Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the job market, poverty, and the assumptions we make when we talk about people’s choices, partly because recently I’ve seen two excellent and provocative posts about this. The first is from Tressie McMillan Cottom on “The logic of stupid poor people”, a post that discusses how expensive status symbols (like a $2,500 handbag) act as powerful signifiers, and how in general there is a complex performance that must be mastered in order for class “mobility” to happen. The second post, “Why I Make Terrible Decisions, or, poverty thoughts” is by Linda Walther Tirado who writes about the (non-) choices faced by poor people, and how they are criticized for what they choose.
I think a theme in these posts is how the scope of (perceived and actual) possibility diminishes radically as your finances worsen – and this affects not only the decisions you make but also your whole view of the world and what it has to offer.
For example, think about the search for adequate employment and how this is experienced by people with low and/or unstable incomes. One thing it highlights is how space changes when you’re poor: no money for a driver’s license, insurance, or a car? Then you can’t take jobs that are far from public transit or that demand the applicant has their own vehicle. Can’t afford to pay for the bus anymore? Then your options diminish further. Time also changes when you’re broke; you get less done because you spend a lot of time just waiting, or having to get things done the hard way because the easy way costs more. Waiting for the bus and hoping you can get to an interview on time. Waiting in line-ups. Waiting for people to get back to you about money or jobs. Waiting for a cheque to arrive so you can pay the bills. Waiting.
What about other resources you need in order to find work? No money to buy a nice suit, appropriate shoes, or makeup and a good haircut? Then you’ll have a hard time applying for office jobs or even much of the service work available, since appropriate self-presentation is crucial (see Tressie’s post for a great description of how this works). These days you need the Internet for a good job search, but what if you can’t get access? What if you can’t afford a phone, making it difficult for potential employers to contact you? What if you’re not exactly sure what will be the next thing you can eat for dinner, and that’s a more pressing concern than drafting the perfect resumé? Priorities change when money runs out, and choices change as well.
Most importantly, you need resources to gain resources. This is either a virtuous circle or a vicious one, depending on where you are on the income spectrum. As Linda Walther Tirado writes in her post: “We know that the very act of being poor guarantees that we will never not be poor.” That’s knowledge that comes from life experience, not from the classroom.
Add to this the weighty sediment of shame that builds up, because in this Western, capitalist society, we tend to assess people’s intelligence and their moral capacity by their financial circumstances. It’s assumed that people are “stupid”, “irresponsible”, and “frivolous” when they lack money. At best they are “unfortunate”. But the assumption is that there’s something wrong with them, not with their context, not with the entire system in which they’re forced to participate. There’s always something “they” could have done to correct their own course; there’s always a different decision they could have made, some cost they could have cut. Never mind that others get to make mistakes and fall back repeatedly, unscathed, on the soft cushion of privilege. To open up about being poor (or about trouble with finances in general) is to expose oneself to scrutiny and judgement of one’s decisions and one’s character.
And so “charity” comes to feel like a dirty word to those who may be on the receiving end of it. Charity means you couldn’t make it on your own – never mind that most people who “make it” do not do so without often-invisible forms of help and support. Charity means relying on the goodwill of strangers, in a society where independence and self-sufficiency are both over-valued and mostly illusory.
You may wonder why I’m writing about work and money and opportunities, instead of education. I think the debate about being poor is intimately linked to the arguments we make about higher education and who has access to it, and the differing “outcomes” of that education. All the things I just described are things that some students may be experiencing or may have experienced in the past. They’re all factors that affect people’s perceptions of the value of things, including education – and the risks we’re told we have to take to access that value. When we talk about student financial assistance, “debt aversion”, the job market, “entrepreneurialism”, and most of all “risk”, we are making assumptions not just about income and privilege but also about mindset.
Not only that, but of course there’s an intimate link between money and mental health issues, and it’s a link that goes both ways. Issues like clinical depression can lead to poverty, but poverty can cause these issues, too. Long-term financial instability wears you down; it reduces the sense that you can gain any control over your own life. Those students who’ve arrived at university from that kind of background are already dealing with a specific kind of long-term exhaustion. They are more vulnerable to being overwhelmed, and possibly less likely to feel safe asking for help. It’s not just the stress of education they’re dealing with – it’s the cumulative stress of living with worry about the lack of things, and the potential lack of things, including lack of possibilities. If they have low expectations about the “returns” on their education “investment”, then this is big part of it; if they fear for the future, then who can blame them?
