunted by the spectre of increased government intervention. Based on the reports we see so far, attaching external funding to internal change is the government’s primary tactic for making the desired change happen.
There are a number of reasons why Ontario’s universities haven’t spontaneously differentiated themselves in the “right” way, and thus why the government may begin to impose more conditions on funds. Asking (or telling) universities to define specific “mandates” isn’t just about saying what they will be doing; it also requires them to make decisions about what they won’t be doing, and the implication is that as some areas are strengthened, other areas will be pruned. Such changes are difficult to make at the best of times, and they cannot be made quickly if there is to be adequate consultation. At the moment, program reviews at the University of Guelph provide an example of this kind of process in action.
Not only are the required decisions difficult to make (and to implement), but most universities are striving to be a similar kind of institution: a “world-class research university”. Universities are not like regular products in a market, as much as their sophisticated branding efforts might indicate this. One of the great contradictions of increasingly marketized university systems is that universities run on prestige, and thus they’re unlikely to accept voluntarily a lower status in the hierarchy as a means of accessing a different, less prestigious slice of the student market. This explains – at least in part – why so many universities seem to have the same “vision” and “mission” in mind (an example is provided by Alex Usher in this blog post on Western’s new strategic plan).
It also helps explain why HEQCO’s categorization of universities is focused on two criteria, research and “comprehensiveness” (reduced from five criteria in their 2010 report, PDF). The strong association of research with prestige means that universities that focus on either teaching or research (for example) are not “different but equal”; differentiation becomes a form of hierarchization because some activities are valued more than others globally. This is possibly why some Ontario universities would applaud formalized stratification, since it would freeze the existing order in place and prevent lesser institutions from trying to climb the prestige ladder. Such a process would have the more tangible benefit of bringing research funding and higher quality students to universities closer to the top of said ladder, without pesky competition from those lower down. It takes resources to be “world class”, after all.
Being internationally competitive means looking at the big picture and where Canadian universities appear in it. Often, comparisons between Canada and other countries such as the United States emphasize that Canadian universities are much more homogeneous than their U.S. counterparts. In Canada, there is said to be a much more “level playing-field” as it were. This is at least in part because almost all Canadian universities are publicly funded, and they have a fairly low level of marketization compared to (for example) the United States.
Yet this situation, which some might see as beneficial, is bemoaned as an obstacle to achieving true “world class” quality. What we see is the conflation of egalitarianism with mediocrity, at least in the rhetoric of justification that is employed. As the argument goes, if we don’t deliberately narrow and target our funding to the “best and brightest”, then how can we have any universities that “compete” internationally? By this logic, spreading the money around is like spreading fine manure too thinly over a large garden. Better to choose a few spots where we want significant growth to happen, rather than reap a weedy crop from a more dispersed fertilization.
The assumption that we must compete internationally, that we must be “world class” (according to a fairly narrow definition), is taken as a given in almost every case where this is discussed. Who would dare to suggest we not strive to be closer to Harvard, MIT, Oxford, and the like? Surely it’s obvious that these are the standards to which we all must aspire. Who could be against “quality”? Such considerations are more important than ever at a time when Canadian universities are ramping up their efforts to recruit top international students. Every university must be “world-class” if it wants to attract the best and brightest from “emerging [student] markets” in countries like India, China, and Brazil. Being world-class is part of the brand; and of course, Canadian universities aren’t the only ones relying on these arguments.
Trying to curtail costs by limiting the expansion of universities’ mission isn’t a new practice, but it’s one that (in Ontario) would be seen as impinging on the significant degree of autonomy that universities have enjoyed in the past. Not only will funding change, but it will be steered by a logic of competitiveness that invokes global trends, even as it confers on only a few universities the permission to pursue them. Bolstering those universities that already dominate in the (international) rankings and in research funding is viewed as strategic allocation in the service of “excellence”.
Universities can’t be all things to all students, and there are no easy answers here. The government must also consider factors like geography and its effect on access; meaningful partnerships between universities and their local communities; and of course, the quality of teaching, which is a stated imperative for every institution (though how they follow through on it may be another story). But even the relentless obsession with recruiting the “best” students leaves us with the question of how “other” students will fare, and who will focus on their needs, if this mission doesn’t bring the global accolades that universities so cherish. While the Ontario government may insist that all mandates will be valued equally, it remains to be seen how this “value” will manifest in the current environment.
