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.
I’m a big fan of British comedies, particularly the fine tradition of political humour so well exemplified by Yes, Minister and The New Statesman. More recently, The Thick of It has become a favourite, and in one of the most squirm-inducing episodes, staff in the Department of Social Affairs and Citizenship realise that 7-and-a-half months’ worth of immigration records have been wiped from a computer. Havoc ensues, especially after the gaffe is accidentally revealed to a journalist.
Of course the humour comes from the extremity of the scenario–“that would never happen in real life”, we tell ourselves–it’s just too far down the path of incompetence. But last Friday afternoon we were proven wrong, not by the UK government, but by Canada’s own–and this time it wasn’t 7.5 months’ worth of data, it was 6 years’ worth. The data were from Canada Student Loan program clients and HRSDC employees, and they were on a portable hard drive that was “lost” from an office in Gatineau, Quebec. Is it any surprise that for some of us the first reaction was “is this a joke?”
The news, real enough, is that over half a million students (and 250 civil servants) have had their privacy compromised by the loss of personal and financial information–“student names, dates of birth, Social Insurance Numbers, addresses and student loan balances”–that could be used for identity theft or other forms of fraud. Whether or not the information had been obtained by someone who might have malicious intent is unknown–because we don’t know where the data went. The external drive just disappeared.
As it turns out this loss was discovered only during the process of investigating an earlier mishap involving a USB key containing information from another 5,000+ Canadians. The Office of the Privacy Commissioner has begun an investigation of the breach since “there is a serious possibility that an investigation would disclose a contravention of the Privacy Act”; the issue was also referred to the RCMP on January 7.
From the press release there are a couple of things that stand out, other than the obvious. Looking at the timeline of events, it seems like it took over two months from the time the hard drive was missed (on November 5, 2012) to a public announcement alerting CSLP clients to the loss (on January 11, 2013). During this period the HRSDC developed a new “policy for storing secure information” designed to prevent similar incidents in the future, which is described in detail in their press release. I’d be interested to know more about why it took so long to inform the affected parties.
It’s also interesting to look at how this information was communicated to the public. For example, the announcement was made as part of what journalists and political communicators often call the “Friday news dump” (a tactic that doesn’t always work). The press release itself, including a statement from Human Resources Minister Diane Finley, was inappropriately (but optimistically) titled “Protecting Canadians’ personal information at HRSDC”. While I understand the organization’s desire to provide the least negative slant, this kind of re-framing is vaguely embarrassing given the nature of the problem.
The issue has gained more media attention this week, especially after Newfoundland lawyer Bob Buckingham filed a class-action against HRSDC; thousands of students are already coming forward to join it. Since I have student loans from the period in question, I knew this incident could have personal consequences. I called the number provided by HRSDC and after being greeted with “thank you for being proactive about your privacy”, a search was run on my SIN and I was told that my information hadn’t been “compromised”. But even knowing that my name isn’t on the infamous 583,000-person list hasn’t been enough to dull my curiosity about how this happened in the first place, and the person I spoke with on the phone didn’t have anything else to tell me. Others who’ve found their information was on the drive haven’t had better luck; they’re being told to wait until they receive a letter via snail mail, and to start taking precautions themselves. Unfortunately, we can’t protect our information pre-emptively on behalf of a government agency–otherwise this might not have happened in the first place.
Since this is my last post for 2012, I’ve decided to do something rather predictable and pick out what I think are five significant issues from Canadian PSE in 2012. Here they are, in no particular order:
1: Printemps érable–Québec student movement and strike.
2012 was a year of significant student activism around the world. In Québec, the protests began over a year ago, as a response to tuition increases announced by the provincial Liberal government. An “unlimited strike” (tagged #GGI on Twitter) was called by student groups in February, 2012. The protests had significant political effect, receiving international attention and generating debate about many of the key issues in PSE policy in Canada. There was a broader reaction from Québec citizens when Bill 78 was passed by the provincial government on May 18; the protests spread as residents in Montréal engaged in the rambunctious “Casseroles” events. Québec’s student movement also built connections internationally to other activist efforts such as those in Chile, the U.K. (where tuition protests have been ongoing, in response to PSE marketization and tuition increases), Europe (in the “era of austerity”), the Middle East, and the United States (in particular the Occupy movement, which has found a home on many campuses).
2: Branding Canada–international student recruitment.