There’s so much hue and cry about the diminishing opportunities for those who were previously part of the middle class – as if a problem only matters when it happens to folks who had better things in mind. But for some people this has always been their mode of living, their understanding of the world. When we hold out the promise of a better life as the result of higher education, not everyone can believe in that promise. When pundits bemoan the “high expectations” of an entire generation, they’re forgetting that not everyone had the expectation of magical prosperity either from education or anything else. If we took loans, it wasn’t because we truly believed we could repay them; it was because we saw no other option, because we were told our chances of survival were even lower without the coveted Bachelor’s degree. It was because not having a degree was presented a threat to our future employability, and the fear of debt was overshadowed by the fear of other forms of uncertainty. That doesn’t feel like a “choice” – it feels like coercion, and it’s something we need to start thinking about when we engage in debates about policy and accessibility.
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.
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.
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”?
That’s a question that came up on Twitter last week. And while to many this sounds like a “no-brainer”–“of course education can be sold, it’s already being sold all the time!”–my thought is that the question is a lot more complex. On Twitter, with its restriction of 140 characters per post, I found it was very difficult to have this discussion because the concept of education itself needed to be fleshed out in more detail–and as usual, the underlying idea of the thing we’re discussing has a huge effect on the conclusions we draw.
In fact, I wasn’t simply denying the “reality” that education is sold already. “Education” is of course sold, marketed, and discussed as if it is a product. But in these discussions, what exactly is meant by “education”? What does education marketing tell us we’re being sold? And does it correspond with what actually happens when students arrive at college or university?
A book, for example, is not like education (yet higher education has been compared to bookstores). A book is a contained physical or virtual thing, an item (a discrete unit), an object (seen as exchangeable; reified), a product (something produced)–it can be seen as all those things in economic terms, and it can be sold as such, even in digital form. Another popular comparison is to the music industry; I would argue that music itself is still not a good parallel with education because an MP3, for example, can be sold or transferred as an item. Music doesn’t require that an audience participate; it only requires them to purchase a copy of the recording (or access to an event). What music and books have in common is that, like information, they’re separate from the person doing the buying. So the comparison doesn’t really work, because education is more like something that happens, and happens differently for everyone.
My friend Dr. Alex Sevigny has an analogy that I think works much better: education is like a fitness program. Yes, you can pay for access to a gym with top-of-the-line facilities. You can pay for a trainer to take you through the best possible individualized regimen. You can buy the shoes and expensive gym clothes. But ultimately if you don’t get yourself to the gym, multiple days a week, and push yourself to get fit–there’s no benefit in any of it.
Education works in much the same way: it is a process, one in which the student plays a necessary part, and an experience, in which the student plays a major role in the “outcome”. In fact every student actually receives a different “education”, with different outcomes, even if they’re all paying the same amount. What you pay for with tuition money is not “education”, but access to resources–libraries, expert staff, teaching and mentorship, even social contact–and access to a formal credential. Even the credential isn’t guaranteed, since students must complete academic requirements in addition to paying tuition and fees.
The assumption that education itself can be sold seems in part like a conflation of “education” and “credential”, and also an assumption that education never required anything from the student in order to be education. The idea that in the past students were not “engaged” with material is closely related to this. Of course students in the past were engaged to learn–they had to be. Otherwise they couldn’t have learned anything, because that’s how learning works. This is why “education” cannot be “delivered” like the daily paper.
The concept of education as an object is also present in debates about online learning, particularly in the recent massively hyped corporate and Ivy League versions of MOOCs. Driven as they are by the non-pedagogical need to find economies of scale, these projects envision students quantitatively, from the calculation of enrollment to the use of “learning analytics” to track behaviour (and the monetization of data). This fragmentation turns education into a series of discrete services, interactions, and measured outcomes.
Such a view of education–as something that can be delivered, sold, packaged–is part of a schema that includes the overly-simplistic “sender-receiver” model of communication, and the objectification of knowledge. These ideas are present in much of the criticism of, and commentary about, higher education; and they are pervasive in the rhetoric of education marketing and policy. The marketization of education, its presentation as simultaneously a product and a service, its increasing necessity in a difficult economy, and the financial burden placed on students through increasing tuition and fees, have all contributed to our understanding of what education is. Objectification and commodification go hand in hand; treating students as consumers means encouraging them to see education as something to be consumed–not created. Of course this is much easier than saying, “you’ve paid $6,000–now you have to do the work”, because that arrangement simply doesn’t fit with consumerist logic.