In this week’s post I’m going to stay with the subject of media and higher education, since there’s so much to work with at the moment – ‘tis the season, as they say. Since I last wrote, there’s a new, strategically-timed CIBC World Markets report that has garnered a good deal of media coverage, because it essentially claims that the value of university degrees has declined and that there are radically different “earnings premiums” on different fields of study. The humanities and social sciences of course end up lower in this hierarchy of profit than engineering, commerce, and health-related fields.
There are a lot of points that have already been made in other columns and blogs, so I won’t repeat them (Léo Charbonneau has a selection linked in his own helpful post, here). Instead I’ll just take a some time to focus on one of the issues that I had with this report, or at least with the coverage of its contents.
Whenever political, economic, and social problems are being discussed in the news media (or pretty much anywhere else), people will tend to look for a place to lay the blame – because that’s how we find (or at least propose) various kinds of solutions: by determining where things must be “going wrong”, and proposing an intervention. This is why there’s a need to be skeptical about the assumptions put forth in any argument about crisis in the present and the kind of (often “urgent”) action required to remedy it. The diagnosis tends to be a platform for the promotion of a particular cure.
To return to the CIBC report and the media coverage of it, here are some quotes about the source of the problem being debated:
“…degree holders fall behind in the earnings scale”, which is “largely the result of the programs Canadians have chosen to study” (CIBC, Newswire).
“Despite the fact that it is well known that certain degrees pay more in Canada, there hasn’t been any sort of gravitation towards those degrees among students to match the job market” (Financial Post).
“Plus, more women are choosing to pursue post-secondary education – and females are “disproportionately represented” in arts and social sciences” (HR Reporter).
“…experts are warning that young people aren’t making the educational choices that will allow them to step in [when Baby Boomers retire]”; “Many have arguably been victims of poor advice, encouraged by their parents and high school teachers to follow their whims and passions instead of making realistic career plans for a difficult job market” (National Post).
“….it is crucial to Canada’s economy that we start producing more graduates in growth areas of the economy” (CIBC, Newswire).
That’s right: the blame is being placed primarily on students (perhaps especially women) for making poor choices about their education. If students continue to choose the humanities over the sciences, for example, they can expect poor “returns” on their investment in education, because humanities degrees don’t “pay”. This in turn exacerbates the “skills gap” and affects the success of the Canadian economy, hence the complaint voiced by Rick Miner that “We’re letting a bunch of 17- and 18-year-olds dictate our labour market composition, and they’re not given a lot of advice to make decisions about what might be in their best interests.”
But what else should we expect from those teenagers, when they’ve often been encouraged to see education both as a costly commodity and as a route to a job, without being given any guidance as to how this translation/transition from education to employment actually happens? Even with advice, do we expect young students, or even their parents, to be perfectly informed consumers when it comes to selecting their degree program? Do we expect students’ decisions over a four-year period to reflect this level of information – and who is providing it? Are job market prospects the only factor affecting students’ choices, or are grades, advice and steering, geographic location, and expense, factors as well? Does the job market remain static for four years, and if not, can governments and universities successfully predict its fluctuations? Apparently “[i]n the absence of reliable data, labour market experts encourage students to do their own research in fields they’re interested in” (National Post). But even if they all believed that education should be solely about getting “the biggest bang for [your] buck”, they’d have a hard time finding the necessary information to predict the future of the job market.
We’ve seen all this before in past coverage, but now the argument has returned, full-force; the CIBC piece merely feeds an existing myth, one that also meshes with (and takes momentum from) the ongoing debate about Canada’s “skills gap” and the question of the “value” of humanities and liberal arts education.
As Kate T. Lawson argues, “one thing universities can’t do is perform magic tricks”: they can’t “fix” the economy, or eliminate inequality, or somehow solve problems that are rooted in multiple facets of society, simply by producing the right kinds of graduates or research. The bizarre situation in which we find ourselves is one where it apparently makes sense to increasingly privatize the cost of education, then expect students to make “choices” that are for the larger (public?) good in terms of the economy and the job market. When students resist or fail to follow the supposed path to economic success, perhaps we can just fall back on the narrative about “Millennials” being more interested in “saving the world” than in saving to buy a new home – it’s their choice, after all.