Canada is one of the few countries (if not the only one) that has no national ministry or department for education, and many have bemoaned the resultant lack of national strategy and policy in this area. But Canadian university leaders have begun banding together, since they now have a definite shared object: the international student “market” (particularly so-called BRIC nations–Brazil, Russia, India, and China). Canada has finally jumped into the fray in which Australia, New Zealand, the U.S. and the U.K. have been duking it out for quite some time already. A key part of this discussion has been about building a Canadian national “brand” for recruiting international students, which is tied to the commodification of education as an “export”. The federal government went so far as to convene an Advisory Panel on Canada’s International Education Strategy in August, which suggested doubling international student enrolment; in lieu of an education minister, the report was presented by the Minister of International Trade. International students are frequently viewed in economic terms, since they pay higher tuition fees, as well as providing (in the long term) “human capital”, which is of course connected to “innovation”. Canada has also made changes to immigration laws, to allow students to stay in the country more easily after graduation.
3: “Death of evidence” & science activism.
2012 was a year in which scientists spoke out loudly and publicly about the growing problems with governance of science (and research in general) in Canada. Following hard on the heels of changes to the census in 2011, came the loss of jobs from the NRC, changes to funding allocations within NSERC, and the funding cuts to multiple long-term scientific projects. Canada has also generated an international reputation for disregarding the environment. The “war on science” critique linked cuts to environmental science (including the Experimental Lakes Area) and the “muzzling” of scientists who want to communicate with media, with the big picture (summed up nicely by David Suzuki) wherein Canada has lost “face” internationally because of its regressive stance on crucial issues, and where policy decisions are based on ideology rather than research. As I’ve pointed out in previous blog posts, education research has also been cut, which seems like part of the same trend. Through this convergence of critique, the very basis of governance has come under question; scientists highlighted this by holding a protest on Parliament Hill mourning the “Death of Evidence”.
4: Online education and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).
This topic was inescapable for anyone following trends in higher education over the past year. The bulk of the MOOC discussion has been emanating from the United States, probably because of the nature of the changes to higher education that have happened there. For example, there’s much greater privatization and marketization of universities and generally the cost for students is higher, so the anxiety about tuition and student debt (and degree outcomes) is intense. However, MOOCs are included on this list not just because the discussion about their “disruptive” potential has spread northward to Canada (and universities are beginning to jump onto the bandwagon), but also because MOOCs in their current incarnation appear to have been theorised and practiced here first. I’m not going to make any predictions about where the trend of big-league MOOCs is going–others have covered that ground, ad nauseum–but it certainly isn’t going away, especially given the investments now being made by elite universities.
5: Mental health on campus.
This issue has been building for a long time, but its visibility has increased exponentially in the past two years after a series of student deaths at Queen’s University and the subsequent report produced there (here is a PDF of one response). More universities seem to be paying attention, probably not because this is a “bolt from the blue” but because it highlights something they’ve been seeing in the long-term (though much of the media coverage has focused on “puppies” as a remedy). Similarly, the post I wrote about a year ago, about graduate students and mental health, received a lot of attention and was said to have “struck a nerve” (one that’s still twitching now). In the coming years universities will need to find ways of navigating the choppy waters of an issue that is serious (and carries stigma) yet regularly dismissed and de-politicized as merely a phase through which students must pass, in a context where medicating young people for their problems (rather than seeking the root causes) is “par for the course”.
That’s all from me. I wish you all a cheerful and recuperative holiday season, and I’ll see you in the new year!
Much attention has been paid to student mental health issues over the past year, and recently the level of coverage peaked with a new report from Queen’s University at the end of November (PDF here). The report came from an initiative prompted by a number of student deaths by suicide at Queen’s in 2010 and 2011. On a related note, some of you may recall a post I wrote a year ago (and a follow-up), regarding Ph.D. attrition and mental health issues such as stress and depression.
Last week, a blog post from HESA’s Alex Usher invoked both the more recent media attention to undergraduate stress, and my own (aforementioned) post, expressing skepticism about the reality of an “epidemic” of mental health troubles. The post is written as a kind of “Mythbusters 101” about student mental health, and the topic is unfortunately treated as if it is merely the fad of the month (or year) in Canadian postsecondary education (PSE). While it’s always a compliment when someone engages with something I’ve written, I believe the compliment is a backhanded one in this case, since the arguments I made about graduate education are quickly dismissed as a smokescreen for Ph.D. student “angst” and fear of (real or imagined) failure.