For the above reasons I see this question about the meaning of “education” not as a problem of business models or technological solutions, but something else first–a philosophical issue that is crucial to the success of teaching and learning. It is a discussion about language, psychology, epistemology, and pedagogy. I don’t think it’s an easy discussion; but what knowledge is, and how education works, are things we need to understand as deeply as possible since we impart such power and control to the systems where these concepts are deployed.
Sometimes I find there are threads of conversation that keep coming up with friends, colleagues, and students, both in person and online. Recently one of those threads, which has also recurred in my own blog posts, is that involving the focus on skills and outcomes in university education and the apparently perpetual critique of universities’ capacity to help students gain what they need to be “successful” (in the workplace and in life more generally).
Over Canadian Thanksgiving weekend, the Globe & Mail began a two-week-long series on postsecondary education in Canada (full disclosure: I also participated in this series). One of the themes explored in print has been that of the “core curriculum” vs. “specialization”, and which one works best when it comes to preparing students for developing their careers. In particular, articles by James Bradshaw and Cathy Davidson explored the benefits and difficulties of advocating a curriculum shift towards less specialized, more “liberal arts”-style approaches.
The question of curriculum in university education is posed (in the articles) primarily in terms of a broad-based approach involving common “core” elements determined by the university, or on the other hand, more student choice and more specialized options. The appeal of a liberal arts education is that it’s “broad” and supposedly flexible; flexibility, we’re told, is what’s required for a successful career these days.
But nothing is flexible if you aren’t aware of the options it opens up. One perennial irony is that it’s almost impossible to gain the benefits of this kind of education without abandoning a certain kind of instrumentalism–the exact kind that students are encouraged to have when they select university programs. Traditionally, this freedom from anxiety about specific outcomes has been the privilege of the elite–as has the cultural capital required to make the most of liberal arts education. Now that universities have expanded beyond catering to existing elites, and costs have increased, the question of instrumentalism has become more urgent. This is also part of why we now see more explanations of the liberal arts as having a “utility” that is still translatable within economic logic.
It’s no surprise then, that James Bradshaw notes “many prospective students–as well as their parents–still consider liberal-style learning impractical.” This attitude is related to the emphasis on skills and outcomes. The focus on and demand for “marketable” skills and job outcomes places pressure on any debate about the components of education, along with the argument that employers require or demand certain skills (and that universities are not providing these–or students are not choosing to acquire these “useful” skills). Yet there’s no point in saying students need a particular skill, without placing that skill in context. Skills tend to be acquired in the pursuit of some larger interest or goal that motivates us. And that goal, that interest, that passion–that’s what students need, not just whatever is deemed most marketable in the moment.
Perhaps this is my preferred line of reasoning for a kind of common curriculum designed to provide “grounding” for students not only with some breadth of knowledge, but with a sense of the way university education works. Undergraduate students frequently don’t have a coherent path mapped out for themselves, unless they have access to cultural capital that allows it. For many, university education is the way in which discoveries and decisions about careers are made–as well as the means of carrying out those decisions. All this can generate a lot of anxiety about what the “outcomes” might be. Are we acknowledging the situation students face, or are we constructing systems that are based on the assumption that students engage in fully-informed decision-making behaviour at an early stage, with no “information asymmetry” involved?
I also agree that what Mark Kingwell describes in his article, “a sense of intellectual connection, of how things fit together and influence each other”, is a large part of the answer. Students need to see those connections between different areas of knowledge, because through those connections (new) meanings emerge. The specialization of knowledge has helped us to gain deeper understanding, but it can also hinder the learning process because specialized knowledge can be taught without reference to a holistic context. Yet we’ve spent a very long time encouraging the fragmentation of the university into different areas that may or may not be engaged in (or be willing to engage in) interdisciplinary exchanges. This fragmentation has affected not only organizational forms and policies such as funding structures, but also the culture of academe.
It’s really metacognition–“thinking about thinking”, or as Lawrence Summers described it, learning “about how to learn”–that is at the core of what students need, no matter what their area of study. It’s something that underpins critical thinking, aids our adaptation to new environments and experiences, and helps us understand our strengths and how to use them. Students tend to do best when they know their own interests and talents, and are themselves determined to work to take things further. Without that desire, how can learning happen at all? This kind of self-awareness is vital, aided by advice, mentoring, and a pedagogy that must overcome the theory/practice, academic/“real-world”, and content/process divides that permeate so much of our thinking about education. An old adage applies: this is the difference between giving someone a fish, and teaching them to catch their own.