If student choice is the problem, then the “solution” becomes an issue of steering students in the right direction and expecting universities to produce them as candidates who match the jobs available. But education is only partly about choice for each person, and those choices are only part of the ultimate “outcome”. As with many other things in life, we make decisions within parameters, and the art of prediction is not yet and has never been as finely honed as we’re encouraged to believe. Expecting students to master it and to become fully responsible for their own “outcomes” is unreasonable, and also conveniently obscures the myriad other factors at work.
Howard Rheingold, the longtime Internet commentator and UC Berkeley lecturer, uses the term “crap detection” to describe the process of determining whether online information is credible or not. What Rheingold calls “crap detection” is also known as information literacy, and in my case it was acquired partly through a degree in communication studies with an emphasis on analysing mainstream media coverage.
I thought of Rheingold’s ideas, and my own mass comms background, the other day when I came across an article by Douglas Todd from the Vancouver Sun titled “The pros and cons of foreign students.” This article is taking on what is currently a hot topic in Canadian higher education. The issue is only likely to heat up further in the coming years, given that Canadian universities have finally begun to vie for a bigger slice of the international student “market” in which countries like the UK, Australia and New Zealand have already established themselves as desirable destinations.
The first thing I noticed, which for me is always something worth pointing out, is the use of the term “foreign students” as opposed to “international students.” While the terms are used interchangeably, they each have different implications. While “international” is descriptive in terms of students’ national origins and/or citizenship, “foreign” suggests strangeness and unfamiliarity, or “other-ness.” There is other language alongside this, which depicts international students as a horde that will overrun Canadian universities – including “flood of foreign students”; “the river of foreign students”; and “this growing educational army.” The language often used to argue against allowing immigrants into a country is here used alongside the argument that “foreign” students are “crowding out” worthy Canadians.
Another, related thing that stands out about this article, but which isn’t entirely obvious unless you do a little bit of digging (i.e. spend five minutes with Google), is the use of particular voices for commentary. For example, it’s not clear why a political science professor without apparent specialization in higher education, Dr. Philip Resnick of UBC, was chosen for extensive commentary – rather than a professor who is an expert on the subject. Such experts do exist in Canada, and indeed within British Columbia where some of the “locals” in the University of British Columbia faculty of education include higher education scholars Donald Fisher and Amy Scott Metcalfe, both of whom have expert knowledge of higher education policy in the Canadian context.
Mr. Todd then discusses in his Vancouver Sun piece, the use of international student tuition to provide revenue for Canadian universities. The professor who is quoted “acknowledges he’s never researched [the] financial claim” that international student tuition covers all the costs of the students’ education – which it would have to do, if it were to be a source of revenue. But it’s simply not credible then to turn to research from the United States as a means of implying that international students could be costing Canadian taxpayers additional funds, rather than bringing in money for universities. If we don’t have the Canadian numbers on this, then extrapolating from research done in the United States is like comparing the proverbial apples to oranges.
If we check up on the scholar who produced this research (Harvard economist George Borjas), we find that its author generally takes an anti-immigration (and anti-international student) stance, which fits well enough with the fact that he “discovered foreign students have displaced local students, particularly white males, especially in graduate schools.” His research (PDF) is being quoted alongside Canada’s Centre for Immigration Policy Reform, which is a conservative anti-immigration think tank with “official spokespersons” who are members of the conservative and libertarian Fraser Institute.
The author also raises issue of language fluency, which “some local students say is harming the quality of classroom interactions”; he quotes studies that “find many international students are showing up in classes with poor skills in English,” though Dr. Resnick admits that “some [students] are surprisingly good.” One wonders why this would be a surprise given the number of “foreign” countries where English is spoken and/or taught in schools. A colleague who is a Mexican national and permanent resident of the UK commented that it might be a challenge even for those who speak English as a first language to pass the TOEFL or GRE, given the high level of fluency required to do well on those tests. In a recent University Affairs opinion piece (not cited by Mr. Todd) the same issue was addressed and provoked a heated but thoughtful debate about the linguistic readiness of EAL students, which I think shows that while there is substantial disagreement about how prepared the students are for academic success in Canada – it also demonstrates that we can do better than anecdotes and stereotypes in our coverage of this topic.