This choice of term is revealing; “angst” is a significant word because through connotation, it both individualizes and trivializes the problem. Here, it is part of an argument about “the tendency to over-medicalize daily life”, a comment that assumes there’s nothing going on in daily life that should be considered “stressful”. The very point I was trying to make in my post, a year ago, was that the problems of stress and anxiety are not just attributable to individual weaknesses or quirks of circumstance–not when we can identify certain patterns unfolding across systems over long periods. Suggesting that the problem lies with individuals’ interpretations of their circumstances, rather than being (also) a structural and cultural one, is dismissive of the elements in an equation that may be beyond the individual’s control. We need more understanding about what those might be, rather than an assumption that they aren’t part of the equation.
As others have already pointed out, there are a number of causes for increased visibility of mental health issues among students (not just in Canada), but that doesn’t mean the issues weren’t there before or that they haven’t been building over time; they’re long-term and influenced by systemic factors. For example, the massification of PSE, and related increases to costs, have changed the kinds of students who attend university and the circumstances from which they have to work on their education. This means more students who have fewer (academic, financial, and cultural) resources to draw on, and are more likely to be struggling to keep up for various reasons. So perhaps students are “a lot more fragile, and less prepared” than in the past — but not necessarily for the reasons provided by Usher.
It’s also a problem to assess students’ financial straits primarily by looking at tuition numbers. This is a very superficial way to examine finances, no matter what other argument is being made (in this case, Usher also argues tuition has not really increased–and neither has student debt). It’s particularly problematic when we know there has been a serious economic recession that has affected finances in many ways that go far beyond tuition and other fees. Stress from financial difficulty is a serious problem to which some people have much more immunity than others. To be financially vulnerable is to be exposed, perpetually, to the possibility of loss and disruption. It often signals, or in fact creates, a parallel social isolation; this is why it’s impossible to deny the reflexive link between mental health and poverty.
There’s also a recurring gripe, raised again by Usher and of course taken up with much enthusiasm by Margaret Wente in her latest column (the argument has been “answered” eloquently by Gary Mason here), that accuses young students of having (ironically?) “too much self esteem”. I’m not sure where this assumption could be coming from — perhaps the focus on “high achieving” students? — but it certainly doesn’t match the experiences I’ve had working with undergraduate students in universities over the past eight years or so. Perhaps this is all part of the new “young people don’t have it as bad as they think” discourse that seems to be emerging, though much of that commentary is coming from those who benefited most from what young people are now losing, i.e. the welfare state systems of education, health, and pensions.
Sure, the “kids” have expectations–which were happily passed along to them from their parents’ generation. They were told that if they worked hard and went to university, there would be a job at the end of it. They were told that standards of living could keep rising, and that they could do what their parents did, but somehow do better. Yet the real bubble–that 30-year blimp of post-war prosperity–has long since gone down in flames, and we’re finally seeing the long-term effects. This is about more than changes to the job market or periodic recessions; it’s about risk, speculation on long-term “outcomes” of larger “investments” being made by people when they’re at a young age, when they cannot expect the kind of socioeconomic mobility that their parents could. Yet commentators continue to assume that all this must be the responsibility of the individual, the family, perhaps even the school system (since education is supposed to prepare us for life — and it perpetually “fails” at this).
Wente’s comment that “stress is a fact of life at university” disturbingly echoes the “everyone has a breakdown!” mentality that I described in my initial post about PhDs and depression. While she describes herself as “extremely sympathetic to the issue of students’ mental health”, the actual argument is, “if I could take it–they should be able to take it too.” But if we take a step back, the larger context might start to look like a recipe for stress; and if you think undergrad students are worried about jobs, you should see Ph.D. students who want university faculty careers. So I must disagree that structural issues in the university, and in the larger society and economy, can be written off so easily as “angst”.
I would argue that comparisons to the 1990s are not really useful, because the problems of disappointed expectations and increasing stress (over outcomes), both at the graduate and undergraduate levels, are not just blips on the historical-economic radar. They signal the end of a way of life, or rather, a life trajectory, and at a deeper level, a kind of betrayal of trust that further dents our faith in social progress. Whatever we may think about “kids these days”, one thing’s for sure: unless you start out in a nice solid position on the socioeconomic class ladder, sustainable ascension is more and more of a challenge. That means it’s harder to have the things in life we’ve been told we should want — a home, a family, some security for the times when we can no longer work to sustain ourselves.