So instead of questioning (for example) “are students getting the ‘right’ skills to get a job?”, we could ask: can we foster (self-) knowledge and skills at the same time, and how will that look for different students with various needs and resources? I think it’s questions like those, rather than the ones about market demand, that are central to the kinds of problems we’re trying to address now in university education.
This week it’s back to Big Post-secondary Reports, and I’m going to take a look at an issue that’s been looming ever-larger on the Canadian PSE horizon this year: Canada’s position in the international education “market”, and the ways in which this is being developed and expanded actively with government support.
On July 27th, a report was released focusing on the overall economic impact of international students in Canada. International Trade Minister Ed Fast then asked for the report’s conclusions to be incorporated into the results put forward by the $10-million Advisory Panel on Canada’s International Education Strategy (led by Amit Chakma, of Western University). On August 14th those results arrived in another report, “Education, a Key Driver of Canada’s Future Prosperity”, which also placed much emphasis on the economic gains brought by international students to Canada.
Another related development, less discussed, is that at the end of July Minister Jason Kenney announced a new policy initiative that will be designed to “crack down” on exploitation in international education (“visa fraud”), through issuing student visas only “on the condition that individuals enroll in and pursue studies at an approved institution and compliance will be monitored”. The arguments being made here can work in two ways: on the one hand, the government can claim to be protecting international students from fraud committed by organizations that aim to make a profit from them. On the other hand, they can claim that the policy protects Canadians from being exploited by those students abusing policy “loopholes” (if such loopholes actually exist).
It seems, from the news coverage, that there’s nothing other than than anecdotal evidence (i.e. no actual research or statistics) to support such a policy in the first place. However, according to Kenney “the proposed changes would address the protection of students’ rights and the image of Canadian schools abroad” (my emphasis).
It’s interesting to see these interventions being planned at the federal level–but it makes perfect sense in (economic) context. Immigration policy, for example, has a relationship to post-secondary education through the government’s agenda to develop or obtain as much “human capital” (i.e., educated/skilled people) as possible and keep it within national borders. There have been a number of policy changes made over the past five years or so that contribute to this goal. International students also have positive effects on the local economies of cities and towns, and of course on tuition revenue for universities.
Importantly, in both the case of a proposed international education strategy and that of Kenney’s immigration announcement, the issue involved is the regulation, coordination, and communication required for Canada to win its rightful place in the “global talent market” (note the language of the “creative class” theory coming in here). The panel’s report argues that Canada must develop a cohesive strategy for marketing and recruitment of non-Canadian students–and Kenney’s announcement suggests some of the policy tools that may be used to regulate them once they arrive. Students, like other imports, are a resource that must be governed; and Canada, in turn, is a product to be marketed to them.
Canada is being positioned as a potential “loser” in this global contest for human capital, while other countries have been “getting ahead” already with slick branding and appropriate policy change. For this reason, Canada’s government is looking to the U.S. and to the U.K., and then to other countries with more marketized education environments, including Australia and New Zealand. Not only Europe, the U.S., and Australasia are recruiting; countries like China are now setting ambitious targets as well. All these countries have been able to “respond” more easily to competition because they have national ministries or departments of education that can coordinate such a strategy. But Canada “lags” in part because of its lack of federal oversight and cohesion; this is where the call for coordination comes in.
It’s just as interesting to look at the framing in the report (including its repeated use of the word “bold”), rather than its actual recommendations. Alex Usher writes that the report contains contradictory assumptions about the purpose, and thus the method, of international recruitment. One the one hand, using international education as a funding source for universities means (potentially) lowering academic standards. On the other hand, trying to attract the “best” students means investing more in scholarships and other attractions.
A specific recommendation is that Canada should increase its numbers of international students “from about 239,130 to 450,000 in 10 years–from kindergarten through Grade 12 and post-secondary institutions–without taking away seats from Canadians” (Globe & Mail). But Paul Wells argues that even these numbers are not particularly ambitious: “The panel’s recommendations are bold only in comparison with a policy of doing nothing. [...] Chakma wants to double the number of international students in Canadian universities [over 10 years]; that represents an annual growth rate of 7%, which is lower than the rate of growth over each of the last two years.”