Lastly, the subtitle of the Vancouver Sun article mentions “pillaging” the best students from “poorer” countries, which would have been an interesting point of discussion, and it’s certainly been addressed by other authors in the recent past. However, even this was addressed in ways that invoked racial and class stereotypes, e.g. by calling the (Asian) students “richies” and quoting the author of a “popular novel” titled Crazy Rich Asians, while not addressing at all the critique of “brain drain” from other nations that have scarce human capital and may lack adequate educational infrastructure to train skilled professionals. There is plenty to discuss here but some of the most salient problems seem to have been avoided or ignored.
It’s a real shame to see this kind of superficial reporting on such an important topic, especially when stereotypes of race and class are being invoked, something that highlights what many students already face when they come to Canada from overseas. I believe that the recruitment of international students raises complex ethical issues that will need to be addressed in the coming years as Canadian universities try harder to fill enrollment gaps due to demographic changes. But these points will require debate that is equal to the nuances of the subject – something that certainly wasn’t being provided by the Vancouver Sun this week.
This past Tuesday afternoon I participated in another panel (‘tis the season!) about higher education, this time at the University of Toronto. The panel was part of a pre-conference event for the Worldviews Conference on Media and Higher Education, addressing how the “pragmatic agenda” is represented in media coverage of higher education. According to the event description, this agenda includes a focus on issues such as privatization of costs (and tuition fees), technological solutions to systemic problems, the “completion agenda” and job training, and emphasis on the value of STEM disciplines alongside critiques of the liberal arts. The other participants on the panel were Janice Gross Stein, Clifford Orwin, and Scott Jaschik, and the moderator was Rick Salutin. The keynote talk was given by journalist Tony Burman, formerly of Al Jazeera.
I’ve been looking forward to Worldviews because media coverage of higher education is an area in which I’ve had an interest for some time. I think this is at least in part because my undergraduate degree was in Communication Studies with a focus on mass media and linguistics. In my MA thesis I analysed university PR, and since I started my PhD I’ve done several projects involving media coverage of university-related issues such as the York University strike in 2008-2009, and the CERC announcements in 2010, and written a few blog posts on the theme of media and academe. Aside from my interest in these issues, I also attended the last Worldviews conference and thought it was an unusually interesting mix of attendees (primarily from the media and from academe, and international in scope).
Before the event, we discussed the panel format and Mr. Salutin proposed a question in advance: “what are your frustrations and criticisms regarding media treatments of the pragmatic agenda in higher education?” The response I gave to this was that, probably because I research this area, I find oftentimes complex issues are simplified in media articles in ways that more clearly support one argument or another that is associated with some particular agenda. The way a problem is framed tends to point to a particular solution. Since so many problems seem to be framed primarily in economic terms, there is a certain reductionist logic that recurs in the discussions.
The example I raised was that of the media coverage on MOOCs. I’ve written a piece about this phenomenon already, and I’ve also been following the ongoing coverage from a variety of sources since it first exploded last year. During the panel discussion I found that while I wanted to use MOOCs as an example of media discourse, the debate drifted to the pros and cons of MOOCs and not to the way that they are talked about and positioned within existing political, economic, and institutional contexts and discourses. I think if we focus in on that positioning, there are clear connections to the most salient post-secondary “crises” of the day. This is part of why MOOCs in the abstract have become a kind of popular trope for educational change, if not in mainstream Canadian media, then certainly in the higher ed news and in a number of U.S. media sources. For example (pardon the scare quotes):
- Emphasis on curing a problem of “scale” through technological intervention, which is presented (inaccurately) as a form of genuine accessibility;
- Focus on “outcomes” rather than (educational) processes;
- Metaphors of “delivery” and “production” that point to the objectification and commodification of knowledge and learning;
- The assumption that what the university does can and should be “unbundled” for “efficiency” and “flexibility”;
- “Value” is defined in a specific way, i.e. economically;
- “Quality” is envisioned on market terms, e.g. “elite” professors (who efficiently deliver educational “content” to tens of thousands of students);
- Concomitant critiques of faculty mediocrity, particularly in terms of teaching, placed in relation to rising tuition fees;
- Framing of higher education “crisis” and necessary radical, institutional change with metaphors of inevitability such as “avalanche”, “tsunami”, “storm” and “wave”, all of which invoke natural disasters over which people have no control, and to which they must “respond” quickly and appropriately.
Further to the MOOCs example, we can also look at the amount of “debate” driven by big name players in (ed-) tech and publishing right now, and how the agendas there can play in to the fragmentation and privatization of higher education. This rhetoric supports the strategy of commercializing and commodifying education for a larger, international “market”. In addition there have been a number of articles in the mainstream press by “thought leaders” such as Clay Shirky and Thomas Friedman, that demonstrate false analogies and hyperbolic assumptions that fit with much of what I’ve described above.