From what I can tell, the majority of young people entering university want to be able to do something reasonably meaningful, and sustainable, with their lives–without having to be perpetually concerned about whether finances and lack of social capital will trump opportunity at every turn. If those expectations are too high, then I would ask, what exactly is “reasonable”?
Recently I presented on PhD education at HEQCO’s Learning to Earning conference in Toronto. In my contribution to the panel, I focused on disconnects or “mismatches” in PhD education and how these highlight issues that need to be resolved if doctoral programs are to be improved. The other contributors were Andrew Potter (Managing Editor of the Ottawa Citizen), who spoke about his past experience as a PhD candidate in Philosophy, and Marilyn Rose, former Dean of Graduate Studies at Brock University. Dr. Rose presented research on the professional development options available for graduate students at Canadian universities.
One of the things I discussed in my contribution was the strange disjuncture in government rhetoric and policy, when contrasted with how education happens in PhD programs. Too often, when explaining why PhD numbers (for example) should be boosted, the government’s answer is that Canada simply has a lower proportion of PhD graduates than other OECD nations, therefore, the proportion should be increased. The underlying assumption is that increasing numbers of PhD grads will translate into benefits for the economy. Where does this assumption come from? Perhaps it’s just the inevitable outcome of focusing on numbers, without sufficiently investigating process.
This reflects deep differences of opinion about the purpose of graduate education. While governments want more HQP (“highly qualified personnel”), that isn’t the same thing as “more professors”. Technically the term just describes those with a Bachelor’s degree or higher credential; often it’s used to refer to those with graduate-level training, as on the various Tri-Council websites where the term appears.
Is the government’s approach shared by universities–by graduate programs, and by the faculty providing graduate supervision? If not, do these differences in opinion translate into practice in doctoral programs? What does that look like? I think to answer that question, we need to look at the details of doctoral education, paying attention to how PhD students are “socialized” in particular ways (often solely to become academic professionals, and to seek tenure-track positions). This is why the question of whether it’s “worth it” to do a PhD is so frequently wrapped up with the discussion about dwindling numbers of tenure-track positions. It’s assumed that if there are no faculty jobs, then clearly we have an over-supply of PhDs.
Between students’ needs and desires and the academic logic, and the government’s assumptions about economics and HQP, something’s getting lost in translation. Who and what is supposed to make this translation actually happen for PhD students? Should it be faculty supervisors? Non-academic mentors? University career centres? Organizations like MITACS? Academic mentoring is still a part of many supervisory relationships, and academic development activities and services are usually available on campus. But whose responsibility is it if a student doesn’t know exactly how competitive the academic job market is at the moment, and thus doesn’t realize the level of accomplishment required to be able to “compete”? Or if students simply don’t know what their options are? The current culture in many graduate programs promotes an ideal of success that is relatively limited. We need to look at how that affects students’ choices and the kind of professional and social support they receive from peers and mentors.
What can we do to ensure that students have adequate support to develop academic careers, but also to work in other areas if they choose? In other words, how can we make sure PhD students really know what they’re in for, and can plan accordingly? That isn’t going to happen if we focus primarily on the numbers telling us how many PhD graduates we have in comparison to other countries, or if we continue to assume that more education must lead to economic innovation–without asking “how?”
It’s much more likely to happen when policy is informed by the kind of research that tells us what actually happens in the doctoral process. That’s going to mean finding out more than whether grad students are “satisfied” according to a tightly constructed survey, as the CGPSS does. It’s going to mean going beyond numbers when even quantitative research on education is being cut. We need the stories behind the numbers; we need to show how different aspects of a situation come together and influence outcomes, how various factors involved actually play a part (e.g., why students’ experiences are so different between and even within programs and institutions). Good policy can’t be created in a vacuum, so why do we keep wasting our time trying?
I’m rather tired of seeing a certain kind of argument about university teaching being repeated over and over of late. In this argument, the lecture is set up as a “straw person” version of university teaching, and it’s then knocked down by assertions about the superior flexibility and convenience of the Internet and various forms of tech-mediated learning. I think there’s a lot of missing context for this argument, so I’m going to try to outline some of that here.