While it’s difficult as of yet to draw any solid conclusions about the final details of implementation, one thing’s for sure: in spite of the non-economic arguments also put forward, the overall focus is on Canada as a national (education) brand, one that is now competing against others in an international market. What effects this might have on PSE institutions, and whether the brand will hold up under the scrutiny of “student-consumers”, remain to be seen.
Yesterday, as I was taking a short break between grading assignments and exams and working on my dissertation, I found myself amazed to be reading an article from the Guardian UK wherein the author argued that in spite of what others might say, academe is not a stressful place — in fact it’s the best possible place to work.
This article, which is obnoxiously entitled “Academia, stressful? Not for me!”, is by graduate student (postgraduate, in the UK) Katie Beswick. Ms. Beswick writes, after a cursory nod to the legitimacy of other people’s stress, “I’m familiar with the problem. But, personally speaking, I still don’t get it.” She then proceeds to list the reasons why academe — or rather, a very idealized version of it — is the ideal work environment.
I want to make it clear that I do not see the university in a wholly negative light — of course not. There’s a reason I’m there. Indeed, I want to understand the way the university itself functions, and why, and how we can make it better. But I know the research and reading I’ve done about higher education suggests that this post’s author has been shielded from some harsh realities. This is why, when I read about her “instinctive inner eyeroll” at the “complaints” of others, I’m afraid my own physical reaction was something more akin to gagging.
Yes, everyone experiences something different in graduate school and in the academic job market and workplace. But what’s deeply offensive here is the imperious tone expressed, the personalization of the problem and the suggestion (assumption?) that those who criticize are merely whiners. All these are familiar means of dismissing the legitimacy of (well-documented) experiences of others. It’s impossible to take seriously an argument that describes “an onslaught of moans” from fellow students and professors and wishes they would “stop bloody whinging!”, given the context of the comments and the vast body of research literature that contradicts these superficial statements.
So if you’re a graduate student and you’re enjoying life, then let’s talk about some of the conditions of that enjoyment. Firstly, you made it in. That means you’re less likely to be from a low-income background, or to have suffered discrimination as part of a racialized group. You’re less likely to have been persecuted for being gay, lesbian, trans, or otherwise queer-identified. You probably don’t come from a “second-class” nation in the global hierarchy, one without the research infrastructure to support your endeavours, or lacking the kind of education system required to propel you into university in the first place.
It’s less likely that you’ve had family troubles that distract you from getting work done. In fact, your family probably provides you support — moral and emotional, financial, and perhaps even academic (you might also have a partner who now supports you in similar ways — particularly if you’re male). Partly because of this, you don’t work more hours at your outside job than you do on your studies — and your job is more likely to be related to your career goals.
You’re likely to be free from health problems that could prevent you from getting academic work done and from earning a living. You’re free of significant debts, or perhaps you don’t have to worry about tuition payments, rent, or costs of upkeep for any dependents. You’re not a single parent. You don’t suffer from anxiety or from any mental heath issues that might impede your academic performance or social integration in the academic environment. You probably don’t have a disability; you’ve probably never lived on food stamps or other forms of social assistance.
In a Master’s or PhD program, to do well you need a good relationship with your supervisor, as well as appropriate mentorship and an academic environment that’s supportive and integrative, and some degree of financial stability. These supports help students finish their studies within appropriate time limits.
And if you’re not at all worried about finding an academic job, is there something you know that the rest of us don’t? It seems more appropriate to consider what information one would have to lack, in these times, to pose the question: “what’s everyone so stressed about [in academe]?” As one commenter responded, “I think once you finish your PhD and start looking for an actual job, you’ll be able to answer your own question quite easily.” Or perhaps a quick read-through of the comments on my article about PhDs and mental health.
Do the contextual factors described above necessarily prevent us from achieving our goals in academic careers — or from being happy? No, definitely not. But we must acknowledge that these factors contribute to people’s experiences, and that they make academe harder for some than for others. While universities are indeed admitting more students who don’t fit the “ideal” model, there’s an underlying model that persists. The university is a changing environment, and the demands of an academic career are changing too. This has increased the pressure on early-career academics, not the least in the UK, and it must be taken seriously as a cause of re-stratification and increased gatekeeping.
Is there a productive way to make the point Ms. Beswick is getting at? Of course there is. How about “I’ve had a great experience in academe, and I’m thankful for that because I know it’s not that way for everyone. These are the things that made it good.” That would be a better way of “framing” the truth, and it might even lead to consideration of what makes life “better” for some of us and less enjoyable for others.