Thankfully, raising this example didn’t totally derail the rest of the discussion, though overall the panel did make me wish I had the time right now to do more research on media coverage, particularly the “link bait” pieces that seem to be popping up with more regularity these days (such as the recent “don’t do a PhD” article in Slate, and last year’s Forbes article describing faculty work as relaxing). These provide us with another example of how important issues can be hijacked in the name of raising an angry response that generates pageviews – in other words, the changing political economy of the media interacts with the context of higher education and influences how it’s talked about and understood. I think that’s a good reason for us to pay attention to that relationship and to the kinds of talk it produces.
On Thursday March 28th, I participated in a panel titled “The Future of the University in Canada”, at the University of Toronto. The discussion was hosted by Drs. Emily Greenleaf and Pamela Gravestock, who organised it as a part of their undergraduate course on “The University in Canada” (which looked like something I would love to have done as an undergrad). The other participants were Dr. Ian Clark from the School of Public Policy and Governance, U of T; Dr. Harvey Weingarten, Director of HEQCO; and Dr. Suzanne Stevenson, Vice Dean of Teaching and Learning, Faculty of Arts and Sciences at U of T. Before the day of the panel, we were presented with a set of questions to respond to in our opening remarks:
- On what issue should universities focus in the next five years?
- What should their response look like?
- How would this affect undergraduate students?
I always find it very difficult to pick a single issue in the way that is often required in debates or structured discussions (see “the blog vs. the book” for another example). As I confessed to the audience, it hasn’t been my job (yet?) to take complex problems and find implementable solutions, and of course this is a kind of weakness because it means I have few ready answers. But perhaps there’s something to be said for having the opportunity to make something as complicated as possible, with the goal of finding a different kind of solution at the end of it.
In the end I decided to argue for universities to improve the way they communicate. This might sound relatively trivial in comparison to the many “crisis” issues that face universities. Currently many people see organizational communication as a kind of frill, an add-on that is deserving of attention if and when the resources are available. But it really isn’t trivial. Communication is about far more than simply sending and receiving messages that “contain” information. The context of communication, its timing, its tone, and its rhetorical effects, are all important to the way an organization works and how its members see themselves within it (as well as the way it’s understood by those “on the outside”).
Universities are already pouring money into external communication, it’s just that quite a bit of it involves marketing to audiences including alumni, donors of various kinds, governments, and potential students–in other words, groups who will bring revenue. This is partly why internal communication (between administration, staff, and students who have already enrolled) receives less attention. It’s also why there is so often a blurring of advertising and information, which makes things more difficult for students who are trying to make the best possible decisions with the information available (Norman Fairclough has written about this). Universities should be acting in the best interests of students, and communication ethics is a part of that practice.
Another, related practice that universities engage in is the ongoing construction and defence of public image, a cause in the service of marketing since it protects the organizational brand. But policing an image tends to be a reactive way of communicating about an organization or institution and what it does; the message is “stop saying what you want to say about us”, an attempt to exert control where many people are now accustomed to a higher level of interaction, informality, responsiveness–and honesty. Universities that try to control closely all aspects of communication are also environments where faculty are less likely to want to speak out on key issues, thus reducing the possibility of academics’ engagement in key public debates.
Communication is key to all relationships within the university, the interactions that happen there every day, and the teaching and learning and research that are core aspects of its mission. In an institution dedicated to knowledge and innovation, the informal contact that helps us make new connections is facilitated by physical and virtual structures (the architecture of buildings and of social and professional networks), such as classrooms and education technology systems. All these things matter as elements of the organizational environment.
The contact that universities make with those both within and beyond their metaphorical walls is even more crucial at a time when so many different “stakeholders” are projecting their expectations onto higher education. It’s something that can help explain what universities do, what they actually offer, and how that fits with what students (for example) expect and need. Changing the way universities communicate is not a “fix” for problems like lack of funding, corporatization, and competition. It doesn’t lower tuition or alleviate student debt, and it doesn’t change the proportion of tenured faculty to contract teaching hires; it cannot resolve fundamental disagreements about the nature of academic work and university governance. What it might be able to do is help build organizational trust internally and externally, which could (who knows!) lead to dealing with future problems on different terms–or at least articulating them more clearly for everyone involved.