One of the latest iterations of it comes from Don Tapscott, who wrote an article for the Globe & Mail’s recent “Re:Education” series. In this article, the author employs a number of points that I find simplistic but in tune with the popular themes that recur. Firstly, he compares universities to “encyclopedias, record labels, and publishers”, in a position of peril where “the most visible threat are the new online courses, many of them free, with some of the best professors in their respective fields.” Next, he indirectly invokes the (much-criticized) “digital natives” idea to argue that students need new technologies: “There is a rapidly widening gap between the model offered by big universities and the natural way that young people who have grown up immersed in digital technologies best learn.” The Baby Boomer generation were accustomed to “passively” watching TV, while young people today are used to interacting with multimedia technologies. Thus, the lecture is outdated: students now “need an interactive education, not a broadcast dating back two or three centuries”.
Those who’ve attended university have usually had at least one or two professors who weren’t any good at teaching and specifically, at giving lectures. What I find deeply uncharitable (and inaccurate) is to generalize this experience even to the majority of university teaching faculty. I’ve given academic lectures in various classes, and I can assure you there’s no reason to assume the speaker is simply “transmitting” information. One of the main underlying issues here is the assumption of passivity in the students, and of a transmission model of communication that has long been critiqued by communication theorists. Another is the generalization about faculty approach, as if those doing the speaking aren’t working to make their presentation engaging and responsive—and as if there’s nothing but lecturing going on in a course.
When it comes to critiquing the lecture specifically as a form and on most faculty as incapable of making it work for the majority of students, there’s another, more fundamental problem involved. A few years ago, back when we were still talking about the problem with ballooning class sizes, there was research being pulled out that suggested the lecture itself wasn’t a bad format, as long as the professor did a good job. Where is that research now? Or was it just that such arguments were needed more, back when we didn’t have massive online courses in which tens of thousands of students could, theoretically, learn from a single “best” professor? This preoccupation shows how we’re still trying to solve the main problem of massification in universities—the need for economies of scale. The lecture was what came closest in the past; the Internet is the new technological “remedy”.
What’s particularly frustrating about the critique of current teaching is precisely that it comes at a time when universities and faculty are under scrutiny for other reasons as well. As Jonathan Rees notes, there is “a cottage industry of pundits who gleefully suggest that faculty in every department of the modern university are somehow headed for the scrap heap”. Professors, apparently, don’t work hard enough and definitely don’t do enough teaching to begin with. This context is reflected in Margaret Wente’s latest column, which provides another good example of the superficial rhetoric about faculty and teaching (while reducing a complex policy debate to “access or quality”). Wente’s piece shows that the ongoing segregation of teaching and research (and general fragmentation of university work) is being justified through arguments about the low quality of university teaching. The plugging of teaching-focussed universities as the solution to funding problems should indicate part of why this kind of “differentiation” is continually presented as desirable.
As well as the segregation of faculty into “streams”, we’re seeing all kinds of proposals for getting rid of as many faculty as possible and replacing them with “superstars” (the “Mick Jaggers of academe”), or indeed, with robots that can perform the tasks currently assigned to teaching staff. But how are those superstars expected to teach? Often enough, what’s suggested is another large online course that seems to mimic the lecture-and-tutorial model. So Tapscott’s invocation of online learning and digital tools as the remedy for lack of student-faculty interaction seems somewhat misguided, or perhaps just not clearly explained. I’m still not seeing how large class sizes can be maintained, “[using] technology to free up professors from transmitting information to curating customized learning experiences.”
Are there faculty who are weak at teaching? By all means, yes, and we should work to improve the standard of teaching overall. But simple generalizations in the name of putting forth a specific vision of “change” shouldn’t be mistaken for a pedagogical analysis. If the relationship between teaching and research is considered “unproven”, why are we not looking at it more closely? The same goes for the lecture and for e-learning. If there’s systematic research being done on how these things work or don’t work, then it should be cited as part of these arguments; if the work doesn’t exist, then we should start addressing that lack rather than jumping to the preferred answer. And if the work isn’t being rewarded in the research-driven academic economy, we should address that, too.
Critiques of education (and other forms of policy) often contain assumed solutions embedded in them. But there are also other possible solutions. If class size isn’t necessarily a determinant of “outcomes”, then why are we still talking constantly about one model–online education or in some cases blended learning–when we could be discussing reducing class sizes, and providing more pedagogical resources and training for graduate students and faculty? What exactly do we know about how online components work (or not)? Do we even have a way of “measuring” student learning to show what works? The context of all this is not a neutral one, it’s not just “let’s improve learning by finding out what will help the most”. The loss of resources including government funding has created serious material pressures. The urgency of the rhetoric about “change” should also remind us that there will be winners and losers in the education game, and futurologists have stakes in predicting something that could become a self-fulfilling prophecy—because prediction inspires present action.