A 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.
A recent article in University World News argued that internationalization has “corrupted” higher education in various ways. In spite of the strong term, I found myself agreeing with much of the article, and it also made me think more about how most of the articles I see about internationalization seem to focus on its economic aspects. If–as has also been argued–there are so many social and cultural benefits to recruiting international students, why then is there such a strong focus in most arguments on the financial benefits for universities and nations? What are the potential effects of this focus?
Internationalization, and particularly the recruitment of international students, doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Universities in Canada, at least, must deal with a context in which government funding, relative to institutional expansion, has been insufficient. The solution for distributing scarce resources that’s been implemented in many jurisdictions has been the creation of (quasi-) markets in which universities compete against each other for financial support, including through student recruitment (which brings tuition revenue). This increases the amount of branding and advertising that universities use, and it encourages the student to think and behave like a consumer making choices about educational “products”.
For this consumer-driven model of education, there has always been the unique double bind wherein functionally, for the university, students are both resources and products. On the one hand, students bring capital in the form of either academic prestige (recruitment of elite performers who generate symbolic capital) or tuition dollars. On the other hand, once they graduate, students themselves are an “outcome” that reflects back on the university and on its capacity for providing “quality education” and producing the right sorts of graduates for the current economy.
With international recruitment in a context of reduced funding, we’re now seeing a scenario wherein students themselves are increasingly imagined as commodities in a global field, by universities but also by the state. Students aren’t the only ones becoming commodified in this environment; marketization brings competition between universities, but now between nations as well. As with the universities, Canada itself becomes a “destination”, a product that must be appropriately branded to encourage the recruitment of more student-clients, competing primarily with other wealthy Anglophone nations such as the UK, the United States, Australia and New Zealand.
The primary targets for this recruitment are the so-called BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) and MIST (Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea, Turkey) nations, which have been framed as “emerging” markets. Given this context, as I’ve discussed in past posts, changes to policies in various areas show how Canada has attempted to situate itself through branding as “top of mind” in an international market for higher education. Since education is technically provincial jurisdiction in Canada, the need for a coherent national strategy is seen as more urgent and is also more difficult to implement. When framed almost solely in terms of economic benefits, this argument can be made more easily.
What happens when we start to treat even the nation-state as a product for sale, as something to be branded for a target audience? We should expect similar effects as in other sold “experiences”, including of course education. Often, the promised version of the item is presented as accessible to everyone in a similar way. As with education, people’s experiences in a new country will be highly variable depending partly on who they are and where they come from themselves. A highly glossed presentation also frequently downplays the possibility of having a negative experience; if something negative does happen, it’s now more likely to be addressed from the position of needing to maintain Canada’s image.
Once the market for university education becomes an international one, some students–but not all–become global shoppers. This issue of accessibility is not generally addressed, but in truth the costs of travelling overseas for an education are beyond what many families can really afford, even with scholarship programs available in some cases. While consumerist approaches tend to (perversely) present such things as if they’re available to all, clearly not all students are part of this “market” and thus the marketing is implicitly targeting some students over others–i.e. those with enough money or merit (or preferably, both).
Even where arguments are made for sending Canadian students overseas, these often involve turning students into ideal “global citizens”, ambassadors who can help build the economy of the future in Canada through their ability to understand other cultures. It’s interesting that in some ways the non-economic goals are in conflict with economic ones, because (for example) the international “flow” of knowledge described in this report is countered by the many restrictions on knowledge that are upheld by the state and by the university itself, and by the limits to accessibility that I described above.
If our underlying model is one wherein students are conceptualized as commodities, then we may also fail to consider adequately the human side of this vast equation. These include the results of brain drain from nations with fewer educational resources and “human capital” (especially given the link between international students and immigration), and the effects of policies on some of those who are already here. It’s likely we’ll also see more forms of corruption involving international student recruitment, as that industry becomes more established.
Considering the vulnerable position in which students place themselves when they take such a leap, the focus of this discussion–including in policy–needs to be drawn back to the benefits of international experiences for students, and the ways those experiences can be facilitated best by universities and governments. Since the tendency to focus on economics often leads to narrow or dubious policy outcomes, maybe instead of emphasizing how much we can get out of each student, we should think more about what each student could gain–and which students gain–from their experiences in Canada.
A central part of my research project is the way organizations communicate, and the organizations I focus on are universities. So when it comes to undergraduate education and university experience, an important question I think we need to ask is this: what’s the message that students receive from universities? I’ve been thinking about this lately, and was discussing it again last week with students in one of my tutorials. Here are a few of the thoughts that came out of that discussion.
Relevance and clarity
No matter how much information we provide–and indeed, often because of the amount of information provided–students are likely to feel overwhelmed. But in spite of the efforts that universities put in to welcome new students to campus each year, it seems students still have trouble getting the right information at the right time. A common complaint I’ve heard has been that relevant policies, procedures, and guidelines, such as those pertaining to the acquisition of credits towards programs, or add-drop dates, are buried in obscurity rather than highlighted for students before it’s “too late”. It simply isn’t enough to say “the information is on the website”, when it could be located somewhere non-intuitive, or when in some cases a policy could have been announced up-front. So the problem is more than the lack of information about a specific policy, rather it’s a lack of understanding of the overall system (more on this below). The answer isn’t about “spoon-feeding”–in fact, if we start explaining to students how the system works and what kinds of information are important, they’re more likely to be able to navigate it autonomously in the future.
Media and messages
Good communication isn’t just about content and timing, it’s also about the use of appropriate channels. One of my favourite examples is email. Though frequently tethered to their smartphones, many undergrads really don’t seem to rely on email the way their professors and TAs do. I learned from the start, when running tutorials, that though the university assigns every student an email address, relying on this address is folly because usually the students don’t check it. Since they also don’t use email as much as I do, they’re not likely to go to the trouble of setting up the university account to forward mail to a personal one outside the university system. At this point, I tend to ask during the first class for “the email address you actually use”, and I try to use it sparingly, knowing that many of the students might not see the message until long after its relevance has expired. I haven’t personally figured out a solution to this challenge, since text messaging feels much too personal and no-one seems to like Twitter (for example).
Familiarity and connection
In the past I’ve had students come to me for academic and career advice, and even for letters of recommendation–bearing in mind that I’m not a professor and I certainly don’t have tenure, so my name isn’t likely to do them any favours on a grad school application. For many students it’s become more difficult to connect with tenured professors, since universities have expanded and come to rely much more on short-term faculty appointments. Why, then, are students not seeking out their academic advisers? I think it’s because as their TA, I’m the one who’s most available to talk–and with whom they had some regular contact, in a somewhat less formal setting. I’ve probably read and assessed their writing, so I have a sense of what they’ve been up to. This raises the issue of the need for human connection in our universities. Perhaps in the past we had such small universities that this was not something that needed to be explicitly addressed. Large universities often seem to be low-trust organizations, but students are looking for someone trustworthy to help them navigate through their time in the organization; what they need is a “way in”, and what we need are more ways to help them find it.
Holistic and coherent communication
As I’ve mentioned in a few other posts, the lack of direction compared to what is provided in earlier educational experiences can be particularly overwhelming (and upsetting) for younger students arriving right from high school. The university is a maelstrom of departments, faculties, courses, services, rules and policies, and people, all of which are unfamiliar to entering students. Undergraduates I’ve asked have said that the experience is overwhelming at least in part because of the very fragmentation that has accompanied universities’ organizational expansion (and bureaucratization). This includes a kind of fragmentation of the services available to students. When help is available, why do students frequently avoid seeking it? Are they perhaps intimidated or afraid, or do they not know what help they need? Each service may be located in a different office somewhere on campus, and staffed by completely different groups who may or may not communicate with each other. But students are not collections of fragmented parts, each requiring tending in its separate way–academic mentoring, mental health and personal issues, work and career planning, writing support. Is there a way to create a better-connected institution?
So what’s the message that students receive from universities? From asking undergraduates, it sounds like oftentimes it’s an incoherent, authoritative, and monologic one. This tone and delivery in and of itself can be off-putting enough that students might feel uncomfortable seeking help. For example, being told “that information was/is available to you” (i.e., “you should have known better”) is not a helpful approach when students may be confused and in the middle of a crisis, seeking support. One thing that’s missing is the understanding that rather than just providing students with lists of available services, we need to de-mystify the university itself; instead of trying to create the perfect bureaucratic system (which is impossible in any case), we could show students how systems work. This is also part of the “tacit” knowledge that students gain from being in university; to help students understand the institution, we need to make that knowledge explicit–to communicate it.